SciTech #ScienceSunday Digest - Week 20 of 2012
A Top 10 selection of the scientific and technological advances that I discovered this week. (Sorry for being so late with this one).

1. Gene Therapies Boost Lifespan, Muscles, and Immune Function.
Using a demonstrably safe virus as a vector for gene therapy, researchers have been able to increase the lifespans of mice by 24% by increasing levels of telomerase activity http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-05/cndi-css051412.php; note that these mice importantly were already engineered to have elevated levels of p53 activity too. Such a therapy could plausibly be developed into an interim life-extension treatment (provided the p53 could also be added) pending more advanced interventions. Another team recently boosted muscle strength / stamina 3-fold by producing 10-fold more protein in muscles after administering a gene therapy http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328565.000-blood-tests-wont-stop-gene-cheats.html, and a gene therapy breakthrough was announced with dozens of HIV patients being confirmed as healthy 11 years after receiving a gene therapy that boosted their immune cells to seek out and destroy the virus (while there is still a detectable viral load, the patients are healthy) http://singularityhub.com/2012/05/19/new-study-shows-gene-therapy-for-hiv-safe-after-a-decade/ .

2. Another Powerful Optically-Powered Genetics Tool.
Light-sensitive molecules were combined with custom genetic sequences of oligonucleotides, and which could be specifically targeted to genetic sequences of interest. By shining light of a particular wavelength gene transcription could be switched on and off at will http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/tp-gene-light/. As with all new tools, and especially with regard to the geneticists kit, this really opens up what you might plausibly do with the system, for example, whether you might make use of either natural or artificial light at different times of day to turn on specific genes to do a particular thing.

3. Amazing New Touch Interface System.
This very cool human interface technology might just have what it takes to usher in a new era of computer design and human-computer interaction http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/mimssbits/27848/?ref=rss. This is wearable computing as it was intended, with no need for clunky keyboards or mice, and the possibility of drastically altering the form-factor of mobile devices when you don’t need chunky human fingers to poke and prod a piece of glass.

4. Autonomously Navigating Robots Are Breaking Free From the Lab.
This is a great little article and video that shows a small UAV autonomously navigating an environment and avoiding obstacles, all without the aid of motion tracking or GPS http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/artificial-intelligence/laserequipped-mav-demonstrates-aggressive-autonomous-flight?. I can’t wait for this to trickle down into consumer-level products, perhaps in the AR Drone 3.0.

5. I Think You’ll Be Hearing A Lot More About Topological Insulators.
Topological Insulators are characterised by incredibly high electron mobility on their surfaces - with electron spin being intimately tied to the direction of motion - while being good insulators in their interiors; they represent a promising drive to spintronics applications http://newscenter.lbl.gov/feature-stories/2012/05/14/topological-insulators/ including “super” hard drives. Screening for suitable materials in this space is really heating up too with an automated system based on mathematical modelling helping to speed up the search http://physicsworld.com/blog/2012/05/how_to_cook-up_a_new_topologic.html.

6. Improving Wireless Power Transfer Systems.
Wireless power transfer systems move a step closer with this new way to tune the power receivers to ensure a good, efficient, resonance match http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/wms-lukic-wireless-power/. This is one technology that cannot come soon enough; beyond simply charging our devices such as phones as a convenience, wireless power transfer systems will be a boon to robotics.

7. Prototype Silicon Memristor Memory Chip.
This prototype memristor, or resistive-RAM, memory chip is the first of its kind to be purely silicon-based http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/May2012/120518-new-silicon-memory-chip. In tests it needed just 1,000th of the energy while providing 100x the speed of a standard flash memory chip. Combined computational + memory elements on-chip: one of computing’s holy grails is getting closer.

8. Bending Viruses to Produce Energy.
Lots of people were talking about this new piezoelectric generator made of viruses http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2012/05/13/electricity-from-viruses/, because it is at heart pretty cool. Self assembling viruses, genetically engineered to be more effective at generating excess charge, forming thin films, that when tapped or bent produce enough energy to power a basic LCD display.

9. It’s Getting Easier for Minds to Talk to Machines.
Non-invasive brain interface systems are now allowing paraplegics to routinely move around with thought-controlled robotic legs http://www.economist.com/node/21555544; advances like this make me wonder how much longer is it until we see someone walking around with fully-articulated electrically-powered prosthetic legs. Meanwhile another (invasive) system is allowing quadraplegics to accurately move robotic arms around their environment http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/40418/?ref=rss, and while this system must actually be plugged into an external box (a la The Matrix ) they are currently developing a wireless system for version 2.

10. Retinal Prostheses Can Now Be Powered By Light.
A new retinal prosthesis has been developed that uses light as both image and power source, like a combination digital imaging chip and photovoltaic array http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/40405/?ref=rss. It promises lower power, less hardware, and much greater pixel densities. Yet to be tested inside a living eye however, so watch this space.

Bonus: Genetic Information Also Wants to Be Free.
Finally, this article raises the question once again on whether potentially dangerous scientific findings should be published at all http://singularityhub.com/2012/05/16/scientists-make-bird-flu-transmissible-between-humans-then-tell-world-how-to-do-it/. Apparently Bird Flu had a mortality rate of 59%, yet was very very poor at being transmitted between humans. Geneticists have now engineered the virus to be very very efficient at being transmitted between humans - or at least in ferrets, the lab animals used to model human flu. The information to do this is now “out” there and if you had a suitably equipped lab you could do it yourself. Me, personally, I’m in the group that rejects the censoring of science of any form, although I would hope that the research teams were obliged (morally, if not legally) to produce a vaccine at the same time - I think this would make a far more powerful publication in any case.
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