viernes, 24 de marzo de 2017

Scientists unveil a giant leap for anti-aging

Researchers have discovered a protein complex in humans that helps protect cells from DNA damage.
The finding could be helpful for astronauts in space, who are at greater risk of DNA damage from cosmic radiation. Credit: David Sinclair, Harvard Medical School

UNSW researchers have made a discovery that could lead to a revolutionary drug that actually reverses ageing, improves DNA repair and could even help NASA get its astronauts to Mars.

In a paper published in Science today, the team identifies a critical step in the molecular process that allows cells to repair damaged DNA.

Their experiments in mice suggest a treatment is possible for DNA damage from ageing and radiation. It is so promising it has attracted the attention of NASA, which believes the treatment can help its Mars mission.

While our cells have an innate capability to repair DNA damage—which happens every time we go out into the sun, for example - their ability to do this declines as we age.

The scientists identified that the metabolite NAD+, which is naturally present in every cell of our body, has a key role as a regulator in protein-to-protein interactions that control DNA repair.

Treating mice with a NAD+ precursor, or "booster," called NMN improved their cells' ability to repair DNA damage caused by radiation exposure or old age.

"The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice, after just one week of treatment," said lead author Professor David Sinclair of UNSW School of Medical Sciences and Harvard Medical School Boston.

Human trials of NMN therapy will begin within six months.

"This is the closest we are to a safe and effective anti-ageing drug that's perhaps only three to five years away from being on the market if the trials go well," says Sinclair, who maintains a lab at UNSW in Sydney.

What it means for astronauts, childhood cancer survivors, and the rest of us:

The work has excited NASA, which is considering the challenge of keeping its astronauts healthy during a four-year mission to Mars.

Even on short missions, astronauts experience accelerated ageing from cosmic radiation, suffering from 
  • muscle weakness, 
  • memory loss and 
  • other symptoms 
when they return. On a trip to Mars, the situation would be far worse: five per cent of the astronauts' cells would die and their chances of cancer would approach 100 per cent.

Professor Sinclair and his UNSW colleague Dr Lindsay Wu were winners in NASA's iTech competition in December last year.

"We came in with a solution for a biological problem and it won the competition out of 300 entries," Dr Wu says.
Professor David Sinclair and his UNSW team. Credit: Britta Campion

Cosmic radiation is not only an issue for astronauts. We're all exposed to it aboard aircraft, with a London-Singapore-Melbourne flight roughly equivalent in radiation to a chest x-ray.

In theory, the same treatment could mitigate any effects of DNA damage for frequent flyers.The other group that could benefit from this work is survivors of childhood cancers.

Dr Wu says 96 per cent of childhood cancer survivors suffer a chronic illness by age 45, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and cancers unrelated to the original cancer.

"All of this adds up to the fact they have accelerated ageing, which is devastating," he says.

"It would be great to do something about that, and we believe we can with this molecule."

An anti-ageing pill could be on the horizon:

For the past four years, Professor Sinclair and Dr Wu have been working on making NMN into a drug substance with their companies MetroBiotech NSW and MetroBiotech International.

The human trials will begin this year at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston.

The findings on NAD+ and NMN add momentum to the exciting work the UNSW Laboratory for Ageing Research has done over the past four years.

They've been looking at the interplay of a number of proteins and molecules and their roles in the ageing process.

They had already established that NAD+ could be useful for treating various diseases of ageing, female infertility and also treating side effects of chemotherapy.

In 2003, Professor Sinclair made a link between the anti-ageing enzyme SIRT1 and resveratrol, a naturally occurring molecule found in tiny quantities in red wine.

"While resveratrol activates SIRT1 alone, NAD+ boosters activate all seven sirtuins, SIRT1-7, and should have an even greater impact on health and longevity," he says.

More information: "A conserved NAD+ binding pocket that regulates protein-protein interactions during aging," Science,

Journal reference: Science

ORIGINAL: MedicalXpress
March 23, 2017

Chance find has big implications for water treatment's costs and carbon footprint

Pipeline power. iStockphoto
A type of bacteria accidentally discovered during research supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) could fundamentally re-shape efforts to cut the huge amount of electricity consumed during wastewater clean-up.

The discovery has upended a century of conventional thinking. The microorganisms - 'comammox' (complete ammonia oxidising) bacteria - can completely turn ammonia into nitrates. Traditionally, this vital step in removing nitrogen from wastewater has involved using two different microorganisms in a two-step approach: 

  1. ammonia is oxidised into nitrites that are then oxidised into nitrates, 
  2. which are turned into nitrogen gas and flared off harmlessly.
The outcome could be a big rethink regarding the energy-saving innovations developed over the last two to three decades in the field of nitrogen removal. Wastewater treatment is a huge consumer of electricity, accounting for 2-3 per cent of all power usage in western countries, and no less than 30 per cent of its energy bill results from the need to remove nitrogen. Most of the sector's efforts to reduce its energy use have focused on the two-microorganism approach.

The discovery was made by scientists working on the EPSRC-funded Healthy Drinking Water project, which is being led by the University of Glasgow and is due to publish its core findings later this year.

Dr Ameet Pinto has led the team, which has worked in collaboration with the University of Michigan in the US. He says: This discovery took us completely by surprise. It's a superb example of how EPSRC support provides a secure platform for a can-do environment enabling researchers to achieve important spin-off breakthroughs in addition to the primary goals of their research.

