Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 36, 2014

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Issue 36, 2014

This week's headlines:

Human thoughts used to switch on genes
November 11, 2014

Could a futuristic society of humans with the power to control their own biological functions ever become reality? Researchers from at ETH Zurich in Basel, Switzerland, have now laid the technical foundations by creating a link between thoughts and cells, allowing people to switch on genes in mice using just their thoughts.

They hope to use the technology to help people who are 'locked-in' – that is, fully conscious but unable to move or speak – to do things like self-administer pain medication. It might also be able to help people with epilepsy control their seizures.

The team started by inserting a light-responsive gene into human kidney cells in a dish. The gene is activated, or expressed, when exposed to infrared light. The cells were engineered so that when the gene activated, it caused a cascade of chemical reactions leading to the expression of another gene - the one the team wanted to switch on.

Next, they put the cells into an implant alongside an infrared LED that could be controlled wirelessly. The implant was inserted under the skin of a mouse. A semi-permeable membrane allowed vital nutrients from the animal's blood supply to reach the cells inside. Next, human volunteers, wearing EEG devices that monitored their brainwaves, were taught how to conjure up three different mental states that the device could recognise by their distinctive brain waves.

By linking the volunteer's EEG device to the wireless LED implant in the mouse, they were able to switch on the LED using any of the three mental states. This activated the light-responsive gene in the kidney cells, which, in turn, led to the activation of the target gene. A human protein was produced that passed through the implant's membrane and into the rodent's bloodstream, where it could be detected.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Communications Back to top

DNA tape recorder stores a cell's memories
November 13, 2014

Researchers at MIT have furnished living cells with a memory of sorts — one that’s designed to record bits of their life history over the span of several weeks. The method uses strands of DNA to store the data in a way that scientists can then read. Eventually, it could turn cells into environmental sensors, enabling them to report on their exposure to particular chemicals, among other applications.

In the past, researchers have turned cells into simple sensors by switching on or off the production of proteins in response to a stimulus. But each switch could record only one simple piece of information — whether the cell had been exposed to the stimulus — not the duration or magnitude of this exposure. And if the cell died, the information—encoded in a protein—would be lost.

To create their memory the MIT team settled on a biological program that rewrites a living cell’s DNA when the cell senses a signal—from a flash of light to the presence of a chemical. Once the DNA is altered, the information remains embedded in the genetic material even if the cell dies. By sequencing the genes of a population of cells that all contain the program, researchers can determine the magnitude and duration of the signal: The more cells have the genetic mutation, the stronger or longer the signal was.

The approach, dubbed Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events (SCRIBE), relies on retrons, which make up a genetic system found naturally in some bacteria that produces single-stranded DNA that the bacteria normally use to alter their host. The team started with bacterial cells and inserted a retron that would be turned on, producing the unique DNA, only in response to a specific stimulus like a chemical. While the cell is in the process of copying its genetic material, the new DNA would then replace a nearly identical existing gene segment in the cell, changing it slightly.

Full story: ScienceMag Back to top

Philae's race to unlock comet's secrets before batteries die
November 14, 2014

The race is on for comet lander Philae to complete its main science mission in the next two days before its battery runs out, or disaster strikes and the probe tips over. The lander's 10 science instruments will attempt to sample comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko's gas and dust, measure its electrical properties and take images, all before its chemical battery runs out after 64 hours.

On Thursday, ESA's Rosetta mission made history by landing a probe on the comet, following a decade-long journey travelling more than 6.4 billion kilometres around the inner solar system. But the landing phase looked in danger when Philae's two harpoons, designed to anchor it to the surface, failed to fire upon touchdown.

After bouncing off the surface twice, Philae seems to have landed on the edge of a cliff face. Philae's first image from the surface shows it's pressed up against a wall on one side, which will reduce the amount of sunlight the solar cells will receive to power the rechargeable battery.

