Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

European court clears way for stem-cell patents
December 18, 2014

Europe’s highest court has ruled that human embryonic stem cells made from unfertilized eggs can be patented – on the basis that they lack the potential to turn into a human being. The cells in question are created through a process called parthenogenesis. In some animals, parthenogenesis is a means of asexual reproduction but human cells created in this way are not capable of properly developing.

The ruling, issued on 18 December by the European Court of Justice, backtracks on the court's more general, 2011 ban on obtaining patents for human embryonic stem cells (ESCs). As well as banning patents that involve the destruction of cells capable of forming human embryos, the court specifically forbade patents on ESCs made from 'parthenote' eggs, stating that they are capable of 'commencing the process of development which leads to a human being'. But many scientists denounced the decision, arguing that it would slow the development of cell-based therapies.

International Stem Cell Corporation, a biotechnology company in Carlsbad, California, challenged the judgement after a UK application it made for two patents was rejected. The patents covered methods to generate corneal tissue from ESCs that had been made from egg cells, or ova, via parthenogenesis.

In its 18 December ruling, the court said: 'The mere fact that a parthenogenetically-activated human ovum commences a process of development is not sufficient for it to be regarded as a human embryo.' It is now up to UK courts to decide whether the cells generated by International Stem Cell Corporation qualify for patent protection.

Full story: Nature Back to top

'Deep learning' computers cast new light on DNA
December 18, 2014

Researchers at the University of Toronto have developed a new way to read the human genome, which could answer stubborn questions about how flaws in DNA lead to disease.

The team has used 'deep learning' computer technology to read the three billion characters that represent the genome, which was first sequenced in 2003. The computers then determine which proteins, the building blocks of cells, will be produced by that DNA. It is thought to be the first application of deep learning to genetics.

The use of deep learning essentially 'teaches' the computer system how to read DNA, in a manner analogous to how children learn to read by matching words and pictures. It is a reversal of previous efforts, in which researchers hunted for common genetic traits among patients with particular diseases.

The study focused on introns, sections of the genome which contain instructions about how to cut and paste other sections, called exons, which then describe how to make proteins and cells.

The new technique will be applied immediately to help patients and has already shed new light on genetic determinants of autism, some cancers and spinal muscular atrophy, a leading genetic cause of infant mortality. Striking patterns also emerged when the team looked into autism, revealing 39 genes that have a potential role in the disease, according to the researchers.

Full story: CBC / Science Back to top

Scientists want 'rewilded' crops to boost agriculture
December 16, 2014

Scientists should 're-wild' food crops by inserting lost genetic properties of ancient, edible plants in order to boost agricultural output for a growing population, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Copenhagen. Important properties of wild plants, including varieties of wheat and rice, have been unintentionally lost during thousands of years of breeding.

When humans first domesticated wheat around 7500 BC, farmers chose to use seeds based on a few selected traits, particularly their yields. But such decisions, made by generations of farmers, could have weakened the resilience of crops in the face new challenges such as global warming, according to the study. Re-wilded crops could become more drought tolerant, more resistant to cold, diseases and pests and more efficient in accessing soil nutrients.

The scientists suggest using biotechnology to re-insert desired genes from wild varieties of popular crops into widely consumed strains in order to improve food security. The plan is less controversial than other Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as it does not involve the transfer of genes between unrelated organisms.

Scientists are unsure how much more food could be produced if farmers follow their advice. But they say that current problems such as climate change, population growth and soil degradation add to the urgency of harnessing the potential of ancient genetic material.

Full story: Reuters / Trends in Plant Science Back to top

Chip-making tools produce ultra-efficient solar cells
December 16, 2014

Soitec, a French manufacturing company, says it has used techniques designed for making microprocessors to produce solar cells with a record-setting efficiency of 46%, converting more than twice as much sunlight into electricity as conventional cells. Although the cells are more complicated to produce, using established manufacturing techniques promises to keep production costs down.

Ordinary solar cells use one semiconductor to convert sunlight into electricity. The cells made by Soitec have four semiconductors, each designed to target a different part of the solar spectrum. Soitec produced its first four-semiconductor cell about a year ago. Since then, it’s been improving efficiencies rapidly, and it looks on track to be the first company to hit the long-awaited milestone of 50% efficiency.

Over the last several years, the costs of solar power have come down by over 80%. But solar power is still more expensive than fossil fuels in most places. Soitec is attempting to lower costs by making solar cells more efficient, so fewer are needed to generate the same amount of power. The challenge is achieving high efficiencies without significantly increasing the cost of making the cells.

