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Friday, August 26, 2016

Smart Nanocoating Admits Visible light While Rejecting Infrared Heat

By fine-tuning the chemical composition of nanoparticles, researchers at Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) have developed a coating that is promising for fabricating smart windows suitable for tropical countries. Such windows block almost all the infrared heat from sun rays, while admitting most of the visible light.

The transparency of glass to visible light makes it the most common way to let light into a building. But because glass is also transparent to near-infrared radiation — windows also let in heat, giving rise to the well-known greenhouse effect. While this heating is welcomed in colder climates, it means that air conditioning has to work harder to maintain a comfortable temperature in in tropical climes.

A*STAR researchers have developed a window coating that lets visible light through while blocking near-infrared radiation.

Credit:  © 2016 A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing and Technology

Developing smart windows that allow most of the sun’s light in, while blocking near-infrared radiation, would cut energy costs and reduce carbon emissions.

“In tropical Singapore, where air conditioning is the largest component of a building’s energy requirements, even a small reduction in heat intake can translate into significant savings,” notes Hui Huang of the A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing and Technology.

Huang and his co-workers have developed such windows by coating glass with tin oxide nanoparticles doped with small amounts of the element antimony. By varying the nanoparticles’ antimony concentration, they could optimize their ability to absorb near-infrared radiation.

“Our infrared shielding coating, with 10-nanometer antimony-doped tin oxide nanoparticles, blocks more than 90 per cent of near-infrared radiation, while transmitting more than 80 per cent of visible light,” says Huang. “These figures are much better than those of coatings obtained using commercial antimony-doped tin oxide nanopowders. In particular, the infrared shielding performance of our small antimony-doped tin oxide nanocrystals is twice that of larger commercial antimony-doped tin oxide powders.”

The team produced the tiny nanoparticles using a synthesis technique known as the solvothermal method, in which precursors are heated under pressure in a special vessel, called an autoclave. The solvothermal method permits synthesis at relatively low temperatures. It also enables the nanoparticle size to be tightly controlled, which is important when trying to block some wavelengths of light while allowing others to pass through.

The work has already attracted the interest of industry. “A local glass company supporting this project is interested in licensing this smart window technology with infrared shielding,” says Huang. Potentially, the coating techniques could be applied on-site to existing windows, he adds.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing and Technology. For more information on the team's research, please visit the Surface Technology Group webpage.




Contacts and sources:
The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

Citation': Huang, H., Ng, M., Wu, Y. & Kong, L. Solvothermal synthesis of Sb:SnO2 nanoparticles and IR shielding coating for smart window. Materials & Design 88, 384–389 (2015).

New Material Enables Smartphones to Detect Toxic Gases

A joint research group including senior researcher Shinsuke Ishihara at the Frontier Molecules Group, International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA), National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), and Professor Timothy M. Swager, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developed a chemical sensing material whose electrical conductivity dramatically increases when exposed to toxic gases.

In addition, the group integrated the sensing material into the electronic circuit in a near-field communication (NFC) tag, which is embedded in smart cards like those used to get through train ticket gates. Then, it was demonstrated that this technology made it possible for smartphones to quickly (in 5 sec) detect toxic gases at a low concentration (10 ppm).

Toxic gas sensor integrated with a near field communication (NFC) tag linked to a smartphone.
Copyright : NIMS


People in today’s society are subject to risks of being exposed to toxic gases deriving from natural sources (e.g., volcanic gases), leak accidents or potential acts of terrorism. Means to easily and quickly detect toxic gases are vital in terms of minimizing their harmful effect. The currently available toxic gas sensors are expensive, bulky, heavy and difficult to operate, and it is not practical to set them at many public locations (e.g., subways) or for people to carry them around.

The joint research group developed a chemical sensing material consisting of a group of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) individually wrapped with supramolecular polymers—clusters of monomers held together through weak interactions. The material’s electrical conductivity increases up to 3,000 times when it is exposed to electrophilic toxic gases. CNTs alone are highly conductive materials, but when they are wrapped with supramolecular polymers, which serve as insulators, they become poor conductors. 

The supramolecular polymers were designed so that weakly bound sites in the molecules are dissociated when these sites are exposed to toxic gases, causing the wrapping molecules to disassemble. As a result, the original high conductive state of CNTs is restored. The extent of change in conductivity is directly proportional to the concentration of and the duration of exposure to a toxic gas, and the conductivity change can be easily measured by a commercially available resistance meter.

Researchers created a toxic gas sensor whose measurement can be read on smartphones by integrating the chemical sensing material into the electronic circuit present in a commercially available NFC tag. Users can readily determine the presence/absence of toxic gas by holding an NFC-compatible smartphone over a sensor-embedded NFC tag while making sure that communication between the two devices is intact. The sensor is disposable, and 1 g of the chemical sensing material makes 4 million sensors. So, it is feasible to mass-produce the sensor at low cost.

In future studies, researchers plan to develop chemical sensors capable of detecting various types of toxic chemical substances more sensitively, quickly and effortlessly by making modifications to the structure of the supramolecular polymer. Researchers will also develop a system that contributes to making society safer by selecting the type of wireless communication technology (in terms of communication distance, power consumption, etc.) compatible with the application of chemical sensors and considering the integration of chemical sensors with the internet cloud technology.

This study was conducted at MIT with support from the Postdoctoral Fellowship for Research Abroad program offered by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The study was published in the online version of the Journal of the American Chemical Society on June 23, 2016.  



Contacts and sources:
Mikiko Tanifuji

Banned Chemicals Persist in Environment, Linked to Autism in New Study


Chemicals used in certain pesticides and as insulating material banned in the 1970s may still be haunting us, according to new research that suggests links between higher levels of exposure during pregnancy and significantly increased odds of autism spectrum disorder in children.

According to the research, children born after being exposed to the highest levels of certain compounds of the chemicals, called organochlorine chemicals, during their mother’s pregnancy were roughly 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism when compared to individuals with the very lowest levels of these chemicals. That also includes those who were completely unexposed.

Although production of organochlorine chemicals was banned in the United States in 1977, these compounds can remain in the environment and become absorbed in the fat of animals that humans eat, leading to exposure.

PCB transformers, which contain chemicals like the ones in the study found to increase the risk of autism when there are high levels of exposure.

