Dec 132017

Researchers created a new type of glass that is etched with nanograss structures. The top image shows that text can be read through normal flat glass, while the glass etched with nanostructure scatters light, making the glass appear opaque. This glass could help boost the performance of solar cells and LEDs. Image Credit: Sajad Haghanifar, University of Pittsburgh

Nanoscale “grass” structures also enable smart glass that switches from hazy to clear in presence of water

Using nanoscale grass-like structures, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have created glass that lets through a large amount of light while appearing hazy. This is the first time that glass has been made with such high levels of haze and light transmittance at the same time, a combination of properties that could help boost the performance of solar cells and LEDs.

The glass exhibits another remarkable quality: It can be switched from hazy to clear by applying water. This could make it useful for creating smart windows that change haze or opacity to control the privacy of a room or to block glare from sunlight.

“Switchable glass available today is quite expensive because it uses transparent conducting layers to apply a voltage across the entire glass,” said Paul W. Leu of the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, leader of the research team. “Our glass would be potentially less expensive to make because its opacity can be switched in a matter of seconds by simply applying or removing liquid.”

In Optica, The Optical Society’s journal for high impact research, the researchers describe their new nanograss-based glass, which achieves a record 95 percent light transmittance and a similarly high degree of haze at the same time. The researchers experimented with glass etched with nanograss structures from 0.8 to 8.5 microns in height with “blades” each measuring a few hundred nanometers in diameter.

The discovery of switchability was one of serendipity. “I was cleaning the new nanograss glass when I discovered that cleaning it with water made the glass become clear,” said project lead, graduate student Sajad Haghanifar. While the discovery was incidental, it can be easily explained. “The water goes between the extremely hydrophilic nanostructures, making the nanograss glass act like a flat substrate. Because water has a very similar index of refraction to the glass, the light goes straight through it. When the water is removed, the light hits the scattering nanostructures, making the glass appear hazy.”

Using nanograss to improve solar cells

Leu’s group developed the new glass to improve the ability of solar cells to capture light and turn it into power. Nanostructure patterns can prevent light from reflecting off the solar cell’s surface. These structures also scatter the light that enters the glass, helping more of the light reach the semiconductor material within the solar cell, where it is converted into power.

The new glass uses a unique pattern of nanostructures that looks much like grass. Because the structures are taller than previously-used nanostructures, they increase the likelihood that light will be scattered. Although glass with the nanostructures appears opaque, tests showed that most of the scattered light makes its way through the glass.

The fact that the glass is highly hazy and exhibits high transmittance could also make it useful for LEDs, which work in a way that is essentially the opposite of a solar cell, by using electricity that enters a semiconductor to produce light that is then emitted from the device. The new glass could potentially increase the amount of light that makes it from the semiconductor into the surroundings.

Finding the right ‘grass’ height

The researchers found that shorter nanograss improved the antireflection properties of the glass while longer nanograss tended to increase the haze. Glass with 4.5-micron-high nanograss showed a nice balance of 95.6 percent transmittance and 96.2 percent haze for light with a 550-nanometer wavelength (yellow light, a component of sunlight).

Although more work is needed to estimate the exact cost of manufacturing the new glass, the researchers predict that their glass will be inexpensive because it is easy to make. The nanostructures are etched into the glass using a process known as reactive ion etching, a scalable and straightforward method commonly used to make printed circuit boards.

To turn the glass into a smart window that switches from hazy to clear, it would require placing a piece of traditional glass over the nanograss glass. Pumps could be used to flow liquid into the space between the two glasses, and a fan or pump could be used to remove the water. The researchers also showed that in addition to water, applying acetone and toluene can also switch the glass from hazy to clear.

“We are now conducting durability tests on the new nanograss glass and are evaluating its self-cleaning properties,” said Haghanifar. “Self-cleaning glass is very useful because it prevents the need for robotic or manual removal of dust and debris that would reduce the efficiency of solar panels, whether the panels are on your house or on a Mars rover.”

