| Issue no. 21, 2011
Published: Jun 17, 2011
| Europe tackles huge fraud with research funds |
| 'Plasmon ruler' measures tiny distances in 3D|
| Laser is produced by a living cell|
| Cell energy discovery points to help for diabetes |
| Study shows how scientists can get farmers to innovate |
| Future of virtual reality: What pregnancy feels like|
|Europe tackles huge fraud with research funds
|Stifling bureaucracy is often blamed for discouraging scientists and
businesses from participating in the research programmes of the European
Commission. But the commission's notoriously cumbersome procedures and
rigid control mechanisms have apparently not prevented a criminal
syndicate from conducting a brazen fraud that has siphoned off millions
in EC grant funds.
Italian authorities and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) have
confirmed that they are prosecuting members of a large network accused
of pocketing more than EUR 50m in EC grants for fake research projects.
In Milan, Italy, the Finance Police last month charged several
individuals in relation to the fraud. In Brussels, meanwhile, the EC has
terminated four collaborative projects in information technology, and
excluded more than 30 grant-winners from participation in around 20
ongoing projects. Investigations are still under way in the UK, France,
Greece, Austria, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland.
The fraud has been conducted in a 'highly sophisticated manner,
resembling money laundering', by means of a cross-border network of
fictitious companies and subcontractors, according to an OLAF spokesman.
Several project coordinators stand accused of having claimed inflated
costs, or expenses for non-existent research activities and services.
Insiders in Brussels say that rare cases of minor financial dishonesty,
from inflated invoices to smaller cases of embezzlement, are regarded as
unavoidable in large collaborative research projects. But the commission
does extensive checks on project partners, including companies, which
are meant to catch large-scale fraud. The success of the fraud suggests
that those involved were unusually familiar with weaknesses in the EC's
procedures, and adept at forging legal documents.
Jun 14, 2011
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|'Plasmon ruler' measures tiny distances in 3D
|The first ever 3D 'plasmon ruler' has been unveiled by researchers in
the US, Germany and France. Until now, such nanoscale measuring devices
were limited to measuring distances in just 1D, which meant that they
could not be used to monitor 3D processes in biological and soft matter.
The new sensor could prove useful for monitoring structural changes in
biological samples, such as protein folding and DNA interactions.
Metals can absorb light by creating plasmons, which are particle-like
collective excitations of conduction electrons at a metallic surface. A
1D plasmon ruler exploits the fact that the plasmon resonances of two
metallic nanoparticles couple with each other when they are close
together. The spectrum of light associated with the plasmons is strongly
shifted toward the blue or red depending on how close or far apart the
nanoparticles are to each other.
For example, in previous studies two gold nanoparticles were connected
together via a single strand of DNA. When complementary double-stranded
DNA was then added, researchers observed a significant blueshift in the
light spectrum of the plasmon resonances. Since double-stranded DNA is
much stronger than single stranded, the nanoparticles are pushed apart -
that is, the distance between them becomes larger. By continuously
monitoring the spectrum of the gold particles, the dynamics of the DNA
'hybridization' could be recorded.
Now, the researchers have extended this concept so that it works in 3D.
They employed a stack of five gold nanorods arranged in a 'H' shape with
the central rod acting as the horizontal bar of the H. The other two
pairs of rods were chosen so that they acted as quadrupolar 'antennas'
for visible lightwaves. When biological molecules are attached to the
structure, the central rod or quadrupole antennas move relative to each
other, which results in a shift of the plasmon resonances of the system
that can be measured, just like the 1D ruler.
| PhysicsWorld / Science
Jun 16, 2011
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|Laser is produced by a living cell
|A single living cell has been coaxed into producing laser light by
researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts
General Hospital in the US. The technique starts by engineering a cell
that can produce a light-emitting protein that was first obtained from
glowing jellyfish. Flooding the resulting cells with weak blue light
causes them to emit directed, green laser light. The work may have
applications in improved microscope imaging and light-based therapies.
Laser light differs from normal light in that it is of a narrow band of
colours, with the light waves all oscillating together in synchrony.
Most modern forms use carefully engineered solid materials to produce
lasers in everything from supermarket scanners to DVD players to
industrial robots. The new work marks the first time the phenomenon has
been seen in a living system.
The team used green fluorescent protein (GFP) as the laser's 'gain
medium', where light amplification takes place. GFP is a well-studied
molecule, first isolated from jellyfish, that has revolutionised biology
by acting as a custom-made 'torch' that can light up living systems on
command. In the new work, cells derived from human kidney cells were
genetically engineered to produce GFP.
