Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 17, 2017

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Issue 17, 2017

This week's headlines:



New machine prints synthetic life forms on demand
June 17, 2017

In 2016 biologist Craig Venter achieved something extraordinary. He built a new species of bacteria from scratch in the lab - the simplest genetic life form known to science, made entirely through chemical synthesis of a custom-made genome.

Now, Venter has unveiled a new machine that could print these synthetic life forms on demand - simply feed in a genome design, and let the 'ink' form the building blocks of life. The invention could see us colonise Mars with synthetic life without ever setting foot on the Red Planet, and Venter and Elon Musk have teamed up to make this happen.

Called 'biological teleportation', the technique could allow scientists to email the genome from Earth to a printer on Mars, theoretically allowing us to colonise the Red Planet from afar.

The new tabletop prototype, called the digital-to-biological converter (DBC), is the first machine that can receive genetic sequences via the internet or radio waves. That means it can print the four chemical bases of DNA - guanine, thymine, cytosine, and adenine (G, T, C and A) - via remote control to form various biological components.

Venter has been working on the prototype for years, and now it can produce biological compounds such as DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins, and viral particles without any human intervention. The printer has also made functional influenza viral particles (H1N1), and bacteriophages that can fight bacterial infections. In the near future, it could print other materials such as food, vaccines, and simple bacterial forms.

Full story: Science Alert / Nature Biotechnology Back to top


New kind of 'tan in a bottle' may protect against skin cancer
June 13, 2017

A method that gives mice a tan without using ultraviolet radiation now works in human skin samples. It's an early step in developing a lotion or cream that might provide fair-skinned people with protection against skin cancer, according to researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who have developed the method.

Unlike self-tanning lotions that essentially stain skin brown and provide minimal sun protection, the new drug activates the production of the dark form of the skin pigment melanin, which absorbs UV radiation and diminishes damage to skin cells.

Previously the team had worked with a different drug, the plant extract forskolin, in a 2006 study. The researchers used mice with skin like that of red-haired, fair-skinned people, who don't tan because of a non-functioning protein on the surface of the skin cells that make melanin. Applying forskolin to these mice stimulated production of the dark form of melanin, better protecting the mice against skin cancer.

The human epidermis, however, is about five times thicker in humans than in mice, which means that many drugs simply can't get in. Another research group had shown that an enzyme called salt-inducible kinase inhibits melanin production in mice and that animals lacking the gene for this enzyme developed darkened fur. The Bostom team tried to target that inhibitor, block it and thereby stimulate pigmentation with a drug.

The researchers tinkered with the structures of drugs to make them able to penetrate human skin while retaining their enzyme-blocking ability. In a liquid form applied to the skin, the best drug deeply tanned the human skin sample after eight days, with one treatment a day.

Full story: Science News / Cell Reports Back to top


German breeders develop 'open-source' plant seeds
June 12, 2017

There's open-source software, open-source pharma research, and open-source beer. Now, there are open-source seeds, too.

Breeders from Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released tomato and wheat varieties under an open-source license. Their move follows similar schemes for sharing plant material in India and the US, but is the first that provides legal protection for the open-source status of future descendants of plant varieties.

The idea behind the open-source license is that scientists and breeders can experiment with seeds, and improve them, unimpeded by legal restrictions. The license says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed.

People have been breeding plants in search of desirable features, such as drought- and pest-resistance, for millennia. But until 1930, when the US began applying patent law to plants, there was little a breeder could do to assert ownership over a new variety. Since then, a flurry of protections, including patents and a special intellectual property (IP) system for crops called 'plant variety protection, has begun to block the way for researchers trying to breed new varieties. As a result of mergers, plant IP is in the hands of a shrinking number of companies.

The recent German licensing action circumvents those problems. Anyone can use the varieties, so long as they do not prevent others from conducting research on derivatives; all of the plant's future descendants are also in a 'commons'.

Full story: Science Mag Back to top


Ocean plastics from Haiti's beaches turned into laptop packaging
June 12, 2017

What if pieces of plastic strewn across the world's beaches ended up in brand new computer boxes, not floating in the middle of the ocean or lodged inside seabirds? That's what computer company Dell has set out to do, testing a supply chain that sees litter picked up from Haiti's beaches and worked into recycled packaging.

Anyone now buying the XPS 13 2-in-1 laptop can expect to find the machine sitting on a tray that's 25% ocean plastic - complete with an image of a whale and a link that leads to information about marine litter. Dell estimates that its programme, a first for the industry, will take around 8,000 kilograms of plastic out of oceans this year.

More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic float in the world's oceans, breaking into smaller pieces and sinking to the ocean floor or hurting animals that get entangled in bags or eat pieces with sharp edges.

Dell makes sure that the plastic coming from Haiti is properly sorted so it's the right quality and does not contain toxic substances. It does this by collaborating with informal workers who already make a living by sorting through waste and selling it to local middlemen.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


Volunteers teach AI to spot slavery sites from satellite images
June 22, 2017

Online volunteers are helping to track slavery from space. A new crowdsourcing project led by Kevin Bales from the University of Nottingham aims to identify South Asian brick kilns - frequently the site of forced labour - in satellite images.

This data will then be used to train machine learning algorithms to automatically recognise brick kilns in satellite imagery. If computers can pinpoint the location of possible slavery sites, then the coordinates could be passed to local NGOs to investigate.

South Asian brick kilns are notorious sites of modern-day slavery. Nearly 70% of the estimated 5 million brick kiln workers in South Asia are thought to be working there under force, often to pay off debts. But no one is quite sure how many kilns there are in the so called 'Brick Belt' that stretches across parts of Pakistan, India and Nepal. Some estimates put the figure at 20,000, but it may be as high as 50,000.

So far, over 9000 potential slavery sites have been identified by volunteers taking part in the project. The volunteers are presented with a series of satellite images taken from Google Earth and they have to click on the parts of images that contain brick kilns. As soon as 15 volunteers identify each of the nearly 400 images in the data set, Bales plans on teaching the machine learning algorithm to recognise the kilns automatically.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


China's quantum satellite makes breakthrough in secure communications
June 16, 2017

A Chinese quantum satellite has dispatched transmissions over a distance of 1,200 km, a dozen times further than the previous record, a breakthrough in a technology that could be used to deliver secure messages.

China launched the world's first quantum satellite last August, to help establish 'hack proof' communications between space and the ground.

Scientists exploited the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, in which a particle can affect a far-off twin instantly, overcoming the long distance separating them.

The new development illustrates the possibility of a future global quantum communication network according to the journal Science, which published the results of the Chinese team.

Full story: Reuters Back to top


Dutch bike lock blocks rider's phone
June 21, 2017

A telecom company in the Netherlands has teamed up with the country's traffic safety authority to develop a bicycle lock that also blocks its mobile network, in a move aimed at protecting young riders who regularly pedal through busy streets while looking at their phone.

An app opens the lock and simultaneously blocks the KPN cellular network, meaning that the cyclist's phone can only be used to call emergency services. Once the bike is locked using the app, the cellphone will work again. The app does not stop users listening to music stored on their phone, but would prevent them playing streaming content.

In the Netherlands one in five bicycle accidents involving children is caused by smartphone use. By blocking the network, the lock and app halts not only calls but also the beeps and buzzes that alert users to new messages.

The Dutch Traffic Safety Association said that the 'Safe Lock' is expected to go on sale by the end of the year for around EUR 100,-. The app and lock, which will be tested over the summer, are initially only available for Android phones, but KPN also is looking into the possibility of a version for Apple's mobile software IOS.

Full story: PhysOrg Back to top