Credit: Drexel University

With that in mind, Kristen Lyall, ScD, assistant professor in Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, and her collaborators, decided to look at organochlorine chemicals during pregnancy since they can cross through the placenta and affect the fetus’ neurodevelopment.

“There’s a fair amount of research examining exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy in association with other outcomes, like birth weight — but little research on autism, specifically,” Lyall said. “To examine the role of environmental exposures in risk of autism, it is important that samples are collected during time frames with evidence for susceptibility for autism — termed ‘critical windows’ in neurodevelopment. Fetal development is one of those critical windows.”

Their paper describing this study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Now a researcher in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Modifiable Risk Factors Program, Lyall was with the California Department of Public Health when she began the work. She teamed with researchers from the department, including Gayle Windham, PhD, and Martin Kharrazi, PhD, members of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research (which includes the study’s principal investigator, Lisa Croen, PhD), as well as an expert on measuring organochlorine chemicals, Andreas Sjodin, PhD, of the Division of Laboratory Sciences of the National Center for Environmental Health.

The team looked at a population sample of 1,144 children born in Southern California between 2000 and 2003. Data was accrued from mothers who had enrolled in California’s Expanded Alphafetoprotein Prenatal Screening Program, which is dedicated to detecting birth defects during pregnancy.

Participants’ children were separated into three groups: 545 who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, 181 with intellectual disabilities but no autism diagnosis, and 418 with a diagnosis of neither.

Blood tests taken from the second trimester of the children’s mothers were used to determine the level of exposure to two different classes of organochlorine chemicals: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, which were used as lubricants, coolants and insulators in consumer and electrical products) and organochlorine pesticides (OCPs, which include chemicals like DDT).

“Exposure to PCBs and OCPs is ubiquitous,” Lyall said. “Work from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which includes pregnant women, shows that people in the U.S. generally still have measurable levels of these chemicals in their bodies.”

However, Lyall emphasized that exposure levels were key in determining risk.

“Adverse effects are related to levels of exposure, not just presence or absence of detectable levels,” she said. “In our Southern California study population, we found evidence for modestly increased risk for individuals in the highest 25th percentile of exposure to some of these chemicals.”

It was determined that two compounds in particular — PCB 138/158 and PCB 153 — stood out as being significantly linked with autism risk. Children with the highest in utero levels (exposure during their mother’s pregnancy) of these two forms of PCBs were between 79 and 82 percent more likely to have an autism diagnosis than those found to be exposed to the lowest levels. High levels of two other compounds, PCB 170 and PCB 180, were also associated with children being approximately 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed — again, this is relative to children with the lowest prenatal exposure to these PCBs.

None of the OCPs appeared to show an association with higher autism diagnosis risk.

In children with intellectual disabilities but not autism, the highest exposure to PCBs appeared to double the risk of a diagnosis when compared to those with the lowest exposure. Mid-range (rather than high) OCP exposure was also associated with an increased level of intellectual disability diagnosis when measured against children with the lowest exposure levels.

“The results suggest that prenatal exposure to these chemicals above a certain level may influence neurodevelopment in adverse ways,” Lyall said.

These results are a first step to suggest these compounds may increase risk of development of autism, and Lyall and her colleagues are eyeing up more work in the field.

“We are definitely doing more research to build on this — including work examining genetics, as well as mixtures of chemicals,” Lyall said. “This investigation draws from a rich dataset and we need more studies like this in autism research.




Contacts and sources:
by Frank Otto



Thursday, August 25, 2016

THC Makes Rats Lazy, Not Less Able to Try Cognitively Demanding Tasks: UBC Study

New research from the University of British Columbia suggests there may be some truth to the belief that marijuana use causes laziness— at least in rats.

Credit: UBC

The study, published August 23rd in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, makes rats less willing to try a cognitively demanding task.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that when we gave THC to these rats, they basically became cognitively lazy,” said Mason Silveira, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of psychology. “What’s interesting, however, is that their ability to do the difficult challenge was unaffected by THC. The rats could still do the task— they just didn’t want to.”


Credit: UBC

For the study, researchers looked at the effects of both THC and cannabidiol (CBD) on rats’ willingness to exert cognitive effort.

They trained 29 rats to perform a behavioural experiment in which the animals had to choose whether they wanted an easy or difficult challenge to earn sugary treats.

Under normal circumstances, most rats preferred the harder challenge to earn a bigger reward. But when the rats were given THC, the animals switched to the easier option, despite earning a smaller reward.

When they looked at the effect of CBD, an ingredient in marijuana that does not result in a high, researchers found the chemical did not have any effect on rats’ decision-making or attention. CBD, which is believed to be beneficial in treating pain, epilepsy and even cancer, also didn’t block the negative effects of THC.

“This was surprising, as it had been suggested that high concentrations of CBD could modulate or reduce the negative effects of THC,” said Catharine Winstanley, senior author of the study and an associate professor in UBC’s department of psychology. “Unfortunately, that did not appear to be the case.”

Given how essential willingness to exert cognitive effort is for people to achieve success, Winstanley said the findings underscore the importance of realizing the possible effect of cannabis use on impairing willingness to engage in harder tasks.

While some people view marijuana as a panacea that can cure all ailments, the findings also highlight a need for more research to determine what THC does to the human brain to alter decision-making. That could eventually allow scientists to block these effects of THC, allowing those who use medical marijuana to enjoy the possible benefits of cannabis without the less desirable cognitive effects.
Method

At the beginning of each behavioural experiment, rats chose between two levers to signal whether they wanted an easy or hard challenge.

Choosing the easy challenge resulted in a light turning on for one second, which the rats could easily detect and respond to by poking it with their nose, receiving one sugar pellet as a reward. In the more difficult challenge, the light turned on for only 0.2 seconds, rewarding the rat with two sugar pellets if they responded with a nose poke.


Contacts and sources:
Thandi Fletcher
University of British Columbia

Significant Etruscan Discovery Names Female Goddess Uni

Archaeologists translating a very rare inscription on an ancient Etruscan temple stone have discovered the name Uni — an important female goddess. Uni was the supreme goddess of the Etruscan pantheon and the patron goddess of Perugia. Uni was identified by the Etruscans as their equivalent of Juno in Roman mythology and Hera in Greek mythology.

