MinION, CRISPR protein, synthetic muscles, atomtronic memory, tissue printing, wireless broadband, optogenetic pain, graphene filters.
1. MinION: A Miniature USB Device for DNA Sequencing and Sensing.
After making some bold claims a couple of years ago Oxford Nanopore has finally delivered a functional prototype nanopore device for customer review https://www.nanoporetech.com/. The miniature device plugs into a computer via USB and upon pipetting a solution of interest into the activity well the device spreads the fluid over a nanopore-embedded chip that can (i) directly sequence DNA, (ii) directly sequence RNA, (iii) detect proteins or other molecules bound to probe DNA strands. This video http://vimeo.com/77246565 provides a good overview. Provided the sequence error-correction codes are acceptable such a small, portable, cheap, and user-friendly system will be a game-changer and boost the accelerating development of biotechnology generally.
2. CRISPR Protein Structure Determined.
The CRISPR precise genome editing tool that continues to accelerate biotechnology research may now be engineered for further improvements since the three dimensional structure of the main protein (Cas9) has now been determined http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2014/research-reveals-structure-of-key-crispr-complex-0213.html. The structure shows the binding protein, the guide RNA, the cleaving protein, the target DNA, and how the pieces all work together. It is expected that such structural knowledge will allow alterations and improvements in CRISPR to better suit a range of specific needs, some of which are already being tested. In other structural protein news a long-extinct uricase protein has been “resurrected” to treat human diseases related to uric acid http://gizmodo.com/resurrecting-dinosaur-age-proteins-to-cure-human-diseas-1525447018.
3. Super Synthetic Muscles from Fishing Wire.
Newly developed synthetic muscle fibers can lift 100 times more weight and generate 100 times more mechanical power than the same length and weight of human muscle http://gizmodo.com/muscle-made-from-fishing-wire-is-100x-stronger-than-you-1527241129, and see the video here How to create an artificial muscle from fishing line.. One of the attractions of the fibers is how simple they are: fishing wire twisted into tight coils that contracts when heated. To say that these fibers have massive potential is an understatement; not only could they be used to significantly improve robotic and prosthetic movement, weight, and power, the team has even created prototype textiles that open and close with temperature. The fibers need improvement however: I want to see (i) composite fibers with an imperfect conductive metal core so that heat can be switched on and off with a precise electric current (the coil with current may possibly convey additional contraction force due to induced magnetism), (ii) engineering optimisation to select the best polymer and metal for the job, (iii) creating a prototype robot powered by the muscles, (iv) addressing the cooling requirements of such a system, and (v) exploring tensegrity robotic architectures!
4. Atomtronics: Memory & Devices.
A super-cooled gas (BEC or Bose-Einstein Condensate) system has been engineered to demonstrate, for the first time, a hysteresis-type memory effect http://www.nature.com/news/atom-circuits-a-step-closer-1.14709. Previous work has used BECs to create analogues of transistors and capacitors and this latest development adds to the suite of tools available to create atomtronic devices to allow computing with atoms instead of electrons or photons. There are thoughts that the new “ring” BEC may have applications in quantum computing and atomtronic systems in future, and also as extremely sensitive rotation sensors possibly in the medium term. One interesting experimental confirmation of theory is the quantised nature of the BEC’s rotation, that past a critical stirring rate, all the atoms suddenly start flowing and rotate faster than the paddle.
5. A Couple of Big Steps in Tissue Printing.
Engineering suitable vasculature for artificial tissues has proved to be an on-going problem, but a new tissue printing technique is capable of creating patterned three dimensional tissues composed of multiple cell types and blood vessels
http://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2014/02/essential-step-toward-printing-living-tissues. The method is enabled by newly developed biological inks that contain a mixture of extracellular matrix and living cells; another ink was engineered to melt as it cooled, which enabled hollow tubes to be formed when the ink was suctioned out after cooling. Injecting endothelial cells into the hollow tubes resulted in growth of blood vessel lining and hence a vascular system for the tissue. A new micro-robotic 3D tissue construction technique also shows promise as an early platform, allowing a magnetic “microbot” under the control of external magnetic fields to move and position various cell-hydrogel blocks in order to assemble complex tissue architectures http://www.brighamandwomens.org/about_bwh/publicaffairs/news/pressreleases/PressRelease.aspx?sub=0&PageID=1670.
6. Multi-Faceted Chemical Microparticles.
A new co-jetting process allows construction of microparticles with geometrically distinct chemical faces http://phys.org/news/2014-02-3d-microparticles-chemically-independent-patches.html. Each equal third of the microparticle is composed of a different material, and this allows distinct, and separate functional surface chemistries to be applied to individual thirds of the microparticle via a controllable click-chemistry process. The attraction here is the potential for the functional microparticles to be used for directed self-assembly to produce, or dismantle, larger and more complex macroparticle structures. While the microparticles are currently limited to tiny cylinders, further refinements might lead to microparticles with four instead of three regions and adorned with caps to make uniform micro-cube particles for more versatile self-assembly.
7. pCell Wireless Broadband Cells to Massively Boost Bandwidth.
After two years of additional development the new pCell technology has been officially launched, and promises full-speed wireless broadband to every mobile device regardless of the number of users on the same spectrum http://venturebeat.com/2014/02/19/steve-perlmans-artemis-unveils-his-breakthrough-wireless-broadband-technology-pcell/. The technology encodes a unique signal for each device and is said to enable mobile data users to enjoy fast internet with no congestion, no dead zones, and no weak signals and will feel like you’re on a fiber optic network. Introductory demo here: Visualization and Explanation of pCell Technology. Let’s hope this is legitimate and powers our networks ASAP.
8. Multilayer Graphene as Ultimate Water Filter.
A new water filter made out of multilayer graphene oxide membranes is ultra-precise and ultra-fast, not allowing any ions or molecules larger than 0.9nm to pass through http://www.kurzweilai.net/new-multilayer-graphene-structure-allows-ultraprecise-ultrafast-water-filtering. The filter is impermeable to all gases and vapours but allows water to pass through the capillaries in an ultra-fast capacity. Such membranes might also make ideal containers for hard to contain gases like Helium and Hydrogen. The smallest ions still get through the filter but the team believe their work show it is possible to improve the membrane to prevent even these ions from getting through, and so allow easy seawater desalination.
9. Controlling Pain with Optogenetics.
Optogenetic engineering of the peripheral nervous system has produced mice whose sensitivity to pain can be increased or decreased with the flash of light of specific wavelengths http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/february/biox-numb-pain-021914.html. The key innovation was the development of an engineered virus and its injection into nerves responsible for pain; upon integration and expression of the DNA encoding the two Opsins (light sensitive proteins) those nerves could then be influenced by switching on light to increase or decrease pain sensation. Great potential for treatment of people suffering chronic pain arising from peripheral nerves. But one of the most promising avenues I see for this work is for being co-opted for use in prosthetics, both for conveying sensation (pain and otherwise) and motor control via the reverse mechanism.
10. 40% Efficient Solar Panels.
By developing a new process to peel hundreds of precise atomic layers of a larger bulk material aggregate, researchers have created thin GaAs (gallium arsenide) sheets that can enable the fabrication of cheap solar panels with efficiencies passing 40% http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/02/is-it-time-to-move-away-from-silicon-based-solar/. In other solar power news detailed investigations into the molecular photosystems that power photosynthesis have enabled the creation of efficient artificial photosystems for the splitting of water to create hydrogen gas http://phys.org/news/2014-02-artificial-leaf-developmental-hurdle.html.
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