Learn more: Glass with Switchable Opacity Could Improve Solar Cells and LEDs


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  • Nanograss Glass with Fluid-Induced Switchable Opacity Could Improve LEDs, Solar Cells
    on December 12, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania used nanoscale grass-like structures to create glass that appears hazy but still allows a large amount of light to pass through. This is a breakthrough achievement where glass has been developed ... […]

  • Glass with switchable opacity could improve solar cells and LEDs
    on December 11, 2017 at 12:00 am

    WASHINGTON -- Using nanoscale grass-like structures, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have created glass that lets through a large amount of light while appearing hazy. This is the first time that glass has been made with such high ... […]

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Dec 132017

via Chalmers University of Technology

A new method of examining the skin can reduce the number of animal experiments while providing new opportunities to develop pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Chemical imaging allows all layers of the skin to be seen and the presence of virtually any substance in any part of the skin to be measured with a very high degree of precision.

?More and more chemicals are being released into our environment. For example, parabens and phthalates are under discussion as two types of chemicals that can affect us. But so far it has not been possible to find out how they are absorbed by the skin. A new study from Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg shows how what is termed chemical imaging can provide comprehensive information about the human skin with a very high level of precision.

Investigations into how substances pass into and through the skin have so far taken place in two ways:by using tape strips to pull off the top “corneal” layer of skin for analysis,and throughurine and blood testing to see what has penetrated through the skin. But we still know very little about what happens in the layers of skin in between. Chemical imaging now allows us to see all layers of the skin with very high precision and to measure the presence of virtually any substances in any part of the skin. This can lead to pharmaceutical products that are better suited to the skin, for example.

The new method was created when the chemists Per Malmberg, at Chalmers University of Technology,and Lina Hagvall, at the University of Gothenburg, brought their areas of research together.

“With pharmaceuticals you often want as much as possible of the dose to be absorbed by the skin, but in some cases you may not want skin absorption, such as when you apply a sunscreen, which needs to remain on the surface of the skin and not penetrate it. Our method allows you to design pharmaceuticals according to the way you want the substance to be absorbed by the skin,” says Hagvall.

Chemical imaging has until now mainly been used for earth sciences and cellular imaging, but with access to human skin from operations the researchers have come up with this new area for the technology. The researchers now also see opportunities opening up for replacing pharmaceutical tests which currently involve animal experiments. Their methods provide more accurate results than tests on mice and pigs. Since it is not permissible to use animals to test cosmetics, this method may also create new opportunities for the cosmetics industry.

“Many animal experiments carried out by researchers and companies are no longer necessary as a result of this method. If you want to know something about passive absorption into the human skin, this method is at least as good. It’s better to do your testing on human skin than on a pig,” says Hagvall.

The new method can also provide a basis for determining the correct limits for harmful levels of substances that may come into contact with the skin. In order to establish those limits, youneed to know how much of the dose on the skin’s surface penetrates into and through the skin, which this method can show. It enhances our knowledge about what we are absorbing in our workplaces and in childcare facilities.

“Our method can show everything with an image, whether you are looking for nickel, phthalates or parabens in the skin, or if you want to follow the drug’s path through the skin. Withjust a skin sample we can essentially search for any molecules. We don’t need to adapt the method in advance to what we are looking for,” says Malmberg.

It will be possible to apply the results in the very near future. The technology itself is ready for use today. There is still a small amount of work left to do in optimising the tests to achieve the best results, but the researchers believe that the method will be ready for use within a year.

Facts: Chemical imaging

Chemical imaging involves the use of a laser or ion beam to analyse the sectionsof skin using a mass spectrometer. Every dot, or pixel, of the section which the beam strikes provides information, which is used to classify the chemicals present in the skin according to molecular weight. The chemical information from each dot can then be combined into a digital image which shows the distribution of a substance in the skin. A time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer (ToF-SIMS), which provides a very high spatial resolution down to the nanometre range, was used in this particular study.

Learn more: New method maps chemicals in the skin


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Dec 132017

A schematic for a prototype of the proposed water cloaking device. It consists of wires and coils that create an electromagnetic field that acts on dissolved ions to move water around the object.

Researchers have developed a water cloaking concept based on electromagnetic forces that could eliminate an object’s wake, greatly reducing its drag while simultaneously helping it avoid detection.