The discovery indicates that Uni — a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess at this particular place — may have been the titular deity worshiped at the sanctuary of Poggio Colla, a key settlement in Italy for the ancient Etruscan civilization.

In the Etruscan tradition, it is Uni who grants access to immortality to the demigod Hercle (Greek Heracles, Latin Hercules) by offering her breast milk to him

Drawing of a scene on an Etruscan mirror, in which Uni suckles the adult Hercle before he ascends to immortality
Uni et hercle.jpg
Credit: Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans, Indiana University Press, 1975

The mention is part of a sacred text that is possibly the longest such Etruscan inscription ever discovered on stone, said archaeologist Gregory Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, main sponsor of the archaeological dig.

Inscribed surfaces of the stele already have revealed mention of the goddess Uni as well as a reference to the god Tina, the name of the supreme deity of the Etruscans.
Credit: Mugello Valley Projec

Scientists on the research discovered the ancient stone slab embedded as part of a temple wall at Poggio Colla, a dig where many other Etruscan objects have been found, including a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art. That object reinforces the interpretation of a fertility cult at Poggio Colla, Warden said.

Now Etruscan language experts are studying the 500-pound slab — called a stele (STEE-lee) — to translate the text. It’s very rare to identify the god or goddess worshipped at an Etruscan sanctuary.

“The location of its discovery — a place where prestigious offerings were made — and the possible presence in the inscription of the name of Uni, as well as the care of the drafting of the text, which brings to mind the work of a stone carver who faithfully followed a model transmitted by a careful and educated scribe, suggest that the document had a dedicatory character,” said Adriano Maggiani, formerly Professor at the University of Venice and one of the scholars working to decipher the inscription.

“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden, co-director and principal investigator of theMugello Valley Archaeological Project that made the discovery.

Warden said it will be easier to speak with more certainty once the archaeologists are able to completely reconstruct the text, which consists of as many as 120 characters or more. While archaeologists understand how Etruscan grammar works, and know some of its words and alphabet, they expect to discover new words never seen before, particularly since this discovery veers from others in that it’s not a funerary text.

The Mugello Valley archaeologists are announcing discovery of the goddess Uni at an exhibit in Florence on Aug. 27, “Scrittura e culto a Poggio Colla, un santuario etrusco nel Mugello,” and in a forthcoming article in the scholarly journal Etruscan Studies.

Text may specify the religious ritual for temple ceremonies dedicated to the goddess
It’s possible the text contains the dedication of the sanctuary, or some part of it, such as the temple proper, so the expectation is that it will reveal the early beliefs of a lost culture fundamental to western traditions.

The sandstone slab, which dates to the 6th century BCE and is nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, was discovered in the final stages of two decades of digging at Mugello Valley, which is northeast of Florence in north central Italy.

The partially cleaned stele bears one of the longest Etruscan texts ever found, possibly spelling out ceremonial religious rituals. 
Credit: Mugello Valley Project

Etruscans once ruled Rome, influencing that civilization in everything from religion and government to art and architecture. A highly cultured people, Etruscans were also very religious and their belief system permeated all aspects of their culture and life.

Inscription may reveal data to understand concepts and rituals, writing and language
Permanent Etruscan inscriptions are rare, as Etruscans typically used linen cloth books or wax tablets. The texts that have been preserved are quite short and are from graves, thus funerary in nature.

“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” Warden said. “It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”

Besides being possibly the longest Etruscan inscription on stone, it is also one of the three longest sacred texts to date.

One section of the text refers to “tinaś,” a reference to Tina, the name of the supreme deity of the Etruscans. Tina was equivalent to ancient Greece’s Zeus or Rome’s Jupiter.

Slab was once an imposing and monumental symbol of authority
The slab was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. At one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority, said Warden, president and professor of archaeology at Franklin University Switzerland.

The text is being studied by two noted experts on the Etruscan language, including Maggiani, who is an epigrapher, and Rex Wallace, professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is a comparative linguist.

A hologram of the stele will be shown at the Florence exhibit, as conservation of the stele is ongoing at the conservation laboratories of the Archaeological Superintendency in Florence. Digital documentation is being done by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone is heavily abraded and chipped, so cleaning should allow scholars to read the inscription.

Other objects unearthed in the past 20 years have shed light on Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. The material helps document ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE.

Besides SMU, other collaborating institutions at Mugello Valley Archaeological Project include Franklin and Marshall College, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy at The University of Texas at Austin, The Open University (UK), and Franklin University Switzerland.  




Contacts and sources:
Margaret Allen
Southern Methodist University

Seeking the Perfect Toilet Paper



Canada’s tissue manufacturers are now much closer to producing the perfect paper, thanks to new UBC research.

A team working with UBC mechanical engineering professors Sheldon Green and Srikanth Phani have created what is likely the first complete mathematical model of creping, the crinkling process that helps make tissue paper soft and resilient.

Credit: Nancy Wombat

“The new model provides a significantly better understanding of the dynamics of the creping process, allowing manufacturers to tailor the process to a greater degree than before,” said Green. “It’s the most accurate model of creping to date.”

During tissue manufacture, pulp is dried on a chemical-coated rotating drum until it’s 95 per cent dry. It’s then pushed off at very high speeds by a sharp creping blade, creating hundreds of microscopic folds that give tissue its softness, flexibility, tearing resistance and strength.

UBC mechanical engineering researchers Srikanth Phani, Kui Pan and Sheldon Green
Credit: UBC

“With our model, manufacturers can better manipulate the different elements—the chemicals, the pulp, the creping blade angle, the paper speed and so on—to produce the exact product grade they want, from standard grade toilet paper to ultra-premium bathroom rolls,” said Green.

“Previous simulation models were static and didn’t consider the velocity and impact of the dryer,” said Kui Pan, the PhD student who led the mathematical analysis.

The search for the ideal tissue paper is a top concern for the paper industry. Pan’s supervisor, Srikanth Phani, believes their discovery can help paper firms in this quest.



“Canada is a strong player in the billion-dollar global market for tissue products including bathroom rolls, facial tissues, and hygiene products. This new research can contribute to the growth of that industry,” added Phani.

The UBC team worked with scientists from Canadian research organization FPInnovations. The project has received support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and, more recently, from Kruger Products, Canada’s leading tissue manufacturer, and creping chemicals manufacturer Solenis.

