SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 47 of 2012A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week.1. New 3D Fiber-Optics for Optogenetics.
Neuroscientists have created a new optogenetics tool comprising of a 3D array of 1,000 light emitters within one cubic centimeter http://www.osa.org/about_osa/newsroom/newsreleases/2012/a_3-d_light_switch_for_the_brain/
(right image below), which is able to deliver precise points of ligh to a 3D section of living brain tissue. In fact the new 3-D array is precise enough to activate a single kind of neuron, at a precise location, with a single beam of light. Depending on what light-sensitive protein is transfected into the neuron this array can controllably emit the different light required to turn that neuron on or off. Optogenetics is such a hot space at the moment and time will tell if we see such things as (i) a slightly larger, higher-density array that is implanted and used to exert fine control over rodents or (ii) some point in the future when neuronal gene-therapy plus optical implants like this are used to treat human diseases. In related news we had optogenetics being used to determine motivation pathways in the brain http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/november/challenge.html
. 2. Memcomputing: Storing and Processing Information on the Same Physical Platform.
Memcomputing - using memcapacitors and meminductors in addition to the more widely-known memristors - is an embryonic computing paradigm whose basic components can store and process information at the same time while carrying out their standard electronic functions, and here http://www.technologyreview.com/view/507721/the-computer-that-stores-and-processes-information-at-the-same-time/
we have an interesting summary article discussing the state of the art and possible applications. This paradigm should be capable of mimicking biological computing, indeed allowing our computers to approach the performance of biological ones in terms of capabilities and low-energy consumption, for example memcapacitors and meminductors essentially consume no energy and so ought to allow very low energy applications. An exciting space to watch.3. Simulating 530 Billion Neurons and 100 Trillion Synapses on a Supercomputer.
Dharmendra Modha from IBM presented his group’s latest research towards fulfilling DARPA’s SyNAPSE program http://www.modha.org/
in which they simulated 530 billion neurons with 100 trillion synapses. The development massively leverages the groups’ neurosynaptic core, a modular neuromorphic architecture that they developed. While they explicitly state that this is not a biologically realistic simulation with computation, memory, and communication being abstracted away in order to optimise hardware engineering goals. They also developed “Compass”, a multithreaded, massively parallel functional simulator and a parallel compiler that maps a network of long-distance pathways in the macaque monkey brain to their system. Exciting stuff.4. Creating the First Spin-Amplifier.
Researchers have created a long-sought-after key missing component for spintronics http://www.liu.se/forskning/forskningsnyheter/1.418709?l=en
; a room temperature device capable of amplifying spin such that incredibly weak electron spin signals can be rapidly detected. In addition to related advances that have created spin-filters, spin-diodes, and spin-lasers this advance helps put together a solution for controlling and detecting spin - and in one day ushering in consumer level spintronic devices and all of the benefits that entails.5. Bio-Inks and Engineering Printed Cartilage.
There is just no slowing down the marriage of bioprinting and tissue engineering. This week researchers announced the development of a new bio-ink that improves the viability of living cells and allows better control of cell positioning with inkjet printer heads http://media.uow.edu.au/news/UOW136812.html?utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=spot_1&utm_source=uow_home
; this is a significant advance that allowed the group to print multiple cell types over long printing periods without changing print heads or replenishing ink solutions. In a related study researchers demonstrated the feasibility of generating layered cartilage constructs using a combination of electrospinning and inkjet printing and showed that the hybrid printing technique is a promising new technology that could simplify production of complex tissues http://iopscience.iop.org/1758-5090/5/1/015001/
. 6. Engineering the Immune System to Stop Autoimmune Disorders.
Researchers have developed a biodegradable nanoparticle made of lactic and glycolic acid to which they attach antigens of interest - myelin in this proof-of-concept case; when the particles are injected and enter the spleen they are engulfed by immune cells that view the particles as normal blood cells and nothing to react to http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/11/breakthrough-nanoparticle-halts-multiple-sclerosis.html
. In this way they established immune tolerance to those antigens, halting the attack of the immune system on neuronal myelin and so significantly improving Multiple Sclerosis symptoms. While this proof-of-concept was only in animal models it is hoped that the team can test in humans in the future. In addition to MS this platform technology could be used to prevent autoimmune responses against diabetes and a range of allergies for example. 7. An Invisibility Cloak That Dynamically Adapts to Hide Different Sized Objects.
Metamaterial-enabled invisibility cloaks have been limited until now by having a fixed area in which an object could sit to be cloaked from light of certain wavelengths. Now a group has created a smart elastic metamaterial that is able to cloak objects of different shapes and sizes http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v3/n11/full/ncomms2219.html
, although this particular proof-of-concept as usual only works with microwave radiation. Expect improvements in materials fabrication techniques to expand these capabilities to other wavelengths of light, including the visible. 8. Gaming Starting to Drive Developments in EEG Mind-Control.
A group called Puzzlebox has been developing open source software to help translate signals from commercial EEg headsets into instructions that a robot can understand for some years now, and have successfully demonstrated this with toys, robots, and video games. Now they are developing the Orbit helicopter that can be controlled simply by concentrating while wearing an EEG headset http://www.technologyreview.com/view/507651/flying-helicopter-orb-guided-by-brainwaves/
. Then we have another group that has used the same basic EEG headsets to mind-control a severed cockroach leg and make it kick http://www.technologyreview.com/view/507756/human-brainwaves-move-a-cockroach-leg/
. Intel’s technology roadmap to 2020 predicts that much of our interactions with computers by then will be via Brain Computer Interfaces, and this is seeming less far fetched with seemingly common and mundane mind-control like this starting to appear. 9. Microfluidic Molecule Detector Reaches Dog Nose Sensitivity.
Researchers have created a new microfluidic device that can take in airborne molecules through its microchannels, concentrate them by six orders of magnitude, and then use a laser-powered spectrometer to identify the chemical http://engineering.ucsb.edu/news/673
. The device is capable of real-time detection and identification of certain types of molecules at concentrations of 1 part per billion, and for the first time enables an artificial scent or olfaction sensor that is as sensitive as a dog’s nose. Expect this proof-of-concept to be expanded to many more molecules beyond TNT. There seems to be little reason why such sensors couldn’t quickly find their way into handheld devices for security or other purposes. 10. Micro-Pyramid Arrays to Capture and Analyse Single Cells.
Researchers have developed a method to fabricate arrays of open-walled micro-pyramids that can capture and trap single cells, while enabling the cells to still interact and signal to one another while confined to large arrays http://phys.org/news/2012-11-capturing-cells-micro-pyramids.html
(left image below). The team envisages further work to fabricate the chip with channels that are able to supply the cells in their cages with oxygen and nutrients. What applications might such a controlled cell-laden surface have and what impact would cell division and replication have? Might this provide some benefits to systems using engineered cells to produce biofuels for example? The weekly SciTech Digests are also available as a Google Currents Edition here