While the lander is considered secure at the moment, without the harpoons to anchor it to the ground, ESA's engineers are mindful that some of its planned science activities, such as drilling into the surface, using a hammer probe, and another instrument that measures the elements on the surface, may jeopardise its stability.

To minimise the risk of the lander being disturbed, the team will likely delay these experiments until all the other science has been done and the batteries are running down on day three. They may also decide to fire the harpoons manually, but that will make the lander jump and risk tipping it over.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top

Twisted light sends Mozart record distance through air
November 12, 2014

Mozart and Schrödinger flew through the air over Vienna recently. Their digital images were encoded in twisted green light, marking an important step towards long-distance communication in free space.

Light offers the best way to communicate between Earth and orbiting satellites, but atmospheric turbulence can destroy the signal. Polarised light is resistant to the effects of turbulence, but polarised photons can carry only one bit of information apiece. So researchers have looked for other properties of light that could boost the bit rate.

One solution is twisted light, in which the wavefront of light spirals around a central axis as it travels. There is no limit to the number of twists for each photon, so they can theoretically store boundless amounts of information. Now, researchers from the University of Vienna in Austria have transmitted photons with four levels of twists, giving them the ability to transmit four bits of information.

After digitising images of Mozart, Schrödinger and physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the team encoded the data in twisted green laser light. Then they transmitted the beam from the top of a radar tower to a receiver 3 kilometres away - a record for twisted light transmission in the open air – where software read the patterns of light and decoded the images.

The effective thickness of Earth's atmosphere is only about 6 kilometres, so the demonstration is a big step on the way to using twisted light to communicate with satellites.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wikipedia could predict disease outbreaks
November 14, 2014

A sudden peak in visits to Wikipedia pages about a disease could herald an approaching outbreak, a new study by researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggests. Analysing such online trends could help scientists stay one step ahead of outbreaks around the globe.

In the study, the researchers examined whether Wikipedia's traffic data could be used in the same way that other researchers have used Twitter data and Google Flu Trends to get advanced warning about disease outbreaks. All these systems can reflect the increasing interest of people in a given region in learning about a disease during the early stages of an outbreak.

The team looked at 14 outbreaks that occurred between 2010 and 2013 in nine countries. For example, the researchers looked at the number of daily visits to Wikipedia articles about cholera that people in Haiti made in 2010, and visits to its articles about Ebola that people in Uganda made during the outbreaks that occurred there in 2011 and 2012.

The results showed that by looking at page view trends, the researchers were able to tell when an outbreak was going to happen in a country in some of the outbreaks, sometimes up to 28 days in advance. The method was particularly successful in predicting outbreaks of influenza and dengue fever.

The researchers noted that the method didn't work well for detecting trends in diseases in which the rate of new cases changes very slowly and outbreaks that happened in areas with low internet connectivity and that involved a small number of people. Still, online data may reflect trends faster than the current methods public health officials use to track infectious diseases, the researchers said.

Full story: Yahoo! / LiveScience / PLOS Computational Biology Back to top

Bio-drone melts away when it crashes
November 13, 2014

A biodegradable drone made mainly of mushroom material has completed its first flight. The quadrotor drone was built at NASA's Ames research centre, and is the first step to producing an unmanned aerial vehicle that operators can use to explore remote locations without potentially contaminating them with old electronics, or to spy in sensitive areas before allowing the device to melt away into the ground.

The drone's chassis was made of mycelium, a fungal material that can be grown into specific shapes, from packaging to surfboard cores. That mycelium was given a covering of cellulose 'leather' sheets grown by bacteria, before being coated in the same proteins paper wasps use to coat their nests, cloned from the insects saliva. Even its circuits were printed with silver nanoparticle ink to aid biodegradation.

While the majority of the drone will break down into organic waste, some parts of it were less environmentally friendly by necessity — the device's propellers and controls were taken from a standard quadrotor drone.

Full story: The Verge Back to top