To make its four-semiconductor solar cells, Soitec starts by growing two atomically compatible semiconductor materials on one template and two different compatible semiconductors on another. One of the templates is then removed so it can be reused. Finally, the two pairs of semiconductors are stacked together. Soitec has already used the process of reusing the template and bonding the semiconductors for years to make components for microprocessors and other electronics.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

A step toward artificial cells, built from silicon
December 12, 2014

In a step toward sophisticated artificial cells, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have engineered a silicon chip that can produce proteins from DNA, the most basic function of life. The system, though relatively simple, suggests a path to mimicking life with partly manufactured components.

The chips were created using a technique the team developed several years ago to anchor DNA to silicon by first coating the surface with a light-activated chemical. They used patterns of light to create spots where DNA binds and assembles into toothbrush-like bundles. Each DNA brush was confined to a small, round compartment. These compartments were joined by a narrow capillary to a larger channel, which carried a flow of liquid extracts from bacterial cells—all the ingredients needed to synthesize proteins from the DNA brushes. The system allowed the researchers to create a simple network of interacting genes.

Scientists can already easily synthesize proteins from DNA in a test tube, but those reactions eventually fizzle out as proteins accumulate and synthesis slows. That has made it hard to create functioning genetic circuits - interacting networks of genes and proteins - outside of cells. The researchers say their chip overcomes that problem by flushing away waste products. Also, by changing the lengths of the channels leading to each DNA compartment, they were able to control how fast the proteins manufactured in it diffused to other areas of the chip, influencing other reactions.

The chip may eventually lead to applications in diagnostics, environmental sensing, or drug screening, with the twist that it could keep reactions going for a longer time. Scientists say the chips could also be used to test new genetic constructs before they are put into actual cells, like bacteria.

Full story: Technology Review / Science Back to top

Quantum credit cards 'impossible to hack'
December 17, 2014

Researchers fighting identity theft and credit card fraud are bringing out the heavy guns. A team from the University of Twente in the Netherlands propose a security system for credit cards and passports that would leverage the power of quantum physics. Dubbed quantum-secure authentication (QSA), the technology uses a strip of nanoparticles on the card that would be virtually impossible to hack.

Credit cards that use magnetic strips - or even embedded chips - are relatively easy to exploit for fraudulent purposes. So long as a hacker can get to the information stored within the card, it can be copied or emulated. The question-and-answer authentication process used in existing systems is fundamentally vulnerable.

With the quantum security system, the card's nanoparticle strip would be zapped with a laser in such a way as to create a unique pattern that's impossible to crack. That's because the system harnesses the qualities of light in the quantum state, in which photons can exist in multiple places at the same time. The event that created the pattern could never be duplicated or observed.

The QSA system could be implemented relatively quickly using existing technologies, according to the research team.

Full story: ABC News / Optica Back to top

Keep snuggly warm with self-heating nanowire clothes
December 16, 2014

The winter months can bring eye-watering heating bills as you struggle to fight off the cold. Much of that energy is wasted warming up empty air rather than people. A new form of cloth designed to directly heat your skin could provide a solution.

Almost half of global energy is spent on indoor heating, according to a recent International Energy Agency report. While not all of that is wasteful – buildings need to be heated to keep pipes from freezing, for instance – that figure must come down if we are to reduce carbon emissions. So researchers from Stanford University in California want to change the way we keep warm. The team has developed a technique for coating textiles in a network of silver nanowires by dipping cloth in nanowire 'ink'.

Ordinary clothes provide an insulating layer that traps heat against your skin, but the material can still lose heat to the surrounding air. The nanowire cloth acts as a reflecting surface for heat, keeping you warm, but is porous enough to let water through so you don't feel sweaty. What's more, because the nanowire cloth conducts electricity, running a voltage through it heats it up to provide extra warmth. Keeping the current low means there is no danger of burning your skin.

Full story: New Scientist / Nano Letters Back to top

DIY device to define the kilogram – using Lego
December 17, 2014

Want to measure a fundamental constant in the comfort of your own home? Grab a pile of Lego and get building. Just in time for Christmas, researchers at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have provided instructions for a Lego watt balance, which can fix the official value of the kilogram.

At the moment the kilogram is defined in relation to a lump of metal in a basement in Paris – not the most reliable measure. One way to improve this is to define it in terms of the fundamental constants. This can be done using a watt balance, which measures weight in terms of voltage and current, which depend on the Planck constant.

The researchers say their USD 650 Lego version can make this measurement with an uncertainty of 1% - not as good as ultra-precise watt balances with an uncertainty of 1 in 100 million, but much cheaper.

The Lego device looks a bit like a traditional set of scales, with weighing pans on either side. It's not totally made from plastic blocks, though - you also need coils of wire beneath the pan and strong neodymium magnets nearby to make a measurement.

Finding the mass requires two measurements. First place a weight on one of the pans, moving the coil past the magnet and inducing a voltage. Then run a current through the coil, creating an electromagnetic force on the pan that counteracts the weight. Comparing these two gives you the weight's mass, which can be compared to the Planck constant.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top