Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 16, 2015

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Issue 16, 2015

This week's headlines:

'Home-brewed morphine' made possible
May 19, 2015

Scientists have figured out how to brew morphine using the same kit used to make beer at home. They have genetically modified yeast to perform the complicated chemistry needed to convert sugar to morphine.

If you brew beer at home, then you are relying on microscopic yeast that turns sugars into alcohol. But by borrowing DNA from plants, scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, have been genetically engineering yeasts that can perform each of the steps needed to convert sugar into morphine. One stage of the process - the production of an intermediary chemical called reticuline - had been a stumbling block. That has been solved by the team and it should now be possible to put all the steps together and 'brew' morphine.

Morphine plays a vital role in pain relief in many hospitals, but it requires a poppy harvest to manufacture. Brewed morphine could, eventually, be easier to produce. It could also allow scientists to tweak each of the steps to develop new types of painkiller. But there are concerns these latest advances could allow a DIY drug lord to brew illegal narcotics in their home. Experts have therefore called for tight control of organisms genetically modified to produce narcotics.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Chemical Biology Back to top

Organic farming 'benefits biodiversity'
May 20, 2015

Organic farms act as a refuge for wild plants, offsetting the loss of biodiversity on conventional farms, a study suggests. Fields around organic farms have more types of wild plants, providing benefits for wildlife, say scientists. The research is likely to fuel the debate over the environmental benefits of organic farming.

Studies suggest that organic farming produces lower yields than conventional methods but harbours more wildlife. The new study, by researchers at the University of Swansea and institutes in France, looked at fields sowed with winter wheat in the region of Poitou- Charente. They found that organic farming led to higher weed diversity on surrounding conventionally farmed fields. Even a mixture of organic and non-organic farming in an area can help maintain this biodiversity

Farmland provides essential habitat for many animals but intensification of agriculture has led to a loss of biodiversity. However, in order to provide the extra food needed by the bigger human population of the future, without destroying forests and wetlands, farming needs to be made more intensive.

The researchers say land-sharing between organic farms and non-organic farms could have benefits for both crop production and biodiversity. This theory needs to be tested in follow-up studies, they say.

Full story: BBC News / Biological Sciences Back to top

Spanish researchers develop bladeless wind turbines
May 18, 2015

A Spanish company called Vortex Bladeless has come up with bladeless wind turbine technology that seeks to provide more energy for less, and address the criticisms aimed at traditional wind farms - particularly where wildlife is concerned.

With blades that spin at speeds of more than 320 km/h, wind turbines often mean bad news for the birds that live around them. Moreover, keeping all those heavy blades spinning that fast is not cheap, energy-wise. According to Vortex Bladeless, just by ditching the blades - and all moving parts - they will save around 40% of the energy cost of regular wind turbines, largely by cutting down on maintenance costs.

The bladeless turbines are estimated to harvest approximately 30% less energy, but because they are basically just sticks now, you can cram a whole lot more of them into the space of a regular wind turbine. As the turbine are completely silent, it can't cause wind turbine syndrome, where the sub-sonic noise generated by traditional wind turbines is blamed for headaches, dizziness, sleepiness and depression.

Just like traditional wind turbines, the bladeless variety still needs to capture kinetic energy and convert it to electricity, but instead of using a blade, it uses a phenomenon known as vorticity, which produces a series of spinning vortices in the surrounding air. The team designed their 2.7-metre-high 'cones' specifically so that these vortices would accumulate simultaneously all the way up their length.

At the base of the cone are two rings of repelling magnets, which act as a sort of nonelectrical motor. When the cone oscillates one way, the repelling magnets pull it in the other direction, like a slight nudge to boost the mast’s movement regardless of wind speed. The kinetic energy that's generated from all this movement is then converted into useable electricity using an electrical generator called an alternator.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Japanese scientists invent a trillion-frame-per-second camera
May 13, 2015

Radiologists from the University of Tokyo have created a new super-fast camera that can capture events occurring at one-sixth the speed of light, or roughly 45,000 kilometres per second. Allowing scientists to record more frames per second back-to-back than any other technology, the device will be used to capture the body's physical and biological processes in far more detail than ever before.