The research was presented at the 24th International Congress of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Montreal on August 21-26.



Contacts and sources:
Lou Corpuz-Bosshart\
University of British Columbia 

Even in the Early-universe Cosmic Neighbors Inhibited Star Formation


The international University of California, Riverside-led SpARCS collaboration has discovered four of the most distant clusters of galaxies ever found, as they appeared when the universe was only 4 billion years old. 

Clusters are rare regions of the universe consisting of hundreds of galaxies containing trillions of stars, as well as hot gas and mysterious dark matter. Spectroscopic observations from the ground using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Very Large Telescope in Chile confirmed the four candidates to be massive clusters. This sample is now providing the best measurement yet of when and how fast galaxy clusters stop forming stars in the early Universe.



Color images of the central regions of z > 1.35 SpARCS clusters. Cluster members are marked with white squares.

SpARCS collaboration.

"We looked at how the properties of galaxies in these clusters differed from galaxies found in more typical environments with fewer close neighbors," said Julie Nantais, an assistant professor at the Andres Bello University in Chile and the first author of the research paperthat appears in the August 2016 issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics. 

"It has long been known that when a galaxy falls into a cluster, interactions with other cluster galaxies and with hot gas accelerate the shut off of its star formation relative to that of a similar galaxy in the field, in a process known as environmental quenching. The SpARCS team has developed new techniques using Spitzer Space Telescope infrared observations to identify hundreds of previously-undiscovered clusters of galaxies in the distant universe."

Results

As anticipated, the team did indeed find that many more galaxies in the clusters had stopped forming stars compared to galaxies of the same mass in the field. Lead scientist Gillian Wilson, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside, said, "Fascinatingly, however, the study found that the percentage of galaxies which had stopped forming stars in those young, distant clusters, was much lower than the percentage found in much older, nearby clusters. While it had been fully expected that the percentage of cluster galaxies which had stopped forming stars would increase as the universe aged, this latest work quantifies the effect." 

Massive galaxy cluster MACS J0416 seen in X-rays (blue), visible light (red, green, and blue), and radio light (pink).
Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/G.OGREAN/STSCI/NRAO/AUI/NSF.

The paper concludes that about 30 percent of the galaxies which would normally be forming stars have been quenched in the distant clusters, compared to the much higher value of about 50 percent found in nearby clusters.

Several possible physical processes could be responsible for causing environmental quenching. For example, the hot, harsh cluster environment might prevent the galaxy from continuing to accrete cold gas and form new stars, a process astronomers have named "starvation." Alternatively, the quenching could be caused by interactions with other galaxies in the cluster. These galaxies might "harass" (undergo frequent, high speed, gravitationally-disturbing encounters), tidally strip (pull material from a smaller galaxy to a larger one) or merge (two or more galaxies joining together) with the first galaxy to stop its star formation.

While the current study does not answer the question of which process is primarily responsible, it is nonetheless hugely important because it provides the most accurate measurement yet of how much environmental quenching has occurred in the early universe. Moreover, the study provides an all-important early-universe benchmark by which to judge upcoming predictions from competing computational numerical simulations which make different assumptions about the relative importance of the many different environmental quenching processes which have been suggested, and the timescales upon which they operate.



Contacts and sources:
Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California

Nopal Slobber Purifies Water Quickly and Cheaply

In the world, four billion people suffer from water shortages at least one month a year, according to data from the World Economic Forum. Against this backdrop, researchers at the College of Science and Technology Studies Hidalgo (CECyTE) developed a method for purifying wastewater from nopal slobber.

Nopal is a common name in Mexican Spanish for Opuntia cacti (commonly referred to in English as prickly pear), as well as for its pads.
Credit: Wikipedia

Researchers discovered that mucilage or slobber of nopal purifies water almost instantly. "I just need to add the powder, stir, wait 10 minutes and filter, if desired; in this way the liquid is ready to drink. In addition, for every liter of water we used 0.4 grams of mucilage", explained the biologist Blanca Esthela Olguin Galvez, researcher CECyTE.

She explained that to obtain powder, the chemical process lasting 48 hours, where extract the slobber of nopal and the fiber is removed with various solvents, then dehydrated to finally obtain the powdery substance.

Powdered nopal
Credit:  Investigación y Desarrollo

The development, which already has patent, is economical because the vast production of nopal that Mexico takes advantage. "For every kilogram of nopal 1.2 grams of pure mucilage we are obtained".

In addition, tests were performed on three types of water; wells, springs and tap, "were applied physico-chemical studies and found bacteria, mineral salts and heavy metals such as selenium and lead, by adding the mucilage is able to eliminate".

The effectiveness of mucilage is equal to that provided by the aluminum oxide, mineral used in treatment plants, sewage and pools to prevent the formation of germs and algae.

"The mucilage is a network of carbohydrates, what it does is catch the dissolved organic substances. In some national studies it has found that our body clean impurities, forming a molecular network that attracts; even water could be consumed with everything and this substance, but ideally eliminate, "Olguin said Galvez.

Blanca Esthela Olguin Galvez

Credit: Investigación y Desarrollo

The project started in 2011 and have collaborated many students, including Carlos Lopez Mejia, CECyTE student, who entered the career of civil engineering at the IPN and continued development.

In this institution he made a business plan in the incubator and Organic Nopalpure created in order to commercialize innovation, reduce the consumption of bottled water in the country and bring the vital product to poor regions.

International recognition

The water purification method created by Olguin Galvez was recognized by several awards, such as the National Youth RedEmprendia and Water, awarded by the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Swedish Embassy in Mexico.

The team was invited to the World Water Week which is held every year in Stockholm, Sweden the first week of September. This is the second time attending, the first was in 2013 and now compete for the Nobel Water.

There are approximately one hundred and fourteen known species endemic to Mexico, where the plant is a common ingredient in numerous Mexican cuisine dishes. The nopal pads can be eaten raw or cooked, used in marmalades, soups stews and salads, as well as being used for traditional medicine or as fodder for animals. Farmed nopales are most often of the species Opuntia ficus-indica or Opuntia joconostle although the pads of almost all Opuntia species are edible. The other part of the nopal cactus that is edible is the fruit called the tuna in Spanish, and the "prickly pear" in English.

