Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 23, 2015

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Issue 23, 2015

This week's headlines:

Pentaquark discovery at LHC shows long-sought new form of matter
July 14, 2015

It's a particle so elusive that even the world's largest physics experiment could only discover it by accident. The pentaquark has at last been found at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

The pentaquark represents a fundamentally new arrangement of quarks, indivisible particles that are some of the building blocks of matter.

Normally observed in sets of two or three, groupings of four or even five quarks were predicted in the 1960s. In 2003 pentaquarks seemed to pop up in a few particle accelerators, only to be declared phantoms in 2005. Then a tetraquark - made of four quarks - was sighted, and confirmed in 2013, but the pentaquarks remained stubbornly concealed.

So when the team at the LHCb experiment detected what looked like the signature of a pentaquark, they were determined to take their time with the analysis. Now they are pretty certain they have it. The signal has a '10 sigma' stamp of accuracy, meaning that there is only a 1 in 1022 chance of it being a statistical fluctuation in the data.

The pentaquark was observed by studying the decay of particles called Lambda b baryons, which normally occurs in one smooth step. However, the physics of the strong force, which governs the way quarks behave, means there are sometimes intermediate states along the way. During one such not so smooth decay, an elusive five-quark particle popped up with a signature that tallied with that of the theorised pentaquark.

Because the particle decays almost immediately, more experiments will be needed to determine further information about its size and mass.

Full story: New Scientist / ArXiv Back to top

How NASA beamed data from Pluto to Earth
July 15, 2015

It took roughly ten years and 4.5 billion kilometres, but NASA's New Horizons spacecraft finally reached Pluto on Tuesday. It's no surprise that NASA is calling the mission a success for being the first space project that has sent a vehicle to explore a world so far away from Earth. Scientists will be using the data gleaned from the spacecraft to learn more about the dwarf planet Pluto and even its many moons.

But considering Pluto is so far across the solar system from Earth, it's going to be a little while before scientists can start studying images, atmospheric data, and the like to help them better understand it. It will take around 16 months for the spacecraft to send back to Earth all of the data its been storing for the past ten years, NASA estimates.

From this data the team can build finely detailed topographic maps to determine what are the depths and heights of Pluto's terrain. Once all the imaging data is analysed, they can then determine how that terrain was shaped over the years and the kinds of natural processes like volcanic eruptions that may be reshaping the landscape.

To analyse the pictures, the team will use a planetary image processing software system called ISIS, developed by the US Geological Survey and used to study space images since 1992. The software system is used to process a variety of NASA space imagery, including pictures taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The spacecraft was outfitted with two 8 gigabyte solid state drives to store data and contains an on-board processor that can compress, reformat, and sort the information. However, all of that stored data is being sent to the earth as the same speed as 1990s phone modem, because of the small radio antennae used to transmit the information. NASA chose the antennae because of budget constraints.

Full story: Yahoo! News / Fortune Back to top

Single-shot malaria treatment on the horizon
July 16, 2015

Early research on a new malaria drug indicates it could be effective for treating and preventing the devastating disease, says an international team of researchers. The drug, which is now undergoing Phase II clinical trials in humans, inhibits an enzyme essential to the survival of malaria. If successful, the drug could be used as part of a single dose treatment regime.

Malaria infects 200 million, and kills nearly 600,000, people across the globe each year, particularly children. The disease poses a challenge for medical science because there is no proven vaccine, and the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes it, has developed resistance to most drugs used to treat malaria.

Researchers previously identified a new class of drugs that inhibit a key enzyme in the malaria parasite called dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH). Now, they have identified that one molecule in the class, called DSM265, has potential as a powerful antimalarial.

The researchers have carried out a series of tests on human and animal cells, as well as whole animals to test how safe and effective DSM265 is likely to be in humans. They have found that DSM265 kills malaria parasites in both blood and liver stages. Another unique feature of the drug is that it is long-lasting and the researchers expect it could be active in humans for more than eight days. Repeated doses of the drug given to animals also showed no major side effects.

Full story: Science Translational Medicine Back to top

Tiny beating human heart made from scratch
July 15, 2015

How's this for a cure for a broken heart? Stem cells have been coaxed to form microscopic beating hearts. The micro-hearts are around half a millimetre in diameter, and each has its own ventricle-like chamber.

