Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 20, 2015

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 20, 2015

This week's headlines:

Dutch government loses world's first climate liability lawsuit
June 24, 2015

The Dutch government has lost a landmark legal case over its greenhouse gas emissions plans.

The environmental group Urgenda brought a class action suit over climate change on behalf of some 900 citizens, including children. The suit claimed that the government's action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is insufficient, and is therefore 'knowingly exposing its own citizens to dangerous situations'.

Urgenda asked that the court in the Hague 'declare that global warming of more than 2 °C will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide'. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, governments must cut emissions to between 25 and 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 to have a 50% chance of avoiding 2 °C. Yet EU states have signed up for 40% cuts by 2030.

Three judges agreed with the class action suit, ruling that government plans to cut emissions by 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were illegal. The court ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Laser 'tricorder' can diagnose malaria through the skin
June 22, 2015

It's a weapon that fights malaria - a laser scan can give an accurate diagnosis in seconds, without breaking the skin, just like the fictional tricorder in Star Trek.

The device, currently being tested by researchers from Rice University in Houston, Texas, works by pulsing energy into a vein in a person's wrist or earlobe. The laser's wavelength doesn't harm human tissue, but is absorbed by hemozoin - waste crystals that are produced by the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum when it feeds on blood.

When the crystals absorb this energy, they warm the surrounding blood plasma, making it bubble. An oscilloscope placed on the skin alongside the laser senses these nanoscale bubbles when they start popping, detecting malaria infections in only 20 seconds.

A single, battery-powered device the size of a shoebox would house everything associated with the small probe, with no other reagents, facilities or specialist personnel required. The team estimates that a single unit would cost around $15,000, but that this could test 200,000 people - potentially bringing the per-person cost of testing down from as much as 50 cents to under 8 cents.

The team is now preparing for trials in Africa.

Full story: New Scientist / Emerging Infectious Diseases Back to top

Fingerprick test quickly diagnoses Ebola
June 25, 2015

As the Ebola outbreak simmers on in West Africa, researchers have shown the utility of a rapid test for the virus that could help contain another epidemic.

The ReEBOV test, which needs only a fingerprick of blood and gives results in about 15 minutes, was granted Emergency Use Authorization by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February, based on laboratory assessments. Now, data collected from ReEBOV's use on the ground in Africa have added further evidence of its accuracy.

Throughout the recent Ebola outbreak, clinicians have relied on PCR-based tests to diagnose cases of the viral disease. The tests require a full vial of blood to be drawn from a patient's arm and transported to the nearest laboratory facility. In the lab, over the course of several hours, a PCR machine amplifies the genetic material in the blood until there is a sufficient amount to detect. In all, the process can take a few days, during which time a patient suspected of carrying Ebola must be quarantined or housed in holding units where they are at risk of infection, and costs about USD 100, according to the WHO.

The newer ReEBOV test, currently manufactured by Colorado-based Corgenix, is like the fingerprick tests used by diabetics to test their blood sugar. Within a few minutes after a drop of blood is placed on a paper strip, a line appears signalling a positive or negative result. Unlike PCR-based tests, which look for the presence of the virus's genetic material, the ReEBOV test detects antigens: proteins made by the body in response to an Ebola infection. It's estimated to cost about USD 15 per test and can easily be performed under tough field conditions.

Full story: Science Back to top

'Genetic rescue' may get coral out of hot water
June 26, 2015

Heat-tolerant genes from corals close to the equator could provide a lifeline to corals suffering elsewhere from the effects of global warming, new research suggests. The research provides the first ever evidence that corals can inherit such genes from their parents.

Researchers from the Australian Institute or Marine Science collected Acropora millepora reef-building corals from two locations off the Queensland coast, which were separated by 500 kilometres.

The northern location, Princess Charlotte Bay, has summer water temperatures of up to 31°C, while the southern location, Orpheus Island, only reaches 29°C in summer. The researchers used pools to crossbreed the corals collected from the two different locations, then put the resulting larvae in hot water (35.5°C).

