February 20' 2009 - #100
Don Comb, founder of New England Biolabs
Don Comb is an American biochemist and founder of New England Biolabs, a unique scientific research and biotechnology company he started in 1973. He has been coming to Saint Barth for over 30 years, and has a lab set up at his home in Lorient, allowing him to keep up with his research during his stays on the island.
With his colleagues, Comb is currently working on perfecting techniques to convert vegetal cellulose into ethanol, as well as using chitin, an organic substance found in the shells of lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and insects, to create a bio-fuel. Their goal is to find a low-cost fuel, easy to produce in large quantities, to replace oil, for which the world’s reserves are continually diminishing.
Today, most vegetable waste and seafood shells are put into compost heaps or incinerated along with household trash. Yet these organic substances are plentiful and composed of long molecular chains with sugars that can be transformed into ethanol when associated with specific fermentation catalysts. In order to enhance the process of turning cellulose into sugar (glucose), the researchers at New England Biolabs are attempting to isolate certain proteins from the cells of animals such as caterpillars, hermit crabs, fungus, and other organisms.
To convert chitin into sugar (glucosamine), they are working in collaboration with Dr. Saul Roseman at Johns Hopkins University, who succeeded in genetically modifying a bacteria that helps break down the chitin into sugar molecules. The breaking down of cellulose is more difficult as at least three different enzymes are required for the transformation. One of the goals of the scientists is to find the best bacterial clones to be able to produce each enzyme in sufficient commercial quantities. Comb uses his laboratory in St Barth to analyze a variety of organisms whose DNA comprises these specific enzymes. “My hope is to provide the world with a low-cost method that will allow cellulose and chitin to be converted into ethanol in the attempt to find a substance to replace oil.”
Plans To Build A Retirement Home
Financed by the Collectivity of Saint Barthélemy, which is also the construction/project manager (a responsibility taken on since the island became a COM and not part of a department), the building of an assisted living retirement home (EPAD) was recently voted for by the island council. In an official announcement, COM president Bruno Magras noted that on February 2, French prime minister François Fillon had met with the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Development and Competitiveness Of The Territories (CIACT) with an eye toward a revitalization of the economy as envisioned by the French president on December 4, 2008 in Douai. The CIACT allotted certain funds, territory by territory, for an ensemble of projects that fall under this exceptional investment program, with 26 billion Euros, or 1.3% of the GDP. More than 1,000 projects ready to begin in 2009 are divided amongst the various regions, including Saint Barth, which can benefit from these funds for the building of a retirement home, with credit for 2.1 million Euros, allowing the project to begin to take shape this year.
Le project on the drawing boards is for a home for senior citizens (who need assisted living) to be built on land adjacent to the De Bruyn Hospital in Gustavia. Adapted to the needs of the elderly, and with handicapped access, the establishment could house up to 20 residents who are under medical treatment by local doctors. Ideally located next to the hospital, which is currently undergoing renovation and an extension, the EPAD will be independent, yet work in close collaboration with the hospital. For example, physiotherapy sessions would take place in one of the rooms current under construction in the new hospital building.
The senior residence will also benefit from three-way payment: one third from social security for medical care; one third from the COM (formerly the responsibility of the general council in Guadeloupe; and the final third, which covers living expenses, must be paid by the residents and their families. The COM issued a call for tenders from architects, and island officlals hope to symbolically lay the first stone for the EPAD before the end of the year, with an inauguration of the facility in 2011.
The expansion and renovations at the De Bryn Hospital will bring its existing structures up to code, as well as provide a new building which will combine the hospital beds all one on floor. Administrative services will be moved into the lower area, which currently houses seven geriatric patients.
Good news for pregnant women: the extension plans for the hospital included a multi-purpose facility, primarily intended for physiotherapy but which can also for childbirth classes run by midwives who will come regularly from Saint Martin, while at the moment nothing exists on the island for future moms.
More to come