Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

A mystery source is producing banned ozone-destroying chemicals
May 17, 2018

Researchers at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have noticed an unexpected and persistent increase in ozone-destroying chemicals, called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

CFC-11, which is one of the banned chemicals, is the second most abundant ozone-depleting gas, commonly used in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, and styrofoam. Under the Montreal Protocol, finalised in 1987, the world agreed to begin phasing out CFC-11, ending its production altogether by 2010. The protocol was a huge success, slowly shrinking the giant hole that forms over Antarctica each September. Today, from its peak in 1993, CFC-11 concentrations have declined by 15%. But in the last few years, it looks like someone has started cheating.

The new study has found that from 2014 to 2016, emissions of CFC-11 have increased by 25% above the average measured from 2002 to 2012, slowing the decline of the chemical by 50% from 2012. The goal of the study was to figure out where the emissions are coming from.

The researchers found the concentration of CFC-11 to be unusually high in the Northern Hemisphere. Plus, it isn't just CFC-11 that was found to be increasing. When the researchers examined measurements from atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii, they found that other industrial emissions are also increasing. The researchers say the data points 'fairly definitively' towards Eastern Asia, somewhere around China, Mongolia and the Koreas.

If the issue is tackled now, the damage will be minor, according to the scientists. But if the problem is allowed to persist, it could jeopardize ozone layer recovery and worsen climate change.

Full story: Nature / Science Alert Back to top

Water filter inspired by Alan Turing passes first test
May 03, 2018

Researchers in China have developed a filter that removes salt from water up to three times as fast as conventional filters. The membrane has a unique nanostructure of tubular strands, inspired by the mathematical-biology work of codebreaker Alan Turing.

British mathematician Alan Turing proposed a mathematical model for a process by which the cells of an embryo might begin to form structures ? limbs, bones and organs. In this process, two substances continuously react with each other, but diffuse through their container at very different rates. The quicker-diffusing reactant ? called the inhibitor ? pushes back against the slower one, called the activator, effectively corralling the resulting product into a pattern of spots or stripes.

Whether such a process actually occurs at a cellular level has been hotly debated. But this reaction-diffusion behaviour has been invoked to explain patterns in nature and society, including zebra stripes, sand ripples and the movements of financial markets. So far, however, attempts to synthesize such structures in the lab have mostly been limited to 2D patterns.

Researchers from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, set out to create a 3D Turing structure out of a polyamid, a material similar to nylon, formed by a reaction between the chemicals piperazine and trimesoyl chloride. In a conventional process, trimesoyl chloride diffuses faster than piperazine, but the difference is not big enough to produce a Turing structure. The team added polyvinyl alcohol to the piperazine, further lowering its diffusion rate and allowing it to act as the activator to the trimesoyl chloride?s inhibitor.

The result is a rough, porous mesh with a nanostructure resembling a Turing pattern that can be seen under an electron microscope. The team was able to produce variants showing both dots and tubes ? the two types of self-organising structure predicted by Turing?s model. They found that their membranes functioned as efficient water filters ? surpassing conventional nylon-like filters in some respects.

Full story: Science / Nature Back to top

Scientists transplant memory from one snail to another
May 15, 2018

In a scientific first researchers have transferred memories between sea snails by injecting RNA from a trained sea snail into one that hasn't been trained - and observing the trained response in the second snail.

The researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, were hoping to understand something called the engram - a physical trace of memory storage. Recent studies have found that long-term memory can be restored after amnesia with the aid of a priming component. This process seems to involve epigenetic modification - something RNA is heavily involved in. And RNA is also involved in the process of forming long-term memories. This led the team to the possibility that some aspects of long-term memory could be transferred via the molecule.

