Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 2, 2011

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Issue 2, 2011

This week's headlines:

Nobel prize laureate claims evidence of DNA teleportation
January 12, 2011

Scepticism has greeted experimental results which, if confirmed, would shake the foundations of several fields of science. Luc Montagnier, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2008, says he has evidence that DNA can send electromagnetic imprints of itself into distant cells and fluids. He also suggests that enzymes can mistake the ghostly imprints for real DNA, and faithfully copy them to produce the real thing.

Full details of the experiments are not yet available, but the basic set-up is as follows. Two adjacent but physically separate test tubes were placed within a copper coil and subjected to a very weak extremely low frequency electromagnetic field of 7 hertz. The apparatus was isolated from Earth's natural magnetic field to stop it interfering with the experiment. One tube contained a fragment of DNA around 100 bases long; the second tube contained pure water.

After 16 to 18 hours, both samples were independently subjected to the polymerase chain reaction, a method routinely used to amplify traces of DNA by using enzymes to make many copies of the original material. The gene fragment was apparently recovered from both tubes, even though one should have contained just water. DNA was only recovered if the original solution of DNA had been subjected to several dilution cycles before being placed in the magnetic field. In each cycle it was diluted 10-fold, and 'ghost' DNA was only recovered after between seven and 12 dilutions of the original.

The team suggest that DNA emits low-frequency electromagnetic waves which imprint the structure of the molecule onto the water. This structure, they claim, is preserved and amplified through quantum coherence effects, and because it mimics the shape of the original DNA, the enzymes in the PCR process mistake it for DNA itself, and somehow use it as a template to make DNA matching that which 'sent' the signal.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Online game helps predict how RNA folds
January 13, 2011

A novel hybrid of computer gaming and real-world biochemistry may soon give researchers the ability to predict the complex folding patterns of RNA molecules. This would allow them to synthesise bespoke molecules that can function as chemical sensors or be used in other applications.

The folding of RNA molecules is difficult to predict, because each molecule is a long string of bases that can pair up with each other in many different ways. Because of this, even the best computer algorithms do badly at predicting the shape a molecule will actually take.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh turned the problem over to online gamers to crack. Players of the game, called EteRNA, are given a target shape and can then join bases in any order. With each change, the computer calculates the most likely shape of the folded RNA molecule, allowing players to adjust bases until they achieve their target.

EteRNA went public last week, and has already attracted around 5000 players. At first, players will hone their skills by designing simple shapes to hit the game's targets. Within a few months, though, the researchers hope to start them on harder, real-world problems. For example, they hope to design an RNA molecule that can change shape in the presence of another target molecule, thus acting as a sensor.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists make chickens that do not spread bird flu
January 13, 2011

British scientists have developed genetically modified (GM) chickens that cannot transmit bird flu infections - a step that in future could reduce the risk of avian flu causing deadly epidemics in humans.

Scientists from Cambridge and Edinburgh universities said that while the transgenic chickens still got sick and died when they were exposed to H5N1 bird flu, they did not transmit the virus to other chickens they came into contact with.

To breed their GM chickens, the researchers introduced a new gene into them that manufactures a small 'decoy' molecule that mimics an important control element of the bird flu virus. The replication machinery of the virus is tricked into recognising the decoy molecule instead of the viral genes and this interferes with the virus' replication cycle.

After producing the modified chickens, they infected 10 of them and 10 normal chickens with H5N1 bird flu. Like the normal chickens, the transgenic birds became sick with the virus, but they did not transmit the infection on to other chickens kept in the same pen with them - even if those chickens were non-transgenic birds. The researchers said they now plan to work on trying to make chickens that are fully resistant to bird flu rather than just blocking bird-to-bird transmission.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Vaccine fridge keeps its cool during 10-day power cut
January 13, 2011

A fridge that can stay cool for up to 10 days without any power has been developed. Besides keeping food and medicines fresh for longer during outages, in future it could cope well with the deliberate power cuts imposed on domestic white goods by renewable-energy-powered smart grids.

Originally developed to help store vaccines in developing countries, the low-power cooler is partly the result of good insulation. But it also incorporates a phase-change material to regulate the temperature, according to True Energy, the UK firm behind the fridge.

Vaccine fridges typically use batteries to store power for use during outages, or an energy storage medium, such as ice, to cope with intermittent power. But batteries tend to have limited life-spans and ice will behave differently depending on the ambient temperature - either providing too much or too little cooling, and so leading to unwanted temperature fluctuations inside the fridge.

This is where phase-change materials come in. They behave normally while in solid form: as they absorb heat the material's temperature rises. But when they begin to melt - change their phase - they absorb large amounts of heat from their surroundings while maintaining a constant temperature, until the phase change is complete.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Sloan data yields biggest colour night-sky image ever
January 11, 2011

Astronomers have released the largest ever colour image of the whole sky, stitched from seven million images, each made of 125 million pixels. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey's latest effort tops its own record, published publicly for professional astronomers and 'citizen scientists' alike.

The release was announced at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, US. Researchers have released an animation demonstrating how the high-resolution image is represented on the celestial sphere (

Nearly half a billion stars and galaxies have already been discovered and described thanks to Sloan images, and the new release is sure to significantly increase that number. Sloan data is also behind the Google Sky service, which allows users to scan the heavens, and the Galaxy Zoo project, which has allowed astronomy enthusiasts to characterise galaxies from their own computers.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Laser cannon set to blind pirates
January 10, 2011

Sailors may soon have a weapon in their battle against sea-borne raiders: an anti-pirate laser. BAE Systems has demonstrated its new laser system, which can temporarily blind would-be attackers. The system would prevent pirates from being able to aim their weapons at targets, BAE claims.

BAE said it has developed a low-cost laser distraction system that can travel through the sea air while being housed onboard a moving ship. At distances of between 1.2km and 1.5km, the laser beam acts as a warning signal, letting the pirates know they have been spotted. At closer ranges, the green laser beam will dazzle them, making it difficult for the pirates to use weapons of their own.

Green lasers - which have been shown to interfere with eyesight - have been used by the US military in Iraq and to temporarily blind targets. The challenge has been to develop a system that can be used safely - but effectively - over long distances at sea. Weapons designed to cause permanent blindness are banned by a United Nations protocol.

Full story: BBC News Back to top