Innovation & Technology
Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Plastic-eating worms could inspire waste-degrading tools
June 08, 2017

Humans produce more than 300m metric tons of plastic every year. Almost half of that winds up in landfills, and up to 12m metric tons pollute the oceans. So far there is no sustainable way to get rid of it, but a new study suggests an answer may lie in the stomachs of some worms.

Researchers in Spain and England have found that the larvae of the greater wax moth can efficiently degrade polyethylene, which accounts for 40% of plastics. The team left 100 wax worms on a commercial polyethylene shopping bag for 12 hours, and the worms consumed and degraded about 92 milligrams, or roughly 3%, of it. To confirm that the larvae's chewing alone was not responsible for the polyethylene breakdown, the researchers ground some grubs into a paste and applied it to plastic films. Fourteen hours later the films had lost 13% of their mass, presumably broken down by enzymes from the worms' stomachs.

When inspecting the degraded plastic films, the team also found traces of ethylene glycol, a product of polyethylene breakdown, signalling true biodegradation.

The larvae's ability to break down their dietary staple-beeswax-also allows them to degrade plastic. The next step will be to pinpoint the cause of the breakdown. Is it an enzyme produced by the worm itself or by its gut microbes? The team hope the findings might one day help to break down plastics in landfills, as well as those scattered throughout the ocean.

Full story: Scientific American / Current Biology Back to top

Therapy could stop superbugs on farms
June 08, 2017

Researchers at Leicester University have shown that it might be possible to develop an alternative to antibiotics for treating diseases in pigs.

They have identified a range of viruses, called bacteriophages, that can be used to kill common pig infections. The aim is to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria emerging on farms that could also infect humans. If trials in pigs work, the new therapy could be extended to treat people.

Phages occur in nature and are the natural enemy of many infectious agents. There are many phages, each of which is specific to different infectious bugs. The phages home in on these agents like a guided missile. Once they find their target, they latch on to them and inject their DNA into the bug rendering it harmless.

Like all viruses, they reproduce inside the infectious bug and these new phages go on to hunt other infections

The Leicester University team have identified a range of disease-killing phages, including one that disables a salmonella bug that infects pigs. Her team has shown that it works in the lab and the scientists have also developed a powdered form of the phage which remains active. This is an important step because it enables the researchers to add the phage to pig feed and see if it works in practice. The team plans to begin trails later this year.

If the approach is found to be effective, other phage treatments could be developed for a range of animal diseases. It would also speed the development of phage treatments for people.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Text-mining tool seeks out 'hidden data'
June 08, 2017

Forgotten to free your data? A tool called Wide-Open can search out instances of locked online research data sets that are supposed to be public - and it has already flagged hundreds of such instances in genetics research, according to a new study.

Scientists often post 'hidden' data online in repositories while their related studies are going through peer review, intending to make data sets public later. Two popular repositories that offer researchers the option to keep genetics data hidden, for example, are the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) and the Sequence Read Archive (SRA). Both sites require data sets to be made open when papers are published.

So researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle developed Wide-Open to find non-open data, focusing on GEO and SRA. The tool scans papers for mentions of unique data-set identifier codes that use the GEO's or SRA's code format. The tool could be tweaked to query other repositories as well. Once it identifies a valid code, Wide-Open trawls the relevant repository to find out whether the data set is public. It notes as 'overdue' any data set that isn't available, but should be.

The team ran Wide-Open on roughly 1.5m papers in PubMed Central, an open-access database of biomedical studies. The tool identified 473 data sets missing in GEO, and 84 in SRA. The team alerted the repositories of its finds. By the time the GEO staff checked, they found that 27 of the flagged data sets were already live - representing a short lag in posting for some publications - and they released 429 data sets that were overdue. The remaining cases either cited incorrect codes or mentioned data sets that couldn't be made open because of privacy concerns or incomplete data submission.

Wide-Open now trawls GEO and SRA roughly every month, and automatically updates its site with papers whose data are missing.

Full story: Nature / PLoS Biology Back to top

Scientists make synthetic photosynthesis possible
June 09, 2017

Photosynthesis is one of nature's most efficient phenomena: aside from providing much of the oxygen human beings need to breathe, this naturally occurring process gives plants the food and energy they need to survive. It uses visible light to provide the 'fuel' they need.

Researchers have been working on ways to artificially recreate this natural process in labs, in the hopes of producing fuel - specifically methane. Now, a team of chemists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Virginia Tech have designed two supramolecules, each made up of a number of light-harvesting ruthenium (Ru) metal ions attached to a single catalytic centre of rhodium (Rh) metal ions.

While both could act as catalysts, the researchers set out to determine which of the two supramolecules they created did the job best. They found that the one with six Ru light absorbers could produce some 280 hydrogen molecules for every catalyst in a 10-hour period. Meanwhile, the supramolecule with only three Ru ions could produce 40 hydrogen molecules for 4 hours - at which point it stopped working.

To promote catalysis, the Rh catalyst must be low enough in energy to accept the electrons from the Ru light absorbers when the absorbers are exposed to light. What that means is that the larger of the supramolecules was slightly more electron-deficient, which made it more receptive to electrons needed for synthetic photosynthesis.

Moreover, synthetic photosynthesis can be used to remove pollutants in the air as well, because CO2 is a necessary component in the process.

Full story: Science Alert / Journal of the American Chemical Society Back to top

Scientists create low-cost CO2 splitter
June 07, 2017

Scientists have developed the first low-cost system for splitting carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen - a process that's crucial if we're going to ramp up renewable energy use in the future.

This splitting process has long been identified as a promising way of turning renewables into fuel without increasing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, but until now, no one had come up with a method that was cheap enough to be practical.

The solution devised by a team from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland is based on an electrolysis technique using copper-oxide nanowires modified with tin oxide, which splits CO2 with an efficiency of 13.4% running on solar power.

Once CO is released, it can be combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic carbon-based fuels, which means CO2 gets taken out of the atmosphere, and we get clean fuel at the other end - a win-win. Current methods for doing this are prohibitively expensive, and need more energy to break down the CO2 than they put out in return, which is why this new method is potentially so exciting.

Full story: Science Alert / Nature Energy Back to top

Physicists create a 2-D magnet
June 08, 2017

The number of 2D materials has exploded since the discovery of graphene. However, this menagerie of single-atom-thick semiconductors, insulators and superconductors has been missing a member: Magnets. In fact, physicists weren't even sure that 2D magnets were possible, until now.

Researchers from MIT the University of Washington and report the first truly 2D magnet, made of a compound called chromium triiodide. The discovery could eventually lead to new data-storage devices and designs for quantum computers. For now, the 2D magnets will enable physicists to perform previously impossible experiments and test fundamental theories of magnetism.

The team found that not only was a single atomic layer of chromium triiodide magnetic, but also that this property emerged at what is considered a relatively warm temperature: about -228 °C. They also discovered that a two-layered sheet of this material is not magnetic, but when a third is added the substance becomes a ferromagnet again. The material remains magnetic if a fourth layer is added, but gains other properties the researchers say they're still investigating.

Eventually physicists would like to find a 2D magnet that works at room temperature and that doesn't have to be protected from oxygen, so that it might eventually be used in consumer electronics.

Full story: Scientific American / Nature Back to top