Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 21, 2011

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Issue 21, 2011

This week's headlines:

Europe tackles huge fraud with research funds
June 14, 2011

Stifling bureaucracy is often blamed for discouraging scientists and businesses from participating in the research programmes of the European Commission. But the commission's notoriously cumbersome procedures and rigid control mechanisms have apparently not prevented a criminal syndicate from conducting a brazen fraud that has siphoned off millions in EC grant funds.

Italian authorities and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) have confirmed that they are prosecuting members of a large network accused of pocketing more than EUR 50m in EC grants for fake research projects. In Milan, Italy, the Finance Police last month charged several individuals in relation to the fraud. In Brussels, meanwhile, the EC has terminated four collaborative projects in information technology, and excluded more than 30 grant-winners from participation in around 20 ongoing projects. Investigations are still under way in the UK, France, Greece, Austria, Sweden, Slovenia and Poland.

The fraud has been conducted in a 'highly sophisticated manner, resembling money laundering', by means of a cross-border network of fictitious companies and subcontractors, according to an OLAF spokesman. Several project coordinators stand accused of having claimed inflated costs, or expenses for non-existent research activities and services.

Insiders in Brussels say that rare cases of minor financial dishonesty, from inflated invoices to smaller cases of embezzlement, are regarded as unavoidable in large collaborative research projects. But the commission does extensive checks on project partners, including companies, which are meant to catch large-scale fraud. The success of the fraud suggests that those involved were unusually familiar with weaknesses in the EC's procedures, and adept at forging legal documents.

Full story: Nature Back to top

'Plasmon ruler' measures tiny distances in 3D
June 16, 2011

The first ever 3D 'plasmon ruler' has been unveiled by researchers in the US, Germany and France. Until now, such nanoscale measuring devices were limited to measuring distances in just 1D, which meant that they could not be used to monitor 3D processes in biological and soft matter. The new sensor could prove useful for monitoring structural changes in biological samples, such as protein folding and DNA interactions.

Metals can absorb light by creating plasmons, which are particle-like collective excitations of conduction electrons at a metallic surface. A 1D plasmon ruler exploits the fact that the plasmon resonances of two metallic nanoparticles couple with each other when they are close together. The spectrum of light associated with the plasmons is strongly shifted toward the blue or red depending on how close or far apart the nanoparticles are to each other.

For example, in previous studies two gold nanoparticles were connected together via a single strand of DNA. When complementary double-stranded DNA was then added, researchers observed a significant blueshift in the light spectrum of the plasmon resonances. Since double-stranded DNA is much stronger than single stranded, the nanoparticles are pushed apart - that is, the distance between them becomes larger. By continuously monitoring the spectrum of the gold particles, the dynamics of the DNA 'hybridization' could be recorded.

Now, the researchers have extended this concept so that it works in 3D. They employed a stack of five gold nanorods arranged in a 'H' shape with the central rod acting as the horizontal bar of the H. The other two pairs of rods were chosen so that they acted as quadrupolar 'antennas' for visible lightwaves. When biological molecules are attached to the structure, the central rod or quadrupole antennas move relative to each other, which results in a shift of the plasmon resonances of the system that can be measured, just like the 1D ruler.

Full story: PhysicsWorld / Science Back to top

Laser is produced by a living cell
June 13, 2011

A single living cell has been coaxed into producing laser light by researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US. The technique starts by engineering a cell that can produce a light-emitting protein that was first obtained from glowing jellyfish. Flooding the resulting cells with weak blue light causes them to emit directed, green laser light. The work may have applications in improved microscope imaging and light-based therapies.

Laser light differs from normal light in that it is of a narrow band of colours, with the light waves all oscillating together in synchrony. Most modern forms use carefully engineered solid materials to produce lasers in everything from supermarket scanners to DVD players to industrial robots. The new work marks the first time the phenomenon has been seen in a living system.

The team used green fluorescent protein (GFP) as the laser's 'gain medium', where light amplification takes place. GFP is a well-studied molecule, first isolated from jellyfish, that has revolutionised biology by acting as a custom-made 'torch' that can light up living systems on command. In the new work, cells derived from human kidney cells were genetically engineered to produce GFP.

