Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 2, 2017

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s 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.

Issue 2, 2017

This week's headlines:

Electronic gene control could let us plug bacteria into devices
January 17, 2017

Synthetic biologists are eager to find ways to connect engineered organisms to electronics, so we can make living components for devices. The ability of custom-made microbes to sense the environment and make biological molecules would be particularly valuable for devices that work inside the body. For example, a device could use an organism to sense chemicals produced by harmful bacteria in the body and secrete an antibiotic when it detects them.

To get specific genes in bacteria to respond to electrical stimulation, researchers from the University of Maryland took advantage of what are called redox molecules. These biological molecules are found in all cells and can pick up and pass on electrons. They are said to have a reduced state when they gain electrons, and an oxidised state when they lose electrons. The team also made use of naturally occurring genetic components in E. coli that respond to oxidative stress, which occurs when too many molecules in the cell are oxidised, making them dangerously reactive.

To apply electrical input, the researchers submerged an electrode in a liquid containing the bacteria. When the electrode supplies a positive charge, certain redox molecules get oxidised and trigger the genetic mechanisms that respond to oxidative stress. The bacteria can be engineered so that these mechanisms switch on any genes researchers want to target. When the electrode is negatively charged, the molecules get reduced and the genes switch off again.

One application could be in biosensors using engineered bacteria that detect certain chemicals. Further down the line, the researchers imagine programmed bacteria being used in ingestible pills that collect chemical data and produce drugs inside the body.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Communications Back to top

Space weather forecast to improve with European satellite
January 18, 2017

Excitement is building over European plans to launch a new space-weather satellite that would drastically improve forecasts of how solar storms will affect Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to send the probe to a gravitationally stable point in space known as Lagrange point 5 (L5) by around 2023, where it would provide a unique, side-on view of streams of charged particles heading towards Earth. The strongest of such eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), can knock out navigation and communications satellites, interfere with aeroplane navigation systems and disrupt power grids.

Currently, probes can only look at incoming space weather head-on. The side-on view would allow scientists to measure the speed of the bursts with greater accuracy. And by observing the Sun's surface as it rotates towards Earth, the probe would give a preview of sunspots, some of which produce CMEs, before they directly face Earth.

European ministers agreed to fund the first design phase of the EUR 450m mission at a meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, last month. The space-weather mission would be ESA's first aimed at forecasting, rather than pure science. ESA officials will ask for the rest of the funding at the next ministerial meeting in 2019.

An extreme space-weather event has not hit Earth since 1859, when a CME caused telegraph equipment to catch fire. There was a comparable event in 2012, but it happened on the opposite side of the Sun so did not affect Earth. The impact of an equivalent event, given today's infrastructure, would be enormous.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top

Robotic sleeve 'hugs' failing hearts
January 19, 2017

Scientists have developed a robotic sleeve that can help hearts pump when they are failing. The sleeve - made of material that mimics heart muscle - hugs the outside of the heart and squeezes it, mimicking the action of cardiac muscle.

For people with heart failure, the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly - most commonly because cardiac muscle has been damaged, after a heart attack, for example. Scientists based at Harvard and the Boston Children's Hospital, and in Leeds, say their soft sleeve was inspired by the actions and structure of real heart muscle.

The silicon-based device stiffens or relaxes when inflated with pressurised air. Fixing it around six pig hearts, scientists found they were able to synchronise the sleeve with each heart's shape and movements. The study shows the robotic sleeve helped boost the amount of blood being pumped around the body. And when the hearts stopped beating, the sleeves helped restore blood flow.

Currently, mechanical devices can be implanted in the heart to help it pump. But because they are in direct contact with heart tissue, the body can react to them - leading to the risk of dangerous blood clots. Researchers argue their sleeve could help cut this risk by 'hugging' the outside of the heart rather than being implanted inside it.

