Innovation and Technology Weekly

Issue 13, 2014

This week's headlines:

Birds in the trees benefit coffee crops
April 08, 2014

When trees and crops share the same land, both agriculture and biodiversity can benefit, suggests a new modelling study. The computer simulation of Jamaican coffee farms shows that trees planted in between the crop can support wild birds. And while the shade from the trees means less coffee is produced, this is made up for by the fact that less coffee is lost to pests, which are being eaten by the birds.

With the planet's growing population, balancing the needs of agriculture and biodiversity is becoming increasingly important. To date, evidence suggests that putting special land aside for nature ('land sparing') and maximising agricultural yields in other areas is better for crop production and wildlife than trying to get them to share the same area ('land sharing'). But previous research has underestimated the ability of wildlife to boost yields by, for example, controlling pests.

In Jamaica field research has shown that migratory insect-eating warblers reduce coffee crop damage by controlling the coffee berry borer (CBB), which is the world's most economically damaging insect pest, according to researchers from Humboldt State University in California. The team developed a computer model that simulates the foraging of birds in various landscapes to see what happens when you increase the number of trees compared to coffee plants. They found that when there were more trees to support birds, less coffee was infested by coffee berry borer.

If the findings are confirmed by field studies, the researchers say higher prices for shade-grown coffee could provide an incentive for farmers to take the 'land sharing' approach.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

LHC spots particle that may be new form of matter
April 10, 2014

A long-sought fugitive has been caught at the world's largest particle accelerator. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider confirm that a provocative particle called Z(4430) actually exists – and it may be the strongest evidence yet for a new form of matter called a tetraquark.

Quarks are subatomic particles that are the fundamental building blocks of matter. They are known to exist either in groups of two, forming short-lived mesons, or in threes, forming the protons and neutrons that make up atomic nuclei. Researchers have suspected for decades that quarks might also bind together in quartets, forming tetraquarks, but they have not been able to do the complicated quantum calculations necessary to test the idea.

The newly nabbed Z(4430) is one of a handful of suspected tetraquarks that have been found in recent years. It was first reported by the Belle detector at the KEKB accelerator in Tsukuba, Japan, in 2008. But the particle's existence was questioned after the BaBar detector at the SLAC accelerator in Menlo Park, California, subsequently failed to find it.

Now the LHCb experiment, which sits at the LHC along with the experiments that spotted the Higgs boson, has analysed 10 times as much data as either Belle or BaBar and says it has found as many as 4000 of the particles. Now that Z(4430)'s existence is confirmed, the next challenge is to work out whether it really is a tetraquark.

However, one puzzling aspect remains: Z(4430) decays at least 10 times as fast as previous suspects, which doesn't fit with simple models of tetraquark behaviour. Gathering more data on how this particle decays could help shed light on whether it is a tetraquark or something else. And that could help researchers get to grips with how matter behaves at the most basic scales.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Living organ regenerated for first time
April 09, 2014

British scientists from the University of Edinburgh have successfully regenerated a living organ for the first time. The team built a thymus, a specialized organ in the immune system that produces T cells, by instructing stem cells to rebuild the tissue. The study was conducted on mouse tissue, in which researchers found a way to reactivate a natural mechanism that usually shuts down with age.

The protein that was targeted, called FOXN1, shuts down as the thymus ages. The team restored it to levels found in younger mice by increasing the activity of that particular protein. While the study was conducted on mice, scientists say it may have broader implications for humans. The team increased the FOXN1 levels in mice using chemical signals. This allowed 'stem cell-like' cells in the thymus to rebuild the organ in older mice.

In humans, the thymus sits near the heart and shrinks to a tenth of its original size by adolescence. While the exact cause of the shrinkage is unknown, some scientists say the body might redirect some of the energy used to run to the organ to reproductive organs as the body ages.

"This has a lot of impacts later in life, when the functionality of the immune system decreases with age and you become more vulnerable to infection and less responsive to vaccines. However, keeping the thymus the same size throughout life may have harmful consequences to humans. For instance, if the thymus’ growth isn’t halted, it could overreact and attack the body.

Full story: International Business Times / Development Back to top

Kamikaze moon probe to carry out risky manoeuvre
April 07, 2014

Scientists have no delusions about the fate of NASA's LADEE robotic probe, which has been exploring the shroud of dust and the trace gases that surround the Moon. On April 21, if not sooner, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer will crash into the surface of the Moon and vaporise. But before its demise, scientists hope to break new ground by flying LADEE literally just above the ground.

Beginning this weekend, LADEE will begin dropping its altitude until it ends up less than 3 kilometres above the lunar surface. Ramming into a lunar mountain isn't the only danger ahead. LADEE faces a prolonged period of potentially deadly cold during an eclipse on 15 April. Engineers warn the spacecraft's propulsion system could freeze and burst, though current predictions indicate LADEE will survive.

If LADEE lives to die another day, scientists stand to gain far more detail about how much dust is blasting off the lunar surface at low altitudes. They also want to get more measurements of trace gases, including neon, magnesium, aluminium, titanium and oxygen, which have been found in the Moon's so-called exosphere - the region of space around the Moon.

