Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

This is the online version of the latest UNU-MERIT I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

This week's headlines:

Scientists create 'genetic firewall' for new forms of life
January 21, 2015

A year after creating organisms that use a genetic code different from every other living thing, two teams of scientists have achieved another 'synthetic biology' milestone: They created bacteria that cannot survive without a specific manmade chemical, potentially overcoming a major obstacle to wider use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The advance offers what one scientist calls a 'genetic firewall' to achieve biocontainment, a means of insuring that GMOs cannot live outside a lab or other confined environment. Although the two labs accomplished this in bacteria, there is no fundamental barrier to applying the technique to plants and animals, Harvard Medical School biologist George Church, who led one of the studies.

If the technique succeeds, it could be used in microbes engineered for uses from the mundane to the exotic, such as producing yogurt and cheese, synthesising industrial chemicals and biofuels, cleaning up toxic waste, and manufacturing drugs.

In 2013, Church's team announced they had created 'genomically recoded' organisms. Recoding means that one bit of their DNA codes for an amino acid different from what the identical DNA codes for in every other living thing. The biologists had rewritten the genetic spelling book. In the new studies, teams led by Church and a former colleague, Farren Isaacs, created strains of E. coli bacteria that both contain DNA for a manmade amino acid and require synthetic amino acids to survive.

By pairing genomic recoding with this firewall, biologists could create escape-proof microbes which, by incorporating novel amino acids, could produce entirely new types of drugs and polymers.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Back to top

Artificial heart recipient makes full recovery
January 20, 2015

A 68-year old patient who received an artificial heart has recovered sufficiently to return home, Carmat, the French company that makes the device said, signalling a milestone toward the possible commercialisation of the device. The patient, who had terminal congestive heart failure, received the implant at the University of Nantes hospital on August 5 last year.

It is too early to assess the importance of the company's self-reported success. To gain wide acceptance, Carmat will first have to pass muster with a peer-reviewed paper on its patient trials in a major medical journal. Carmat said it is now focusing on finishing the current medical trials, which would include enrolling another two patients. The study will be published after the trials are concluded.

A total artificial heart replaces the two lower chambers, or ventricles, of the organ. Carmat's device, which is made with synthetic materials and animal tissues, is operated by electric motors. It was first implanted in a 76-year-old man in December 2013. He lived for 74 days, more than twice the test success benchmark of 30 days.

The August implantation in Nantes was carried out by a team led by Daniel Duveau, a thoracic surgeon. The operation to implant the device took six hours, down from more than eight hours for the first patient, and the patient was quickly discharged from intensive care. Carmat intends to sell the device to patients who are ineligible for transplants and who have no other possible treatments. It estimates that the device will eventually sell for 140,000 to 180,000 euros.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top

Mice are first pioneers of medical micromissiles
January 16, 2015

It's a significant step for microscopic machines. Tiny motors have journeyed through a living animal for the first time, delivering a cargo of gold nanoparticles directly into the lining of a mouse's stomach.

Micromachines promise to revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of certain medical conditions. Tiny spiders could repair blood vessels, for instance, while microrobots could swim through the bloodstream and build medical devices at sites of disease or injury. But until now, these devices have been tested in the lab using cell samples - not inside living animals.

Researchers from the University of California in Berkeley and San Diego fed mice tiny, chemically powered machines that react with stomach acid to become mini torpedoes, which lodge in the mucus lining of the stomach where they could deliver drugs to treat peptic ulcers, gastritis or gastric cancer.

The machines are 20 micrometre-long conical polymer tubes coated in zinc. In stomach acid, the zinc reacts to generate hydrogen bubbles, which are forced out of the wider end of the tube, propelling it through the acid. The motors speed through stomach acid at 60 micrometres per second, which is fast enough for the mini machines to lodge themselves in the mucus lining of the stomach wall, where they could drop off a payload of drugs.

To test this idea, the researchers loaded the micromachines with gold nanoparticles, which show up well under a microscope, and fed them to mice. Another group were fed just the gold nanoparticles. It turned out that the mice fed the micromachines retained three times as many gold nanoparticles in their stomach lining.

Full story: New Scientist / ACS Nano Back to top

Anti-radiation drug could work days after exposure
January 22, 2015

After a nuclear meltdown, exposure to DNA-damaging radiation levels can happen in minutes - but accessing therapies that might combat the effects can take days. A new drug reduced death rates from radiation sickness even if given three days after exposure.

Cells try to repair damage to their DNA after radiation exposure, but the process isn't foolproof. If the cell doesn't recognise the errors left in its DNA it might ultimately turn cancerous. But if the cell does recognise the errors the outcome is even worse: it will self-destruct, and if enough cells follow that route, death will follow within weeks.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Nashville have spent 10 years exploring the power of lysophosphatidic acid (LPA), a naturally occurring signalling molecule that seems to give cells a better chance against radiation exposure. Through a mechanism that remains unclear, LPA can buy the cell more time to repair its DNA.

In 2007, the researchers developed a drug that interacts with LPA receptors on cells to reduce the effects of radiation sickness in bone marrow and in the digestive system. But the drug wasn't potent enough to be medically useful. Now they have used a computer model to subtly tweak the drug's molecular structure and create DBIBB, a new drug that should be much more potent. Their tests in mice seem to bear this out.

