Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 8, 2018

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Issue 8, 2018

This week's headlines:

The twin who went to space and returned just a brother
March 16, 2018

NASA astronauts and identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly have shared a lot in their extraordinary lives. Born a few minutes apart, they were both US Navy captains, both flew on the space shuttle and both spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

But NASA has found that life away from planet Earth has exacted a surprising toll. The 54-year-old pair are, it seems, no longer genetically identical twins. Although NASA pointed out that the twins' underlying DNA has not altered, they said Scott's genes were now behaving very differently to his brother's. After Scott spent 340 days in space, experts found that 7% of his genes did not match those of his brother.

NASA took the unique opportunity of having astronaut twins to learn more about the genetic changes of long periods in space. The long-term effects of space habitation are still unknown and the space agency said the experiment was a stepping stone for its mission to Mars. While Scott was away, experts monitored the brothers' DNA.

NASA collected regular readings for metabolites, cytokines and proteins and discovered that spaceflight was linked to oxygen deprivation stress, increased inflammation and dramatic nutrient shifts that affect genes. Scientists also discovered that Scott's telomeres - the caps at the end of chromosomes that shorten with age - stretched in space, suggesting a possible protection against ageing. They returned to normal within two days of landing back on Earth.

The study showed no cognitive difference between Scott and Mark after being on the space station. Researchers are now evaluating what impact the findings might have upon space travel beyond Earth's orbit.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / The Telegraph Back to top

Saving lives with platypus milk
March 15, 2018

A breakthrough by Australian scientists has brought the introduction of an unlikely hero in the global fight against antibiotic resistance a step closer; the humble platypus.

Due to its unique features - duck-billed, egg-laying, beaver-tailed and venomous - the platypus has long exerted a powerful appeal to scientists, making it an important subject in the study of evolutionary biology. In 2010 scientists discovered that platypus milk contained unique antibacterial properties that could be used to fight superbugs.

Now researchers have solved a puzzle that helps explain why platypus milk is so potent - bringing it one step closer to being used to save lives. The discovery was made by replicating a special protein contained in platypus milk in a laboratory setting.

As platypus don't have teats, they express milk onto their belly for the young to suckle, exposing the mother's highly nutritious milk to the environment, leaving babies susceptible to the perils of bacteria. Researchers believed this was why the platypus milk contained a protein with rather unusual and protective antibacterial characteristics.

The team successfully created the protein, then deciphered its structure to get a better look at it. What they found was a unique, unknown 3D fold. Due to its ringlet-like formation, the researchers have dubbed the newly discovered protein fold the 'Shirley Temple', in tribute to the former child-actor's distinctive curly hair. The scientists are now seeking collaborators to take the potentially life-saving platypus research to the next stage.

Full story: Phys Org Back to top

Graphene-based membranes can help clean up drinking water
March 14, 2018

Even within a treatment plant, removing all natural organic matter (NOM) from drinking water is no easy task. Now, a team from the University of New South Wales in Australia has created a graphene-based filter.

The new treatment system is made by converting naturally occurring graphite into graphene oxide membranes. The graphene oxide membranes allow high water flow at atmospheric pressure, while removing virtually all of the organic matter. This system can remove more than 99% of the NOM in treated drinking water.

According to the study, the laboratory scale use of graphene oxide membranes was for the removal of NOM from water that had been treated and still contained 5 mg/L of dissolved organic carbon. NOM contaminants affect the performance of direct filtration plants by reducing their capacity after a heavy rain. It can also lead to increased disinfection byproducts.

The researchers, in collaboration with Sydney Water, have demonstrated the success of the new approach in lab tests on filtered water from the Nepean Water Filtration Plant in western Sydney. They are now working to scale up the technology for use in conventional water treatment plants.

Full story: R&D / Carbon Back to top

Walmart files patent for autonomous robot bees
March 15, 2018

Like an episode out of Black Mirror, US retailer Walmart has filed a patent for autonomous robotic bees, technically called pollination drones, that could potentially pollinate crops just like real bees. The drones would carry pollen from one plant to another, using sensors and cameras to detect the locations of the crops.

The robot bee patent appears along five other patents for farming drones, including one that would identify pests and another that would monitor crop health. While Walmart's exact goal for these patents is unclear, they may signal that the company hopes to venture into agriculture and gain more control over its food supply chain.

Walmart is not the first organisation to create a robot bee. In recent years, scientists have searched for solutions to the decline of honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat and are dying at unprecedented rates.

