Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Scientists discover way to stop malaria parasite in its tracks
July 17, 2014

The global race to develop the next generation of malaria drugs has been given a boost after Australian scientists discovered how to starve the malaria parasite of nutrients, effectively killing it before it takes hold. The breakthrough comes at a time when the parasite has developed a resistance to anti-malarial drugs, with researchers and health care workers growing increasingly desperate for replacement treatments.

Transmitted via infected mosquitoes, the malaria parasite multiplies in the liver and then invades red blood cells. Once inside a red blood cell, the parasite settles in and starts spreading its proteins through the red blood cell cytoplasm, which helps it survive and absorb nutrients.

Two collaborating research groups, one from the Burnet Institute and the other from Deakin University, each managed to deny the parasite the proteins it needs to survive but did so using different techniques. One team worked with infected human blood cells, while the other used the parasite that causes malaria in mice to test the efficacy of blocking the proteins from being released.

The development is significant as it relies on a new mechanism, which means drugs developed using this novel technique will be unlike the drugs now on the market. Blocking the release of the parasite's proteins also appeared particularly potent, killing the parasite within six hours. The malaria parasite has about 5000 genes. The study used genetically modified parasites, with the gene responsible for transferring proteins manipulated so it could be switched off.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / Nature Back to top

Fiendish wheat genome reveals grain's history
July 17, 2014

The staple that provides one-fifth of the world's calorie intake has an unusually intricate genome, due in part to its history of domestication.

A draft genome sequence of wheat promises to speed efforts to breed new types of one of the world's most important crops - and to reveal the tangled genomic history of an ancient staple. In a suite of papers, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium has unveiled initial portraits of the genome from Triticum aestivum or bread wheat.

The data are a long time coming. As fate would have it, the crop that feeds 30% of the human population and provides 20% of its calories is among the most punishing to sequence. The modern wheat genome is the product of multiple rounds of hybridization among different species. As a result, the genome now consists of three nearly identical 'subgenomes', each of which contains seven pairs of chromosomes. Distinguishing among genes on those three subgenomes has been a challenge for wheat geneticists.

Agronomists are under pressure to boost wheat yields to match the demand of the growing human population, while also combating the effects of climate change on the crop. Having the genome in hand helps researchers to select genetic markers associated with relevant traits, such as resistance to disease or grain quality, and to identify candidate genes that are likely to affect important aspects of the plant's growth.

Full story: Nature / Science1-4 Back to top

Gene therapy creates 'biological pacemaker' cells for the heart
July 16, 2014

Researchers have succeeded in turning ordinary cardiac muscle cells into specialized ones that deliver a steady heartbeat using a gene therapy procedure they predict could become an alternative to implanted electronic pacemakers.

The study involved pigs with a condition called heart block that makes their hearts beat too slowly. By injecting a human gene into a tiny region of the heart's pumping chambers roughly the size of a peppercorn, the researchers reprogrammed heart muscle cells into a type of cell that emits electrical impulses to drive the beating heart.

In doing so, cardiologists at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles created 'biological pacemaker' cells that restored a normal heart rate in the pigs. The procedure achieved the same result as implanting an electronic pacemaker that sends electrical pulses to the heart if it beats too slowly or skips a beat.

The researchers envision using the procedure initially to help people with heart rhythm disorders who cannot use a pacemaker because of device-related complications like an infection or in foetuses in the womb with congenital heart block. Such foetuses cannot have a pacemaker implanted and risk severe heart failure often resulting in stillbirth. The researchers hope to develop an injection-based treatment to deliver the gene therapy to these developing babies.

They said down the road the procedure might be used in a broader patient population as a realistic alternative to the pacemaker.

Full story: Reuters / Science Translational Medicine Back to top

Bubble wrap used for cheap blood and bacteria tests
July 17, 2014

Bubble wrap can be a cheap, easy way to run a variety of tests on medical and environmental samples. Standardised and stackable, 96-well assay plates are the gold standard for running small sample diagnostics and simple liquid reaction tests in chemistry labs. But at one to five dollars a piece, this can be too much for labs around the world with limited resources.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University were on the hunt for low-cost diagnostic tools made from things that are already mass-produced with high quality but low cost. Previously, the team has found uses for paper as devices for testing water quality, egg beaters and CD players as centrifuges and bicycles as power sources.

They came up with the idea of bubble wrap because it is readily available, cheap, lightweight and the bubbles come in a range of sizes. The interior of the bubbles are sterile, alleviating the need for expensive sterilisation equipment. The bubbles are permeable to gas, but to inject the reagents needed to react with the things being tested, the bubbles have to be punctured with syringes. The team found that clear nail hardener from a pharmacy can be used to seal them back up.

The transparent compartments would be most useful for simple diagnostic tests that can be analysed visually, such as reactions that change colour, according to the researchers. For instance, the team successfully ran blood tests for anaemia and diabetes, cultured the common food-borne bacteria Escherichia coli and raised the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, which is widely used as a model organism in biology experiments.

Full story: New Scientist / Analytical Chemistry Back to top

Waste paper turned into a super-spongy battery
July 17, 2014

Traditional batteries use chemical reactions to store large amounts of energy, but they take time to charge. Capacitors store it in an electric field, which means they can charge and release energy quickly. But they can only hold small amounts at a time.

To up capacity and maintain speed, scientists are building supercapacitors, often using forms of porous carbon that can suck up charge like a sponge. Many commercial supercapacitors use carbon derived from coconut shells, a relatively limited commodity. Graphene has also been proposed, but the thin sheets of carbon are expensive to make, so a cheaper option was needed.

A team of researchers from the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, India, cut paper into small strips and put them through a series of heating and cooling processes, including mixing the strips with sulphuric acid at 180 °C and carbonising them at 800 °C. The result was a form of carbon riddled with microscopic structures that give it a massive surface area for holding charge - more than 2300 square metres per gram.

The team then used this carbon and an electrolyte gel to create a supercapacitor. The substance stores charge similarly to other advanced carbon materials for supercapacitors, but with the added benefit of recycling a common product. The process may not be as economical as recycling paper the traditional way. But if the technology is viable, waste paper could one day be used to store energy generated by wind farms or to charge electric cars.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Software can decode bird songs
July 18, 2014

Scientists have developed a highly advanced bird song decoder, which can automatically identify the call of a vast variety of birds.

The software uses recordings of individual birds and of dawn choruses to identify the characteristics of each tweet. This technique is called 'feature-learning', which is an automatic analysis technique, used alongside a classification algorithm. This automatically learned data can often outperform manually compiled information, according to the researchers.

The songs of hundreds of birds were analysed. The best results were gathered from the biggest dataset ever gathered: Brazilian recordings of more than 500 single birds.

The team is now working on technology that can do even more than just identify the bird. They want to try to decode the actual relationships between them. By analysing the call of a species of goldfinch, they are close to working out which birds are in pairs - just by their sound.

The tool has implications for the understanding of different areas, including ecology and conservation. It may also help our understanding of the human voice.

Full story: BBC News / Journal PeerJ Back to top