A radiation dose of 3 or 4 grays may kill a human. So the team started off exploring whether DBIBB could help mice exposed to much higher radiation doses of 15.7 grays. Without treatment, 12 of 14 mice died two weeks after exposure. But after prompt treatment with DBIBB, 13 of 14 mice were still alive two weeks later. The researchers next ran tests to see what would happen if they didn't give mice DBIBB until 72 hours after exposure to 8.5 grays. One month later, 12 of 15 untreated mice had died - but 14 of the 15 mice that received therapy were still alive.

Full story: New Scientist / Chemistry & Biology Back to top

New satellite system to track illegal 'pirate fishing'
January 21, 2015

About 20% of the world's fishing catch is taken illegally by poachers, experts estimate, but a new satellite tracking system launched on Wednesday aims to crack down on the industrial-scale theft known as 'pirate fishing'. Run by the British technology firm Satellite Applications Catapult and backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, project 'Eyes on the Seas' will open a 'Virtual Watch Room'.

Computers will be able to watch satellite feeds of the waters around Easter Island, a Chilean territory in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, and the western Pacific island nation of Palau, which lacks the resources to monitor all the illegal fishing taking place near its waters. The project is now live and capable of monitoring waters across the world's oceans.

The technology analyses numerous sources of live satellite tracking data, enabling monitors to link to information about a ship's country of registration and ownership history to spot suspicious vessels. The 'watch room' is a digital platform which can be accessed remotely by governments, rather than a physical space. The program's backers plan to expand it to other countries over the next three years.

Illegal fishermen, the value of whose catch is estimated at up to USD 23.5 bn annually, operate with near impunity in some areas where they think themselves safe from tracking, according to Pew Trusts. In some regions, as much as 40% of the total catch is thought to be taken unlawfully. Consumers and environmental groups have often had no way of knowing whether the fish they are eating comes from illegal operations but the new satellite program can help change that.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Microsoft unveils the HoloLens holographic computer
January 21, 2015

Perhaps your next computer will have an HPU - a holographic processing unit. Microsoft developed this new processor for the HoloLens holographic computer, a goggle-like system with a transparent lens that augments reality with holographic images visible to the wearer.

Support for holographic applications will be built into Windows 10 which could help Microsoft attract developers who are just starting to build virtual-reality and augmented-reality apps for a handful of emerging hardware platforms.

The system was presented at Microsoft's Windows 10 event by Alex Kipman, who previously developed the Kinect system for the Xbox. Kipman said the company has been secretly developing the system downstairs in the Microsoft visitor centre, partly in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory which plans to use the system in July to control the Mars rover.

Full story: Seattle Times Back to top

Eyes of moths inspire development solar panel coating
January 22, 2015

Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a new way to create a miniscule texture on silicon - the most common material used in the manufacture of solar panels - which could cut down on the reflective properties of the panel. This could help the panel to absorb more solar energy. The researchers attribute the inspiration for this project to the faculty in the eyes of moths.

The moth has a compound eye with textured patterns that are composed of tiny posts. Each of these posts is smaller than the wavelength of light. When light hits the eyes of a moth, more of it is absorbed and passed to the cornea in a way that allows it to see better at night - by allowing for more light to enter the eye but also to prevent the eye from glinting and attracting predators in the darkness.

The team set out to recreate moth eye patterns in silicon at even smaller sizes using nanotechnology.

Full story: Pioneer News Back to top

NASA shows off highest resolution photo of space
January 23, 2015

NASA has released its highest quality image ever; comprising 1.5 billion pixels and boasting 1000 times the resolution of a regular high-definition picture.

The large composite image is of the Andromeda galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away. It was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and is 60,000 by 22,000 pixels. At 4.3 gigabytes in size, if you tried to display the whole image, you would need the equivalent of 750 HD television screens.

The significance of the photograph taken by researchers at the University of Washington, is it represents a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies. Andromeda was chosen because it is easier to take extreme high-resolution images of neighbouring galaxies than others millions of light years away.

It took three years to capture the image and there were 7,398 separate exposures taken from more than 411 points to create highly detailed composite images. Individuals can download the image and are advised to experiment by zooming in and out to fully appreciate the 61,000 light year-long galaxy captured by the image.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top

Early humans got a grip on tools 3 million years ago
January 22, 2015

Early human ancestors may have hefted tools more than three million years ago, ancient hand bones suggest. That's roughly half a million years earlier than the oldest stone tools yet discovered.

The hand-bone analysis, by researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury, compared the internal structure of hand bones from modern people, chimps, apes, Neanderthals, and early human species. Most notably the researchers report on the hands of Australopithecus africanus, best known from the pierced skull of the famed 'Taung child', who may have been killed by an eagle about 2.5 million years ago.

While the pattern of spongy bone in ape hands doesn't show signs of humanlike uses such as pinching or hammer holding, the hand bones of Australopithecus do. Rather than bones for knuckle-walking or tree climbing, under the palms of these early humans were anchor bones consistent with forceful opposition of the thumb and fingers typically adopted during tool use, the researchers write.

Human-origins experts have long argued over the timing of the first tools, seeing in them the earliest expression of a uniquely human mode of survival. For decades, the earliest known stone tools were associated with their presumed maker, an ancestor less than two million years old called Homo habilis.

In 2000, scientists announced the discovery of 2.6-million-year-old tools in Ethiopia, pushing this pivotal moment in prehistory back more than half a million years. Cut marks on animal bones in Ethiopia dated to 3.4 million years ago may also suggest tool use, but this has been debated. The current study supports that earlier origin.

Full story: National Geographic / Science Back to top