Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

'Daisy-chain' gene drive vanishes after only a few generations
June 16, 2016

It's a Catch-22. We have to field-test gene drives to determine if they are safe to use to stop the spread of malaria, for example. But these bits of self-copying DNA could spread to every member of a species, making field tests risky.

But researchers form MIT may have the answer. They have come up with a way to make gene drives self-limiting, so they spread rapidly through a population at first but gradually vanish after, say, a hundred generations. Not only could this make it possible to safely test gene drives in the wild, it could also allow cities and countries to use them locally without having to worry about the risk of worldwide spread.

Most plants and animals have matching pairs of chromosomes, but pass down only one of each pair to each of their offspring - the other comes from the other parent. This means that if you add a piece of DNA to one chromosome, normally only half the offspring will inherit it. Gene drives cheat by 'copying and pasting' themselves to the other chromosome, meaning all offspring inherit them and they can spread rapidly throughout a population.

To create artificial gene drives that don't spread indefinitely, the MIT team split them up into three elements to create a 'daisy chain'. Each element contains one or more genes that contribute towards the whole gene drive. In the design element A can only copy and paste itself if element B is present. Element B can only copy and paste itself if element C is present. And element C cannot copy and paste itself at all - it can only spread by normal breeding, to half of offspring.

The idea is to release thousands of mosquitoes, say, carrying all three elements. When they mate with wild mosquitoes, all the offspring will inherit element A and B, but only half will inherit element C. In the following generations, element B will spread rapidly and A will spread even more rapidly, but C will gradually die out. Once it does, B will start to disappear, and finally A will too.

Full story: New Scientist / BioRxiv Back to top

Magnets could pull oil out of ocean before wildlife is harmed
June 16, 2016

The stickiness of oil makes it difficult to remove from marine plants and animals once it is leaked by tankers and offshore rigs, so finding a way to quickly remove spills is essential for protecting ocean environments. Now researchers from the University of Wollongong, Australia, have found a way to do this, using tiny particles of iron oxide that bind tightly to droplets of oil.

When added to small water tanks polluted with oil, these 25-nm-wide particles turn the oil into a magnetic liquid that can be drawn towards a simple bar magnet. The researchers envisage sprinkling these particles over oil spills in the ocean, with them sticking to both lighter oils floating on the surface and heavier ones that have sunk. Then, ships with small magnets could move around the spill, and all the oil would be sucked towards the magnets and collected. The particles are non-toxic, and any excess could be hoovered up with magnets and reused.

The team is now planning to test the magnetic nanoparticles in larger tank experiments, before seeking permission to trial them in open water.

Full story: New Scientist / Reuters Back to top

Algae offers airlines a cleaner future
June 15, 2016

As airlines struggle to find cleaner ways to power jets and with an industry-wide meeting on CO2 emissions just months away, scientists are busy growing algae in vast open tanks at an Airbus site at Ottobrun, near Munich.

The European aerospace group is part-financing the Munich Technical University project to grow algae for biofuel and, although commercial production is a long way off, hopes are high. The biofuel from algaculture could cater for 3-5% of jetfuel needs by about 2050, according to the researchers.

Algae can grow 12 times faster than plants cultivated on soil and produces an oil yield about 30 times that of rapeseed. However, although aviation biofuel made from feedstocks such as flax or used cooking oil is already available, limited stocks and low oil prices mean only a few airlines, including Lufthansa and KLM, are using it on a trial basis.

Airbus also says the technology, in which it and the Bavarian government are investing more than 10 million euros between them, is still at an early stage and is not financially viable for airlines just yet.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Sun-powered phone charger gives migrants in Greece free electricity
June 16, 2016

For refugees and migrants stuck in Greece, a smartphone is a lifeline - as long as its battery lasts. But access to electricity can be hard to find in overcrowded camps, nor is it always free in cafes where young and old crowd together over a socket, waiting anxiously to phone home.

A team of students from Edinburgh University is hoping to change that, having designed a mobile phone charging station powered only by the sun. They have installed two units in camps, each configured to generate electricity for 12 plugs an hour using solar energy alone, providing free power to as many as 240 people per unit each day.

The first two units of Project Elpis - which means 'hope' in Greek - were designed and built with the help of Greek solar technology company Entec. Now, another three units are in the works with money raised through crowdfunding. Its founders hope to reach as many of the dozens of camps around Greece as possible.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Common espresso machine can perform complex chemical analysis
June 15, 2016

Chemical analyses often take lots of time and require expensive equipment, not to mention substantial volumes of harsh solvents. But not if you use an espresso machine. Spanish researchers have utilised an off-the-shelf, countertop coffeemaker to quickly and cheaply extract cancer-causing contaminants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from samples of polluted soil.

