Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Antibody wipeout found to relieve chronic fatigue syndrome
July 01, 2015

There's now hope of a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome after 18 people with CFS reported improvements after taking rituximab as part of a small trial in Bergen, Norway. The results could lead to new treatments for the condition, which can leave people exhausted and housebound.

Finding a cause for CFS has been difficult. Four years ago, claims that a mouse virus was to blame proved to be unfounded, and some have suggested the disease is psychosomatic. The latest study implicates the immune system, at least in some cases. Rituximab wipes out most of the body's B-cells, which are the white blood cells that make antibodies.

Researchers from the Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen noticed its effect on CFS symptoms in 2004, when they used the drug to treat lymphoma in a person who happened to also have CFS. Several months later, the person's CFS symptoms had disappeared. A small, one-year trial in 2011 found that two-thirds of those who received rituximab experienced relief, compared with none of the control group. The latest study, involving 29 people with CFS, shows that repeated rituximab infusions can keep symptoms at bay for years.

The researchers think the body's own antibodies are to blame in at least a proportion of people with CFS. Relief started four to six months after the first dose of rituximab, approximately the time it would take for existing antibodies to be cleared from the body. Participants relapsed after about a year - roughly how long B-cells take to regrow and start making new antibodies. A 150-person study is now under way.

Full story: New Scientist / PLoS One Back to top

Grazing land has scope for biofuel surge
July 02, 2015

Converting grazing land into fields to grow crops for biofuels could provide up to 30% of the world’s energy needs, according to a report.

The report says at least 500 million hectares are available for sustainable biofuel production even when rising food demand, growing urbanisation and the desire to preserve forest and protected lands are taken into account. Most of this land is in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and is being used for low-intensity animal grazing.

The study predicts that, if biofuel technology continues to develop rapidly, only around 50-200 million hectares would be needed to grow the biomass needed for biofuels to provide 30% of global energy by 2050. A lot of this land could come from arid, low-intensity grazing lands, which could instead be used to, for example, grow agave for ethanol production, the authors write. The impact on herders could be minimised by increasing livestock density while ensuring the sustainable use of land that remains as pasture.

These conclusions are based on an analysis of almost 2,000 scientific studies and assessments on global land use, led by researchers from the Sao Paulo Research Foundation in Brazil and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, a global network that reviews scientific knowledge on environmental issues.

Around 87 per cent of global energy demand is currently met by climate-altering fossil fuels, says the report. But it points out that 'inefficiently used land, extensive pastures, degraded lands and excess agricultural capacity' stand in the way of growing more biofuels, especially in developing countries.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Underwater farmers grow strawberries in balloon gardens
July 02, 2015

A snapshot of life at one of the world's strangest farms: In the eerie blue light, a diver drifts between underwater greenhouses, where the first seeds of the year – basil, strawberry, lettuce and beans – were planted last week.

The transparent 'biospheres' beneath the Bay of Noli, in Savona, Italy, are part of the three-year-old Nemo's Garden project, which aims to find innovative ways of growing crops in places that lack freshwater or fertile soil.

Resembling large balloons, the air-filled structures are anchored to the sea floor and float between 5 and 10 metres below the surface. Inside, water condenses on the roof of the spheres, dripping back down to keep the plants watered, while the warm, near-constant sea temperature nurtures the plants.

The site is equipped with four cameras that stream back live video, allowing the unusual farmers to be watched in action online. Sensors collecting live data can also be monitored from a website, revealing for example the humidity and air temperature in the greenhouses.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Autism diagnosis can be helped by new smell test
July 02, 2015

It may be possible to diagnose autism in children by measuring their reaction to smells, according to a new study that found a marked difference in the reaction to odours from children with the disorder, compared to those without it.

While most people automatically inhale a pleasant smell deeply, and seek to limit their breathing in order to avoid unpleasant ones, autistic children do not make this distinction, the study found.

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, measured the time it took children to react to pleasant and unpleasant smells, using an olfactometre, which delivered different scents through a small tube that fit into nostrils. A second tube measured how much air the children were breathing in as they were exposed to each odour.

The study used a sample group, comprising 36 children, 18 of whom were diagnosed with autism, and 18 who were more typically developed, and exposed them to smells including sour milk, rotten fish, soap and roses.