The idea originated at Duke University in 2011 when researchers outlined the general concept. By matching the acceleration of the surrounding water to an object’s movement, it would theoretically be possible to greatly increase its propulsion efficiency while leaving the surrounding sea undisturbed. The theory was an extension of the group’s pioneering work in metamaterials, where a material’s structure, rather than its chemistry, creates desired properties.

Six years later, Yaroslav Urzhumov, adjunct assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, has updated the theory by detailing a potential approach. But rather than using a complex system of very small pumps as originally speculated, Urzhumov is turning to electromagnetic fields and the dense concentration of charged particles found in saltwater.

The study appears online in the journal Physical Review E on December 7, 2017.

“The original idea was so big that it enticed colleagues at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center to help us pursue it, even though they were incredibly skeptical,” said Urzhumov, who was among the researchers who worked on the original 2011 paper. “Since then, we have identified a path to materializing this seemingly impossible proposal.”

The crux of the issue being addressed is that water is a relatively viscous liquid that, when moved, likes to pull its surroundings along for the ride through shear forces. A fish feels much heavier being pulled through the water than lifted through open air because of all the water dragged along with it.

rough prototype

A rough prototype of the proposed water cloaking device being tested inside of an aquarium.

Besides essentially pulling extra water, drag can also be increased by how water flows around an object. A hydrodynamic object with fluid flowing smoothly along its surface creates much less drag than a blocky object that creates a mess of chaotic, turbulent flows in its wake.

The solution to these issues is to move the water out of the way. By accelerating the water around the object to match its speed, shear forces and turbulent flows can both be avoided.

“There are many ways to reduce wake and drag, like surrounding an object with low-friction bubbles, which is actually done with some naval torpedoes,” said Urzhumov. “But there’s only so much you can do if you’re just applying forces at the surface. This cloaking idea opens a new dimension to create forces around an underwater vessel or object, which is absolutely required to achieve full wake cancellation.”

Urzhumov originally envisioned a sort of truss-like frame enveloping an object with thin structures and tiny pumps to accelerate its flow as it passed through. But as time went by, he decided a more practical approach would be to use “magnetohydrodynamic” forces.

When a charged particle travels through an electromagnetic field, the field creates a force on the particle. Because ocean water is chock full of ions like sodium, potassium and magnesium, there are a lot of charged particles to push. The idea isn’t as crazy as it may sound—Japan built a prototype passenger ship in 1991 called the Yamato 1 using these forces as a means of propulsion, but found the approach was not more efficient than traditional propellers.

In the new paper, Urzhumov and his graduate student, Dean Culver, use fluid dynamics simulations to show how a water cloak might be achieved using this approach. By controlling the velocity and direction of the water surrounding a moving object, the simulations show such a system can match the water’s movement within the cloak to that of the surrounding sea.

This would make it appear that the water inside the cloak is completely stagnant in relation to the water outside of the cloak, eliminating the drag and wake. Of course, practical implementations aren’t perfect, so some drag and wake would remain in any realization of the device.

While the simulations used a cloaking shell half the width of the object itself, the calculations show the shell could theoretically be as thin as you wanted it to be. Another important result was that the forces inside the shell would not have to change directions as the object sped up, they would only need more power.

“That is one of the major achievements of this paper,” said Urzhumov. “If you don’t have to adjust the distribution of forces, you don’t need any electronic switches or other means of dynamic control. You can set the structure with a specific configuration and simply crank up the current as the object speeds up.”

Urzhumov says that for an actual ship or submarine to ever use such a device, it would need a nuclear reactor to power it, given the enormous energy requirements to cloak an object of that size. That does not mean, however, that a smaller diesel vessel could not power a smaller cloaking device to shield potentially vulnerable protrusions from detection.

Urzhumov also says that his theories and calculations have many potential applications outside of the ocean. Similar designs could be used to create a distributed ion propulsion system for spacecraft or to suppress plasma instabilities in prototypes for thermonuclear fusion reactors.

“I believe these ideas are going to flourish in several of these fields,” said Urzhumov. “It is a very exciting time.”

