Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 5, 2015

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 5, 2015

This week's headlines:

Britain votes to allow world's first 'three-parent' IVF babies
February 03, 2015

Britain voted on Tuesday to become the first country to allow a 'three-parent' IVF technique. The treatment is known as 'three-parent' in vitro fertilisation (IVF) because the babies, born from genetically modified embryos, would have DNA from a mother, a father and from a female donor.

It is designed to help families with mitochondrial diseases, incurable conditions passed down the maternal line that affect around one in 6,500 children worldwide.

After an emotionally charged 90-minute debate parliament voted 382 to 128 in favour of the technique, called mitochondrial donation.

The process involves intervening in the fertilisation process to remove mitochondria, which act as tiny energy-generating batteries inside cells, and which, if faulty, can cause inherited conditions such as fatal heart problems, liver failure, brain disorders, blindness and muscular dystrophy.

Mitochondrial DNA is separate from DNA found in the cell nucleus and does not affect human characteristics such as hair or eye colour, appearance or personality traits.

Critics say the technique will lead to the creation of genetically modified 'designer babies'.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

New source of cells for modelling malaria
February 05, 2015

In 2008, the World Health Organization announced a global effort to eradicate malaria, which kills about 800,000 people every year. As part of that goal, scientists are trying to develop new drugs that target the malaria parasite during the stage when it infects the human liver, which is crucial because some strains of malaria can lie dormant in the liver for several years before flaring up.

A new advance by MIT engineers could aid in those efforts: The researchers have discovered a way to grow liver-like cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells can be infected with several strains of the malaria parasite and respond to existing drugs the same way that mature liver cells taken from human donors do.

Such cells offer a plentiful source for testing potential malaria drugs because they can be made from skin cells. These cells could also allow scientists to test drugs on cells from people with different genetic backgrounds, who may respond differently to malaria infection and treatment.

Full story: MIT / Stem Cell Reports Back to top

Protein tweak boosts plants' drought tolerance
February 04, 2015

An innovative 'on-off' switch added to a plant protein may one day allow farmers to prep crops for drought by spraying them with a commonly used agricultural compound. The technique, developed by researchers from the University of California, Riverside, works by closing tiny pores - called stomata - in leaves that let in carbon dioxide, a key ingredient in photosynthesis, but lose water in the process.

Breeding programmes have historically focused on achieving high yields rather than managing plants' water use, but the looming threats of water shortages and climate change are pushing researchers to think more about crops' ability to tolerate water shortages. One way that plants respond to limited water is to boost levels of a hormone called abscisic acid (ABA). That hormone, in turn, reduces water loss by closing stomata.

In 2009 the researchers already found the proteins that sense ABA and trigger those responses. The team then began to explore how to put the discovery to practical use. They mapped where ABA binds to one such protein receptor, and created a library containing every possible mutation at that site. They then tested their mutant receptors against a host of chemicals used in agriculture.

One, a fungicide called mandipropamid, was particularly potent at binding to the ABA receptor and causing it to change shape, as ABA itself would. Expressing the engineered receptor in a model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, and in tomatoes yielded plants that, when sprayed with mandipropamid, were better able to survive water deprivation.

Full story: Nature Back to top

The computer that crunches cloud data to heat your home
February 04, 2015

Each photo we 'like', email we send and search we run creates heat. It takes the energy from 34 coal power plants to sustain all digital activities in the US every year, and keeping computing equipment cool accounts for around a third of that energy. Now a New York start-up called Project Exergy wants to flip that on its head, looking at the heat of computation not as a waste product, but as a valuable resource that can be used to heat our homes.

Data centres around the world have already started to pipe waste computing heat into offices and apartment blocks where possible, but this only works when there is a large, single building to heat. To bring heat from computing into our homes we need to move the heat source - the servers - into our home too. That's where Project Exergy comes in. This heating unit contains a computer processor that works as a server crunching numbers for computers and tablets around your home. As you use the processing power, the heat is collected and used to warm the house.

The current prototype, codenamed Henry, uses processors made by the chip company AMD to run six graphics cards at a temperature of 93 °C. Oil in coils surrounding the chips absorbs waste heat, which is then transferred to water in neighbouring pipes. The water collects in a reservoir that can be hooked up to a home's hot water tank. It's possible that the system could be integrated with other sources of waste heat, like ovens and fridges.

Project Exergy is designed to put out as much heat as possible, at as high a temperature as possible. The team is working with engineers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute to build chips that run even hotter than current chips, boosting the system's heating efficiency.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Green light for mission to Jupiter moon Europa
February 03, 2015

NASA's budget request for 2016 includes USD 30 million for a dedicated mission to Jupiter's icy moon, which is considered one of the best prospects for discovering life in our solar system.

Europa has been a tempting destination for planetary scientists since the mid-1990s, when the Galileo orbiter revealed that it may harbour a deep ocean of briny liquid water beneath a thick icy shell. More recently, reports that plumes of subsurface water could be venting into space sparked calls for a mission to sample that water directly and see if anything lives in it.

Last year, NASA received USD 100 million from Congress to begin preliminary work on such a mission, but was missing the commitment to further funding for a period long enough to plan a mission. Now, with another USD 255 million budgeted over the next 5 years, NASA is giving a clearer green light.

The mission will probably involve a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter and making multiple fly-bys of Europa, rather than landing on or orbiting Europa itself. This will make the mission much cheaper and safer, as Europa sits in a harsh radiation environment that can be dangerous for spacecraft. NASA will choose instruments for the spacecraft in spring this year, and aims for a launch date in the mid-2020s.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists discover solar powered sea slug
February 05, 2015

Scientists from the University South Florida and University of Maryland have found a bright green sea slug that steals genes from the algae it eats in order to produce energy from sunlight in a method which mirrors the process of photosynthesis in plants.

They allow the Elysia chlorotica to rely on sunshine for its nutrition. The process makes the slug solar powered in a way, at least until it can find more food to eat, turning carbon dioxide and water into the nutrients required for survival.

Understanding the mechanism of this naturally occurring gene transfer could be extremely useful for future medical applications, according to the researchers.

Full story: The pioneer / The Biological Bulletin Back to top