Comammox was found in a drinking water system in the US. Other research groups have also detected it in wastewater treatment plants, in groundwater and even in aquaculture systems.

Dr Pinto says: The discovery of a single microorganism capable of full nitrification will have a significant impact on our understanding of the nitrogen cycle and on efforts to manage nitrogen pollution. The potential is there for the wastewater treatment sector to exploit this breakthrough, which other teams in Europe have made in parallel with us.

That would be an important step towards informing the development of robust approaches in terms of cutting costs and reducing carbon emissions associated with generating the huge amounts of electricity that the sector uses. It's a great story to highlight on World Water Day.

Notes for Editors:
The two-year Healthy Drinking Water project, which began in March 2015, is receiving a total of around £250,000 in EPSRC funding.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate. By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

The University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world and today is in the top 1% of the world's universities. With more than 25,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, it is ranked 63rd in the world and was the first UK university to be rated as 5 Stars Plus overall. (QS World University Rankings 2016).

Reference: PN 20-17

Contact Details
In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.
Organisation: Northeastern University, USA
Telephone: (+1) 617 373 5241

22 March 2017

miércoles, 15 de marzo de 2017

The future of AI is neuromorphic. Meet the scientists building digital 'brains' for your phone

Neuromorphic chips are being designed to specifically mimic the human brain – and they could soon replace CPUs

Neuroscape Lab
AI services like Apple’s Siri and others operate by sending your queries to faraway data centers, which send back responses. The reason they rely on cloud-based computing is that today’s electronics don’t come with enough computing power to run the processing-heavy algorithms needed for machine learning. The typical CPUs most smartphones use could never handle a system like Siri on the device. But Dr. Chris Eliasmith, a theoretical neuroscientist and co-CEO of Canadian AI startup Applied Brain Research, is confident that a new type of chip is about to change that.

Many have suggested Moore's law is ending and that means we won't get 'more compute' cheaper using the same methods,” Eliasmith says. He’s betting on the proliferation of ‘neuromorphics’ — a type of computer chip that is not yet widely known but already being developed by several major chip makers.

Traditional CPUs process instructions based on “clocked time” – information is transmitted at regular intervals, as if managed by a metronome. By packing in digital equivalents of neurons, neuromorphics communicate in parallel (and without the rigidity of clocked time) using “spikes” – bursts of electric current that can be sent whenever needed. Just like our own brains, the chip’s neurons communicate by processing incoming flows of electricity - each neuron able to determine from the incoming spike whether to send current out to the next neuron.

What makes this a big deal is that these chips require far less power to process AI algorithms. For example, one neuromorphic chip made by IBM contains five times as many transistors as a standard Intel processor, yet consumes only 70 milliwatts of power. An Intel processor would use anywhere from 35 to 140 watts, or up to 2000 times more power.

Eliasmith points out that neuromorphics aren’t new and that their designs have been around since the 80s. Back then, however, the designs required specific algorithms be baked directly into the chip. That meant you’d need one chip for detecting motion, and a different one for detecting sound. None of the chips acted as a general processor in the way that our own cortex does.

This was partly because there hasn’t been any way for programmers to design algorithms that can do much with a general purpose chip. So even as these brain-like chips were being developed, building algorithms for them has remained a challenge.

Eliasmith and his team are keenly focused on building tools that would allow a community of programmers to deploy AI algorithms on these new cortical chips.

Central to these efforts is Nengo, a compiler that developers can use to build their own algorithms for AI applications that will operate on general purpose neuromorphic hardware. Compilers are a software tool that programmers use to write code, and that translate that code into the complex instructions that get hardware to actually do something. What makes Nengo useful is its use of the familiar Python programming language – known for it’s intuitive syntax – and its ability to put the algorithms on many different hardware platforms, including neuromorphic chips. Pretty soon, anyone with an understanding of Python could be building sophisticated neural nets made for neuromorphic hardware.

Things like vision systems, speech systems, motion control, and adaptive robotic controllers have already been built with Nengo,Peter Suma, a trained computer scientist and the other CEO of Applied Brain Research, tells me.

Perhaps the most impressive system built using the compiler is Spaun, a project that in 2012 earned international praise for being the most complex brain model ever simulated on a computer. Spaun demonstrated that computers could be made to interact fluidly with the environment, and perform human-like cognitive tasks like recognizing images and controlling a robot arm that writes down what it’s sees. The machine wasn’t perfect, but it was a stunning demonstration that computers could one day blur the line between human and machine cognition. Recently, by using neuromorphics, most of Spaun has been run 9000x faster, using less energy than it would on conventional CPUs – and by the end of 2017, all of Spaun will be running on Neuromorphic hardware.

Eliasmith won NSERC’s John C. Polyani award for that project — Canada’s highest recognition for a breakthrough scientific achievement – and once Suma came across the research, the pair joined forces to commercialize these tools.

While Spaun shows us a way towards one day building fluidly intelligent reasoning systems, in the nearer term neuromorphics will enable many types of context aware AIs,” says Suma. Suma points out that while today’s AIs like Siri remain offline until explicitly called into action, we’ll soon have artificial agents that are ‘always on’ and ever-present in our lives.

Imagine a SIRI that listens and sees all of your conversations and interactions. You’ll be able to ask it for things like - "Who did I have that conversation about doing the launch for our new product in Tokyo?" or "What was that idea for my wife's birthday gift that Melissa suggested?,” he says.