Nopales Salad
Credit: Wikipedia

Nopales are generally sold fresh in Mexico, cleaned of spines, and sliced to the customer's desire on the spot, they can also be found canned or bottled, and less often dried, especially for export. Cut into slices or diced into cubes, nopales have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture. In most recipes, the mucilaginous liquid they contain is sometimes included in the cooking. They are at their most tender and juicy in the spring.




Contacts and sources:
Investigación y Desarrollo

 





Artificial Retinas: Promising Leads Towards Clearer Vision

A major therapeutic challenge, the retinal prostheses that have been under development during the past ten years can enable some blind subjects to perceive light signals, but the image thus restored is still far from being clear. 

 By comparing in rodents the activity of the visual cortex generated artificially by implants against that produced by “natural sight”, scientists from CNRS, CEA, INSERM, AP-HM and Aix-Marseille Université identified two factors that limit the resolution of prostheses. Based on these findings, they were able to improve the precision of prosthetic activation. These multidisciplinary efforts, published on 23 August 2016 in eLife, thus open the way towards further advances in retinal prostheses that will enhance the quality of life of implanted patients.

A retinal prosthesis comprises three elements: a camera (inserted in the patient's spectacles), an electronic microcircuit (which transforms data from the camera into an electrical signal) and a matrix of microscopic electrodes (implanted in the eye in contact with the retina). This prosthesis replaces the photoreceptor cells of the retina: like them, it converts visual information into electrical signals which are then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve.

Activation (colored circles at the level of the visual cortex) of the visual system by prosthetic stimulation (in the middle, in red, the insert shows an image of an implanted prosthesis) is greater and more elongated than the activation achieved under natural stimulation (on the left, in yellow). Using a protocol to adapt stimulation (on the right, in green), the size and shape of the activation can be controlled and are more similar to natural visual activation (yellow). 

Credit; © F. Chavane & S. Roux.

 It can treat blindness caused by a degeneration of retinal photoreceptors, on condition that the optical nerve has remained functional. This is the case of patients with Retinitis Pigmentosa or Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Equipped with these implants, patients who were totally blind can recover visual perceptions in the form of light spots, or phosphenes. Unfortunately, at present, the light signals perceived are not clear enough to recognize faces, read or move about independently.

To understand the resolution limits of the image generated by the prosthesis, and to find ways of optimizing the system, the scientists carried out a large-scale experiment on rodents. By combining their skills in ophthalmology and the physiology of vision, they compared the response of the visual system of rodents to both natural visual stimuli and those generated by the prosthesis.

Their work showed that the prosthesis activated the visual cortex of the rodent in the correct position and at ranges comparable to those obtained under natural conditions. However, the extent of the activation was much too great, and its shape was much too elongated. This deformation was due to two separate phenomena observed at the level of the electrode matrix. Firstly, the scientists observed excessive electrical diffusion: the thin layer of liquid situated between the electrode and the retina passively diffused the electrical stimulus to neighboring nerve cells. And secondly, they detected the unwanted activation of retinal fibers situated close to the cells targeted for stimulation.

Armed with these findings, the scientists were able to improve the properties of the interface between the prosthesis and retina, with the help of specialists in interface physics. Together, they were able to generate less diffuse currents and significantly improve artificial activation, and hence the performance of the prosthesis.

This lengthy study, because of the range of parameters covered (to study the different positions, types and intensities of signals) and the surgical problems encountered (in inserting the implant and recording the images generated in the animal's brain) has nevertheless opened the way towards making promising improvements to retinal prostheses for humans.

This work was carried out by scientists from the Institut de Neurosciences de la Timone (CNRS/AMU) and AP-HM, in collaboration with CEA-Leti and the Institut de la Vision (CNRS/INSERM/UPMC).


  



Contacts and sources:
CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)

Citation:  Probing the functional impact of sub-retinal prosthesis; Roux S., Matonti F., Dupont F., Hoffart L., Takerkart S., Picaud S., Pham P., Chavane F.; eLIFE, 23 août 2016.; DOI:
http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.12687

Babbler Bird Shows Signs of Evil Stepdad Behavior

An African desert-dwelling male bird favors his biological sons and alienates his stepsons, suggests research published today in Biological Letters.

"Nepotism has likely played a vital role in the evolution of family life in this species," said Martha Nelson-Flower, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's faculty of forestry but formerly of the University of Cape Town, where she conducted the research.

Credit:  University of British Columbia

The species is the southern pied babbler, a black and white bird found in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The bird lives in groups, and chicks are raised by both parents as well as other adult birds. The groups can range in size from three to up to 14 birds.'

Southern pied babblers are shown.

Credit: Martha Nelson-Flower


The group's dominant male bird appears to decide which of the subordinate males to tolerate in the group. Nelson-Flower's research shows subordinate male birds spend less time in a group if they are unrelated to the dominant male bird. These subordinate male birds are essentially pushed out of the group by their stepdads or, in some cases, their brothers-in-law. They are then forced to join other groups as subordinates or to live alone.

Over the course of five years in the summer, Nelson-Flower observed 45 different groups of southern pied babblers in the Kalahari Desert, walking around with the birds at dawn and dusk. She also relied on data collected by her co-author, Amanda Ridley, of the University of Western Australia. Combined, the researchers analyzed data from 11 years of observation.

The preferential treatment seen in the male birds was not observed among the females.

"The research is some of the first to show that the sex of both dominant and subordinate birds, and the genetic relationship between them, has a significant impact on their family groups and cooperative breeding behavior," said Nelson-Flower.

Previous work on the southern pied babbler has shown negative outcomes for birds who live alone for longer periods, including a decreased likelihood of attaining dominance in another group and increased weight loss.


Contacts and sources:
Corey Allen
University of British Columbia


Full study: Nepotism and subordinate tenure Q1 in a cooperative breeder   Biology Letters 20160365. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0365

Animal Whiskers Can Sense the Direction of the Wind


Many animals appear to have an impressive ability to follow the wind to find food, avoid predators, and connect with potential mates. Until now, however, no study had examined how land mammals know the direction of the wind. New research finds that an important part of this ability lies in an animal’s whiskers. The work could pave the way for the design of novel airflow measurement devices that imitate these biological sensors.


A team of four PhD students working with Northwestern Engineering’s Mitra Hartmann, professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering, report in the August 24 issue of Science Advances that rats use their whiskers to help locate airflow sources.