Walmart is not the first organisation to create a robot bee. Harvard University researchers introduced the first RoboBees in 2013. At the time, the bee-size robots could only fly and hover midair when tethered to a power source, but they have advanced since then. Today, the RoboBees can also stick to surfaces, swim underwater, and dive in and out of water. The researchers believe these RoboBees could soon artificially pollinate fields of crops - a development that would help offset the yearly bee losses over the past two decades.

Though Harvard's bees can do several tricks, they still can't be remotely controlled. The robotic bees described in Walmart's patent, however, would have this capability, along with the ability to automatically detect pollen.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Prosthetic hands feel more real, thanks to some good vibrations
March 14, 2018

When you go to catch a Frisbee, you don't need to stare at your hand until it makes contact. You have an intuitive sense of where your arm is-and where it's going-based on how your muscles and joints feel. This sense of body position, known as kinaesthesia, has proved tricky to build into prosthetic arms.

Now, researchers have recreated the feeling of kinaesthesia in six arm amputees by sending finely tuned vibrations into the skin of their upper arms and shoulders. The approach improved their ability to feel and control their prosthetic arms when performing actions such as gripping and pinching, the team reports.

The amputees in the study had previously undergone surgery to rewire the nerves in their upper bodies to act as messengers for the specific electric signals associated with arm and hand movement. Three also completed tests where they were asked to close their hand as if gripping a cylinder, while not being able to see their prosthetic arm.

When the subjects performed the task again while receiving kinaesthesia vibrations simulating the feeling of the motion, they more instinctively moved their prosthetics into the grip and were faster in correcting their mistakes, such as when some of their fingers had not closed into the grip. The subjects also indicated that they felt greater control over their prosthetic arms when receiving the kinaesthesia vibrations.

Full story: Science Mag / Science Translational Medicine Back to top

Changing environment influenced human evolution, toolmaking
March 15, 2018

Humans may have developed advanced social behaviours and trade 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a series of papers published this week. The results come from an archaeological site in Kenya's rift valley.

Environmental change may have been a key influence in this evolution of early Homo sapiens in the region of the Olorgesailie dig site. Early humans were in the area for about 700,000 years, making large hand axes from nearby stone. Then, roughly 500,000 years ago, something did change. A period of tectonic upheaval and erratic climate conditions swept across the region, and there is a 180,000 year interruption in the geological record due to erosion. When the record resumes, the way of life of these early humans has completely changed.

New tools appeared at this time - small, sharp blades and points made from obsidian, a dark volcanic glass. This technology marks the transition to what is known as the Middle Stone Age. Rather than shaping a block of rock, into a hand axe, humans became interested in the sharp flakes that could be chipped off. These were mounted on spears and used as projectile weapons.

Where 98% of the rock previously used by people in the Olorgesailie area had come from within a 5km radius, there were no sources of obsidian nearby. People were travelling from 25km to 95km across rugged terrain to obtain the material, and interacting with other groups of early humans over that time period, according to the researchers. This makes the site the earliest known example of such long distance transport, and possibly of trade.

Full story: BBC News / Science Back to top

Startup claims brain can be immortalised, digitally uploaded into cloud
March 15, 2018

A startup is claiming that it can invent a technology that can immortalise the human brain by digitally uploading its content into the cloud. The startup called Nectome is working on a futuristic method - aldehyde-stabilised cryopreservation (ASC) - which it claimed will encode a person's mind by preserving the brain's neural connections, helping it to live on for hundreds of years.

While the technology itself might sound like a fantasy, the process to achieve the same is nothing less than a nightmare. The potential candidate opting for the method will have to endure a 100% lethal injection filled with preservation chemicals that will surely result in death. However, what maximises the risk of failure in this process is the fact that in order for scientists to encode one's brain, it has to be 'vitrifixed' and to do that, it has to be taken out of the body of the deceased the very moment he or she dies.

To make sure that they will not be violating any assisted suicide legalities if they go forward with launching the procedure in the market, Nectome consulted with a number of lawyers familiar with laws such as California's End of Life Option Act.

However, even if the technology is deemed legal, it still has the task of convincing people that it actually works and is not a hoax. Currently, there is a lack of evidence to support that memories can still exist inside a dead brain. Then there are a host of biological questions that are still being debated to this day by experts - like what consciousness really consists of.

Nevertheless, Nectome hopes that it can demonstrate a fully uploaded simulation of 'a biological neural network' sometime around 2024.

Full story: International Business Times / The Guardian Back to top