When I raised concerns that some company might then have an uninterrupted window into even the most intimate parts of my life, I’m reminded that because the AI would be processed locally on the device, there’s no need for that information to touch a server owned by a big company. And for Eliasmith, this ‘always on’ component is a necessary step towards true machine cognition. “The most fundamental difference between most available AI systems of today and the biological intelligent systems we are used to, is the fact that the latter always operate in real-time. Bodies and brains are built to work with the physics of the world,” he says.

Already, major efforts across the IT industry are heating up to get their AI services into the hands of users. Companies like Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and even Samsung, are developing conversational assistants they hope will one day become digital helpers.

Monday 6 March 2017

New Materials Could Turn Water into the Fuel of the Future

High-throughput materials discovery approach puts solar fuels on the fast track to commercial viability

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have—in just two years—nearly doubled the number of materials known to have potential for use in solar fuels.

They did so by developing a process that promises to speed the discovery of commercially viable generation of solar fuels that could replace coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
Researchers are using a new high-throughput method of identifying new materials. (Photo Credit: Caltech)
Solar fuels, a dream of clean-energy research, are created using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. Researchers are exploring a range of possible target fuels, but one possibility is to produce hydrogen by splitting water.

Each water molecule is comprised of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Pure hydrogen is highly flammable, making it an ideal fuel. If you could find a way to extract that hydrogen from water using sunlight, then, you would have a plentiful and renewable energy source. The problem, however, is that water molecules do not simply break down when sunlight shines on them—if they did, the oceans would not cover three-fourths of the planet. Instead, they need a little help from a solar-powered catalyst.

To create practical solar fuels, scientists have been trying to develop low-cost and efficient materials that perform the necessary chemistry using only visible light as an energy source.

Over the past four decades, researchers identified only 16 of these “photoanode” materials. Now, using a new high-throughput method of identifying new materials, a team of researchers led by Caltech’s John Gregoire and Berkeley Lab’s Jeffrey Neaton, Kristin Persson, and Qimin Yan have found 12 promising new photoanodes.

A paper about the method and the new photoanodes appears the week of March 6 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new method was developed through a partnership between the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) and Berkeley Lab’s Materials Project, using resources at the Molecular Foundry and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). JCAP is a DOE Energy Innovation Hub focused on developing a cost-effective method of turning sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into fuel. It is led by Caltech with Berkeley Lab as a major partner. The Materials Project is a DOE program based at Berkeley Lab that aims to remove the guesswork from materials design in a variety of applications. The Molecular Foundry and NERSC are both DOE Office of Science User Facilities located at Berkeley Lab.
The Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab 
(Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)

What is particularly significant about this study, which combines experiment and theory, is that in addition to identifying several new compounds for solar fuel applications, we were also able to learn something new about the underlying electronic structure of the materials themselves,” says Neaton, the director of the Molecular Foundry.

Gregoire, JCAP coordinator for Photoelectrocatalysis and leader of the High Throughput Experimentation group, adds “It’s exciting to find 12 new potential photoanodes for making solar fuels, but even more so to have a new materials discovery pipeline going forward.

Previous materials discovery processes relied on cumbersome testing of individual compounds to assess their potential for use in specific applications. Instead, the scientists combined computational and experimental approaches by first mining a materials database for potentially useful compounds, and then rapidly test the most promising candidates using high-throughput experimentation.

In the work described in the PNAS paper, they explored 174 metal vanadates—compounds containing the elements vanadium and oxygen along with one other element from the periodic table. The research reveals how different choices for this third element can produce materials with different properties, and reveals how to “tune” those properties to make a better photoanode.

Computational resources at NERSC performed hundreds of comprehensive high-throughput theoretical calculations, and software and expertise at the Molecular Foundry enabled the scientists to analyze and understand the most promising photoanode materials candidates.

Through analysis of nearly 200 compounds in the Materials Project database, the scientists found that compounds composed of vanadium, oxygen, and a third element possess a highly tunable electronic structure with band gaps in the visible light range that is uniquely favorable for water oxidation.

Importantly, we were able to explain the origin of their tunability, and identify several promising vanadate photoanode compounds,” says Neaton.

Added Gregoire, “The key advance made by the team was to combine the best capabilities enabled by theory and supercomputers with novel high throughput experiments to generate scientific knowledge at an unprecedented rate.

The study is titled “Solar fuels photoanode materials discovery by integrating high-throughput theory and experiment.” This research was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.


Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

ORIGINAL: Berkeley Lab
By Dan Krotz 510-486-4019
MARCH 6, 2017

Squishy Clockwork Biobot Could Dose You With Drugs From the Inside

Photo: Sau Yin Chin. Soft and 3D-printed micromachines can be implanted in the body to deliver doses of a chemo drug.

When Swiss watchmakers invented the Geneva drive, a two-geared mechanism that produces precise ticks forward, they probably never imagined that bioengineers would one day craft a 15-millimeter version out of squishy hydrogel. But then, they weren’t trying to make a biocompatible micromachine that could be implanted in the body to deliver doses of drugs.

This strange new biobot comes from the lab of Samuel Sia, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, in New York City. It uses neither battery nor wires, and can be controlled from outside the body to deliver a dose on command. It’s a gadget well suited for this new era of personalized medicine, Sia tells IEEE Spectrum. “Doctors want to see how the patient is doing and then modify the therapy accordingly,” he says.

