A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.
1. Controlled Fabrication of Seamless Graphene-Nanotube Hybrid.
Starting with a layer of graphene grown on a copper surface, a research group has developed a new fabrication method to grow seamlessly-linked carbon nanotubes 120 micrometers long up from this graphene sheet http://phys.org/news/2012-11-james-bond-graphene-nanotube-hybrid.html to form a nano or microscale forrest (image 1). In addition to achieving a surface area of 2,000 square meters per gram of material the team successfully reduced to practice a theory that predicted the structure of carbon atoms caused by such an arrangement of graphene covalently-linked with carbon nanotubes. Such a material might find use in energy storage applications such as batteries and supercapacitors. We also had more work engineering a band-gap in graphene http://phys.org/news/2012-11-graphene-team-base.html.
2. mRNA Viral Vaccines Show Promise.
A vaccine against influenza virus has been made out of messenger RNA (mRNA) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22529-new-vaccine-may-give-lifelong-protection-from-flu.html?. When we catch the flu our immune systems mount a response against key HA and NA flu proteins, but these rapidly evolve and so protection is not effective the following year and we need seasonal flu vaccines every year. The new vaccine is created simply by producing the mRNA that codes for these particular HA and NA proteins, and freeze-drying into a powder that can later be injected into the patient; in the patient immune cells take the mRNA, produce the corresponding protein, and so induce an immune response against those HA or NA proteins long before exposure to the actual virus. Furthermore, a company called CureVac produce a protein to protect the mRNA in blood in order to increase efficiency - they currently have mRNA vaccine clinical trials underway for prostate and lung cancer.
3. Origami Evolved: Self Assembly of Complex Nanostructures with DNA-Bricks.
Researchers evolved the current DNA Origami skill-set by creating a new system that comprises basic DNA-block subunits that can be induced to controllably self-assemble into arbitrary 3D nanostructures http://phys.org/news/2012-11-versatile-3d-nanostructures-dna-bricks.html (image 2). As part of their proof-of-concept the team created 102 different 3D structures from a template 25nm DNA block, but far more sophisticated structure fabrication is expected to be possible. One of the things I love about this method and material is the modularity that is present at different scales; individual modules at the smallest and bigger scales can be modified, swapped in and out, and worked on independently to build better, bigger, and more complex structures. I’m looking forward to see if they can make moving parts out of this, and also what avenues open up given that DNA can now be engineered to fold in organic solvents http://www.nanowerk.com/news2/newsid=27482.php.
4. Bridging the Brain-Behaviour Gap with a New Cognitive Computing Architecture.
A new cognitive computing architecture called Spaun has been shown to recognise numbers, generate answers to simple questions, and write them down http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/software/brain-model-connects-neurons-to-behavior?. The system comprises a 2.5 million neuron model of the brain that they are using to bridge the brain-behaviour gap, i.e. explaining how brain activity actually produces complex behaviour. While this is an exciting advance the current model suffers limitations from being hard-wired and not able to learn new tasks; time will tell whether or not this can be overcome.
5. Engineering Artificial Biological Brain Tissue.
Researchers have developed a simple and inexpensive method to three-dimensional sections of brain tissue in the lab http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-11-precisely-d-brain-tissues.html that closely mimic the cellular composition of normal brain tissue. The method starts by embedding a mixture of brain cells including the extracellular matrix into into sheets of hydrogel that are then stacked into layers using light to form cross-links between hydrogels. By using plastic photomasks they are able to form complex 3D structures within the stacked cell-loaded hydrogels. These tissues will help investigate neuronal and brain development under controlled conditions, brain / neural drug candidate testing, and possibly future artificial tissue implants.
6. Strain-Engineered Materials to Convert More Light into Electricity.
By precisely controlling the strain induced in a layer of molybdenum disulphide (which forms two-dimensional sheets like graphene) researchers can impart variable strain that increases towards the centre and which changes the atomic structure enough to “tune” different sections to different wavelengths of light http://web.mit.edu/press/2012/funneling-the-suns-energy.html. The effect is analogous to creating an electromagnetic funnel that is able to capture a broader spectrum of light from the Sun that can be converted into electricity. We heard some exciting advances from strain-engineered graphene earlier in the year and approaches like this certainly suggest that exciting new capabilities in the control over matter and natural phenomena are opening up.
7. DNA v2.0 - Expanding the Code.
Here we have a great little review article on the work of genetic tinkerers in expanding the DNA code from the usual A, T, G, & C to incorporate novel synthetic bases http://www.nature.com/news/chemical-biology-dna-s-new-alphabet-1.11863. While getting such artificial DNA code to work, especially in biological cells built from DNA, such work continues because of the possibilities of (i) incorporating more information into the genome of an organism, (ii) creating an organism that not contain any natural code (normal bases) at all, (iii) determining whether normal bases are essential for life or just one option from many possibilities, and I’ll add (iv) in which I want to see what expanded self-assembly and structural possibilities there are with DNA Origami when there are more bases to choose from.
8. Novel Thought-Controlled Hand Prosthesis.
We have yet another implantable robotic hand / arm being developed by researchers that can be controlled by the patient’s thoughts http://www.chalmers.se/en/news/Pages/Thought-controlled-prosthesis-is-changing-the-lives-of-amputees.aspx. This device is implanted and interfaced directly with the remaining bone in the limb with the electrodes being implanted directly on the nerves and remaining muscle in the arm stump, and with bidirectional communication with the brain the “mind control” is supposed to be more natural and intuitive than other available systems. The linked-to page has a video-resource link with several videos demonstrating the work too. This has been a big year for thought-controlled hand-based prosthetics and while a “good as normal” solution has not yet been developed there is little doubt that this is simply a matter of when, not it.
9. Printing Personal Electronics.
Firstly we have the creation of a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to produce electronic devices with the latest 3D printers http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/engineers_pave_the/. This carbomorph material, as it is known, enabled the researchers to print objects with embedded flex sensors and touch-sensitive buttons and a mug that knows how full it is. The team has a fairly straightforward pathway to developing more complex structures. Secondly we had the demonstration of semiconductor nanocrystals being printed on flexible plastics to form high-performance electronics http://phys.org/news/2012-11-flexible-low-voltage-circuits-nanocrystals.html that can be deposited at room temperature (simple heated annealing follows). These nanocrystals were used to print basic circuits as a proof-of-concept; an inverter, and amplifier, and a ring oscillator.
10. Atomtronics and the First Controllable Atom SQUID.
Working with a thin ring of superfluid researchers have created an atomtronic inertial sensor that can be embodied as a controllable atomic circuit that functions like a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) http://www.nanowerk.com/news2/newsid=27728.php. This device allows the group to select a particular quantum state at will, and is enabled by using a laser as an optical “paddle” to rotate the superfluid atoms. This seems like one of those intriguing little advances that are often dismissed as a curiosity, but harnessing new natural phenomena in this way expands our scientific and technological repertoire; who knows what new capabilities await by combining this with other tools?
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