SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 16 of 2012
A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.

1. Home Molecular Fabrication Moves a Step Closer
3D printing has been co-opted with new materials and open-source control software to create an automated chemistry system While currently limited in scope there is plenty of room for developing and extending this platform, which now allows multi-step reaction chains to automatically synthesise molecules of interest. Given a greater number of starter molecules and longer reaction chains . . . (i) synthesising in bulk different materials for home 3D printing, (ii) synthesising fertiliser at home, which has other less-savoury applications, (iii) synthesising drugs of interest at home with ease, etc, etc.

2. Stem Cell Enabled Regenerative Medicine is Maturing
Three new studies show the introduction of stem cells replacing diseased cells and restoring normal function in mice at least. These interventions successfully (i) regrew hair on bald mice, (ii) restored vision by repairing the retina, (iii) repairing heart tissue and improving cardiac function. Time to get these into the clinic. Stem cells have also recently been engineered to seek out and destroy HIV infected cells in animals (although not humans yet) I get cold sores from time to time so would be interested in an off-shoot of this field targeting HSV too.

3. Brain-Computer Interface Restores Movement via Remote Control of Muscles
Electrode arrays that have been implanted into the brains of primates can communicate to remote electrical stimulation devices that have been implanted into muscles, by-passing severed nerves to allow accurate motor control and the restoration of movement The pace of development of these neural-prostheses is astounding. It will be fascinating to watch this technology mature, as the remote stimulation devices could be implanted not into muscle, but into a phone or other device, or even have the communications switched / hacked so one person could send motor commands to another (a movie script that almost writes itself). And if technologies like this keep shrinking we may not even have to have these electrodes implanted to achieve this functionality. Meanwhile mind-reading technology enabled by fMRI is continuing apace

4. Better Molecular Modelling for Drug Design and Biological Systems
The structural changes that occur to molecules when immersed in water have been observed in detail and they are significant, where even the addition of a single molecule of H2O causes measurable changes. This knowledge will feed directly into much better computational modelling and design of compounds for various purposes, for example, designing better drugs.

5. Lots of people were talking about an alternative DNA chemistry system that was announced, synthetic XNA I’d first heard about this conceptually many years ago and it is absolutely wonderful to see it reduced to practice with an evolving, replicating, genetic-style synthetic information system up and running. This is getting towards what Drexler spoke about when he posited synthetic foldamer polymer chains, like amino acid chains that form proteins, that could be engineered to produce molecules and materials with far superior properties to that of proteins. And given that we are only now starting to see what DNA Origami can do with systems like this embodying a custom engineered DNA nanopore system I can hardly imagine what the decendents of XNA will lead to.

6. Up-Converting Photons for Much Improved Solar Efficiency
This photonic materials system has been developed to convert multiple energy-poor photons into fewer energy-rich photons that solar panels are much better able to absorb Still in the lab and still more work to go, but solar efficiencies above 40% should be possible with this system alone.

7. CMOS Improvements Result in Cheap Video Terahertz Chip
A miniaturised, cheap Terahertz imaging and video chip has been developed, which throw open the terahertz band to exploitation by a range of digital imaging devices. There are some interesting medical applications, but I know everyone is just thinking “Airport scanner in my phone or Google Glass HUD, please.” Clothing penetrating “x-ray” specs? Yep.

8. Optical Boost to Speed-Up Enzymatic Functions
It turns out that light of particular wavelengths can be used to boost an enzyme’s function by up to 30-fold, and should enable consequent improvements in catalytic efficiency. It’ll be interesting to see if the process can be applied to something like biofuels production in bacterial / algal systems (as one of many possibilities), but a question that fascinates me is whether this could be used to selectively boost enzymes in a human system (even it the cells have been engineered and introduced) to increase production in some useful fashion.

9. Boron-Infused Carbon Nanotube Sponge
In this materials engineering advance a boron-infused carbon nanotube sponge is used over and over again to soak up oil from water The material floats on water, conducts electricity, is magnetic, and the oil it soaks up can be drained and used or burnt off - without harming the material. I wonder if modifications can be made to separate other molecules from liquids, for example, drop a sponge like this into the tailings dam of a large mine and soak up the precious metals?

10. Communications Protocols and the Promise of Software-Defined Networking
Wired had a good article on Software-defined networking and the subsequent improvements in speed and flexibility of our communications and computational networks engendered by its wide-spread use In a related communications development researchers have solved the scaling challenge for multi-core chips
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