Learn more: Electromagnetic Water Cloak Eliminates Drag and Wake


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Dec 122017

Jayakrishna Ambati, M.D., (left) and Nagaraj Kerur, Ph.D., have discovered a crucial trigger for macular degeneration, a condition which robs millions of their sight. The discovery may allow doctors to intervene early to halt the process.
Josh Barney | UVA Health System

Unexpected finding points to potential way to stop macular degeneration

In a major step forward in the battle against macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss among the elderly, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered a critical trigger for the damaging inflammation that ultimately robs millions of their sight. The finding may allow doctors to halt the inflammation early on, potentially saving patients from blindness.

“Almost 200 million people in the world have macular degeneration. If macular degeneration were a country, it would be the eighth most populated nation in the world. That’s how large a problem this is,” said Jayakrishna Ambati, MD, vice chairman for research of UVA’s Department of Ophthalmology and the founding director of UVA’s Center for Advanced Vision Science. “For the first time, we know in macular degeneration what is one of the very first events that triggers the system to get alarmed and start, to use an anthropomorphic term, hyperventilating. This overdrive of inflammation is what ultimately damages cells, and so, potentially, we have a way of interfering very early in the process.”

Potential New Treatment for Macular Degeneration

Ambati and Nagaraj Kerur, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, and their laboratories have determined that the culprit is an enzyme called cGAS. The enzyme plays an important role in the body’s immune response to infections by detecting foreign DNA. But the molecule’s newly identified role in the “dry” form of age-related macular degeneration comes as wholly unexpected.

“It’s really surprising that in macular degeneration, which, as far as we know, has nothing to do with viruses or bacteria, that cGAS is activated, and that this alarm system is turned on,” Ambati said. “This is what leads to the killing of the cells in the retina, and, ultimately, vision loss.”

The researchers noted that cGAS may be an alarm not just for pathogens but for other harmful problems that warrant responses from the immune system. The enzyme may also play important roles in conditions such as diabetes, lupus and obesity, and researchers already are working to create drugs that could inhibit its function. “Because the target we’re talking about is an enzyme, we could develop small molecules that could block it,” Kerur said. “There are many drugs already on the market that target specific enzymes, such as the statins [which are used to lower cholesterol levels.]”

The promising new lead comes as good news for researchers seeking to develop new treatments for dry macular degeneration, as clinical trials in recent years have come to dead end after dead end.

The UVA researchers expect the development of a drug to inhibit cGAS will take several years, and that drug would then need to go through extensive testing to determine its safety and effectiveness for combating macular degeneration.

The researchers also hope to develop a way to detect the levels of the enzyme in patients’ eyes. That would let them determine when best to administer a treatment that blocks cGAS. “If they have high levels of this enzyme in their eye, they might be a wonderful candidate for this sort of treatment,” Ambati said. “This is really precision medicine at the single-molecule level.”

Learn more: Trigger for most common form of vision loss discovered


The Latest on: Macular degeneration

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Dec 122017

The top of this diagram shows a 30-base-pair region of a single genetic locus (HLA-A) that is involved in the immune response and could potentially be targeted with gene editing. The six smaller bars below it represent different guide RNAs that are designed to bind to different parts of that HLA-A locus. On the Y (vertical) axis are haplotypes with highlighted DNA variations identified from different individuals. They are aligned according to their positions in the genetic sequence (represented horizontally on the X axis).
Lessard S; et al. PNAS Early Edition, week of Dec. 11, 2017.

Patients’ individual genomes may affect efficacy, safety of gene editing

Gene editing has begun to be tested in clinical trials, using CRISPR-Cas9 and other technologies to directly edit DNA inside people’s cells, and multiple trials are recruiting or in the planning stages. A new study led by Boston Children’s Hospital and the University of Montreal raises a note of caution, finding that person-to-person genetic differences may undercut the efficacy of the gene editing process or, in more rare cases, cause a potentially dangerous “off target” effect.

The study adds to evidence that gene editing may need to be adapted to each patient’s genome, to ensure there aren’t variants in DNA sequence in or near the gene being targeted that would throw off the technology. Findings appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition (December 11-15).

“Humans vary in their DNA sequences, and what is taken as the ‘normal’ DNA sequence for reference cannot account for all these differences,” says Stuart Orkin, MD, of Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and co-corresponding author on the study with Matthew Canver, an MD-PhD student at Harvard Medical School. “We recommend that common variation be taken into account in designing targeting systems for therapeutic editing, to maximize efficacy and minimize potential safety concerns.”