The cells were then placed one at a time between two tiny mirrors, just 20 millionths of a metre across, which acted as the 'laser cavity' in which light could bounce many times through the cell. Upon bathing the cell with blue light, it could be seen to emit directed and intense green laser light. The cells remained alive throughout and after the process. The authors note that the living system is a 'self-healing' laser; if the light-emitting proteins are destroyed in the process, the cell will simply produce more.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Photonics Back to top

Cell energy discovery points to help for diabetes
June 16, 2011

New treatments for diabetes could be on the way, following a discovery about the mechanism of energy production in cells. A key enzyme in the process is stimulated by two molecules, not one, as previously thought. The finding unveils new targets for the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

Often considered the cell's energy regulator, the enzyme known as AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) helps 'recharge' a cell by stimulating the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which then fuels the cell's activities. When ATP breaks down it becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP) or adenosine monophosphate (AMP). Once ATP is depleted, AMP stimulates the phosphorylation of AMPK - the addition of a phosphate group to the enzyme. This triggers the production of more ATP.

For decades it was thought that only AMP had the power to activate AMPK, as the enzyme's full name suggests. AMP causes AMPK to change shape, exposing its 'active site' and so making it more likely to be phosphorylated, or attaches itself to AMPK, making it more likely to be phosphorylated by other enzymes.

Now, researchers at St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, have found that ADP can also activate AMPK. By mixing ADP with the AMPK expressed in monkey kidney cells, the team found that ADP could coax phosphates to bind to AMPK, at a similar rate to AMP. The new finding provides a fresh target for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, which is characterised by insulin resistance or deficiency. When AMPK is activated in muscle cells, they become more sensitive to insulin. Creating drugs that amplify ADP's actions on AMPK could improve sensitivity to insulin and treat diabetes.

Full story: New Scientist / Science Back to top

Study shows how scientists can get farmers to innovate
June 15, 2011

Researchers must pay attention to farmers' social and economic networks to help ensure the adoption of new technologies, a study has found. US scientists conducted interviews with agricultural experts, credit unions and farmers in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico - home of the 'green revolution' in wheat.

They found that, while farmers have successfully adopted many new technologies such as new wheat varieties released by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, not all research has been as successful in making its way from the lab to the field.

For example, a CIMMYT initiative to promote alternative fertiliser management strategies - with successful on-farm trials that had shown the approaches could save farmers a lot of money - was not taken up by farmers. This was partly because of the influence of credit unions - which provide crop loans and insurance. The unions' role as retailers of fertiliser, seeds and other agricultural inputs may mean that they are more likely to advise farmers to stick to tried and tested techniques, instead of trying innovations, said the researchers.

Their influence is strong because state-funded agricultural extension systems were scaled back, which led to the unions also providing technical advice, the researchers said. This means farmers are more likely to listen to these unions than researchers. Researchers have to recognise and engage with local knowledge systems and actors, such as credit unions, if they are to roll out their innovations, said the authors.

Full story: SciDev / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Back to top

Future of virtual reality: What pregnancy feels like
June 15, 2011

Ever wondered what it feels like to be pregnant? Now even men can find out thanks to a new dress created by Takuya Iwamoto from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and his team that simulates the weight, temperature, movement and heartbeat of a foetus.

The device can replicate the 9-month long process in two minutes or it can be worn for a longer period to experience what it feels like day-to-day. To mimic the foetus, it contains a 4-litre bag filled with warm water. Kicking movement is recreated with a lining of 45 balloons that expand and contract. But wiggling is more complex to reproduce and requires a grid of air actuators that exploit a tactile illusion. When two vibrating sources placed a distance apart move at the same time, it triggers a sensation in between the two points. So by varying vibrating pairs over time, the simulated foetus seems to squirm.

The system also contains an accelerometer and touch sensors to allow for interaction. When the suit is connected to a computer, software displays a 3D model of the foetus that changes to mimic different stages of pregnancy. The foetus on the screen appears to be in a good mood when a wearer strokes their abdomen and makes steady movements. But if the person moves around vigorously, it will trigger more intense motion.

The team hopes the system will help men better to understand what a woman goes through during pregnancy. It offers a more realistic simulation than existing systems by reproducing the temperature and movement of the foetus.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top