Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 15, 2014

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Issue 15, 2014

This week's headlines:

Implant injects DNA into ear, improves hearing
April 23, 2014

Many people with profound hearing loss have been helped by devices called cochlear implants. But they often have trouble distinguishing different musical pitches or hearing a conversation in a noisy room. Now, a novel way of using cochlear implants to deliver new genes into the ear dramatically improves hearing in guinea pigs.

The most common cause of deafness is loss of the hair cells within the cochlea. Hearing aids that merely amplify sounds don't help people who have lost these hair cells. So since the 1970s, more than 320,000 people around the world have received cochlear implants, which convert sounds into electrical impulses, then use electrodes to relay these signals to the auditory nerve leading to the brain. But because the auditory nerve lies buried within tissue, the implants don't work as well as they could if the electrodes were closer to the nerve.

Some researchers have spurred new neurons to grow inside the cochlea using a protein called a growth factor. They have pumped the growth factor into the inner ear, or used a virus to deliver a gene that codes for it into cells. But pumped-in growth factor doesn't work for long unless it is replenished. And viral gene therapy doesn't always put the gene in the right cells and carries risks.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, tested a different kind of gene therapy on deaf guinea pigs. They created loops of DNA encoding a gene for a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). While inserting a cochlear implant into the animals, the team injected the cochlea with a solution of BDNF DNA, then used electrical pulses from the device to create pores in the cells lining the cochlea and coax the DNA to enter the cells.

In the next few days, the cells began pumping out BDNF, which, in turn, spurred the growth of long, spiky neurons toward the electrodes. Two weeks after the treatment, the brains' sensitivity to sounds of various frequencies were closer to those for normal animals and much better than those seen in animals that had only a cochlear implant.

Full story: Science Back to top

Scientists create graphene in kitchen blender
April 23, 2014

Scientists from Trinity College, Dublin have found that they can create high-quality graphene sheets using a kitchen blender and ordinary dishwasher detergent. The findings outline a fresh way to create large amounts of this remarkable material - which could speed up the process of putting them into future computers, smart coatings and solar cells.

Graphene is a two-dimensional lattice of hexagons made up of graphite, the most stable form of carbon under standard conditions. The carbon atoms join to create these single-layer, crystalline sheets with extraordinary properties. It is strong but light, conducts both heat and electricity extremely well and is nearly transparent in its purest form.

Graphene does occur naturally; the lead in your typical graphite pencil is made up of slippery layers of flat graphene sheets. But making the ultra pure graphene necessary for future applications is very difficult, particularly if you are trying to suspend the graphene flakes in a liquid - which would be useful to develop spray-on smart coatings.

A Trinity College team came up with a way to take graphite powder, dump it in a laboratory blender with a surfactant mixture and create pure sheets of graphene at far larger quantities than previous methods. In the future, with scaled-up processes, the production rate could easily be hundreds of times higher than many current outfits.

To test exactly how robust their method was, the scientists also tried the method using a Kenwood kitchen blender and dishwashing fluid and the process largely still worked. The findings are a significant step towards being able to mass produce high-quality graphene, which could help spur the development of graphene-related technology, according to the team.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / Nature Materials Back to top

Brazil approves use of genetically modified mosquitoes
April 23, 2014

Earlier this month Brazil became the first country to approve the commercial use of genetically modified insects when it gave the green light to GM mosquitoes designed to control the spread of dengue fever.

Dengue fever affects more than 50 million people worldwide every year and can be deadly. Now biotech firm Oxitec of Oxford, UK, has genetically engineered males of the species Aedes aegypti so that their offspring die before reaching maturity. If released GM males mate with enough females, a population crash should ensue, dramatically reducing the chance they will pass the dengue virus to humans.

Field trials of GM insect control have been under way for some time, including a recent test of Oxitec's mosquitoes in the Brazilian city of Jacobina, where mosquito populations plummeted by 79% between June and December last year, the company claims. In the US, where dengue has recently begun to reappear, the insects are up for approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Thomas Scott, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, says the modified mosquitoes could help, but that the main problem with dengue control is that the traditional method of spraying insecticide often isn't done correctly. Blanketing a country the size of Brazil with GM mosquitoes would also be prohibitively expensive, he adds. But for targeted control on the scale of towns and small cities, the modified insects could prove to be a useful tool.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Mantis shrimp are stronger than airplanes
April 23, 2014

Inspired by the fist-like club of a mantis shrimp, a team of researchers led by University of California, Riverside, in collaboration with University of Southern California and Purdue University, have developed a design structure for composite materials that is more impact resistant and tougher than the standard used in airplanes.

The peacock mantis shrimp is a 10- to 15-cm-long rainbow-coloured crustacean with a fist-like club that accelerates underwater faster than a 22-caliber bullet. Researchers are interested in the club because it can strike prey thousands of times without breaking.