He has already tested the gizmo in lab mice with bone cancer, with exciting results that were published today in the journal Science Robotics. More on that experiment later.
Photos: Sau Yin Chin The researchers constructed their Geneva device layer by layer, in a process that took about 30 minutes.
Sia’s team first had to invent a type of 3D printing to fabricate their tiny Geneva drive and several other soft micromachines. They came up with a fabricator that lays down layers of a hydrogel to produce rubbery solid shapes. While human hands are required to put the pieces together, Sia says those assembly steps could be automated. And it’s pretty quick, as is: The whole process of printing and assembling one Geneva drive takes less than 30 minutes. Today’s typical 3D printers would take several hours to construct a similar device, Sia says, and most can’t handle soft materials like hydrogel.

Here’s the part that runs like clockwork! The squishy Geneva drive clicks forward when an external magnet moves a simple gear, which is just a rubbery piece with embedded iron nanoparticles (the black curved piece in the video below). With each click, one of six chambers lines up with a hole and a dose of medicine flows out. In the video, a magnet (the silver disk) keeps the device running continuously to demonstrate the mechanism, but in clinical use, a doctor could apply a magnet only when a dose is required.

You may be wondering: Could someone’s implanted micromachine be triggered accidentally by an external magnet or by a malicious person with fiendish magnetic powers? In other words, is the X-Men’s Magneto a risk factor? “Somebody walking by with a magnet won’t trigger it, but there are some cases where it’s not ideal,” Sia says. His lab is working on other ways to wirelessly drive the mechanism, including an ultrasound technique.

The hardest part of the design process was getting the material right, Sia says. Very flexible and soft materials are compatible with the body’s soft innards, unlike rigid silicon or metal devices. “But if your material is collapsing like jello, it’s hard to make robots out of it,” he says. “It has to be stiff enough to work like a tiny implantable machine.
Image: Sau Yin Chin The pieces of the Geneva device were each printed in soft hydrogel.

The next step was in vivo.
Sia’s team wanted to see if their devices would work inside the body, with all the complications of chemistry and anatomy. Some mice with bone cancer received implanted devices that were loaded up with a chemo drug; other mice received typical chemotherapy, which floods the whole body with a toxic drug. When the team compared the effects of the device’s localized and periodic delivery of the drug to those of the typical treatment, the results were impressive. The bionic mice’s tumors grew slower, more tumor cells died off, and fewer cells elsewhere in the body suffered peripheral damage.
Photos: Sau Yin Chin Fluorescent imaging shows a chemo-delivering device inside a lab mouse.
The clinical possibilities seem obvious—oncologists could deliver more targeted and concentrated doses of powerful chemo drugs, and Sia imagines other uses, like regulating the release of hormones. But the drug delivery device is really just a proof of concept, he says. He’s not rushing out to form a startup: “We have to do the cost-benefit analysis to see if this is really a commercializable device,” he says.

He is bullish, however, on the medical potential of tiny squishy robots in general. Soft and mobile little bots could one day act as internal repair crews, doing a doctor’s work from the inside. (For more on this, check out IEEE Spectrum’s article on medical microbots.) Sia says his fabrication platform is capable of turning out a wide variety of devices. “I’m confident that we’ll find something useful,” he says.

Sia won’t say exactly what types of devices his lab is now experimenting with, except to say that they’re looking at implanted devices that move. Here’s my guess: It’s a tiny squishy micromachine that resembles a cuckoo clock.

By Eliza Strickland
4 Jan 2017

martes, 14 de marzo de 2017

What Happened When We Took the SCiO Food Analyzer Grocery Shopping

Scanning tomatoes at Whole Foods with the handheld SCiO spectrum analyzer--the system pronounces the quality
Photo: Tekla Perry
I’m at a Whole Foods in Palo Alto with Dror Sharon, cofounder and CEO of Consumer Physics, based in San Francisco and Israel. Sharon is holding his smartphone and a tiny handheld device he calls SCiO, which is about the size of a TicTac box. We are browsing around the produce department, checking out the Brix level of various items. The Brix number represents the sugar content of a solution and, for fruits, is an indicator of whether or not a particular fruit has much flavor. The tomatoes, according to the SCiO’s accompanying smartphone app, are horrible; not a big surprise in March. The apples are mixed, there is only one variety Sharon would buy right now. The mangos, he proclaims, are just perfect, and contemplates filling a bag before we go.

Scanning cheeses at Whole Foods using the tiny SCiO spectrum analyzer, screen shows fat, protein, and calories
Photo: Tekla PerryTesting the SCiO portable analyzer at the Whole Foods dairy case
We move onto the dairy case, where the labels of cellophane-wrapped cheeses provided only price and name. Sharon’s smartphone app popped up all sorts of additional information as he pointed the SCiO gadget at different chunks (still in their wrapping), including fat content, calories per gram, and protein content.

On the way to Whole Foods, we stopped outside a restaurant where two women were having brunch, and asked them if we could scan their food before they ate it. Sharon told them the strawberries would be excellent (they women agreed they were), but the whipped cream would be abnormally sweet, there was so much sugar in it wasn’t recognizable as dairy (it was).

It was all pretty magical, pointing a gadget at food and getting an instant analysis. To be fair, I can’t verify the accuracy of what I was seeing on the screen; I didn’t take the fruits and cheeses back to a laboratory to confirm the analysis using more traditional technology. But it certainly seemed real, real enough that I would be pretty excited to have this kind of technology built into my smart phone, given I have my phone out anyway when I’m grocery shopping to scan shelf tags in order to download coupons. And Sharon promises it is indeed coming into phones—as soon as the third quarter of this year in China, fourth quarter in the United States.