It's the first time that researchers have managed to create three-dimensional heart-like organs in the lab from stem cells alone, without using any sort of scaffold to create the organ's shape.

First, the team from the University of California at Berkeley used ordinary human skin cells to make their induced pluripotent stem cells. Researchers usually use growth factors alone to persuade such stem cells to form the specialised cells of an organ, but the Berkeley team used an extra trick next.

To mimic the physical forces that usually tell fetal stem cells where they can or can't grow, they etched tiny 'no-go' zones into the wells of the dish to make the cells grow in the right configuration.

The ultimate aim is to build a full-size organ, but the micro-hearts could be used to test the effects of chemicals and drugs on the heart.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Communications Back to top

A biodegradable computer chip that performs surprisingly well
July 14, 2015

Biodegradable, wood-based computer chips can perform just as well as chips commonly used for wireless communication, according to new research. The inventors argue that the new chips could help address the global problem of rapidly accumulating electronic waste, some of which contains potentially toxic materials. The results also show that a transparent, wood-derived material called nanocellulose paper is an attractive alternative to plastic as a surface for flexible electronics.

In conventional chip manufacturing, electronic components are made on the surface of a rigid wafer made of a semiconducting material such as silicon. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin made the electronic components in a similar way but then used a rubber stamp to lift them from the wafer and transfer them to a new surface made of nanocellulose. This reduced the amount of semiconducting material used by a factor of up to 5,000, without sacrificing performance.

In two recent demonstrations, the team showed they can use nanocellulose as the support layer for radio frequency circuits that perform comparably to those commonly used in smartphones and tablets. They also showed that these chips can be broken down by a common fungus.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Burst of light speeds up healing by turbocharging our cells
July 10, 2015

It sounds too good to be true. Shining red light on skin or cells in a dish gives an instant energy boost that could help heal wounds, relieve pain and perhaps help male infertility and other medical conditions.

The curious healing effect has been known for decades - researchers have been investigating its use in eye injuries since 2002 - but why it works has been a mystery. It turns out the explanation could be simple and yet strange: the red light seems to alter the physical properties of water, which turbocharges the chemical reactions that provide a cell's energy, according to researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany.

The effect on cells of near-infrared light, which has a wavelength of 670nm, was first reported 40 years ago. The light causes mitochondria to produce more ATP, a compound that provides the cell's energy.

The new work points at the water within the cell as an explanation for the ATP increase. Normally the layer of water next to any solid object has high surface tension, making it viscous.

The team found that when surface layers of water are illuminated with the red light, it increases the distance between each water molecule, making the liquid become 'runnier'. Mitochondria are powered by an enzyme bound into their membranes. It spins like a molecular turbine, and being surrounded by runnier water should make it turn more easily, generating more ATP.

Full story: New Scientist / Scientific Reports Back to top

How scientific inventions sparked population explosion
July 13, 2015

The world's population is projected to hit at least 10 billion by the end of this century. A new video and interactive timeline produced by Population Connection, a nonprofit that advocates family planning programmes, shows how scientific discoveries and inventions allowed civilizations to spread across the globe for the last 2,000 years. But the project, timed for World Population Day on July 11, also illustrates the strain that burgeoning numbers put on Earth's limited resources.

The timeline uses a world map to pinpoint where humans have settled since 1 A.D and demonstrates how rapidly the global population has increased in the last two centuries. Scientific advances, from the quotidian to the profound, made this human proliferation possible.

Before 500 A.D., Chinese engineers designed harnesses for plow animals that improved agricultural production, and drilled oil wells that provided fuel for heating and cooking. The magnetic compass, which came into widespread use after 1300, led to the Age of Discovery and colonial expansion. Flush toilets, invented in 1775, reduced water-borne diseases. Nitrogen-based fertilizer, developed in 1913, helped crops yield more food. Without fertilizer two billion fewer people would be alive today, researchers estimate.

But there is a downside: research suggests that the population rate won't slow any time soon, and will squeeze the world's finite supply of fresh water, arable land and other essential resources.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top