Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 27, 2014

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Issue 27, 2014

This week's headlines:

Message sent from brain to brain between India and France
September 05, 2014

For the first time, scientists have been able to send a simple mental message from one person to another without any contact between the two, thousands of kilometres apart in India and France.

Research led by experts at Harvard University shows technology can be used to transmit information from one person's brain to another's even if they are thousands of kilometres away.

For the experiment, one person wearing a wireless, internet-linked electroencephalogram or EEG would think a simple greeting, such as 'hola' or 'ciao'. A computer translated the words into digital binary code, presented by a series of 1s or 0s.

Then this message was emailed from India to France, and delivered via robot to the receiver, who through non-invasive brain stimulation could see flashes of light in their peripheral vision. The subjects receiving the message did not hear or see the words themselves, but were correctly able to report the flashes of light that corresponded to the message.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald / AFP Back to top

Scientists use E.coli bacteria to create fossil fuel alternative
September 02, 2014

British and Finnish scientists have found a way of generating renewable propane using a bacterium widely found in the human intestine and say the finding is a step to commercial production of a fuel that could one day be an alternative to fossil fuel reserves.

Propane is an inherently clean burning fuel due to its lower carbon content. Its development would also be convenient because it has an existing global market. In its current form it makes up the bulk of liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is used to fuel everything from cars to central heating systems to camping stoves. It is already produced as a by-product during natural gas processing and petrol refining, but both of these are fossil fuels that will one day run out.

At the moment algae can be used to make biodiesel, but that process is not commercially viable because the harvesting and processing requires significant energy and money. But now, the researchers from Imperial College London and Finland's University of Turku - used Escherichia coli, or E.coli, to interrupt a biological process that turns fatty acids into cell membranes.

The researchers used enzymes to channel the fatty acids along a different biological pathway, so that the bacteria made engine-ready renewable propane instead of cell membranes. The level of propane the team produced is currently a thousand times less than what would be needed to turn it into a commercial product, but they are working on refining their process.

Full story: Reuters / Nature Communications Back to top

Economic success 'drives language extinction'
September 02, 2014

Economic development is driving the extinction of some languages, scientists believe. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that minority languages in the most developed parts of the world, including North America, Europe and Australia, are most at threat.

The researchers found that the more successful a country was economically, the more rapidly its languages were being lost. In North America, languages such as Upper Tanana, were now spoken by fewer than 25 people in Alaska, and were at risk of vanishing forever. In Europe, languages such as Ume Sami in Scandinavia or Auvergnat in France are fading fast.

As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation's political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold - economically and politically, according to the researchers. The scientists call for conservation efforts to focus on these regions.

They say that work undertaken to protect languages such as Welsh in the UK was a good example a successful strategy.

Full story: BBC News / Proceedings of the Royal Society B Back to top

Tiny buckybombs could make bacteria explode
September 03, 2014

Trying to fight off a virus army? Nanoscale explosives made from spherical carbon molecules could be the answer.

Buckyballs, made from 60 carbon atoms arranged like a football, are usually stable. But Vitaly Chaban of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and his colleagues suspected that adding common explosive ingredients like nitrates could turn them into tiny buckybombs.

So they simulated a buckyball with 12 nitrate molecules added to the surface. These steal electrons from the carbon atoms, which provides the extra energy needed for ignition. When the buckybomb explodes, it should reach nearly 4000 °C in a billionth of a second.

Carbon nanotubes zapped with lasers are already known to blow up cancer cells, so real buckybombs could do the same, as well as fight viruses and bacteria.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Wrecked knees? Nose cartilage can fix them
September 03, 2014

If you need a new knee, look no further than the end of your nose. It turns out that nasal cartilage is a good substitute for the knee's natural shock-absorbing tissue - so much so that nine people have undergone the first nose-to-knee cartilage transplant.

Unlike many tissues in the body, cartilage, which covers and cushions the surface of joints, has little capacity to regenerate once damaged. Sports injuries or falls can lead to loss of cartilage, but it also degenerates in diseases like osteoarthritis. Treatment options are limited and people often need to have the entire joint replaced with an artificial one.

Now, researchers at University Hospital Basel in Switzerland, have come up with an alternative source of the fibrous tissue – with a little help from the nose. Cartilage cells from the nasal septum are known to have a great capacity to grow and form new cartilage. The team started by taking nasal septum cells from goats with cartilage damage to their knees. The team added growth factors to increase the number of cells and coax them into becoming a new piece of cartilage. They then grafted this tissue onto the goats' knees.

The cartilage not only settled comfortably into its new home, but also restored the knee joints to good health. It even started to look like knee tissue genetically. After bedding down, the cartilage cells began expressing the genes that you would expect to see in native knee cartilage. The success of the experiment led the team to start a preliminary trial in people. Nine people with acute cartilage damage in their knee had a transplant. So far, all nine have shown improvements in the use of their knee and in amount of pain, according to the researchers.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

'Smart' chopsticks unveiled in China
September 04, 2014

Electronic chopsticks that can detect whether food is unsafe to eat have been unveiled by Chinese tech company Baidu. The search giant said the utensils could detect unsanitary cooking oil - a common concern in the country.

At its annual conference in Beijing, Baidu also unveiled its own wearable headset, a rival to Google's Glass. The Baidu Eye has an in-built camera but no screen, and conveys information to the user via an earpiece or by connecting to a smartphone.

Both new products are as yet unavailable to consumers, and the company did not specify a date on which they would go on sale.

In a video promoting the new chopsticks, Baidu shows the device measuring the precise heat of various foods, as well as nutrients and sell-by date. The sticks, which also include a sodium analyser to help users regulate their daily salt intake, can connect to any computer via wi-fi and Bluetooth.

Full story: BBC News Back to top