Here’s how SCiO works—and why it exists.
Using the SCiO food analyzer to determine the carb, water, and calorie content of an apple
Photo: Tekla PerryThese apples should be pretty good
The gadget uses standard infrared spectroscopy; it measures the absorption of infrared light. It may not be as accurate as a benchtop spectrometer used in a laboratory environment, but Sharon says it makes up for this with its algorithms. The user starts out by simplifying the problem a bit by identifying the category of the item to be examined—it’s not “What fruit is this,” but, “This is an apple, is it any good?” Consumer Physics’ cloud-based software then taps into its knowledge base, for an apple, it defines “good” as “sweet” (hence the Brix measurement), and considers an apple’s typical range of sweetness based on thousands of scans. A graphic on the phone then places the apple on a quality range.

Besides having data on most fruits and vegetables, the system also knows about dairy products; for those, it provides information on calories and fat content. And it knows about the cocoa content of chocolate, the amount of alcohol in drinks, and the protein, fat, and calories in raw fish, poultry, beef, and pork. And while, to date, the focus has been on food, Sharon stresses that the technology works with all sorts of materials. The company has started holding workshops for people who want to develop their own databases.

Sharon had been wanting this kind of gadget for a long time before he finally set out to build one. He grew up on a farm in Israel; he was used to eating produce that hadn’t been shipped further than across the property. So, when he moved to Massachusetts for business school at MIT (his bachelor’s degree is in electrical engineering), he was surprised by just how tasteless he found the produce at local groceries. “The food just didn’t taste the same. And when I saw that I was buying grapes from Chile, I was sure something was not right about them.

He decided that he should get himself something to determine whether or not the food in the stores was any good before he bought it, so he logged onto Amazon and searched for such a gadget. He didn’t find one. Disappointed, he resigned himself to occasionally buying tasteless produce or traveling 30 miles to a grocer he discovered that he could trust.

But about five years later, in 2010, after a few years working in the U.S. and then moving back to Israel, he came back to the idea. There ought to be a scanner that could give you useful information about the food you are about to buy, he insisted. He teamed up with Damian Goldring, a friend from his undergraduate days with a PhD in silicon photonics, and the two started investigating sensing technologies that, potentially, could be built into a phone. They landed on infrared spectrometry, and, in 2011, started Consumer Physics. In mid-2012, they rented one of those expensive, luggable, commercial spectrometers for a day and demonstrated to a large cellular service provider that the technology could be used to analyze food, doing a demo on chocolate mixtures that looked the same, but had different substances mixed in, like regular butter and peanut butter. “We’re going to put this into a phone,” Sharon said. (The company didn’t fund them.)

Testing the SCiO handheld spectrum analyzer on tomatoes
Photo: Tekla PerryDon’t buy these tomatoes
Sharon and Goldring may not have convinced that company, but they had convinced themselves, and began working on the technology, first on their own dime, and then with a little money from angel investors and crowd-sourced funding from OurCrowd. In early 2014, they were convinced enough that they could deliver the technology as a small Bluetooth peripheral—not inside a phone quite yet, but pretty close—to launch a Kickstarter campaign, pitching a $200 portable infrared spectrometer. Some 13,000 people signed up, ponying up about $2.7 million.

Things from Kickstarter funding to shipped product were not exactly smooth sailing. Come September of 2016, we reported that only 5000 of the Kickstarter backers had received products, far later than originally estimated, and many of the remaining backers were angry. To make things worse, the backers could no longer communicate with the company via Kickstarter, the page had been taken down in a trademark dispute over the name “SCiO”.

What happened? Sharon says the delays were due to manufacturing challenges, as well as a redesign to improve sensitivity, resistance to ambient light, and penetration depth. And the company has now fulfilled almost all of its Kickstarter orders, with the exception of customers who haven’t yet provided shipping addresses, have unique shipping requirements, or are choosing to wait for a Special Edition version of the gadget—that’s fewer than 10 percent of the backers, Sharon says.

But while the Kickstarter rollout was more than normally bumpy, the company’s efforts to get venture funding have born, well, fruit. After picking up some funding from angel investors and people using crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, Consumer Physics closed a round of venture investment led by Khosla Ventures. To date, Sharon said, funding totals over $25 million.

Photo: Tekla PerryThanks to Analog Devices, the SCiO technology can now fit inside a smart phone
The company also lined up some critical partnerships: with Analog Devices, which worked with the company to reduce the size of the sensor package into something that will easily fit into smartphones and is manufacturing this version of the device; and with Chinese phone manufacturer Changhong, which will be incorporating the technology in the Changhong H2 smartphone starting in China in the third quarter of this year and in the U.S. towards the end of 2017. Consumers in China, Sharon points out, are particularly interested in checking food safety, given the history of problems with the food supply. Sharon hopes other smartphone manufacturers will follow, turning using a phone to scan food as common a practice as using one to photograph food.

Consumer Physics now has about 100 employees, with corporate offices in San Francisco, a sales team based in the Midwestern United States, and a development team in Israel. Dozens of people are scanning food 24/7, Sharon said, to increase the kinds of food that can be analyzed as well as the accuracy of the analysis.