In addition to better understanding the Moon, the data will be used to model the environments around other airless bodies, including the ice dwarf planet Pluto, which will be visited for the first time by a NASA spacecraft next year.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

Pesky flies use fighter jet manoeuvres
April 11, 2014

What does a tiny fruit fly have in common with the world's most advanced fighter jets like the US Air Force's F-22 Raptor? More than you might think. Scientists using video cameras to track a fly's aerial manoeuvres found the insect employs astonishingly quick mid-air banked turns to evade predators much like a fighter jet executes to elude an enemy. Their study documents aerial agility in fruit flies such as the capacity to begin to change course in less than one one-hundredth of a second.

The fact that flies are airborne acrobats should not surprise anyone who has ever swung a flyswatter at one, only to watch the little insects easily escape. The researchers at the University of Washington synchronised three high-speed cameras operating at 7,500 frames a second to learn the secrets of what the flies do to make themselves so elusive.

They tracked the mid-air wing and body motion of the fruit fly species Drosophila hydei, which is about the size of a sesame seed, inside a cylindrical flight chamber after the insects were shown an image that suggested an approaching predator. The flies produced impressive escape responses, almost instantaneously rolling their bodies like a military jet in a banked turn to steer away. While executing the turn, the flies showed that they could roll on their sides by upwards of 90 degrees, sometimes flying almost upside down.

A lot of light was needed to accommodate the cameras' extraordinarily high shutter speeds, but because a fly would be blinded by the necessary amounts of normal light, the researchers used very bright infrared lights. Like people, fruit flies do not see infrared light.

Full story: ABC News / Science Back to top

Smartphone charger promises to power up batteries in just 30 seconds
April 10, 2014

A new charger that can fully charge a smartphone in 30 seconds will be available in under three years costing USD 30, according to StoreDot a Tel Aviv university spin off.

A prototype of the charger was shown off at Microsoft’s Think Next conference in Tel Aviv, where it completely recharged a Samsung Galaxy smartphone in around 30 seconds using a charger the size of a laptop power supply. The charger uses organic compounds, called 'Nanodots', instead of the standard lithium-based chemicals used in current battery technology, to store energy rapidly in a compact form.

StoreDot plans to make chargers compatible with a range of smartphones and other electronic devices like tablets and laptops. It has already received USD 6m of venture capital funding for the work, which it says originally grew out of research into Alzheimer's disease a decade ago that discovered 'nano-structures' associated with it. Further research led to the new technology.

The prototype charger is about the size of a standard laptop power supply, but StoreDot expects its dedicated engineering team to be able to shrink the technology to a more manageable size. StoreDot plans to enter production of the 30 second charger by late 2016.

Full story: The Guardian Back to top

Digitising cave art will prevent it being lost forever
April 11, 2014

A rescue mission is underway on the Scottish coast north of Edinburgh. Jonathan's Cave, with its rare trove of 1500-year-old rock art, risks being flooded by the sea or buried in a landslide. But rather than fight the elements researchers have opted to save the cave by putting the whole thing on the internet. A team from the University of St Andrews, UK, is using a series of laser and visual scanning techniques to recreate a virtual cave in minute detail.

Starting last year, the team brought in a low-flying drone to shoot aerial footage of the outside of the cave and the surrounding land. Lasers then scanned the cave, both inside and out, to build a 3D model of the site on a millimetre-scale. The team also scanned the carvings several times using a variety of techniques. In one, a camera snapped images of the walls as they were lit from many different angles. And another approach, called structured light scanning, projected different patterns onto the walls and then read distortions in the patterns caused by the rock surface. This method provides detail down to the level of 100 micrometres – fine enough resolution to examine each individual hammer blow that made up the carvings.

An online walk-through of Jonathan's Cave will go live later this month. As well as clicking to move through the cave, you will be able to use the mouse cursor like a torch to illuminate more than 30 different carvings left by the Picts, who lived in Scotland during the Iron Age. These include images of men and animals, Christian symbols and the earliest known depiction of a Scottish boat. If all goes well, the team hopes to recreate the process for other nearby caves that are also in danger of disappearing.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Banish jet lag with a handy mathematical scheduler
April 10, 2014

Feeling groggy after that long-distance flight? Hold the coffee and reach for your mobile phone. A mathematical tool promises a full recovery in just a few days, even for extreme time zone shifts. While the model has not yet been proven in the real world, a recently released app will let people try it out for themselves.

Your daily activity is usually aligned with your circadian rhythm, a roughly 24-hour cycle controlled by exposure to light and darkness. But a sudden change in schedule caused by travelling to a different time zone can throw off this internal clock. Timed exposure to bright lights can trigger biological markers associated with sleep patterns, such as levels of the sleep-related hormone melatonin and body temperature. That can help get the body in sync with a new schedule. Previous work on adjusting to jet lag showed that people who experience a 12-hour time shift but forgo light therapy will still be off-schedule after 12 days.

Mathematical models that recommend exposure patterns already exist, and the best current versions require more than a week of carefully adjusting your light exposure to get you over a 12-hour shift. Researchers from Yale University and the University of Michigan used techniques from a branch of maths called optimal control theory to reengineer a model designed in 1999.

If you have travelled 12 hours from your original time zone and want to start your day at 7 am local time, the model says you must stay in the dark until 1.10 pm on your first day, and then stay in the light until 9.50 pm. The schedule shifts each subsequent day until you are synchronised to your new time zone, which should happen by the fourth day. The team has just released an iPhone app called Entrain that can do the number-crunching on behalf of a weary traveller. The app recommends optimal schedules and will track how well you are doing, adjusting the pattern if you make a mistake.

Full story: New Scientist / PLoS Computational Biology Back to top