Mitra HartmannTo perform the experiment that led to this discovery, Yan Yu and Matthew Graff, co-first authors of the work, placed five, equally-spaced fans in a semicircle around the edge of a 6-foot circular table. In each trial, one of the five fans was randomly selected to blow air toward a “start-door” located on the opposite side of the table. A rat had to run from the door toward the fan blowing air, and go down a rat-sized hole directly in front of that fan. Each of the five holes (one in front of each fan) led to a tunnel beneath the table, where the rat was rewarded for choosing the correct fan. Cameras positioned above the table recorded the rats’ performance.



With five fans to choose from, rats could perform at a 20 percent correct level just by chance. After the rats had performed the task at a level of approximately 60 percent correct or higher for 10 days in a row, the researchers cut off the whiskers (a procedure as painless as a haircut) and looked for changes in behavior. Two additional study authors, Chris Bresee and Yan Man, contributed to running the experiment and analyzing the data. Ultimately, the team’s results showed that whisker removal decreased rats’ performance by approximately 20 percent.

Mitra Hartmann
Credit:  Northwestern University

To explain these results, the researchers noted that the rats were permitted to use any sensory cues they wanted to locate the fan.

“We didn’t require the rats to use their whiskers for this task,” said Yu. 

“They could use many other sources of information, including movement of the fur, mechanical cues from the skin, or thermal cues from the eyes, ears, or the snout,” added Man.

The use of multiple cues explains why rats were still able to perform above chance levels after whisker removal. The 20 percent performance drop after whisker removal, however, indicates that rats chose to use their whiskers during the task, even when many cues were available.

“The rat clearly uses more than one cue,” explained Bresee. “But rats still choose to rely heavily on their whiskers, which suggests that whiskers facilitate wind-sensing even when wild rats explore naturally.”

To control the risk of the rat seeing or hearing the spinning fan, the experiments were performed in a dark room with added ambient noise. To check for the possibility that rats were simply confused by the removal of their whiskers, another group of rats was trained to run to a light source instead of a wind source. The team found no changes in the performance of these rats after whisker removal.

Hartmann’s team is now investigating the mechanical and neural signals that underlie rat’s ability to do the task — with the goal of constructing artificial flow sensors that can be used on robots. In an earlier experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Yu, Graff, and Hartmann found that whiskers bend in the direction of the wind — and the harder the wind blows, the more the whiskers bend and vibrate.

“When the whisker bends, it presses on receptors at the whisker’s base” Graff said. “Our behavioral work now suggests that this mechanical information is actually used by the rat to locate an airflow source.”

Rats use whiskers to follow the fluid flow, but what about cats and dogs? Although the team has only studied rats, the group explains that whiskers are arranged in a very similar way on the faces of many other animals, strongly suggesting that they would also be used for flow sensing.

“If a whisker is exposed to wind, there is no question that it will bend and vibrate,” said Graff.

“It would make sense for all sorts of animals to exploit this mechanical information, given that sensing wind direction is important for so many behaviors,” Yu added.

Several potential applications of the work are based on the fact that odors are carried on air currents.

“Estimating the structure of airflow is particularly important when locating an odor source,” said Hartmann. “And odor localization is important for finding explosives, chemical spills, and biological agents.”


Contacts and sources:
Amanda Morris
Northwestern University

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fish Oil Pills Reverse the Effects of a Fatty Diet Says New Study

Scientists have found that fish oil supplements can reverse the effects of a high fat diet according to a study published in the Journal of Physiology.

The research from the University of São Paulo shows that giving mice supplement of fish oil prevents or reverses the harmful effects of a high fat diet. This further demonstrates the beneficial properties of fish oil pills, suggesting that they could be effective in preventing obesity and type-2 diabetes in humans.

Fish oil pills are a popular dietary supplement as they have many perceived benefits. A high-fat diet can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and increased cholesterol, which can lead to obesity and type-2 diabetes. This research reports, for the first time, that consumption of fish oil can prevent and counter the negative effects of a high-fat diet.

Fish oil pills are commonly used as dietary supplements.
Credit: Pixabay

The researchers fed mice that had been administered fish oil a high-fat diet for 4 weeks. They then collected and analysed their body fat samples and compared them to mice on a high-fat diet that had not been consuming fish oil. Factors that affect metabolism, fat deposits and insulin resistance were measured.

Professor Maria Isabel Alonso-Vale, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo and lead investigator of the study explained, 'Our research suggests that fish oil supplements may be used in addition to other strategies as a preventative measure for insulin resistance and obesity.'

She added, 'However, it is important to note that this research has been performed in mice which may not translate to humans. More research will need to be done so we can have a better understanding of the effect of fish oil in humans.'




Contacts and sources:
Sally Howells
The Physiology Society

NASA's WISE, Fermi Missions Reveal A Surprising Blazar Connection


Astronomers studying distant galaxies powered by monster black holes have uncovered an unexpected link between two very different wavelengths of the light they emit, the mid-infrared and gamma rays. The discovery, which was accomplished by comparing data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, has enabled the researchers to uncover dozens of new blazar candidates.

Francesco Massaro at the University of Turin in Italy and Raffaele D'Abrusco at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, show for the first time that the mid-infrared colors of blazars in WISE data correlate to an equivalent measurement of their gamma-ray output.

"This connection links two vastly different forms of light over an energy range spanning a factor of 10 billion," said Massaro. "Ultimately, it will help us decipher how supermassive black holes in these galaxies manage to convert the matter around them into vast amounts of energy."

Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.

Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Blazars constitute more than half of the discrete gamma-ray sources seen by Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). At the heart of a blazar lies a supersized black hole with millions of times the sun's mass surrounded by a disk of hot gas and dust. As material in the disk falls toward the black hole, some of it forms dual jets that blast subatomic particles straight out of the disk in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. A blazar appears bright to Fermi for two reasons. Its jets produce many gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, and we happen to be viewing the galaxy face on, which means one of its jets is pointing in our direction.

From January to August 2010, NASA's WISE mapped the entire sky in four infrared wavelengths, cataloging more than half a billion sources. In 2011, Massaro, D'Abrusco and their colleagues began using WISE data to investigate Fermi blazars.

"WISE made it possible to explore the mid-infrared colors of known gamma-ray blazars," said D'Abrusco. "We found that when we plotted Fermi blazars by their WISE colors in a particular way, they occupied a distinctly different part of the plot than other extragalactic gamma-ray sources."