To test their hypothesis, they trained sea snails by applying a mild, but still unpleasant, electric shock to the tails of a sea snail called Aplysia californica. The researchers administered five electric shocks to the training group of snails, one every 20 minutes. Then, 24 hours later, the researchers repeated the process. When researchers tapped the snails afterward, those that had received the shock training contracted their bodies into a defensive posture for an average of around 50 seconds - but the snails that had not been trained only contracted for about one second.

For the next step, RNA was extracted from both the trained and untrained snails. The molecules were then injected into two groups of untrained snails. The untrained snails that had received RNA from the trained group then responded to taps as though they had been shocked too - contracting defensively for an average of 40 seconds. Meanwhile, the untrained snails who had received RNA from untrained donors did not exhibit any change in their defensive response.

Full story: Science Alert / eNeuro Back to top

In an interplanetary first, NASA to fly a helicopter on Mars
May 12, 2018

NASA will send a small helicopter to Mars as part of the space agency?s 2020 mission to place a next-generation rover on the Martian surface, marking the first time such an aircraft will be used on another world.

The remote-controlled Mars Helicopter, designed to take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere with twin counter-rotating blades, weighs about two kilograms, with a fuselage the size of a softball, NASA said. Its blades will spin at almost 3,000 rpm, roughly 10 times the rate employed by helicopters on Earth.

NASA officials said the rotorcraft will reach the Red Planet?s surface attached to the car-sized rover. After placing the helicopter on the ground, the rover will be directed to drive to a safe distance to relay commands. Controllers on Earth will command the helicopter to take its first autonomous flight after its batteries are charged and tests are conducted, NASA said.

The helicopter is intended to demonstrate the viability and usefulness of such aircraft on Mars, NASA said, with potential roles as a low-flying scout or to reach locations inaccessible from the ground.

NASA said it plans a 30-day flight test period that will include up to five flights, starting with a short vertical jaunt to hover for about 30 seconds at an altitude of 10 feet and progressing to flight distances up to a few hundred yards and durations up to 90 seconds. The helicopter contains solar cells to charge its lithium-ion batteries and a heating mechanism to keep it warm during frigid nights.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Facebook privacy: Europe to press Zuckerberg
May 16, 2018

Facebook has confirmed its chief executive will meet leading members of the European Parliament to discuss privacy concerns in Brussels. The date of the meeting with Mark Zuckerberg has yet to be fixed but the president of the Parliament said he hoped it would be next week.

The talks will be held behind closed doors at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents attended by leaders of the various political groups. But this later event, which is likely to be in June, will be attended by different Facebook executives.

The social network has been embroiled in a data privacy scandal since it emerged that it had not checked that millions of users' personal details had been deleted after being shared with Cambridge Analytica. The London-based political consultancy announced it would shut earlier this month.

The French president is also set to meet Zuckerberg in Paris on 23 May. Emmanuel Macron's office said the two men would have 'frank' talks about data privacy and tax. The leaders of Microsoft, Intel and IBM are also set to attend the one-day Tech for Good summit at the Elysee Palace.

Zuckerberg will not, however, be visiting the UK. He has refused a request to testify before Westminster's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which had complained that an earlier appearance by his chief technology officer had failed to yield enough detail.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Israeli researchers abuzz about orgasmic fruit flies
May 09, 2018

Male fruit flies enjoy orgasms more than alcohol - and Israeli researchers who tested the insects? addiction to pleasure hope to apply their discovery to controlling human substance abuse.

Scientists from Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv exposed the flies to a red light that activated a protein, corazonim (CRZ), in the abdomen that triggers ejaculation. They then tested how repeated ejaculation affected the flies? desires for other pleasures, such as alcohol-spiked liquid.

Flies that orgasmed, as opposed to a control group that had not been stimulated, shunned the alcohol, preferring to congregate in the 'red light district' because 'it feels good' there, said Shir Zer Krispil, who led the study.

The scientists surmised that substance abuse in humans could be moderated by other rewards - not necessarily of a sexual nature - that are naturally available, such as social interaction or sports.

Full story: Reuters / Current Biology Back to top