The cells were then placed one at a time between two tiny mirrors, just
20 millionths of a metre across, which acted as the 'laser cavity' in
which light could bounce many times through the cell. Upon bathing the
cell with blue light, it could be seen to emit directed and intense
green laser light. The cells remained alive throughout and after the
process. The authors note that the living system is a 'self-healing'
laser; if the light-emitting proteins are destroyed in the process, the
cell will simply produce more.
| BBC News / Nature Photonics
Jun 13, 2011
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|Cell energy discovery points to help for diabetes
|New treatments for diabetes could be on the way, following a discovery
about the mechanism of energy production in cells. A key enzyme in the
process is stimulated by two molecules, not one, as previously thought.
The finding unveils new targets for the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Often considered the cell's energy regulator, the enzyme known as
AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) helps 'recharge' a cell by
stimulating the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which then
fuels the cell's activities. When ATP breaks down it becomes adenosine
diphosphate (ADP) or adenosine monophosphate (AMP). Once ATP is
depleted, AMP stimulates the phosphorylation of AMPK - the addition of a
phosphate group to the enzyme. This triggers the production of more ATP.
For decades it was thought that only AMP had the power to activate AMPK,
as the enzyme's full name suggests. AMP causes AMPK to change shape,
exposing its 'active site' and so making it more likely to be
phosphorylated, or attaches itself to AMPK, making it more likely to be
phosphorylated by other enzymes.
Now, researchers at St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research in
Melbourne, Australia, have found that ADP can also activate AMPK. By
mixing ADP with the AMPK expressed in monkey kidney cells, the team
found that ADP could coax phosphates to bind to AMPK, at a similar rate
to AMP. The new finding provides a fresh target for the treatment of
type 2 diabetes, which is characterised by insulin resistance or
deficiency. When AMPK is activated in muscle cells, they become more
sensitive to insulin. Creating drugs that amplify ADP's actions on AMPK
could improve sensitivity to insulin and treat diabetes.
| New Scientist / Science
Jun 16, 2011
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|Study shows how scientists can get farmers to innovate
|Researchers must pay attention to farmers' social and economic networks
to help ensure the adoption of new technologies, a study has found. US
scientists conducted interviews with agricultural experts, credit unions
and farmers in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico - home of the 'green revolution'
They found that, while farmers have successfully adopted many new
technologies such as new wheat varieties released by the International
Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, not all research
has been as successful in making its way from the lab to the field.
For example, a CIMMYT initiative to promote alternative fertiliser
management strategies - with successful on-farm trials that had shown
the approaches could save farmers a lot of money - was not taken up by
farmers. This was partly because of the influence of credit unions -
which provide crop loans and insurance. The unions' role as retailers of
fertiliser, seeds and other agricultural inputs may mean that they are
more likely to advise farmers to stick to tried and tested techniques,
instead of trying innovations, said the researchers.
Their influence is strong because state-funded agricultural extension
systems were scaled back, which led to the unions also providing
technical advice, the researchers said. This means farmers are more
likely to listen to these unions than researchers. Researchers have to
recognise and engage with local knowledge systems and actors, such as
credit unions, if they are to roll out their innovations, said the
| SciDev / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Jun 15, 2011
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|Future of virtual reality: What pregnancy feels like
|Ever wondered what it feels like to be pregnant? Now even men can find
out thanks to a new dress created by Takuya Iwamoto from the Japan
Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and his team that simulates
the weight, temperature, movement and heartbeat of a foetus.
The device can replicate the 9-month long process in two minutes or it
can be worn for a longer period to experience what it feels like
day-to-day. To mimic the foetus, it contains a 4-litre bag filled with
warm water. Kicking movement is recreated with a lining of 45 balloons
that expand and contract. But wiggling is more complex to reproduce and
requires a grid of air actuators that exploit a tactile illusion. When
two vibrating sources placed a distance apart move at the same time, it
triggers a sensation in between the two points. So by varying vibrating
pairs over time, the simulated foetus seems to squirm.
The system also contains an accelerometer and touch sensors to allow for
interaction. When the suit is connected to a computer, software displays
a 3D model of the foetus that changes to mimic different stages of
pregnancy. The foetus on the screen appears to be in a good mood when a
wearer strokes their abdomen and makes steady movements. But if the
person moves around vigorously, it will trigger more intense motion.
The team hopes the system will help men better to understand what a
woman goes through during pregnancy. It offers a more realistic
simulation than existing systems by reproducing the temperature and
movement of the foetus.
| New Scientist
Jun 15, 2011
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