Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 8, 2017

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Issue 8, 2017

This week's headlines:

Paper strip test determines blood type in just 30 seconds
March 15, 2017

Your blood type is essential information if you ever need a blood transfusion, because mismatched blood can send the immune system into meltdown, and sometimes lead to death. But it can take 10 or 20 minutes to verify someone's blood type by conventional methods. For this reason, most emergency departments stock only type O blood, which can safely be given to anyone because it lacks the antigens that trigger immune reactions. However, this places pressure on supplies of O blood.

Now researchers from the Third Military Medical University in China have developed a paper-based test that could be quickly performed at a patient's bedside without specialised training or equipment. It would allow hospitals to give patients matching blood - whether it be A, B, AB or O, and make it more viable to keep supplies of more blood types.

The test relies on the antigens that are present on the surface of red blood cells. Type A blood contains red blood cells with A antigens, B with B antigens, AB with both, and O with neither. The presence of a separate D antigen determines whether the blood type is rhesus positive or negative. Blood also contains antibodies, which find and destroy invaders. If they detect antigens from foreign red blood cells, they can mount a catastrophic immune response.

Zhang's paper strip is impregnated with a matrix of antibodies and dye, and when a drop of blood is applied, squares of colour develop as the blood spreads across the strip and reacts with the antibodies. For each antigen - A, B and D - a teal square shows up if it is a present, or a brown square if it is not. When trialled on 3550 human blood samples, the low-cost strip was more than 99.9 per cent accurate, and only took 30 seconds to complete.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Scientists may be a step closer to creating solar-fuelled vehicles
March 10, 2017

Scientists are developing a practical method to convert water and sunshine into fuel - a key step in someday powering cars with the sun.

Experts have long been experimenting with techniques to create solar fuels. However, this requires a 'photoanode' - a sort of catalyst that can set the ball rolling - and is has proven difficult identifying them in the past. They are so rare that in the last 40 years, scientists have only been able to find 16 of them. Often, photoanodes are identified only when a scientist stumbles across some kind of material that absorbs light, and then thinks to look into its catalytic properties.

Now, scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology think they've found a better way. In two years, the scientists have already pinpointed 12 new photoanodes.

The technique uses a combination of theory and practice - the scientists worked with a supercomputer and a database of around 60,000 materials, and used quantum mechanics to predict the properties of each material. They then selected the ones that seemed most promising as photoanodes and used experiments to determine whether their calculations were right.

This technology allows scientists a road map to find catalysts and eventually use them to create solar fuel. The final product would look something like a solar panel and involve three components: the photoanode, a photocathode, which forms the fuel, and a membrane that separates the two, according to the researchers.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top

Miniature lab begins science experiments in outer space
March 16, 2017

Orbiting the earth at more than 500 kilometres, a tiny satellite with a laboratory shrunk to the size of a tissue box is helping scientists carry out experiments that take gravity out of the equation. The technology was launched into space last month by SpacePharma, a Swiss-Israeli company, which announced that its first experiments have been completed successfully.

In space, with hardly any interference from earth's gravity, cells and molecules behave differently, helping researchers make discoveries in fields from medicine to agriculture. Usually experiments are sent up to the International Space Station and carried out with the help of astronauts, or they are conducted on parabolic airplane flights that enjoy short bursts of weightlessness. SpacePharma says its lab is a new way for researchers to work in microgravity for extended periods.

Everything can be done remotely while the system is in outer space. SpacePharma uploads the link with the command files to the lab and the experiment takes place. Clients then receive data and images directly from the experiments, which are carried out on custom-built glass chips and can be run multiple times to test different reactions.

The satellite currently in space holds four experiments, the first being done for a German research institute. A second launch, also with four experiments, is scheduled for August and includes research for a top tier pharmaceutical company. By next year SpacePharma hopes to begin sending up satellites that each hold some 160 experiments.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

Asteroid clay is a better space radiation shield than aluminium
March 14, 2017

The huge rocks that hurtle through space may prove to be lifesavers for astronauts. Clays extracted from asteroids could be used on deep space missions to shield against celestial radiation.

Radiation from cosmic rays is one of the biggest health risks astronauts will face on long space missions, such as a proposed trip to Mars or settlement on the moon. A 2013 study suggested that a return trip to Mars would expose astronauts to a lifetime's dose in one go.

But the heavy aluminium shields currently used for short missions would be too expensive to ship. For a long-term presence on the moon or Mars, we will need to use materials found in space. Asteroids could provide the answer. Clays in asteroids are rich in hydrogen, which is the most effective shielding material for protons and cosmic rays.

Researchers from the University of Central Florida found that the clays are up to 10% more effective than aluminium at stopping the high-energy charged particles given off by the sun and other cosmic bodies.

Exactly how the clays could be extracted from the asteroids is still up for discussion. But there are a few ways it could be done. For example, the clays are non-magnetic, so they could be separated from other materials in an asteroid using massive magnets.

Full story: New Scientist / Advances in Space Research Back to top

Tardigrades turn into glass to survive complete dehydration
March 16, 2017

They are probably the toughest creatures on Earth, and now we know how they manage to survive years of complete dehydration. Water bears, or tardigrades, have been recorded surviving the vacuum of space, high doses of radiation and pressure. These water dwelling creatures can also survive dry environments in a shrivelled-up, dormant state for as long as a decade, reviving within an hour when exposed to water.

To pull off this remarkable trick, the animals rely on proteins unique to them, called tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs). When there is water around, these anti-dehydration proteins are jelly-like and don’t form into well-defined three-dimensional structures like most known proteins. But when water bears start to dry out, these proteins turn into a kind of glassy sanctuary that cocoons all dehydration-sensitive materials in the animal from harm.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered the proteins after monitoring gene activity as tardigrades dried out. They noticed a spike in activity of genes that turned out to make the TDPs. And when they blocked the activity of these genes, tardigrades died after dehydration, demonstrating they were vital for surviving desiccation. Moreover, they showed that yeast and bacteria artificially equipped with the genes could also survive dehydration, suggesting that they could potentially be transferred into crops to help them survive drought.

The team is now investigating whether other organisms such as plant seeds rely on these proteins to survive desiccation, too. They hope the find can be translated into practical applications, for example as a way to store vaccines and pharmaceuticals at room temperature by dehydrating them instead of having to constantly refrigerate them.

Full story: New Scientist / Molecular Cell Back to top

DeepMind AI learns like a human to overcome 'catastrophic forgetting'
March 15, 2017

Forgetfulness is a major flaw in artificial intelligence, but researchers have just had a breakthrough in getting 'thinking' computer systems to remember.

Taking inspiration from neuroscience-based theories, Google's DeepMind researchers have developed an AI that learns like a human. Deep neural networks, computer systems modelled on the human brain and nervous system, forget skills and knowledge they have learnt in the past when presented with a new task, known as 'catastrophic forgetting'.

Researchers tested their new algorithm by letting the AI play Atari video games and getting networks to remember old skills by selectively slowing down learning on the weights important for those tasks.

They were able to show that it is possible to overcome 'catastrophic forgetting' and train networks that can maintain expertise on tasks that they have not experienced for a long time.

Full story: Daily Telegraph Back to top