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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Technology updates, 05. 2010


  1. Genomics goes beyond DNA sequence
  2. European space company wants solar power plant in space
  3. Device turns thoughts into speech
  4. Europe's Mars missions get final go-ahead
  5. First commercial 3-D bio-printer makes human tissue and organs
  6. Fake blood-clotting product to heal wounded soldiers

Genomics goes beyond DNA sequence

Sequencing company Pacific Biosciences, based in Menlo Park, California, has now developed an integrated system that simultaneously reads a genome sequence and detects an important epigenetic marker called DNA methylation.

DNA methylation — the addition of methyl groups to individual bases — is just one of many epigenetic markers of DNA and its associated proteins. Others include modification of the histone proteins that DNA winds around to form chromatin — the tightly packed cluster that makes up chromosomes — and the activation of small non-coding RNA molecules.

DNA methylation, which reduces gene expression, is linked to key developmental events, as well as many types of cancer. It is the best-studied epigenetic modification, mainly because tools have existed to study it, says Susan Clark, an epigeneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia.

The gold-standard method for detecting DNA methylation, which Clark's group developed more than 15 years ago, is bisulphite sequencing, in which unmethylated versions of the base cytosine are chemically converted into another base, uracil. Sequencing the converted DNA allows scientists to reconstruct a genome-wide methylation map. But the technique has several drawbacks. Not only is it expensive and time consuming, it also damages DNA, reducing the map's accuracy. And it doesn't detect methylation at adenine bases, which are very prevalent in organisms such as bacteria.

Pacific Biosciences' approach for detecting DNA methylation, published this month in Nature Methods1, builds on the company's sequencing technology. The system uses an enzyme called DNA polymerase to read a strand of DNA and build a complementary strand out of nucleo­tides labelled with fluorescent mol­ecules. As each component is added to the growing strand, it produces a flash of light — the colour of the light corresponds to the identity of the base, and thus reveals the sequence of the template DNA.

Analysing the pulses of light, and the time between them, can also show whether methylation is affecting polymerase activity. This has now been exploited to detect methyl­adenine, methylcytosine and a poorly understood modification called 5-hydroxymethylcytosine. W

With the latest technique, the cost of a full-genome methylation map would drop to $100–1,000, he says. "That will change everything." source

My comment: Absolutely awesome. After all, it's not so much what genes you have, but whether they are expressed or not. And precisely such techniques will allow us to know that and maybe to find out what triggers the process. Awesome!

European space company wants solar power plant in space

January 21, 2010 by Lin Edwards
( -- EADS Astrium, Europe's biggest space company, plans to put a solar power satellite in orbit to demonstrate the collection of solar power in space and its transmission via infrared laser to provide electricity on Earth.

Chief executive officer of Astrium, François Auque, said the system is at the testing stage, but that a viable system collecting and transmitting power from could be within reach soon. Auque said space is an attractive idea because it is an inexhaustible and clean form of energy. Unlike solar plants on Earth, orbital solar collectors can work around the clock, and there is no interference from clouds or atmospheric dusts or gases, which means the energy hitting in orbit is much greater than it would be for the same panels on the ground.

Earlier concepts of beaming power to Earth from space were criticized because they relied on microwaves to transmit the power to the ground, which has safety concerns, so Astrium plans to use infrared lasers instead, which means that even if they were misdirected people and objects hit by the laser beams could not be scorched.

The transmission of power via has been tested in Astrium’s laboratories, and they are now concentrating on improving the system’s efficiency. Work on developing converters to convert received infrared energy to electricity is proceeding rapidly, and Astrium is collaborating in this work with scientists at the University of Surrey, in the UK. The company is hoping to achieve 80% efficiency in the conversion. source

My comment:Nice, huh? Though I don't see how they can achieve 80% efficiency. And it won't be good if the atmosphere absorbs too much of that energy. Maybe the best thing to do will be to build some kind of cable after all. It would guarantee efficiency, though at the cost of not working 24 hours per day. But then, the cable can be connected with relaying station, while the collectors can work the whole day and transmit the power to it. Now that sounds pretty cool. And as for the cable, it shouldn't be undoable with current technology.

Device turns thoughts into speech

Dec. 31, 2009
Scientists have successfully tested a system that translates brain waves into speech, raising the prospect that people left mute by stroke, Lou Gehrig's disease and other afflictions will one day be able to communicate by synthetic voice.