An analysis of blazar properties observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) reveal a correlation in emissions from the mid-infrared to gamma rays, an energy range spanning a factor of 10 billion. When plotted by gamma-ray and mid-infrared colors, confirmed Fermi blazars (gold dots) form a unique band not shared by other sources beyond our galaxy. A blue line marks the best fit of these values. The relationship allows astronomers to identify potential new gamma-ray blazars by studying WISE infrared data.
Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Francesco Massaro, University of Turin

The scientists detail new aspects of the infrared/gamma-ray connection in a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal on Aug. 9. They say the electrons, protons and other particles accelerated in blazar jets leave a specific "fingerprint" in the infrared light they emit. This same pattern is also clearly evident in their gamma rays. The relationship effectively connects the dots for blazars across an enormous swath of the electromagnetic spectrum.

About a thousand Fermi sources remain unassociated with known objects at any other wavelength. Astronomers suspect many of these are blazars, but there isn't enough information to classify them. The infrared/gamma-ray connection led the authors to search for new blazar candidates among WISE infrared sources located within the positional uncertainties of Fermi's unidentified gamma-ray objects. When the researchers applied this relationship to Fermi's unknown sources, they quickly found 130 potential blazars. Efforts are now under way to confirm the nature of these objects through follow-up studies and to search for additional candidates using the WISE connection.

"About a third of the gamma-ray objects seen by Fermi remained unknown in the most recent catalog, and this result represents an important advance in understanding their natures," said David Thompson, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.



Contacts and sources:
Elizabeth Landau
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Earth-Mass World in Orbit Around Proxima Centauri, In Habitable Zone of Our Closet Stellar Neighbor (Videos, Photos)


Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us -- and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System. A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016.

This artist's impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The Pale Red Dot campaign aimed to find a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. Incredibly, the quest succeeded and the team did indeed find a planet. Even more excitingly, the planet, Proxima b, falls within the habitable zone of its host star. The newly discovered Proxima b is by far the closest potential abode for alien life.

Just over four light-years from the Solar System lies a red dwarf star that has been named Proxima Centauri as it is the closest star to Earth apart from the Sun. This cool star in the constellation of Centaurus is too faint to be seen with the unaided eye and lies near to the much brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB.

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

This artist’s impression video shows a view of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between Proxima and the planet. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

During the first half of 2016 Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile and simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the world [1]. This was the Pale Red Dot campaign, in which a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London, was looking for the tiny back and forth wobble of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of a possible orbiting planet [2].

As this was a topic with very wide public interest, the progress of the campaign between mid-January and April 2016 was shared publicly as it happened on the Pale Red Dot website and via social media. The reports were accompanied by numerous outreach articles written by specialists around the world.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé explains the background to this unique search: "The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning."

An angular size comparison of how Proxima will appear in the sky seen from Proxima b, compared to how the Sun appears in our sky on Earth. Proxima is much smaller than the Sun, but Proxima b lies very close to its star.

Credit: ESO/G. Coleman

The Pale Red Dot data, when combined with earlier observations made at ESO observatories and elsewhere, revealed the clear signal of a truly exciting result. At times Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 5 kilometres per hour -- normal human walking pace -- and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts showed that they indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri -- only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance [3].

Guillem Anglada-Escudé comments on the excitement of the last few months: "I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!"

Credit; ESO

Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of a planet. To exclude this possibility the team also monitored the changing brightness of the star very carefully during the campaign using the ASH2 telescope at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile and the Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network. Radial velocity data taken when the star was flaring were excluded from the final analysis.

Although Proxima b orbits much closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun in the Solar System, the star itself is far fainter than the Sun. As a result Proxima b lies well within the habitable zone around the star and has an estimated surface temperature that would allow the presence of liquid water. Despite the temperate orbit of Proxima b, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star -- far more intense than the Earth experiences from the Sun [4].


The relative sizes of a number of objects, including the three (known) members of Alpha Centauri triple system and some other stars for which the angular sizes have also been measured with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory. The Sun and planet Jupiter are also shown for comparison.
Credit: ESO

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate. They find that the existence of liquid water on the planet today cannot be ruled out and, in such case, it may be present over the surface of the planet only in the sunniest regions, either in an area in the hemisphere of the planet facing the star (synchronous rotation) or in a tropical belt (3:2 resonance rotation). Proxima b's rotation, the strong radiation from its star and the formation history of the planet makes its climate quite different from that of the Earth, and it is unlikely that Proxima b has seasons.

This image of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri AB also shows the much fainter red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The picture was created from pictures forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The blue halo around Alpha Centauri AB is an artifact of the photographic process, the star is really pale yellow in colour like the Sun.

Credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani
This discovery will be the beginning of extensive further observations, both with current instruments [5] and with the next generation of giant telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe. Indeed, the Alpha Centauri system is also the target of humankind's first attempt to travel to another star system, the StarShot project.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé concludes: "Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people's stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next..."

This video shows an artist’s impression of a trip from Earth (the Pale Blue Dot) to Proxima b, a Pale Red Dot orbiting the closest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri. As we leave the Solar System we see the familiar constellation figures including the Southern Cross (Crux) and the bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. We gradually close in on a faint red star, this is Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth and the faintest component of a triple star system. The final part shows the planet Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System.

Credit: ESO./L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)


On 24 August 2016 at 13:00 CEST, ESO hosted a press conference at its Headquarters in Garching, near Munich, Germany.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser


Notes:
[1] Besides data from the recent Pale Red Dot campaign, the paper incorporates contributions from scientists who have been observing Proxima Centauri for many years. These include members of the original UVES/ESO M-dwarf programme (Martin Kürster and Michael Endl), and exoplanet search pioneers such as R. Paul Butler. Public observations from the HARPS/Geneva team obtained over many years were also included.

[2] The name Pale Red Dot reflects Carl Sagan's famous reference to the Earth as a pale blue dot. As Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star it will bathe its orbiting planet in a pale red glow.

[3] The detection reported today has been technically possible for the last 10 years. In fact, signals with smaller amplitudes have been detected previously. However, stars are not smooth balls of gas and Proxima Centauri is an active star. The robust detection of Proxima b has only been possible after reaching a detailed understanding of how the star changes on timescales from minutes to a decade, and monitoring its brightness with photometric telescopes.

