SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 41 of 2012 A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.
1. Engineering The Most Complex Synthetic Biology Circuit. The most complex synthetic biology circuit ever build has been created by researchers at MIT http://www.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/complex-biological-circuit-1007.html.
The key breakthrough to enable this was characterising and designing
biological circuit components that don’t interfere with each other; the
necessary jumbling together of such protein-based components in the cell
had seriously hampered such efforts in the past. The circuit comprises
four different protein-based sensors for four different molecules, which
could instruct a cell to respond to these molecules in the environment
by behaving in a certain way. With the new tools and techniques
developed by the team to achieve this advance they now believe it will
be possible to incorporate hundreds of synthetic circuit elements. This
hot space just got hotter.
3. Measurements to Detect Whether the Universe is a Simulation. The
Simulation Hypothesis has garnered quite a bit of interest over the
last couple of months, seeming to rise from obscurity of sorts to reach a
wider audience. This week we had physicists proposing how we might find
evidence that our Universe is a simulation http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429561/the-measurement-that-would-reveal-the-universe-as/.
The basic idea stems from knowledge of what we currently know of how
our own (limited) simulations are put together and depend on their
superposition on a discrete three dimensional lattice. The physicists
hypothesise that if our Universe is a simulation subject to its own
three dimensional lattice, then the lattice spacing would impart limits
on the energy that particles can have, and probing this energy or
energies beyond it might suggest evidence for such a simulated reality.
In related news on the nature of our Universe, researchers present an
interesting new theory of everything that includes at its core topology
and symmetry http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429528/topology-the-secret-ingredient-in-the-latest/.
4. The Latest Robotic Bee Gains New Abilities. Robotics
researchers have further developed their miniature robotic bee to give
the little autonomous flying machine the ability to pitch and roll and
so steer in different directions http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/harvard-robobees-learn-to-steer-mostly.
This work follows on from last week’s announcement of a project to map
and simulate the brain of a bee, and which could well find a home one
day in this little flying machine. Development still has a way to go -
to incorporate feedback and finer control - but the vision of unleashing
tens of millions of these little devices in a massive distributed
sensor / communications swarm no longer seems far fetched.
5. Next Generation Deep Brain Implants to be Trialled Next Year. Medtronic
has developed and will next year trial the next generation of its
commercially successful and widely adopted implantable deep-brain
stimulation device http://www.technologyreview.com/news/429549/brain-implant-detects-responds-to-epilepsy/.
The current device, which now resides in 80,000 people (cyborgs?) and
counting, is mainly used to regulate and help control movement problems
associated with Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy. The next generation
device will be able to accurately sense electrical activity in the brain
and automatically adjust its stimulation activity to maintain an
optimal level; it could for example turn itself off when the patient is
asleep or activate a stronger response if the patient’s symptoms grew
stronger. In related news the FDA approved a novel implantable
6. Probing Quantum Superpositions Without Destroying Them. By
making constant weak measurements of a quantum system, researchers were
able to probe a fragile quantum state without destroying it http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22336-quantum-measurements-leave-schrodingers-cat-alive.html.
This was previously proposed “in principle” but the group only recently
reduced the ideas to practice by very briefly measuring the frequency
of oscillation of the quantum state that had been induced into a
superposition. While their probe changed the system slightly, by
introducing a second, opposite probe they were able to return the system
to the state it had before the probe. This is considered an early step,
but a big step forward in feedback control of an individual qubit.
7. Stem Cells Used to Regenerate the Myelin Sheaths of Neurons. The
results of a Phase 1 human clinical trial show that neural stem cells
transplanted into the brains of people with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease
can begin producing the myelin sheaths that these patients lack http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32794/title/Stem-Cells-Myelinate-Human-Brain/.
Such a treatment would also be of particular use for sufferers of
Multiple Sclerosis, and given the decline of myelination with age this
would also be a particularly useful anti-aging treatment for maintaining
normal cognitive function. In related news researchers demonstrate a
drug that treats neurodegeneration by increasing neural plasticity and
inducing more connections between neurons http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/wsu-pad101012.php.
8. The Wonders of Metal-Organic Frameworks for Gas Storage & Separation. Metal-Organic
Frameworks have the highest surface-area of any known substance but
wide industrial adoption has been held back due to costly synthesis
methods. With the development of a novel synthesis technique that allows
a simple scaled-up production process, full commercialisation is now
being pursued by a University spin-out company http://www.qub.ac.uk/home/ceao/News/Title,343081,en.html.
Opportunities to be addressed include carbon capture, hazardous gas
storage, natural gas processing, and hydrocarbon separation. MOFs are
able to store gas in such a way that it takes up far less space than it
would otherwise at the same pressure.
9. Using a Pencil to Draw a Carbon-Nanotube Enabled Gas Sensor. Researchers have shown that low-cost and durable carbon nanotube sensors can be drawn and etched with normal mechanical pencils http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/drawing-with-a-carbon-nanotube-pencil-1009.html.
By replacing the graphite of a pencil with a compressed powder of
carbon nanotubes the sensor can be drawn onto any surface by connecting
the terminals of a printed circuit; current from a low-voltage power
supply gives a measure of the change in resistance of the circuit caused
by a particular gas binding to the carbon nanotubes. Selectivity for
other gases can be altered by binding metal ions or polymers to the
carbon nanotubes before compression.
10. Ultra-smooth Surfaces Key to Next Generation Self-Assembled High-Density Data Storage. Researchers
have determined the level of surface smoothness (and techniques to help
attain that smoothness) required for efficient self-assembly of
materials (including block copolymers) to form surface-based
nano-structures capable of powering the next generation of data storage
technologies http://www.a-star.edu.sg/?TabId=828&articleType=ArticleView&articleId=1719. They are actively pursuing the goal of 10 Terabits per square inch.