Called STAMP, the camera can record events at a speed of more than 1-trillion-frames-per-second, which is more than 1,000 times faster than a conventional high-speed camera.

The technology works by splitting a single light pulse into a fast barrage of rainbow-coloured smaller pulses. This process is called dispersion, and it's what we see when we observe rainbows in the sky. Each separate colour flash can then be analysed to string together a moving picture of what the object looked like over the time it took the dispersed light pulse to travel through the device.

Conventional high-speed cameras are limited by the processing speed of their mechanical and electrical components. STAMP overcomes these limitations by using only fast, optical components, according to the researchers.

Full story: Science Alert Back to top

Researchers develop compound lenses that work like insect eyes
May 18, 2015

The compound eyes found in insects and some sea creatures are marvels of evolution. There, thousands of lenses work together to provide sophisticated information without the need for a sophisticated brain. Human artifice can only begin to approximate these naturally self-assembled structures, and, even then, they require painstaking manufacturing techniques.

Now, engineers and physicists at the University of Pennsylvania have shown how liquid crystals can be employed to create compound lenses similar to those found in nature. Taking advantage of the geometry in which these liquid crystals like to arrange themselves, the researchers are able to grow compound lenses with controllable sizes.

These lenses produce sets of images with different focal lengths, a property that could be used for three-dimensional imaging. They are also sensitive to the polarisation of light, one of the qualities that are thought to help bees navigate their environments.

Previous work by the group had shown how smectic liquid crystal, a transparent, soap-like class of the material, naturally self-assembled into flower-like structures when placed around a central silica bead. Each 'petal' of these flowers is a 'focal conic domain', a structure that other researchers had shown could be used as a simple lens.

Full story: Science Daily / Advanced Optical Materials Back to top

Alzheimer’s origins tied to rise of human intelligence
May 21, 2015

Alzheimer’s disease may have evolved alongside human intelligence, researchers from the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences report.

The study finds evidence that 50,000 to 200,000 years ago, natural selection drove changes in six genes involved in brain development. This may have helped to increase the connectivity of neurons, making modern humans smarter as they evolved from their hominin ancestors. But that new intellectual capacity was not without cost: the same genes are implicated in Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers speculate that the memory disorder developed as ageing brains struggled with new metabolic demands imposed by increasing intelligence. Humans are the only species known to develop Alzheimer's, which is absent in closely related primate species such as chimpanzees.

The team searched modern human DNA for evidence of this ancient evolution. They examined the genomes of 90 people with African, Asian or European ancestry, looking for patterns of variation driven by changes in population size and natural selection. The analysis was tricky, because the two effects can mimic each other. To control for the effects of population changes - thereby isolating the signatures of natural selection - the researchers estimated how population sizes changed over time. Then they identified genome segments that did not match up with the population history, revealing the DNA stretches that were most likely shaped by selection.

In this way, the team looked back at selection events that occurred up to 500,000 years ago, revealing the evolutionary forces that shaped the dawn of modern humans, thought to be around 200,000 years ago.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Human ancestors made stone tools earlier than previously known
May 21, 2015

Our ancient ancestors made stone tools, a milestone achievement along the path of human progress, much earlier than previously thought and far before the appearance of the first known member of our genus Homo.

Scientists have announced the discovery of 3.3-million-year-old stone tools in desert badlands near Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya, including sharp-edged flakes that could have been used for cutting meat from animal carcasses and rudimentary hammers perhaps used to pound open nuts or tubers.

They are 700,000 years older than any other such stone tools ever found and predate by 500,000 years the earliest-known fossils of the genus Homo, meaning they likely were fashioned by a more primitive species on the human family tree.

Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared roughly 200,000 years ago. The earliest-known members of the genus Homo date to 2.8 million years ago. A variety of more ape-like human ancestors preceded them. It had long been presumed that stone tool-making was a hallmark of our genus. This discovery suggests it was the more ancient human ancestors who made the cognitive leap needed for crafting such implements.

It remains unclear who made the tools. The researchers list three possibilities: Kenyanthropus platyops and Australopithecus afarensis - species that combine ape-like and human-like traits - or an as-yet undiscovered early member of Homo.

Full story: Reuters Back to top