[4] The actual suitability of this kind of planet to support water and Earth-like life is a matter of intense but mostly theoretical debate. Major concerns that count against the presence of life are related to the closeness of the star. For example gravitational forces probably lock the same side of the planet in perpetual daylight, while the other side is in perpetual night. The planet's atmosphere might also slowly be evaporating or have more complex chemistry than Earth's due to stronger ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, especially during the first billion years of the star's life. However, none of the arguments has been proven conclusively and they are unlikely to be settled without direct observational evidence and characterisation of the planet's atmosphere. Similar factors apply to the planets recently found around TRAPPIST-1.

[5] Some methods to study a planet's atmosphere depend on it passing in front of its star and the starlight passing through the atmosphere on its way to Earth. Currently there is no evidence that Proxima b transits across the disc of its parent star, and the chances of this happening seem small, but further observations to check this possibility are in progress.

Octobot: Autonomous 3D Printed Untethered Soft Robot Uses No Electronics (Videos)

A team of Harvard University researchers with expertise in 3D printing, mechanical engineering, and microfluidics has demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. This small, 3D-printed robot — nicknamed the octobot — could pave the way for a new generation of completely soft, autonomous machines as it uses no electronics.

Credit: SEAS

Soft robotics could revolutionize how humans interact with machines. But researchers have struggled to build entirely compliant robots. Electric power and control systems — such as batteries and circuit boards — are rigid and until now soft-bodied robots have been either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components.

The octobot is powered by a chemical reaction and controlled with a soft logic board. A reaction inside the bot transforms a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the octobot's arms and inflates them like a balloon. A microfluidic logic circuit, a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator, controls when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot.

Credit: Lori Sanders

Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) led the research. Lewis and Wood are also core faculty members of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.


“One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said Wood. “This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.”

The research is described in the journal Nature.

“Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power and actuation, in a rapid manner,” said Lewis. “The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”


The team used a microfluidic logic circuit, a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator, to control when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot.

Credit: Lori Sanders

Octopuses have long been a source of inspiration in soft robotics. These curious creatures can perform incredible feats of strength and dexterity with no internal skeleton.

Harvard’s octobot is pneumatic-based — powered by gas under pressure. A reaction inside the bot transforms a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the octobot’s arms and inflates them like a balloon.


Credit: SEAS

“Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components,” said Michael Wehner, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wood lab and co-first author of the paper. “The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst — in this case platinum — allows us to replace rigid power sources.”

To control the reaction, the team used a microfluidic logic circuit based on pioneering work by co-author and chemist George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor and core faculty member of the Wyss. The circuit, a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator, controls when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot.

“The entire system is simple to fabricate, by combining three fabrication methods — soft lithography, molding and 3D printing — we can quickly manufacture these devices,” said Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the Lewis lab and co-first author of the paper.

The simplicity of the assembly process paves the way for more complex designs. Next, the Harvard team hopes to design an octobot that can crawl, swim and interact with its environment.

“This research is a proof of concept,” Truby said. “We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing,”

The paper was co-authored by Daniel Fitzgerald of the Wyss Institute and Bobak Mosadegh, of Cornell University. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at Harvard and by the Wyss Institute.

Visit the new Harvard Robotics website to learn more about robotics at Harvard.




Contacts and sources:
Leah Burrows
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)

‘Ouchless’ Insulin Pill Made for Diabetes Treatment

Every day, millions of Americans with diabetes have to inject themselves with insulin to manage their blood-sugar levels. But less painful alternatives are emerging. Scientists are developing a new way of administering the medicine orally with tiny vesicles that can deliver insulin where it needs to go without a shot. Today, they share their in vivo testing results.

“We have developed a new technology called a CholestosomeTM,” says Mary McCourt, Ph.D., a leader of the research team. “A CholestosomeTM is a neutral, lipid-based particle that is capable of doing some very interesting things.”

The biggest obstacle to delivering insulin orally is ushering it through the stomach intact. Proteins such as insulin are no match for the harsh, highly acidic environment of the stomach. They degrade before they get a chance to move into the intestines and then the bloodstream where they’re needed.

A pill could one day simplify diabetes treatments.
Credit: MihaPater/iStock/Thinkstock


Some efforts have been made to overcome or sidestep this barrier. One approach packages insulin inside a protective polymer coating to shield the protein from stomach acids and is being tested in clinical trials. Another company developed and marketed inhalable insulin, but despite rave reviews from some patients, sales were a flop. Now its future is uncertain.

McCourt, Lawrence Mielnicki, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Jamie Catalano — all from Niagara University — have a new tactic. Using the patented CholestosomesTM developed in the McCourt/Mielnicki lab, the researchers have successfully encapsulated insulin. The novel vesicles are made of naturally occurring lipid molecules, which are normal building blocks of fats. But the researchers say that they are unlike other lipid-based drug carriers, called liposomes.



“Most liposomes need to be packaged in a polymer coating for protection,” says Mielnicki. “Here, we’re just using simple lipid esters to make vesicles with the drug molecules inside.”

Computer modeling showed that once the lipids are assembled into spheres, they form neutral particles resistant to attack from stomach acids. Drugs can be loaded inside, and the tiny packages can pass through the stomach without degrading. When CholestosomesTM reach the intestines, the body recognizes them as something to be absorbed. The vesicles pass through the intestines, into the bloodstream, and then cells take them in and break them apart, releasing insulin.

The team has delivered multiple molecules with these vesicles into cells in the lab. To pack the most insulin into the CholestosomesTM, the researchers determined the optimal pH and ionic strength of the drug-containing solution. They then moved the most promising candidates on to animal testing. Studies with rats showed that certain formulations of CholestosomesTM loaded with insulin have high bioavailability, which means the vesicles travel into the bloodstream where the insulin needs to be.

Next, the team plans to further optimize the formulations, conduct more animal testing and develop new partnerships to move forward into human trials.

The researchers presented their work at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Agust 25th.  It features more than 9,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

The researchers acknowledge funding from Niagara University, CPL Associatesand Theraholdings A.G.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With nearly 157,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.




Contacts and sources:
Michael Bernstein
Katie Cottingham, Ph.D.
American Chemical Society (ACS)