Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 31, 2011

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Issue 31, 2011

This week's headlines:

Synthetic yeast will evolve on command
September 14, 2011

Yeast is going digital. Biologists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, have built two artificial chromosome arms and put them to work in a living yeast. They plan to replace the entire yeast genome over the next five years and then evolve new strains to order. As well as designing and building the new genome from scratch, the team has come up with a way to systematically scramble it to produce new strains.

Yeast has 16 chromosomes, all of which have been sequenced. The team started by replacing the right arm of chromosome 9 and part of the left arm of chromosome 6. They designed the new sequences on a computer, using the known sequence as the starting point. They stripped from this virtual DNA all the meaningless 'junk' DNA, which does not code for proteins. Then they added markers called loxPsym at the ends of all non-essential genes - those that could be changed or deleted without killing the yeast.

In the real world, these markers can be attacked by an enzyme called Cre, which swaps genes between the marker sites. Finally, they created these new sequences in the lab using the chemical building blocks of DNA, and inserted them into a living yeast in place of its natural chromosome arms. The team now intends to repeat this re-engineering process with the other chromosomes in yeast. Once the entire genome is laced with loxPsym sites, the team plan to use Cre to make wholesale changes. Because the method targets only non-essential genes, and does not interfere with their internal structure, it should mostly produce healthy yeast.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

Europeans reignite fusion energy project
September 15, 2011

A team of researchers has restarted the world's largest fusion experiment- the Joint European Torus (JET) reactor, near Oxford, UK. The move is a step forward in the quest for practical nuclear fusion.

The project was put on hold while a new lining was installed. This lining mimics the planned configuration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a full-scale experimental fusion reactor now under construction in southern France. The lining, made of tiles of the light metal beryllium, should be better able to withstand the extreme conditions needed for a self-sustaining fusion reaction than the carbon-fibre composite tiles used before. The lining will also allow for laser-driven fusion experiments.

JET is a tokamak-a device for carrying out magnetic confinement fusion. Its doughnut-shaped reactor contains plasma made from hydrogen that is squeezed by powerful magnetic fields. Eventually, magnetic pressure and heat force the hydrogen nuclei to fuse into helium, releasing a burst of energy and freeing high-energy neutrons.

JET is the only tokamak in the world equipped to use tritium, the radioactive form of hydrogen containing two neutrons in its nucleus, as well as the single-neutron form, deuterium. Forcing these two forms of hydrogen to fuse produces large yields of energy. The ITER tokamak will also use this form of fusion once it's complete.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Feeling pain? The computer can tell
September 13, 2011

Can a computer tell when it hurts? It can if you train it, according to scientists from Stanford University in California. They used computer learning software to sort through data generated by brain scans and detect when people were in pain.

Currently, doctors rely on patients to tell them whether or not they are in pain. And that is still the gold standard for assessing pain. But some patients - the very young, the very old, dementia patients or those who are not conscious - cannot say if they are hurting, and that has led to a long search for some way to objectively measure pain.

For the study, the team used a linear support vector machine - a computer algorithm invented in 1995 - to classify patterns of brain activity and determine whether or not someone is experiencing pain. To train the computer, eight volunteers underwent brain scans while they were touched first by an object that was hot, and then by one that was so hot it was painful.

The computer used data from these scans to recognize different brain activity patterns that occur when a person is detecting heat, and which ones detect pain. In tests the computer was more than 80% accurate in detecting which brain scans were of people in pain, and it was just as accurate at ruling out those who were not in pain.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Fingertip microscope can peek inside a moving animal
September 13, 2011

An inexpensive microscope about the size of a gumdrop could allow scientists to peer into the inner workings of living, moving animals much more easily. The device is small and light enough-it weighs less than two grams-to be mounted atop a rodent's head, where it can capture the activity of up to 200 individual brain cells as the animal explores its environment.

That is more cells than can be monitored using an expensive two-photon microscope, which doesn't allow the animal to move, according to scientists at Stanford University who developed the device. The microscope is designed to detect fluorescent light, which is often used in biological research to mark different cells.

The research is part of a growing trend in microscopy to make smaller and smaller devices, which are useful for everything from new areas of research to detecting tuberculosis in developing countries. These diminutive new devices are made possible in large part by the rapidly falling cost and size of electronics components-a trend that has in turn been driven by the demand for consumer devices.

At the heart of the microscope is a complementary CMOS sensor, like the kind found in cell-phone cameras. All of the components used are either mass-produced or capable of being mass-produced, making it easy to scale up production. The researchers say the device will have uses beyond brain imaging. A number of the microscopes can be put together and used to quickly count cells or screen lab animals, such as zebrafish, that are used in drug development.

Full story: Technology Review / Nature Methods Back to top

Artificial blood vessels made through 3D printing
September 14, 2011

Scientists from the Fraunhofer institute in Germany say they are building a 3D printer that can print out artificial blood vessels. Through their BioRap project they expect to be able to supply artificial tissue and possibly even complex organs.

Up to now, researchers have been unable to supply artificial tissue with nutrients because they don't have the necessary vascular system. And it seemed impossible to build structures such as capillary vessels because of their complexity and small size. Now, though, the researchers say they've been able to combine the 3-D printing technology established in rapid prototyping with multiphoton polymerization.

A 3-D inkjet printer can generate three-dimensional solids from a wide variety of materials very quickly - but is still too imprecise for the fine structures of capillary vessels. But combining this technology with two-photon polymerisation allows highly precise, elastic structures to be built according to a three-dimensional building plan.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top

'Microwave waste' to get biofuel
September 15, 2011

Microwaving waste food products could be used to produce important chemicals and biofuels, new technology has shown. The methods would potentially allow food waste to be processed at home and on an industrial scale. The technology could provide a renewable source of carbon, as well as addressing the growing problem of global waste.

Using highly focused microwaves, the scientists believe they can input any organic waste, and extract useful chemical compounds that can be harnessed in materials and biofuel applications. An international group of scientists have been working together to develop this technology, and they plan to build a demonstration facility in York later this year where they expect to be processing 10kg of waste per hour.

Although the technology is still in testing, the team are optimistic about its potential to be used on all kinds of waste and on a range of scales. The microwave technology would be able to process anything with cellulose in it, and works particularly well with paper and card. They say it should be possible to put a range of waste types together into the machine and still extract useful substances.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Electrified roads could power cars from the ground up
September 13, 2011

The cars of the future could be powered by electrified roadways. Such technology would allow electric cars to forgo their heavy batteries, which not only add to a vehicle's weight, increasing the energy needed to move it, but also force it to sit idle while recharging.

Researchers at Toyota Central R&D Labs in Nagakute and Toyohashi University of Technology, both in Aichi, Japan, are developing a system that transmits electric power through steel belts placed inside two tyres and a metal plate in the road.

To test how much energy would be lost as electricity travelled through the tyres' rubber, the team set up a lab experiment in which they put metal plates on the floor and inside a tyre and found that Less than 20% of the transmitted power is dissipated in the circuit. With enough power the system could run typical passenger cars, the researchers think and they are now developing a small-scale prototype to prove it.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top