While the initial applications surround food, Sharon says that the technology is not just for checking out food freshness and nutritional information; it’s good at analyzing body fat, and distinguishing real pharmaceuticals from their fake counterparts. “We’ve done a demo that distinguishes real Viagra from fake Viagra,” says Sharon. “That’s the most commonly counterfeited drug.”

Consumer Physics has, to date, shipped more than 3000 developer kits, and is hoping some interesting consumer applications will emerge. One such in the works by French company Terallion, Sharon said, is a kitchen scale, intended for diabetics, that can use SCiO’s analysis to allow it to give users accurate information about protein and carbohydrate content of the food they are about to eat. The company is also working directly with industrial partners, in particular, with those working to develop tools for digital agriculture.

14 Mar 2017

domingo, 12 de marzo de 2017

Video captures moment plastic enters food chain

Dr. Richard Kirby. BNPS

Dr Richard Kirby's footage shows plankton ingesting plastic microfibre

A scientist has filmed the moment plastic microfibre is ingested by plankton, illustrating how the material is affecting life beneath the waves.

The footage shows one way that waste plastic could be entering the marine and global food chain.

An estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic "disappears" from the world's waste stream each year.

Waste plastic in the world's seas has been recognised by the United Nations as a major environmental problem.

"When I saw it, I thought that here was something, visually, to convey to the public the problem of plastic in the sea," said Richard Kirby, who recorded the footage.

"What intrigues me is that because the fibre has made a loop inside the animal's gut, you can actually see the consequences of something as small as the arrow worm consuming microplastic.

Dr Kirby, a self-styled Plankton Pundit, said that people were familiar with the idea of large marine animals - such as whales, seals and birds - swallowing plastic bags.

"But here we have something where we actually see that at a tiny fibre has caused a blockage in something as small as a Sagitta setosa, a member of the plankton, stopping food progressing down.

"An arrow worm's gut extends for the whole length of its body, so this has stopped anything moving down the gut from about just below its head."

Choking oceans
Although Dr Kirby had witnessed the effects of microplastic on plankton before, this was the first time he had filmed it.

He added that this incident was not an isolated occurrence, saying that the sight of plankton ingesting plastic was a relatively common sight in the sample he had collected from British waters.

The issue of plastic waste in the marine environment has been rising up the political and policy agenda.

The United Nations has estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of waste plastic per square mile of sea.

The international body's environment agency, UNEP, has launched a #CleanSeas campaign.

Speaking at the launch of the campaign, the organisation's head, Erik Solheim, said: "It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans."

He added that plastic waste in the ocean was allowing the material to enter the food chain.

Mr Solheim stated: "We've stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop."

The UN estimated that as many as 51 trillion (500 times as many stars estimated to be in our galaxy) particles of microplastic are in the world's seas and oceans.

The widespread presence of plastic in our waters meant that it was a problem for arrow worms, said Emily Baxter, senior marine conservation officer for the North West Wildlife Trusts.

"Their scientific name, chaetognaths, means bristle jaw, and that comes directly back to what they look like," she told BBC News.

"There are about 100 species worldwide. In UK waters they tend to be about one to two centimetres in length.

She added: "They play a really important ecological role in the marine food web. They are voracious predators of other planktonic animals and also represent an important food source for fish, squid and other things that eat plankton.

Dr Baxter said that the video posed a very worrying scenario.

"Even if we stopped producing plastic today this problem is going to continue for a long time. We see it now coming into the bottom of the food chain and potentially affecting the food chain all the way up.

"That problem is not going to go away," she observed.

'Genie out of the bottle'
Dr Kirby said that the "genie was out of the bottle" and that this was visual evidence of the impact of plastic waste in the marine environment.

Previous studies have highlighted the problem of plastic waste in the world's oceans. Researchers have voiced concern over the fact that plastic is listed as non-hazardous waste.

Dr Mark Browne, who has published numerous papers on the effects of plastic waste on the marine environment, said: "Plastic waste is infiltrating the ecosystem at a global scale and this video footage adds to the growing body of evidence showing that polymers are routinely ingested by animals.

"The key question remains: does this material cause ecological impacts and why are governments not using robust science to replace problematic products with safer alternatives?

"This could be done if they tasked ecologists and engineers to work together to identify and remove features of products that (if found as debris in habitats) might cause ecological impacts," he told BBC News.

"Similar approaches are already used to engineer infrastructure ecologically or to make less toxic 'biocompatible' medical devices."

Follow Mark on Twitter: @Mark_Kinver

By Mark Kinver. Environment reporter, BBC News
11 March 2017

Plankton eating plastic caught on camera for the first time
By New Scientist
Published on Jul 6, 2015
Watch zooplankton waft tiny, fluorescent beads of plastic towards them, before swallowing the stuff - demonstrating the dangers of marine litter
Full story: New Scientist

miércoles, 8 de marzo de 2017

Amoeba-Like Robot Programmed With DNA

Credit: Science Robotics AAAS

Living things: They’re most inspiring, but also difficult things to try to replicate in robotics. With that aim, researchers in Japan have managed to design a tiny robotic system that moves like a living cell. The scientists described the robot last week in the journal Science Robotics. 

The system, called a molecular robot, is about the size and consistency of an amoeba. It is a fluid-filled sac containing only biological and chemical components—about 27 of them, says Shin-ichiro Nomura , a bioengineer at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan and one of the robot’s inventors. The molecular components work in concert to stretch and change the shape of the sac, propelling it with cell-like motion through a fluid environment. The motion can be turned on and off with DNA signals that respond to light.