The force created by the impact of the mantis shrimp's club is more than 1,000 times its own weight. It's so powerful that the researchers need to keep the animal in a special aquarium so it doesn't break the glass. Also, the acceleration of the club creates cavitation, meaning it shears the water, literally boiling it, forming cavitation bubbles that implode, yielding a secondary impact on the mantis shrimp's prey.

Previous work by the researchers found the club is comprised of several regions, including an endocuticle region. This region is characterized by a spiralling arrangement of mineralised fibre layers that act as shock absorber. Each layer is rotated by a small angle from the layer below to eventually complete a 180-degree rotation.

The researchers applied that spiralled, or helicoidal, layered design when creating carbon fibre-epoxy composites. Composites with this design structure could be used for a variety of applications, including aerospace and automotive frames, body armour and football helmets.

Full story: TG Daily / Acta Biomaterialia Back to top

Mini robot doctors that could swim in your bloodstream
April 22, 2014

Tiny robots could help you heal. Acting as mini technicians, they could one day assemble medical devices inside the body.

A veritable construction crew of micro-scale robots already exists, from worm-like bots that can move heavy loads to muscle-powered machines that can walk across a lab bench. But until now, finer control over miniature objects has proved elusive.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have created a simple version of micro-robots using rods made of magnetic materials. Each robot is about 1 millimetre long and has two gripping arms. A magnetic field is used to move the robots and operate the grippers. Previous gripping bots had to be tethered to an outside controller, making them unsuitable for use inside the human body. Other versions could not move and grip things at the same time.

So far, the robots have transported small objects and built bridges out of Y-shaped rods. The team hope future versions could be injected into the body along with parts for micro-machines that would swim in the blood and help wounds clot. The builder bot could then create the more advanced device while inside the bloodstream.

Full story: New Scientist / Advanced Functional Materials Back to top

Armed Russian robocops to defend missile bases
April 23, 2014

The West has always been a little squeamish about the idea of arming robots. Despite decades of development, no systems have ever been deployed and a vocal human rights campaign means it is unlikely to happen in the near future. The Russians, on the other hand, appear to be rather less concerned.

Last month, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces announced that mobile robots would be standing guard over five ballistic missile installations. These robots can detect and destroy targets, without human involvement.

The robot sentry, aka the 'mobile robotic complex', was developed by Izhevsk Radio Plant, a company based 1200 kilometres east of Moscow. It weighs around 900 kilograms and has cameras, a laser rangefinder and radar sensors. For fire power it has a 12.7-millimetre heavy machine gun, with optional smaller weapons. It is quick too, hitting speeds of 45 kilometres per hour on a petrol engine. It can operate for 10 hours, or switch to sleep mode for a week.

The makers put the sentry robot through its paces at an arms fair in Russia last year. The robots are able to engage targets in automatic as well as semi-automatic control mode.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Tiniest insects now in digital 3D colour
April 24, 2014

A new colour 3D modelling system developed in Australia is digitising even the tiniest insects to help researchers study them better. The models could also have applications in education, biosecurity control as well as arts and entertainment, according to researchers from CSIRO's Computational Informatics.

Scientists study insects in order to understand evolution and biodiversity. But specimens of actual insects are rare and often difficult to get access to. They can also be very tiny and hard to see. Now, researchers have developed a system that enables people to use a standard web browser to rotate and zoom in on 3D images of insects. Unlike existing micro CT and 3D scanning systems, the system combines the ability to see objects at the millimetre scale in true colour. It also paves the way for online labelling and annotation of biological specimens, according to the team.

First, the researchers mounted the physical specimens so they could be tilted at various angles and used a digital SLR camera to photograph the insects from 144 angles. Each angle was also photographed from 31 different distances to ensure all parts of the specimen are in focus at all levels of magnification. After the 3D reconstruction, the data is compressed by several orders of magnitude into just 10MB per insect model.

Eventually, the system could be used to provide a digital field guide for quarantine officers that need to identify pest species. The researchers have already been approached by people interested in using the models for educational purposes and for art installations. They also have used the system to make titanium models of insects from 3D casts.

Full story: ABC News / PLOS ONE Back to top

Pocket Printer secures Kickstarter cash
April 23, 2014

An Israeli start-up plans to release a printer early next year that is small enough to fit inside its owner's pocket but works with any-sized paper. Zuta Labs is proceeding with the project after raising over USD 435,000 via a crowdfunding site.

Rather than feeding paper through a machine, the project fits an ink cartridge to a small robot that crawls over a document to create it. However, its relatively slow speed may limit its appeal. The current prototype can only print about one page per minute in greyscale and offers a significantly lower resolution than traditional desktop inkjets.

But the Jerusalem-based engineers said they hoped to make improvements before the first devices shipped to backers of the Kickstarter campaign in January. The Pocket Printer features several wheels in its base to let it turn and drive in different directions. The team says the final product will be controlled by a PC or smartphone via Bluetooth, but the current prototype still needs a wired connection.

The engineers plan to cover the internal mechanism with a smooth tear-shaped plastic skin, and said the device would be 10cm tall, 11.5cm wide, and weigh 300g.

Full story: BBC News Back to top