Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Scientists create insulin-producing cells for artificial pancreas
March 27, 2015

Scientists from the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS), have created a line of insulin-producing cells that could eliminate the need for Type 1 diabetics to inject themselves with insulin. The cells are now on their way to being incorporated to a world-first bio-artificial pancreas after being licensed by US biotechnology company PharmaCyte Biotech last October.

PharmaCyte Biotech has already acquired the so-called Cell-in-a-Box system, which is a tiny cellulose-based 'capsule' that can house artificial cells and integrate them into a human body. This platform can be used to develop treatments for any disease where cells aren't releasing the molecules they're supposed to.

The new cell line, called 'Melligen' cells, is derived from human liver cells, which have been genetically modified to take over the role of the pancreas's insulin-producing islet cells. Early lab trials have shown that the genetically modified Melligen cells are able to release insulin in direct response to the amount of glucose in their surroundings - something that could help type 1 diabetics to live without daily injections and regulate their blood sugar levels naturally.

The next step for the company is for PharmaCyte Biotech to embed clusters of the Melligen cells into the Cell-in-a-Box capsule, which is around the size of a pin head. These artificial pancreases will then be transplanted into animals to test whether they can effectively integrate into the body and regulate insulin levels. After that, they can begin testing the technology in humans.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Graphene sandwich makes new form of ice
March 25, 2015

By flattening a droplet of water between two sheets of graphene, researchers have created a new form of ice. Just a few molecules thick, its atoms are locked in a square grid pattern.

The discovery of 'square ice' highlights another remarkable property of graphene, which consists of flat, atom-thick sheets of carbon. Not only are graphene sheets remarkably stiff, strong and conductive, but they can also exert immense pressure on molecules trapped between them. This could explain why water seeps through stacks of graphene very quickly - a property that suggests the material could be used in desalination membranes to purify water.

In 2012 a team at the University of Manchester found that water vapour could pass through laminated sheets of graphene oxide, something that not even helium gas could manage. Two years later, they showed that liquid water performed the same trick through stacks of graphene oxide, even though those stacks filtered out other molecules. Computer simulations suggested that water was forming layers of square ice between the graphene sheets. Pushing the ice from one end shunted all the molecules forward in concert, like carriages in a high-speed train.

The Manchester team dropped one microlitre of water on to a sheet of graphene, and then placed a second graphene wafer on top, all at room temperature. As the water slowly evaporated, the graphene sheets were squeezed together until they were less than one nanometre apart, trapping pockets of water in the sandwich. Transmission electron microscopy revealed that these pockets contained square ice.

Pinning down the properties of square ice could help the development of improved desalination filters, according to the researchers.

Full story: Nature Back to top

First year-long stay on the ISS about to begin
March 25, 2015

Two astronauts are set to get extra comfy on the International Space Station when they launch on Friday for the ISS's first ever year-long mission, double the length of the normal stay. The mission will help the US and Russia study the long-term effects of space flight, which is essential if humans are ever to fly to Mars.

NASA's Scott Kelly will join Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, from Russia's space agency Roscosmos, on a Soyuz spacecraft due to launch on 28 March from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Kelly and Kornienko will spend a year on the station.

Serendipitously, Kelly has an identical twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut but will spend this year on the ground. NASA will compare data on the twins' health to try to distinguish the effects of space flight from those of genetics.

Thanks to Einstein's theory of relativity, which says a traveller in a fast-moving spacecraft ages less than someone on Earth, Scott Kelly will return about 10 milliseconds younger than Mark at the end of the year - although the difference is too small to measure.

Kelly and Kornienko won't beat the record for the longest single space flight. That is held by Valeri Polyakov, who spent nearly 440 days on board the Mir space station in the 1990s. But researchers studying the astronauts will make use of modern techniques such as microbiome analysis that weren't available during Polyakov's flight.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists inject human eyes with night vision
March 27, 2015

A team of biochemical researchers in the US has figured out how to give a human volunteer night vision, allowing him to see across a distance of over 50 metres in total darkness for several hours.