Other than puttering around, the amoeba-like robot can’t do much. But that’s the beauty of the invention, says Nomura. The bot serves as a vehicle to house whatever researchers can dream up: tiny computers, sensors, and even drugs. Outfitted with those tools, the system could then be used to explore the biomolecular environment. It could seek out toxins or check the surface of other cells or the content of a Petri dish. 

Nomura and his colleagues have figured out a way to package and ship the tool as a kit so that other scientists can “play with the robots” and incorporate their own components, he says. He hopes the platform will be used to build increasingly complex molecular robots with controllable motility.

Ultimately, Nomura would like to see the robot function inside a cell. “That’s kind of a frontier,” says Nomura. A robot that can dive into a cell and its nucleus can act as a diagnostic, seeking out problems with cellular machinery. “It’s a little dreamy,” Nomura says, but notes that his robot can be reduced in size to less than one micrometer—small enough to fit inside a cell. 

Researchers have developed many proof-of-concept micro- and nanoscale robots that can move and communicate within the body . Many of these tiny robots are made with biodegradable materials and are driven by magnetic, chemical, or ultrasonic forces. 

Nomura’s molecular robot differs in that it is composed entirely of biological and chemical components, moves like a cell, and is controlled by DNA. Other molecular robots have been developed, but none with this kind of controllable motility, Nomura says. 

It took about a year and half and 27 different chemical components to make the molecular bot, Nomura says. A lipid membrane serves as a the maleable robot body. Inside, special proteins bump into the membrane, causing it to change shape—kind of like bag being punched from the inside

The punching only happens when key proteins called kinesins and microtubules connect to the membrane via anchor units. That connection is provided by light-sensitive DNA. When UV light shines on the robot, the light-sensitive DNA inside cleaves into a single strand. It can then latch onto the anchor units and the kinesin-microtubule structure, forming a bridge between them. 

The microtubules, which are rigid, long structures, slide along the kinesin proteins with the help of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP—the molecule of intracellular energy transport. As they slide, they punch the bot’s outer membrane, causing it to change shape. 

Molecular robot brings us one step closer to mimicking cellular behavior
Amoeba-Like Robot Programmed With DNA

With this combination of molecules, Nomura and his colleagues succeeded in mimicking the movement of a cell. But if the thing is assembled solely with biological components and chemically powered by ATP, can we really call it a robot? “The definition of ‘robot’ is wide,” says Nomura. If something has a body and can sense and process information to carry out a function, it’s a robot, he says.

Robot or cell-bot, we look forward to seeing what engineers stick inside it.

By Emily Waltz
Posted 7 Mar 2017

jueves, 2 de marzo de 2017

Future of Farming and Technology Grow Together

In the Salad Bowl, Silicon Prairie and other top producing farmlands of the world, attention is turning to technology and education to bring agriculture into the Digital Age.

California’s first tech pioneers didn’t innovate in a garage. They worked out of a barn. These early risk-takers aggressively developed effective farming tools in the 1800s, turning California into an agricultural powerhouse in a few short decades.

One of the central places of this history, Salinas, CA, is still a hotbed for agriculture technology innovation. It has become a world leader in leveraging
  • cloud computing, 
  • robotics and 
  • the Internet of Things 
into farming practices.
In the 1800s, Salinas residents pushed modernization forward. They mechanized aspects of farming and radically increased yields. During the 1920s, almost overnight they shifted from commodities like wheat to high value vegetables and fruits. This entrepreneurial spirit earned Salinas Valley the nickname, “Salad Bowl of the World.”

Along the way, innovative land owners and hard-working migrants together turned Salinas into one of the world’s top agricultural areas of the world. John Steinbeck immortalized the struggles and triumphs in novels like East of Eden.

Salinas Valley is special for many reasons. The climate is mild and allows crops to grow year-round. Water is especially abundant in the aquifers under the valley. In the 1800s, farmers could ship their goods from a Pacific Ocean port just 12 miles away or send it up and down El Camino Real (now, Highway 101), then the most important road on the west coast. A century and a half later, just 90 miles away from Salinas, sprawling orchards transformed into Silicon Valley, the world’s technology capitol.

The Ag and Tech Worlds Collide
Many farmers are quick to point out they’ve been using laptops and phones just like everyone else, and many of their processes are tracked or managed digitally. Despite the close proximity between Salinas and Silicon Valley, local farmers wonder if agriculture-technology will ever bare big fruit.

A combination of newer technologies, however, just might change all of that, according to Hank Giclas, who oversees technology planning for Western Growers, a trade group representing farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado.

One of the most fundamental shifts has been wireless access to the Internet and the cloud,” he said. “It gives farmers much greater insight into their operations, and they’re able to find efficiencies and optimize like never before.

When Western Growers opened its Center for Innovation and Technology in downtown Salinas in 2015, the organization felt it was the right time to address the needs of its members to help spark ag tech innovation. The center provides support for
  • startups, 
  • investors and 
  • growers 
to develop solutions in areas ranging from 
  • computer vision, 
  • cloud, 
  • robotics, 
  • drones, 
  • automation, 
  • food safety and 
  • plant breeding.
I’m really interested in the rapid shifts in sensing technology,” Glicas added. “There’s a whole new wave of precision farming that’s coming to the fresh produce sector through sensor technology, and we need to sort that out.

