Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 21, 2014

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Issue 21, 2014

This week's headlines:

Century-old drug reverses signs of autism in mice
June 17, 2014

A single dose of a century-old drug has eliminated autism symptoms in adult mice with an experimental form of the disorder. Originally developed to treat African sleeping sickness, the compound, called suramin, quells a heightened stress response in neurons that researchers believe may underlie some traits of autism. The finding raises the hope that some hallmarks of the disorder may not be permanent, but could be correctable even in adulthood.

Autism is generally thought to result from scrambled signals at synapses, the points of contact between nerve cells. But given the specific effects of something as general as a fever, researchers at the University of California wondered if the problem lay higher up in the cell's metabolism. To test the idea, they focused on a process called the cell danger response, by which the cell protects itself from threats like infection, temperature changes, and toxins.

If the cells in question are neurons disrupted communication could result - perhaps underlying the social difficulties; heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, and sensations; and intolerance for anything new that often afflict patients with autism. The key player may be ATP, the chief carrier of energy within a cell, which can also relay messages to other nearby cells. When too much ATP is released for too long, it can induce a cell danger response in neighbouring neurons.

Last year the researchers homed in on the drug suramin as a way to call off the response. In the new study the researchers found compelling results after a single injection of suramin given to 6-month-old mice with the same autism-like condition. Previously reclusive animals approached unknown mice and investigated unfamiliar parts of a maze, suggesting that the animals had overcome the aversion to novelty that's a hallmark of autism in children.

Full story: Science / Translational Psychiatry Back to top

'Plastic-eating' microbes help marine debris sink
June 19, 2014

Microscopic creatures could be helping reduce marine garbage on the ocean surface, not only by 'eating' plastics but by causing tiny pieces to sink to the seafloor, according to researchers from the University of Western Australia. The plastic-dwellers appear to be biodegrading the millions of tonnes of debris floating on waters worldwide. The study is the first to document the biological communities living on the tiny particles of debris known as microplastics, and recorded many new types of microbe and invertebrate for the first time.

Scientists have warned that microplastics - particles smaller than five millimetres - are threatening to alter the open ocean's natural environment. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2012 that around 13,000 pieces of microplastic litter were found in every square kilometre of sea, with the North Pacific most badly affected.

While there has been previous research on microbes eating plastic at landfills, the Australian research found early indications that their marine counterparts could be just as effective on ocean garbage. The research showed that diatoms - tiny algae that were the most commonly found microbe living on the microplastics - were using the little pieces as a 'boat' to move around on the surface of the ocean. As more and more diatoms - which are made of silica - gathered on a plastic piece, they appeared to make it sink to the bottom of the ocean floor.

The actions of the microbes could explain why the amount of plastic floating on the seas has not been expanding as fast as scientists expected, according to the team. But the researchers also found evidence of possible tiny bite marks on the microplastics, raising concerns that other small organisms could be consuming toxins found in the litter.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP / PLOS One Back to top

Algae could be the big future of carbon-free fuel
June 18, 2014

A US government-funded consortium hopes to jump-start commercialisation of low-carbon algae fuel by developing new strains of algae that grow faster as well as creating better technology to process algae into fuel. The US Department of Energy has granted USD 44m to the consortium, called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts, which also has received USD 16m from industry and universities groups.

Algae biofuels avoid the fuel/food conundrum as algae can be grown in saltwater or wastewater in the desert and does not displace crops. The biofuel is also a so-called drop-in fuel, meaning it can be used in vehicles and jets without modifying their engines and can be shipped through existing pipelines. The consortium's research is focused on microalgae, which range in size from 1 micron to 100 microns. This tiny green goo is a powerhouse: it grows in wastewater around the clock, year round, and doubles in size in just hours.

So far, the consortium has screened 2,200 candidates, whittling that number down to the 30 most promising strains of algae. They've developed a genetic bar code to quickly assess each the lipid content of each type of algae. Lipids are the fatty acids that in algae that produce oil. Scientists then genetically tinkered with the best strains to make them grow even faster.

There are challenges to using algae however, as harvesting and converting the oily goo to fuel is expensive. To get drive down those costs, researchers have developed a technique called hydrothermal liquefaction, which is kind of like pressure-cooking. The process both extracts the algal oil and converts it to biocrude.

Full story: Yahoo! News / Back to top

Diagnosing 'broken' buildings to make them greener
June 13, 2014

The co-founders of MIT spinout KGS Buildings have a saying: 'All buildings are broken.' Energy wasted through faulty or inefficient equipment, they say, can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in avoidable annual costs.

In order to tackle the problem, KGS has created cloud-based software, called Clockworks, that collects existing data on a building's equipment - specifically in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) equipment - to detect leaks, breaks, and general inefficiencies, as well as energy-saving opportunities.

The software then translates the data into graphs, metrics, and text that explain monetary losses, where it is available for building managers, equipment manufacturers, and others through the cloud. Building operators can use that information to fix equipment, prioritise repairs, and take efficiency measures - such as using chilly outdoor air, instead of air conditioning, to cool rooms.

