Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 29, 2017

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Issue 29, 2017

This week's headlines:

Human cell atlas: The plan to map every cell in your body
November 17, 2017

Our bodies are made up of least 37 trillion cells, and scientists are teaming up around the world to map every single one of them. A new project called the Human Cell Atlas hopes to discover what each of these cells do. And the plan is to put the information in an online database that any scientist can use.

It is the most ambitious undertaking in human biology research since scientists mapped the human genome, which took 20 years to complete.

When you think of cells, the beautiful images taken through microscopes probably come to mind. But microscopic images just scratch the surface of what's going on underneath. Identifying what each type of cell does at the molecular level can help scientists understand why some people get diseases and others don't.

The Human Cell Atlas is the brainchild of Aviv Regev from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the US and Sarah Teichmann from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK. They think that comprehensive maps of all the cells in the body could have a huge impact on how we diagnose, monitor and treat disease.

The first phase of the project aims to profile 30 million to 100 million cells within five years. Data from the first million cells - immune cells from blood and bone marrow from healthy donors - will be published on the database this month. Ultimately, the scientists hope to build an atlas of at least 10 billion cells covering every tissue, organ and system in the body.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

A helium-resistant material could usher in age of nuclear fusion
November 14, 2017

A collaboration of researchers has found a way to prevent helium, a byproduct of the fusion reaction, from weakening nuclear fusion reactors. The secret is in building the reactors using nanocomposite solids that create channels through which the helium can escape.

Researchers from Texas A&M University, working with a team from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, have tested a new method for creating the materials used in nuclear fusion reactors and found that it could eliminate one of the obstacles preventing humanity from harnessing the power of fusion energy.

Many consider fusion, the energy process that takes place in the Sun itself, the 'holy grail' of nuclear energy. It's capable of generating about four times the power of nuclear fission, but as promising as nuclear fusion is, researchers have yet to figure out how to turn it into a reliable source of truly renewable energy for several reasons.

Not only does the fusion process expose reactors to extreme pressure and temperatures, helium - the byproduct of fusion between hydrogen atoms - adds to the strain placed on reactors by bubbling out into the materials and eventually weakening them.

In a new study the researchers overview how they tested the behaviour of helium in nanocomposite solids, materials made from thick metal layer stacks. They found that the helium didn't form bubbles in these nanocomposite solids like it did in traditionally used materials. Instead, it formed long, vein-like tunnels.

The most immediate application of this discovery is the development of fusion reactor materials designed to let helium flow out instead of remaining trapped inside reactors, according to the researchers.

Full story: Science Alert / Science Advances Back to top

Camera spots hidden oil spills and may find missing planes
November 14, 2017

There are thousands of oil spills each year in US waters alone. One major source is illegal dumping of oil in harbours, typically at night to avoid detection. However, a new kind of polarising camera, Pyxis, can now spot offenders immediately. Its ability to detect otherwise invisible oil sheens could even lead investigators to lost planes.

Like many oil imagers, the Pyxis camera sees the infrared radiation emitted by all objects. That is important because there is often a temperature difference between oil and water. However, if there isn't one, thermal imagers don't work. But Pyxis also detects differences between the way oil and water scatter light. Thanks to this differing polarisation, it works not only when the oil and water are the same temperature - but also in pitch darkness.

This is the first time a polarising infrared filter has been made for terrestrial use. Infrared polarimetry is used in astronomy to help identify distant stellar objects, but nowhere else as previous devices were slow, fragile, hefty and expensive. Only astronomers can afford to use big, immobile set-ups and focus long exposures on stationary subjects. The Pyxis camera, developed by Polaris Sensor Technologies in Alabama, changes this. changes this. It can see spills invisible to the naked eye from 2 kilometres away. Its size means it can be mounted on a small drone or other robot.

While Polaris is currently concentrating on oil detection, more applications for the camera are likely to be discovered when it goes into mass production, anticipated early next year. One of these is facial recognition. Using polarised infrared imagers may offer more reliable and consistent recognition than unpolarised infrared.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

What's the best way to scare an elephant? Use an AI scarecrow
November 16, 2017

When you think of agricultural pests, elephants are probably near the bottom of the list. But they do an enormous amount of damage to nut and banana plantations precisely because they are too big, tough and smart to scare off once they start eating. Around 400 people and 100 elephants die each year in India alone in due to human-elephant conflict, often triggered by crop raiding.

Now, Australian researchers from CSIRO have developed an AI scarecrow that can do the job. It has been so successful that they are looking to adapt it to other smart pests - the long term goal is a scarecrow that understands the type of pest approaching and can tailor its scaring strategy.

The AI scarecrow has three elements: sensors that detect what kind of pest is approaching, a processing brain to identify them and decide how best to respond, and deterrent devices that can respond intelligently with the right combination of sound or light. These can be scattered widely to encompass any area that needs protection, even if it's the size of a plantation.

Then it is loaded with a library of predator sounds, animal alarm calls and irritating tones, as well as its own self-generated noises - anything we would consider as scary or startling. Tests on Elephants conducted earlier this year in Gabon, Africa, showed that the device worked.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

US approves digital pill that tracks when patients take it
November 14, 2017

US regulators have approved the first digital pill with an embedded sensor to track if patients are taking their medication properly, marking a significant step forward in the convergence of healthcare and technology.

The medicine is a drug for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, containing a tracking device developed by Proteus Digital Health. The system offers doctors an objective way to measure if patients are swallowing their pills on schedule, opening up a new avenue for monitoring medicine compliance that could be applied in other therapeutic areas.

The system works by sending a message from the pill's sensor to a wearable patch, which then transmits the information to a mobile application so that patients can track the ingestion of the medication on their smartphone. About the size of a grain of salt, the sensor has no battery or antenna and is activated when it gets wet from stomach juices. That completes a circuit between coatings of copper and magnesium on either side, generating a tiny electric charge.

In the longer term, such digital pills could also be used to manage patients with other complicated medicine routines, such as those suffering from diabetes or heart conditions.

Poor compliance with drug regimens is a common problem in many disease areas, especially when patients suffer from chronic conditions.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

App 'trained' to spot crop disease, alert farmers
November 09, 2017

A team of scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas has received a grant to refine a mobile application that uses artificial intelligence to diagnose crop diseases, and aims to help millions of African smallholders.

The app, to be used against cassava brown streak disease and the cassava mosaic disease, is expected to be rolled out in 2018. It accurately diagnoses diseases in the field and will combine SMS alerts to farmers in rural Africa.

The app uses a Google programme called TensorFlow that allows machines to train and learn. The app assigns a score in real-time to a video being captured, and that score is the probability that the plant in the video shows symptoms of one of five diseases or pests.

The project's expansion is aimed at collecting more images to train the machine to identify more diseases in more crops - such as banana, sweet potato and yam - as well as work with farmer groups to provide local language apps they want to use.

Full story: SciDev Back to top