First, they loaded a capsule containing 5 grams of soil spiked with PAHs (instead of coffee grounds) into their machine. Then, instead of water, they forced 50 millilitres of a mixture of water and a solvent called acetonitrile through the soil sample at normal espresso making temperature and pressure - a process that took 11 seconds, instead of the 30 minutes or more required for some other methods. Finally, they ran the resulting 'brew' through other lab equipment using normal procedures to detect and measure the substances that had been extracted from the soil.

Concentrations of soil PAHs measured using the espresso machine typically fell within 20% of those measured by standard methods, the researchers report. Despite requiring hoses, seals, and other internal connections to be replaced regularly, the off-the-shelf espresso machine ends up being a low-cost option for quick analyses, the team notes. Currently, the researches are checking to see whether their espresso machine can also be used to detect and measure pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and detergents in food or soil samples.

Full story: Science Magazine / Analytical Chemistry Back to top

Can a social-media algorithm predict a terror attack?
June 16, 2016

Monitoring social media seems like an obvious way of predicting events such as a protest or a terrorist attack, but it has so far proved challenging. But now researchers from the University of Miami have been able to characterise a fundamental way that terrorists and other groups use social media to organise themselves. They then created an algorithm that may be able to predict the future behaviours of these groups, including when their activity escalates leading up to an event.

Most social-media platforms offer an easy way to set up a community or organization page where anyone can join, exchange information, and remain anonymous. These ad hoc groups, termed 'aggregates' in this research, are being used by terrorist groups to communicate and build support.

The researchers focused on a Russia-based social platform called VKontakte, which boasts 360 million users worldwide. They manually identified 196 pro-ISIS aggregates involving 108,086 individuals based on content that suggested a concrete connection to ISIS. The researchers saw that these aggregates grow over time, and larger ones develop from the coalescence of smaller ones. They tracked them over a six-month period to gather data about their behaviours on a day-to-day basis, which they then used to create a predictive algorithm.

The research surfaces some fundamental characteristics of social groups that could be important for combating terrorism - for example, that it is more effective to identify aggregates rather than individuals, and to target smaller, weaker aggregates before they combine into larger ones. The algorithm also seems to indicate that the rate of aggregate formation escalates leading up to big events. The information uncovered by the algorithm could be used to create a tool that aids anti-terrorism efforts, according to the researchers.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Scientists decipher purpose of mysterious ancient astronomy tool
June 10, 2016

When you're trying to fathom a mangled relic of very old hi-tech, it helps to have the manufacturer's instructions. For over a century since its discovery in an ancient shipwreck, the exact function of the Antikythera Mechanism was a tantalising puzzle. From a few words deciphered on the twisted, corroded fragments of bronze gears and plates, experts guessed it was an astronomical instrument. But much more remained hidden out of sight.

After more than a decade's efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text - a quarter of the original - in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains. They say it was a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world's oldest mechanical computer.

The team says the mechanism was a calendar of the sun and the moon that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac, the position of the planets, and predicted eclipses. Nothing of the sort was known to be made for well over 1,000 years.

The mechanism's fragments were raised in 1901 from a mid-1st century BCE shipwreck. The commercial vessel was a giant of the ancient world - at least 40 metres long - and broke into two as it sank, settling on a steep underwater slope about 50 metres deep. Most of the inscriptions, and at least 20 gears that worked to display the planets, are still there.

Full story: CBC News Back to top

Need to remember something? Exercise four hours later...
June 16, 2016

A new study suggests an intriguing strategy to boost memory for what you've just learned: hit the gym four hours later. The findings show that physical exercise after learning improves memory and memory traces, but only if the exercise is done in a specific time window and not immediately after learning.

The team from Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands tested the effects of a single session of physical exercise after learning on memory consolidation and long-term memory. Volunteers learned 90 picture-location associations over a period of 40 minutes before being randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group performed exercise immediately, the second performed exercise four hours later, and the third did not perform any exercise. Two days later, participants returned for a test to show how much they remembered while their brains were imaged via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The researchers found that those who exercised four hours after their learning session retained the information better two days later than those who exercised either immediately or not at all. The brain images also showed that exercise after a time delay was associated with more precise representations in the hippocampus, an area important to learning and memory, when an individual answered a question correctly.

It's not yet clear exactly how or why delayed exercise has this effect on memory. However, earlier studies of laboratory animals suggest that naturally occurring chemical compounds in the body known as catecholamines can improve memory consolidation, the researchers say. One way to boost catecholamines is through physical exercise.

Full story: Science Daily / Current Biology Back to top