Sensors that measure precipitation, soil moisture, temperature, sunshine and wind can, in various ways, can make fertilizing, watering and harvesting more efficient. Farmers and technologists are working together to understand how to use sensors and cloud technologies that leverage real-time and historical data, all to help make decisions at critical times.

Venture capital has been flowing into precision agriculture in areas like drone technology, automation and robotics. Dan Hodgson, a North Dakota venture capitalist who runs the firm Farm Quality Assurance, offered a similar viewpoint about the high-tech initiatives coming down the pike.

One thing we’re interested is machine communication,” he said. “We are working with spectral soil analysis so that we can bring infrared and X-ray images of fields quickly, at a lower cost, to farmers.”

Hodgson explained that information technology has had a limited role in farming, not because innovation wasn’t feasible, but agriculture is a different kind of market.

The cost of market adoption is tremendous in agriculture,” he said. “The distribution system is narrow, and new products have to work well right from the start. There’s not a lot of room for creating products just to see if they sell.

Hodgson pointed out that by using wireless, cloud computing and other technologies, farmers and markets are accessing better information, and this is advancing agriculture.

Hodgson’s company is one of many in Fargo, North Dakota, a city that has emerged as a Silicon Prarie hotspot and hosts Microsoft’s third largest campus. Many in Fargo’s ag tech scene are following in the footsteps of pioneers who established the Great Plains,  including some descendants who are turning to information technology to sustain and even reinvent their family farm.

Ag Solutions for the 21st Century
Ag tech clusters like the ones in Salinas and Fargo have sprung up around the world to figure out how to solve some of farming’s biggest challenges. With a global population expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, according to United Nations’ estimates, a vision for Ag 2.0 is required to help feed the world’s people.

In Israel, the Agriculturale Research Organization (ARO), founded in 1921, has been studying how to make the desert bloom.

ARO is significant because its mission is not only scientific and environmental, but also geo-political as food self-sufficiency is an important part of the country’s national security. Today, ARO is focused on 
  • water conservation technology, 
  • climate change, 
  • sustainability and 
  • food safety.
Agriculture technician at Philips HTC City Farm Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Holland, second only to the U.S. in terms of exporting agriculture technology, is a long time ag tech innovator. The Dutch revolutionized the moldboard plow in the 1600s with a feature that turns the soil over. It remains an important design element in modern plows.

Today the country is home to more than 4,000 so-called agrifood companies including major players like Cargill, Monsanto, and ConAgra. Holland recently hosted its 2nd annual platform for innovation, Dutch AgriFood Week. The event includes an Agri Accelerator Seminar for startups as well as TEDx talks on the future of farming and food.

Each ag tech hub has a different disposition, but they share a similar desire for innovation.

Farms in South America, especially here in Argentina, are large operations and aggressively want technology advances” noted Ciro Echesortu, Program Coordinator for the Buenos Aires-based NXTP Labs, an early-stage fund for ag tech companies in Latin America. The company launched its first fund in July of 2016 and plans a 2nd one this summer. The goal is not only to spur development but to keep South American farm technology companies close to home.

What does it take to have an ag tech hub?” asked Dennis Donohue, the former mayor of Salinas.

First, you have to have a culture of innovation already in place,” he explained. “And, you have to have a place to innovate, a place where you can deploy and evaluate new technologies.

Donohue currently heads up initiatives for the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. He said Salinas, with its proximity to Silicon Valley, is attracting entrepreneurs eager to bring transformative technologies to agriculture. 
robotic vegetable picker
Soft robotic vegetable picker.
I may be biased, but I think Salinas is the best ag tech platform on the planet.

The massive farmland, stretching from central California to the interior of Mexico, with its connection to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positions Salinas well as an agriculture technology leader. While farming-meets-information-technologies is the current zeitgeist, it still needs to be fully developed.

About 25 years ago, I was taking a marketing class in the Silicon Valley area,” said Jeff Lusheg, a produce consultant. On the first day of class, as the students introduced themselves around the room, most identified themselves as engineers or marketing people in high tech.

When I described what I did in the produce industry, everybody just cracked up laughing as if it were the most bizarre thing they’d ever heard.

That’s obviously changed he said.

The culture that you find in Salinas is you never know if the farmer you see wearing jeans and driving a pickup truck is an MBA from Harvard or Stanford,” Lusheg added, “There are some very tech-savvy people here.

Supporting Future Ag Tech Innovators
Excitement about the future of farming isn’t limited to entrepreneurs bringing new technologies to the fields. It’s about educating the next generation of farmers and workers. Maggie Malone, director of the K-12 STEM program at Hartnell College, oversees a project that provides free classes to children, many of which come from farm worker families. These classes include subjects like coding, math and aerospace.

Most of the parents aren’t well-educated and they don’t have the resources to pay for something like what the STEM program offers, but they see the results,” she said. “It’s amazing.

Hartnell’s STEM program started just 5 years ago with a grant from NASA. Malone was the only teacher — a part timer — but since then she has gone full-time and added a staff of 10.

We were mandated to serve 625 students per year with the money that they gave us. But very quickly we doubled and tripled those numbers, so we went out and got extra funding from private sources.

Soon enough, the college started a partnership with Salinas to create a CoderDojo program.

Every time we get a new grant and a new request for the program it makes me shiver,” Malone said, adding that she watches her students take the excitement of technology with them as they go higher in their grade levels.

They are the future of Salinas.

Jason Lopez Writer 
January 24, 2017