The software is now operating in more than 300 buildings across nine countries, collecting more than 2 billion data points monthly. The company estimates these buildings will save an average of 7 to 9% in avoidable costs per year. Last month, MIT commissioned the software for more than 60 of its own buildings, monitoring more than 7,000 pieces of equipment over 10 million square feet. Previously, in a year-long trial for one MIT building, the software saved MIT USD 286,000.

Full story: MIT Back to top

Hackers reverse-engineer NSA's leaked bugging devices
June 18, 2014

Radio hackers have reverse-engineered some of the wireless spying gadgets used by the US National Security Agency. Using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, researchers have built simple but effective tools that can be attached to parts of a computer to gather private information in a host of intrusive ways.

The NSA's Advanced Network Technology catalogue was part of the avalanche of classified documents leaked by Snowden, a former agency contractor. The catalogue lists and pictures devices that agents can use to spy on a target's computer or phone. The technologies include fake base stations for hijacking and monitoring cellphone calls and radio-equipped USB sticks that transmit a computer's contents.

But the catalogue also lists a number of mysterious computer-implantable devices called 'retro reflectors' that boast a number of different surreptitious skills, including listening in on ambient sounds and harvesting keystrokes and on-screen images. Because no one outside the NSA and its partners knows how retro reflectors operate, security engineers cannot defend against their use. Now a group of security researchers have not only figured out how these devices work, but also recreated them.

Having figured out how the NSA bugs work, the researchers say the hackers can now turn their attention to defending against them - and they have launched a website to collate such knowledge, called

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Create the ultimate world clock with a quantum link
June 15, 2014

A network of atomic clocks could be linked together by quantum entanglement to create the ultimate world clock. Such a feat would allow all countries to agree on a precise measurement of time, while also creating a massive quantum sensor for probing cosmic mysteries.

Atomic clocks measure the microwave or optical frequency needed to make an atom's electron jump from one energy level to another. The standard clock uses caesium atoms, which emit microwaves precisely 9,192,631,770 times per second. The signal is so incredibly regular that the latest caesium clock recently brought online in the US will not lose or gain a second in about 300 million years.

Timekeeping institutes around the world each have their own caesium clocks. They submit their time signal measurements to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, which averages them and publishes a monthly newsletter that sets Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). But that means there is no real-time measure of a universally agreed standard time.

Researchers at Harvard University think that quantum entanglement could provide a solution. When quantum objects such as atoms are entangled, measuring one has a direct and predictable effect on the other. If you were to entangle atomic clocks around the world and on orbiting satellites, it would help them to tick in unison.

The team evaluated existing clocks around the world and proposed a blueprint for a hypothetical network. The team calculates that a global quantum clock network would be about 100 times more precise than any individual clock. It would also be naturally protected from hackers, as the laws of quantum mechanics would immediately alert you to any attempts at eavesdropping. But entanglement is a very delicate state, so it may be a while before such a large quantum network could come online.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Physics Back to top

Coffee powered cars on the way?
June 17, 2014

New research from the University of Bath suggests waste coffee grounds could be a sustainable fuel source for powering vehicles. The study found different varieties of coffee, including Robusta and Arabica, have reasonably standard composition and relevant physical properties of fuel. This means all coffee waste could be a 'viable' way of producing biodiesel, scientists from the University's Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies said.

Waste produced from the average coffee shop - around 10 kilograms per day - was found to produce around two litres of biofuel. Around eight million tonnes of coffee are produced globally each year and ground waste coffee contains up to 20% oil per unit weight. This oil also has similar properties to current feedstocks used to make biofuels, according to the researchers. Oil can be extracted from coffee grounds by soaking them in an organic solvent, before using a process called transesterification to transform them into biodiesel.

The University of Bath study examined how fuel properties depend on the type of coffee used. It found all waste coffee grounds has reasonably standard composition and relevant physical properties, irrespective of source. The researchers are now examining whether other types of food waste can be used to make biofuels.

Full story: Back to top

World Cup teams could suffer from too much talent
June 17, 2014

There's such a thing as too much talent, at least when it comes to sports teams. Psychologists reached that conclusion by studying World Cup soccer games, where players from top professional clubs compete on national squads alongside others from lesser leagues.

Analysing rankings from the 2010 and 2014 World Cup qualification periods, the researchers found that a team benefits from more elite footballers until they make up about three-quarters of the squad. Go past that, and the team's ranking starts to decline. 1

Two American sports suggest why. In the National Basketball Association, having more top-scoring players helps only until they make up about 60% of the team, whereas Major League Baseball teams rack up more wins as their proportion of top players goes up. The difference? Because their roles overlap more, soccer and basketball players alike can end up fighting over the ball, competing with each other for the most points. In baseball, the various positions are far more specialised.

The results might be news to French national team coach Didier Deschamps. After five losses last year, Deschamps said that the more players he could get from elite French and European professional teams, the better his team would perform in the future. Maybe he's got it backward: The more top players he has, the more they'll just hog the ball.

Full story: Science / Psychological Science Back to top