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Inspiring innovation

Posted 25/09/2012 by sevans

Where does innovation come from? Is it the result of blinding flash of inspiration? Or does it come completely by chance? Serendipity plays a major role in every case – a chance meeting or something heard out of context, or an chance discovery made when looking for something else, completely different?

A fine example of the latter case has come to light recently – a new way to make a major polymer that has originated from research focused on the study of the genetics behind cancers.

Researchers at Duke Cancer Institute, in Durham, North Carolina, US, have discovered a molecule that offers a cheaper and greener way to produce nylon. Their starting point was their work on the genetic and chemical changes that cause normal cells to become cancerous. The research team had the notion that these changes might yield other beneficial applications.

A key component in the production of nylon is adipic acid, normally produced from fossil fuel. However, in common with many other chemical building blocks, the search for a renewable feedstock for adipic acid is one of many avenues that has been studied based on knowledge of enzymes. Currently, research has been focused on the conversion of cheap sugars into adipic acid, but a critical enzyme in the conversion, a 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase, has never been produced.

And here a discovery by the Duke team provided a breakthrough. They had identified a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other brain tumours that alters the function of an enzyme: isocitrate dehydrogenase. They had a hunch that a similar functional change might trigger the creation of 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase and having applied the functional mutation to other closely related enzymes, the missing link was created. The next step will be to scale up the whole adipic acid production process.

The Duke researchers are confident that this is just the first step in a much broader process of discovery for other unrelated applications. They say it shows how investment in medical research can be broadly applied to solve significant issues in other fields. Call it serendipity or is it a logical considered result?

Have you been involved in a discovery like this or have you experienced the blinding light of insight? If so let C&I know – you never know, it might be your innovation that we feature in C&I.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    21/06/2013 11:31

    I talked to my seistr (who is a La Leche League organizer) about this article, and she had her own litany of reasons why this article is broken. She pointed out that co-sleeping made night-time parenting a non-issue for their family, and that is probably a much more exhaustive literature review than what the Atlantic author did (albeit obviously a review with a bias just like it sounds like the Atlantic author had). She also pointed out that in a lot of places (like Fresno anyway) new mothers are given basically no support or incentive to even attempt breastfeeding by the medical establishment. They can't even possibly have the problem this upper middle class New Yorker is having. She admitted that the equitable division of parental/spousal labor, and American housewife isolation are serious problems, but again, I think this is much much more indicative of our having structured society in a broken way, than of something being wrong (or even sub-optimal) with breastfeeding.Wow. Six years? He's going to remember that, which might be interesting socially. Our mom stopped around 4 I think or at least, there were 4 years between us, and there wasn't any overlap. I don't really have any memories of it (but I do remember when my seistr was born). And her dad (a doctor) disowned her temporarily for it. Ah, society.I wish I could take the credit for the Apollonian vs. Dionysian, but it's really Michael Pollan's trope. Imitation, flattery, etc.