Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 9, 2017

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Issue 9, 2017

This week's headlines:

Scientists make leap in pursuit of longer, healthier life
March 24, 2017

An international team of scientists have found a way to reverse the ageing process, extending the lifespan of mice by 20% and raising the prospect of an anti-ageing treatment for humans within a decade.

The results could lead to treatments for people who have been exposed to radiation, be they survivors of childhood and adult cancers or frequent flyers. Radiation exposure speeds up the ageing process, compromising a cell's ability to repair damaged DNA. Even without radiation exposure, the capacity of cells to repair damaged DNA diminishes with age.

The breakthrough in this research was identifying the molecular process behind DNA repair and then successfully intervening to reverse it. This was done by giving mice water containing a booster called NMN, which is easily absorbed by cells. It is a naturally occurring vitamin and a precursor to NAD+, one of the most abundant vitamins in the body.

After the mice drank the water containing the NMN vitamin, they were able to repair damaged DNA - essentially reversing the ageing process. In addition to measuring the lifespans of mice, the team also gauged the animals' red blood cell count. After the mice were exposed to the same amount of radiation a cancer patient would experience during treatment, their red blood cell levels dropped. But when the mice were given the NMN booster, their red blood cell count was restored.

Phase-one human trials involving 25 healthy volunteers will begin in America in June to test the safety of the treatment. Future human trials will test the efficacy and dosage.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / Science Back to top

German scientists test 'artificial sun'
March 23, 2017

Scientists in Germany have flipped the switch this week on what's being described as 'the world's largest artificial sun,' a device they hope will help shed light on new ways of making climate-friendly fuels.

The giant honeycomb-like setup of 149 spotlights called 'Synlight' in Juelich uses xenon short-arc lamps normally found in cinemas to simulate natural sunlight. By focusing the entire array on a single 20-by-20 centimetre spot, scientists from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) will be able to produce the equivalent of 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that would normally shine on the same surface. Creating such furnace-like conditions - with temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius - is key to testing novel ways of making hydrogen.

Many consider hydrogen to be the fuel of the future because it produces no carbon emissions when burned, meaning it doesn't add to global warming. But while hydrogen is the most common element in the universe it is rare on Earth. One way to manufacture it is to split water into its two components - the other being oxygen - using electricity in a process called electrolysis. Researchers hope to bypass the electricity stage by tapping into the enormous amount of energy that reaches Earth in the form of light from the sun.

Synlight is designed to take experiments done in smaller labs to the next level. Once researchers have mastered hydrogen-making techniques with Synlight's 350-kilowatt array, the process could be scaled up ten-fold on the way to reaching a level fit for industry. Experts say this could take about a decade, if there is sufficient industry support. The goal is to eventually use actual sunlight rather than the artificial light produced at the Juelich experiment.

Full story: Seattle Times / AP Back to top

Scientists use graphene to power 'electronic skin' that can feel
March 23, 2017

Scientists have found a way to power an experimental kind of electronic skin using solar energy in a further step towards the development of prosthetic limbs or robots with a sense of touch.

Teams around the world are working to develop flexible versions of synthetic skin that can feel by mimicking the different kinds of sensory receptors found in human skin. Powering such systems is a challenge, but now researchers at the University of Glasgow's School of Engineering have developed a way to use graphene, an ultra-thin form of carbon, to generate electricity via solar power.

Graphene, which is just one atom thick, is strong, highly flexible, electrically conductive and transparent, making it ideal for gathering the sun's energy to generate power. Smart prosthetic hands, in particular, can already reproduce many mechanical properties of human limbs and giving them a skin-like sense of touch would make them even more useful for amputees.

Touch-sensitive electronic skin could also be used in robots to enhance performance and help the machines detect potential dangers when interacting with humans.

The next goal is to use the same technology to power the motors need to drive a prosthetic hand.

Full story: Reuters / Advanced Functional Materials Back to top

3D-printed bacteria could make custom-made graphene-like materials
March 20, 2017

How do you make a bespoke material with graphene-like properties? By putting bacteria to work using a 3D printer. For example, if you could use bacteria to print a substance resembling graphene - the 2D material made of single-atom layers of carbon - the end product might have similar desirable properties.

When placed on sheets of graphene oxide, certain bacteria can turn it into a reduced version of the compound, which shares many properties with graphene but is easier to produce in large amounts. The bacteria do this by pulling oxygen atoms off the material as they metabolise.

Reduced graphene oxide is normally made with the help of powerful chemicals or extreme heat, but the microbe-produced version is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly, according to researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The chemical process still seems to produce the best-quality graphene oxide, but bacteria could be very useful when it comes to fabricating precise small-scale structures. That's where 3D printing comes in.

By modifying a normal 3D printer, the researchers showed that it is possible to print bacteria onto a surface in precise lines just 1 millimetre wide. In a recent experiment to prove the principle, they mixed E. coli with a gel made from algae and printed the solution onto a dish containing calcium ions. The gel solidifies when it touches calcium, meaning that the bacteria stay in place.

The idea is that you could eventually print a graphene-oxide-reducing bacterium, called Shewanella oneidensis, onto the material in specific patterns to tailor its properties, for example, making some areas conductive and others not.

Full story: New Scientist / ACS Synthetic Biology Back to top

Fruit-shaped sensor 'can improve freshness'
March 23, 2017

A new fruit-shaped sensor could help cargo companies to keep fruit fresher in transit, researchers say. The device - which mimics the size, shape and composition of real fruit - is packed in with produce in transit and closely monitors its temperature.

It comes in orange, apple, banana and mango varieties, and alerts firms to problems with their cooling processes, allowing them to take action. It could also lead to fresher fruit for consumers, researchers said. The project, which is still at the trial stage, is being conducted by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA).

Exporters do have ways to measure freshness, but the new sensor is more accurate because it simulates the characteristics of individual types of fruit. The team X-rayed real fruits and modelled their shape and texture. They then determined the exact composition of each fruit's flesh and simulated it in a laboratory, using a mixture of water, carbohydrates and polystyrene. The mixture was poured into a fruit-shaped sensor mould, created on a 3D printer.

If something goes wrong, suppliers will be able to access the temperature data from the whole journey and work out what happened. The researchers hope this will help them control their sanitary protocols and cut the cost and time of logistics.

Field tests for the sensors are under way and the researchers are looking for potential commercial partners.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Scientists find how using 'satnav' switches off parts of brain
March 21, 2017

If you have long feared that using a 'satnav' navigation system to get to your destination is making you worse at finding the way alone, research now suggests you may be right.

Scientists from University College London studying what satnavs do to the brain have found that people using them effectively switch off parts of the brain that would otherwise be utilised to simulate different routes and boost navigational skills.

When volunteers in an experiment navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex brain regions had spikes of activity. But these were not seen when the volunteers simply followed satnav instructions. The researchers said constant use of satnavs would probably have longer-term limiting effects, making users less able to learn and navigate a city's street network unaided.

As an extension of the research, the scientists also analysed the street networks of major cities around the world to visualise how easy they may be to navigate. London, with its complex network of small streets, appears to be particularly taxing on the hippocampus, they said. By contrast, far less mental effort may be needed to navigate Manhattan in New York, where a grid layout means that at most junctions the choice is only between straight, left or right.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Communications Back to top