The system was tested on a 26-year-old man left paralyzed by a brain stem stroke, but with his consciousness and cognitive abilities intact. The condition is known as "locked-in syndrome." In this condition, communication by eye movement or other limited motion is possible, but extremely cumbersome.

Scientists implanted an electrode about 5 millimeters deep into the part of the subject's brain responsible for planning speech. After a few months nerve cells grew into the electrode, producing detectable signals.

It took several years, however, to develop a computer system that could discriminate elements of speech from the busy backdrop of neural activity, lead researcher Frank Guenther, with the Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems at Boston University, told Discovery News.

The first "words" detected from the subject's brain were three vowel sounds, but the speed with which the speech thought was transmitted into audible sound was about 50 milliseconds -- the same amount of time it typically takes for naturally occurring speech.

The embedded electrode amplifies neural signals and converts them into FM radio waves which are then transmitted wirelessly across the subject's scalp to two coils on his head that serve as receiving antennas. source

My comment: Also nice, but if you ask me, it would be much better if they worked out how to fix such illnesses. This, of course, is good first step and quite an achievement and it's also a step towards full-sense virtual reality. Which I'm really eager to try.

Europe's Mars missions get final go-ahead

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Member-states of the European Space Agency (Esa) have given final approval to revised plans to explore Mars.

The Council of Esa has given the green light to a two-mission endeavour that would see the launch of an orbiter in 2016 and a rover in 2018.

The exploration projects will be undertaken in partnership with the US space agency (Nasa).

Esa's Council of Ministers has approved an initial budget of 850 million euros to support the missions. It will need to increase the cash available by about 150 million euros in future years.

The 2016 orbiter would be designed to track down the sources of methane and other trace gases recently detected at Mars. The presence of methane is intriguing because its likely origin is either present-day life or geological activity.

Confirmation of either would be a major discovery.

The 2018 ExoMars rover - now a much bigger vehicle - could then be targeted at one of the most interesting sources.

The 2016 mission would also have sufficient mass margin to put some sort of lander on the surface, although this would stay in just one location and may not be very long-lived. source

My comment: I'm so happy to hear that those missions got an approval, because they are important for ESA and for European achievements as a whole. Too bad 2016 is so far ahead.

First commercial 3-D bio-printer makes human tissue and organs

Invetech, an innovator in new product development and custom automation for the biomedical, industrial and consumer markets, today announced that it has delivered the world's first production model 3D bio-printer to Organovo, developers of the proprietary NovoGen bioprinting technology. Organovo will supply the units to research institutions investigating human tissue repair and organ replacement.

Keith Murphy, CEO of Organovo, based in San Diego, said the units represent a breakthrough because they provide for the first time a flexible technology platform for organizations working on many different types of tissue construction and organ replacement.

The printer, developed by Invetech, fits inside a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for placing a hydrogel, scaffold, or support matrix.

Invetech plan to ship a number of 3D bio-printers to Organovo during 2010 and 2011 as a part of the instrument development program. source

My comment: Now that is absolutely awesome! Even if it is somewhat grotesque - a printer for bio-tissues. But still, imagine how useful it could be in the cases of burn victims. And this is the most simple use. We're not even talking about organ growth. And the researchers would be able to play with different tissues, like on a computer game. So cool!

Fake blood-clotting product to heal wounded soldiers

Scientists say they have made a synthetic blood-clotting agent that could help wounded troops and patients. In the lab, the fake platelets cut bleeding in half compared with having no treatment.

They could offer doctors a limitless supply with a longer shelf life than fresh donor platelets, the journal Science Translational Medicine reports.

The Case Western Reserve University team in the US hopes the product could become available in coming years.

James Bertram and Professor Erin Lavik developed the platelets using biodegradable polymers and designed them to home in and link up with a patient's own platelets at the site of injury.

The synthetic platelets work alongside the body's own platelets to quickly stem the bleeding.

In rats, injections of the therapy prior to injury halved bleeding time. When given 20 seconds after the injury, bleeding time was cut by a quarter.


My comment: I only cannot understand why they should use it only "on the field". I guess it's the army who paid them, but still I don't like the way it sounds. I think civil health care is also extremely important.

First Self-sustaining Fusion Reactor Planned

Russia and Italy have entered into an agreement to build a new fusion reactor outside Moscow that could become the first such reactor to achieve ignition, the point where a fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining instead of requiring a constant input of energy. The design for the reactor, called Ignitor, originated with MIT physics professor Bruno Coppi, who will be the project's principal investigator.

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