The key is a natural, light-sensitive substance called Chlorin e6 (Ce6), which is derived from sea creatures and has been used for many years in cancer treatment research. It's also been shown to be effective in the treatment of night blindness and improving dim light vision in people with eye disorders, so an independent team of self-described 'bio-hackers' in California called 'Science for the Masses' decided to see how else it could be used to improve vision.

The idea came from a patent filed in 2012, claiming that when you apply a mixture of Ce6, insulin, and saline to a person's eye, the retina will absorb it and increase vision in low light. The patent also mentions that the chemical dimethlysulfoxide (DMSO) can be used in place of the insulin. The Science for the Masses team decided to use both to increase the permeability of the solution.

The team recognises that a lot more testing needs to be done, but they say that this can be done cheaply, because the substances are inexpensive, and have already been rigorously tested for human safety for other applications.

Full story: Science Alert / Mic Back to top

Star trek styled shield technology patented by Boeing
March 25, 2015

The aircraft and defence company Boeing has earned a new patent for 'method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc' which reminds of Star Wars or Star Trek. It is essentially a laser force field that uses energy for deflecting damage and is similar to the glowing shields that we see in these movies.

The system has been designed for protecting vehicles and buildings from the effects of shockwaves from a nearby impact. It comprises a sensor to deflect a shockwaves from a nearby impact and an arc generator which receives signal from the sensor and ionizes a small area, generating plasma field between the explosion and the target using electricity, laser and microwaves.

As compared to the surrounding area, this small plasma field would differ in terms of density as well as temperature, providing a buffer between the target and the explosion. This would act as a barrier to shockwaves and prevent them from causing any damage.

This new system is not suitable for enveloping a building or vehicle and holding it for any substantial length of time as it ionizes and heats the air. However, it still has the potential to strengthen the security with its ability to activate and deactivate automatically.

Full story: Daily Science Journal Back to top

Bacteria power up by using magnets as batteries
March 26, 2015

Bacteria have been found growing on tiny particles of natural magnets. The bugs are a mixed colony, capable of 'eating' and 'breathing' electrons from metals.

Electric bacteria have become a hot topic in recent years, with the discovery that some bugs found beneath seabeds and riverbeds around the world can harvest electrons from tiny metallic particles. By donating electrons to the bacteria, the iron particles effectively become a source of energy to the cells. Other species of bacteria effectively breathe metallic particles, by dumping excess electrons on them.

Now, researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany have found that tiny crystals of magnetite, a common magnetic mineral, can be used as both electron acceptors and electron donors - essentially working as a battery. They grew colonies composed of Geobacter and Rhodopseudomonas bacteria on magnetite and found that Geobacter could dump electrons onto the crystals, while Rhodopseudomonas could harvest electrons from them.

In the wild the two reactions probably happen during day and night cycles, or tide phases, with each type of bacteria active at different points in the cycle. The magnetite crystals act like natural rechargeable batteries for the colonies: recharged in electrons by Geobacter, and depleted by Rhodopseudomonas. The discovery completes a picture of magnetite as a mineral with multiple roles in geomicrobiology. It can serve as a conductor, a sink and a source of electrons, depending on the needs of the microbes.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

Smartphone use changing our brain and thumb interaction
March 25, 2015

Typing text messages, scrolling web pages, and checking your email on your smartphone could be changing the way your thumbs and brain interacts. That's according to researchers from the University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Fribourg. The research involved using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the cortical brain activity in 37 right-handed people, 26 of whom were touchscreen Smartphone users and 11 users of old-fashioned cellphones.

A total of 62 electrodes were placed on an EEG cap worn by subjects to record how the brain processed touch from their thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Brain activity was then compared with the individual commands recorded by each individuals' phone logs. Electrical activity in the brains of smartphone users was shown to be enhanced when all three fingertips were touched. Activity in the cortex of the brain associated with the thumb and index fingertips was directly proportional to the intensity of phone use, as quantified by built-in battery logs.

The results suggest that repetitive movements over the touchscreen surface reshape sensory processing from the hand, with daily updates in the brain's representation of the fingertips. The team believe that cortical sensory processing in the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by personal digital technology.

Full story: Reuters / Current Biology Back to top