Full story: BBC News / Science Translational Medicine Back to top

French Polynesia reveals plans to develop floating city
January 19, 2017

If ocean levels continue to rise at their current rate, French Polynesia could lose up to two-thirds of its land to the sea, and now the local government has decided that it is time to explore the possibility of moving its citizens to an actual floating city.

This week, the French Polynesian government signed an agreement with San Francisco firm the Seasteading Institute to develop the world's first floating city in the South Pacific, with construction to start in 2019.

The agreement stipulates that the plans are to be completed this year, and will be incorporated into draft legislation. If passed by the end of 2018, construction can start some time in 2019.

According to Seasteading, the plan would not only save locals from islands like Tahiti from having to flee their sinking homes in the coming decades, it would also offer a unique tourist experience to help bolster them economically.

The firm says French Polynesia's relatively calm, shallow waters are the perfect place to erect a permanent floating habitat, and say they plan to start small, building shelters for dozens of early residents, and will expand the city to encompass thousands of people.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Stretchy robotic suit reduces energy used to walk by 23%
January 18, 2017

A new robotic 'exosuit', developed at the Harvard Biodesign Lab, cuts the energy a wearer uses to walk by 23% - the highest reduction in energy expenditure for a suit powered by an attached cable.

The flexible, textile exoskeleton consists of two stretchy fabric wraps that go around the calves, a waist belt and four vertical straps running from calf to hip. A cable attached to a motor delivers force to the ankle so the wearer uses less of their own energy to lift and move the foot. This assistive power is also transmitted through the straps to the hip joint. This chain reaction means a separate motor is not needed at each joint.

At the moment, the exosuit is tethered to an external motor and has only been tested by wearers on a treadmill. Next, the researchers want to make a suit whose power supply is also worn on the body.

A soft exosuit applies less force than a rigid exoskeleton, which is a better option for people who are fully paralysed or who need to carry extremely heavy loads. But the soft suit is easier to put on and adds little extra burden to its wearer. This could make it ideal for people carrying more standard loads a long distance, such as soldiers. or for people who find it hard to get around, such as stroke victim or an elderly person.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Robotics Back to top

Engineers release plans for a 5-km-high smog eating skyscraper
January 15, 2017

Arconic, a materials science company in the US, has envisioned a 5 km skyscraper built from materials that are either in-development or have already been brought to market, including smog-eating surfaces and retractable balconies.

The tower was concocted as part of the company's larger campaign known as The Jetsons, an homage to the 1962 cartoon set in 2062. Arconic's engineers worked alongside futurists to imagine the technologies that will be most useful several decades from now.

Arconic says one of its projects is EcoClean, a special coating that helps buildings self-clean and purify the surrounding air. EcoClean works with help from light and water vapour, which mix with the chemicals in the coating to produce atoms known as free radicals. These free radicals pull in pollutants from the air and break them down to get sloughed off the side of the building along with dirt and grime - almost like dead skin. The end result is a cleaner building surrounded by cleaner air.

Another innovation is in the windows themselves. The new design is called Bloomframe. Essentially, it's a motorised window that converts into an all-glass balcony in under a minute.

Full story: Science Alert / Business Insider Back to top

Hemp hits new high as building material on Dutch bridge
January 20, 2017

While plenty of cannabis goes up in smoke in coffee shops around the Netherlands, Dutch researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology have found a new use for it - as an environmentally friendly building material to rival cement or steel.

They have used hemp - a variety of cannabis which has many industrial applications including in textiles and insulation - and flax - the plant that linen is made of - to make an experimental footbridge to test the materials' load-bearing properties.

The hemp and flax fibres are combined in a resin that is stuck to a core made of polylactic acid, a polymer also made of plant material, to form the span of the 14-metre bridge over a stream on the university campus.

The developers are using sensors to monitor the bridge's performance as people walk and run over it for a year. They first had to demonstrate that the bridge could withstand a load of 500 kilograms per square metre in laboratory stress tests before building permission was granted.

Full story: Reuters Back to top