Typically developing children adjusted their sniffing very quickly - within about 305 milliseconds - while children diagnosed with autism reacted much slower. Researchers were not told which children had been diagnosed with autism and which had not, but using the test were able to identify the children on the spectrum 81% of the time.

If the findings are substantiated by further research, the technique could help to diagnose children sooner. This could afford autistic children the opportunity to undergo treatment that could significantly improve their condition, which would not be as effective when they were older.

Full story: International Business Times / Current Biology Back to top

Ultrasound fingerprint scanners amplify security
July 02, 2015

Smartphones, laptops and payment systems are among the technologies that can be unlocked by fingerprints instead of typed passcodes. But these security systems can be fooled by dirt and grease. But researchers from the University of California, Davis, have come up with a system that can read a fingerprint with greater depth than standard devices, and is less prone to malfunctioning during everyday use.

Most scanners used in consumer electronic devices today recognise the ridges and valleys of a print by mapping the pattern of voltages generated by a finger pressed against the scanner. When the ridges of a pressed digit contact tiny capacitors on a dedicated chip sensor, the devices produce a certain voltage; where there is a valley, there is no contact and they generate a different voltage. The pattern of these variations allows the scanner to recognise the fingerprint. But moisture and grime can cause the circuit to close in the wrong places, rendering prints illegible.

The ultrasound technology in the new scanning method limits such vulnerability. When a user puts his or her finger to the print-reading chip, an ultrasonic pulse bounces against it. The chip is coated with a layer of aluminium nitride, which can convert mechanical stress to electric energy or vice versa.

When the ultrasonic pulse bounces back off the fingerprint, ridges and valleys return different patterns of stress, which can then be converted into electrical signals. By measuring the bounce from the ultrasound for longer period of time, the scanner can also sense the depth of the ridges and valleys.

Full story: Nature / Applied Physics Letters Back to top

Forensic test pins down 'time of death'
July 02, 2015

Forensic researchers have developed a new method for establishing an exact time of death after as long as 10 days. It is a significant step forward from the current method of measuring core body temperature, which only works up to 36 hours after death.

The team from Austria's University of Salzburg measured the breakdown of muscle proteins in dead pigs over time. They studied the muscle proteins of pigs, because of their close similarity to human muscles.

The protein building blocks of our muscles are very large, tangled molecules that, after death, begin to break down into smaller pieces. For some of the proteins this happens in a very specific time frame and even the breakdown products are present for a specific time. So when it is established which of these products are present in a sample the exact time of an individual's death can be measured, the researchers found.

The team has also analysed more than 60 human tissue samples from the forensic department of the same university. And their preliminary findings showed similar clockwork-like changes. The researchers hope that within three years the technique could help in the gathering of vital forensic evidence.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Infrared lifts the veil on a golden city
June 29, 2015

The beautiful golden jewel of tightly packed stars near the centre of our galaxy is normally hidden by dust. But powerful technology has enabled astronomers to penetrate the dense fog surrounding Liller 1 to reveal an unprecedented ultra-sharp view of this vast stellar city.

The 8-metre Gemini South Telescope in Chile combines an advanced adaptive optics system to remove the turbulence and distortions in Earth's atmosphere, with a powerful near-infrared camera.

Located in the constellation Sagittarius, some 30,000 light-years away, the Liller 1 globular cluster contains a total mass of at least 1.5 million Suns. Globular clusters are tightly packed spheres of stars thought to have all originated from the same stellar nursery.

The congested overcrowded central region of Liller 1 is so closely packed together that it may be a good place for astronomers to see stars colliding. Astronomers want to study stellar collisions to understand the origins of exotic objects that cannot be studied by looking at single stars like the Sun. Nearly head-on collisions in which the stars actually merge, mixing their nuclear fuel and re-stoking the fires of nuclear fusion are believed to be a likely origin for stars known as blue stragglers.

Stars in close binary systems can also orbit into each other and collide producing exotic objects like low mass X-ray binaries and millisecond pulsars, which are old neutron stars that have been re-accelerated to millisecond rotational speeds after accreting material from a companion star in a binary system.

Full story: ABC News Back to top