Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 1, 2015

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Issue 1, 2015

This week's headlines:

Promising antibiotic discovered in microbial 'dark matter'
January 07, 2015

An antibiotic with the ability to vanquish drug-resistant pathogens has been discovered - through a soil bacterium found just beneath the surface of a grassy field in Maine. Although the new antibiotic has yet to be tested in people, there are signs that pathogens will be slow to evolve resistance to it.

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston report that the antibiotic, which they have named teixobactin, was active against the deadly bacterium MRSA in mice, and a host of other pathogens in cell cultures. If the compound behaves similarly in people, it may prove to be a much-needed triumph in the war against antibiotic-resistance.

Many of the most successful antibiotics were found in the mid-twentieth century by scientists who trawled microbial communities for bacteria capable of killing their brethren. But the researchers missed the type that produces teixobactin, Eleftheria terrae, plus many other potential candidates - known collectively as microbial 'dark matter' - because of their reluctance to adapt to life on a petri dish.

The team discovered E. terrae's potential with a device they call the iChip. It works by sorting individual bacterial cells harvested from soil into single chambers. The device is then buried back in the ground. Several molecules in that environment are able to diffuse into the iChip, allowing the bacteria to thrive in a more natural setting than a petri dish. Typically, only about 1% of microbes in a soil sample are able to grow in the lab. The iChip expands that fraction to 50%.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Why is Bill Gates drinking human faeces?
January 07, 2015

Bill Gates made his fortune as the co-founder of Microsoft but has stepped back from the business in recent years to focus on his charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates is currently worth more than USD 80bn and has pledged to give away 95% of that when he dies.

One of the projects he has backed is the 'Omniprocessor' designed by Seattle-based firm Janicki Bioenergy. The device takes raw human waste and turns it into clean ash, electricity and drinking water. Gates is so taken with the idea that he recently released video of himself drinking water that just five minutes earlier had been human sewage.

The machine takes sewer sludge and heats it, causing water vapour to evaporate from it and producing dry solids. The water is collected and cleaned, and the solids are burned to generate energy which in turn runs the machine. Excess energy can even be sent to local households. Peter Janicki, chief executive of Janicki Bioenergy, said that the end product was the 'cleanest, purest water you can possibly imagine'.

Gates drank water from a prototype machine in Washington, but a pilot project will be run later this year in Dakar, Senegal.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top

Using light to produce natural sleep patterns
December 29, 2014

Getting enough of the right kind of sleep is crucial for keeping both body and mind healthy. Now a team of researchers at MIT has moved a step closer to being able to produce natural sleep patterns. The researchers say they are able to trigger a period of rapid eye movement (REM), otherwise known as dream sleep, in mice, using a technique that shines light directly on mouse neurons.

Studies in rodents have shown that learning occurs during REM sleep, while slow wave sleep, also known as non-REM stage three, is most important for feeling rested and refreshed. However, these health benefits result only from natural sleep - or alternating 90-minute periods of non-REM and REM sleep - and there are no existing drugs capable of inducing this state.

Previous studies have indicated that neurons called cholinergic cells are active during both wakefulness and REM sleep. To investigate whether cholinergic neurons could induce REM sleep, the team used a technique called optogenetics, in which a head-mounted fibre optic device is used to shine light onto a specific group of neurons.

The neurons are first sensitized to light using a protein found in algae, which responds to certain wavelengths of light. The team applied the technique to a mouse known to express this algae protein in cholinergic neurons. They found that activation of cholinergic neurons during non-REM sleep increased the number of REM sleep episodes the mice experienced. When they analysed the episodes, they discovered that they closely matched natural periods of REM sleep. The technique is a step toward understanding how to design natural sleep in humans.

Full story: MIT / PNAS Back to top

Greener nylon production could cut costs and pollution
January 07, 2015

A greener and more-efficient way of making nylon set out in a recent paper could cut production costs, benefiting the developing nations that make and use the material.

Nylon is widely manufactured around the world, but current industrial production methods are responsible for 5% to 8% of global anthropogenic emissions of nitrous oxide, which depletes the atmosphere's ozone layer and has a greenhouse effect.

The new technique, developed by scientists from National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, promises to reduce harmful chemical emissions by using bubbles of ozone gas and ultraviolet light to produce adipic acid, a precursor to nylon.

According to the researchers, the low energy demand means the new process is also far more economical than traditional methods as it requires less energy - the process can be carried out at room temperature compared to the much higher temperatures needed for the traditional process - and a lower volume of chemicals to produce the same amount of nylon.

As adipic acid is a key component for making plastics and polyurethane as well as nylon, developing nations could benefit from a more cost-effective approach that minimises pollution.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

Wi-Fi could let robots roam around the ISS
December 31, 2014

Robots could soon move freely around the International Space Station, thanks to a new guidance system powered by the orbiting outpost's own Wi-Fi network.

Astronauts have shared the ISS with three small robots called SPHERES since 2006. They are there to test whether menial tasks on the station can be automated, freeing up humans to do more interesting things. At the moment, the bots are confined to a 2-metre-wide cube marked out by five ultrasound beacons, which transmit a locating signal that works like GPS does on Earth.

It would be much more useful if the SPHERES could travel round the whole station, so researchers at the NASA Ames Research Center in California are trying to guide them using the ISS's existing Wi-Fi.

An astronaut floated around the US section of the station with a smartphone, measuring the varying signal intensity from two Wi-Fi routers at different points. The team turned this data into a map capable of locating a SPHERE robot to within 1.59 metres, accurate enough to identify which ISS module it is in. The next stage is to test the map with a real robot on the station.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Map a room by shining a laser through the keyhole
January 05, 2015

Peeking through a keyhole has become even more useful. An imaging technique that measures the path of a laser to build up a three-dimensional picture could now let spies map an entire room through a tiny hole.

In 2012, researchers used a laser to see around corners. The system worked by firing short laser pulses at a nearby wall, bouncing light around a corner to a hidden object, which then bounces some of it back to a camera next to the laser. The camera only measures light arriving during a very short window of time, and changing the gap between the laser pulse and this interval allows you to measure light that has travelled different distances, building up a 3D image of the hidden object.

Now researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China have taken this a step further. They used a laser set-up to measure the 3D shape and position of three cardboard letters, spelling HIT, through a 2 centimetre hole in a nearby wall. This time, the light returning from the object passed through the hole and on to another wall, which in turn scattered light into the camera. Pointing the camera at different parts of this wall let them scan the otherwise hidden room.

The letters were coated in highly reflective material while the rest of the room was covered in black light-absorbing cloth, so the technique might not work as well in a real-world setting, but the cheap and portable equipment it requires should make it appealing, according to the team.

Full story: New Scientists / Optics Letters Back to top

Game theorists crack poker
January 08, 2015

Almost always raise your opponent's first bet, which can provoke an immediate fold. In later rounds, if your opponent raises, re-raise if you're holding at least a pair of threes. Err on the side of playing a hand, not folding.

These and thousands of other decisions in the popular two-person version of the poker game ''limit Texas hold 'em'' produce a strategy so close to optimal that it cannot be beaten in the long run, according to a study published on Thursday in the journal Science.

A computer program running this strategy is the first to 'solve' any form of poker: it plays as close to perfectly as is mathematically possible, coming out no worse than even (over many hands) no matter what an opponent holds or does, said computer scientist Michael Bowling of the University of Alberta, who led the research.

Far from being a frivolous exercise, the poker-playing program 'Cepheus' could be applied to cybersecurity, medicine, and even business negotiations, said Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Sam Ganzfried, co-author of the program that won the 2014 computer poker competition.

Full story: Reuters Back to top