They found that that the larvaes' chance of survival was 10 times greater when their parents came from a warmer location. A closer look found that around 2000 genes were likely responsible for the heat-tolerance in the offspring. The discovery suggests corals can rely on 'genetic rescue' to adapt to rapid climate change. Genetic rescue involves interbreeding between heat-tolerant corals from warmer locations and less-tolerant corals from cooler locations.

The next step in the research is to work out how to identify the reefs that contain heat-tolerant corals and the environmental conditions that promote these. Such information could then help resource managers prioritise areas for protection, according to the researchers.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

Algorithm zeroes in on origins of disease outbreaks
June 25, 2015

In a disease outbreak, 'patient zero' is the first person to be infected, and finding them can help stop the outbreak. But incomplete data mean that person is usually hard to track down. Now an algorithm could help with that hunt.

Researchers from the University of Zagreb, Croatia, focused on a scenario in which there is a network of infected and uninfected people, but you don't know when or who the infection passed between. This could be sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the spread of information on a social network, or computer viruses that lay dormant before activating.

The team's algorithm simulates potential spreads through the network and compares them with real data, to calculate the probability that a particular person is patient zero. If just one person has a probability of 100%, you have found the origin. But if multiple people have a score then you need more data to find patient zero. It turns out that the origin is easier to find if the infection spreads quickly.

The team tested the method on STI data from a Brazilian website in which people anonymously review encounters with sex workers. They found that 60% of the time the algorithm either correctly identified patient zero, or was one hop away.

Full story: New Scientist / Physical Review Letters Back to top

Scientists crack gene secret that lets poppies make morphine
June 25, 2015

Scientists from the University of York have identified a key gene used by poppies to make morphine, paving the way for better methods of producing the medically important drug, potentially without the need for cultivating poppy fields. The latest finding follows recent success in engineering yeast to synthesise opiates such as morphine and codeine from a common sugar, boosting the prospect of 'home-brew' drug supply.

For centuries, opiates have been the go-to drugs for pain relief and they remain the most potent treatments for severe pain, generating global prescription sales of around $12 billion annually.

Morphine and codeine are used directly as painkillers while a third compound, thebaine, is a starting-point for semi-synthetic opiates, including oxycodone and hydrocodone.

The molecular structure of these drugs is so complex that chemists have never been able to produce them from off-the-shelf components. But understanding the genetics means it is now possible to engineer a microbe like yeast to do the job.

The discovery of the so-called STORR gene by the University of York team, provides the missing piece in the biosynthesis puzzle. The gene plays a vital role in the back-to-back steps in the plants' morphine-producing pathway by converting a compound known as (S)-reticuline into a variation called (R)-reticuline.

Full story: Reuters / Science Back to top

Designer creates font to show what it is like to have dyslexia
June 18, 2015

Ever wondered what it's like to have dyslexia? UK designer Daniel Britton knew the feeling - but couldn't communicate it to others. Diagnosed with dyslexia during his final year of university, Britton struggled with professors and peers who couldn't understand his learning disability and thought he wasn't paying attention or was lazy.

So he decided to create a font that would mimic the feeling of reading with dyslexia by slowing down the time it took for readers to decipher sentences.

The font works by taking out key lines from every letter, making it more difficult to interpret words and sentences. About 40 per cent of every letter has been removed, which, according to Britton, leads to a reading speed that feels about the same as reading with dyslexia.

The font can't be downloaded for use yet, but Britton has started a crowdfunding campaign to create a 'dyslexia awareness pack' that can be used by schools.

Dyslexia often goes undetected in the schooling system because of lack of awareness and even scepticism of the condition. Dyslexia is defined as a learning disability where the main symptom is challenges with reading despite normal intelligence. It's estimated to affect about 10% of the population, with different degrees of severity.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top