The study analyzed 7,444 previously published whole-genome sequences. Based on a list of about 30 disease-related DNA targets that researchers are interested in altering through gene editing, the researchers made a second list of nearly 3,000 guide RNAs (gRNAs). These are bits of genetic code that have been developed to direct CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes to the right editing location on or adjacent to the target, like the address on an envelope.

The team, led by Orkin, Canver and Samuel Lessard of the University of Montreal, then looked to see whether any of the 7,444 individuals carried DNA sequence variants (“letter changes” or insertions/deletions) in the areas the gRNAs are looking for.

“If there are genetic differences at the site that CRISPR reagents are targeting for therapy, you are at risk for decreased efficacy or treatment failure,” explains Canver, who conceived and led the study in Orkin’s Boston Children’s Hospital lab. “A difference in just a single base pair can cause a decrease in binding efficiency due to a mismatch with the guide RNA. Overall, this can cause a reduction in treatment efficacy.”

The team found that such occurrences in the genome are not uncommon; about 50 percent of the analyzed gRNAs had the potential to be affected by variants at their target sites. In a few cases, the team found genetic variants that cause DNA sequences in the genome to more closely match a gRNA that could potentially draw it to the wrong place — resulting in an edit of a gene or other DNA region that’s not meant to be targeted.

“In rare cases, there was the potential to create very potent ‘off-target’ sites – where CRISPR reagents could bind and cut where they’re not intended to,” says Canver. “If an off-target effect happens to be in, say, a tumor suppressor gene, that would be a big concern.”

Although the study looked at CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, the researchers believe their findings extend to other gene-editing tools such as zinc-finger nucleases (ZFN) and TAL effector nucleases.

“The unifying theme is that all these technologies rely on identifying stretches of DNA bases very specifically,” says Canver. “So, a variant that affects the target sequence could reduce guide RNA binding. Variants can also lead to binding at new sites that could potentially cause harm. As these gene-editing therapies continue to develop and start to approach the clinic, it’s important to make sure each therapy is going to be tailored to the patient that’s going to be treated.”

Learn more: Patients’ individual genomes may affect efficacy, safety of gene editing


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Dec 122017

via Fifth Domain

Novel combination of security proof techniques and protocols help solve the puzzle of high speed quantum key distribution for secure communication

A quantum information scientist from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has developed efficient “toolboxes” comprising theoretical tools and protocols for quantifying the security of high-speed quantum communication. Assistant Professor Charles Lim is part of an international team of experimental and theoretical scientists from Duke University, Ohio State University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory that has recently achieved a significant breakthrough in high-rate quantum secure communication.

Quantum computers are powerful machines that can break today’s most prevalent encryption technologies in minutes. Crucially, recent progress in quantum computing has indicated that this threat is no longer theoretical but real, and large-scale quantum computers are now becoming a reality. If successfully implemented, these computers could be exploited to decrypt any organisation’s trade secrets, confidential communication, and sensitive data retrospectively or remotely.

Quantum key distribution (QKD) is an emerging quantum technology that enables the establishment of secret keys between two or more parties in an untrusted network. Importantly, unlike conventional encryption techniques, the security of QKD is mathematically unbreakable — it is based solely on the established laws of nature. As such, messages and data encrypted using QKD keys are completely secure against any attacks on the communication channel. For this reason, QKD is widely seen as the solution that will completely resolve the security threats posed by future quantum computers.

Today, QKD technology is relatively mature and there are now several companies selling QKD systems. Very recently, researchers from China have managed to distribute QKD keys to two ground stations located 1200 kilometres apart. However, despite these major developments and advances, practical QKD systems still face some inherent limitations. One major limitation is the secret key throughput — current QKD systems are only able to transmit 10,000 to 100,000 secret bits per second. This limitation is largely due to the choice of quantum information basis: many QKD systems are still using low-dimensional information basis, such as the polarisation basis, to encode quantum information.

“Poor secret key rates arising from current QKD implementations have been a major bottleneck affecting the use of quantum secure communication on a wider scale. For practical applications, such systems need to be able to generate secret key rates in the order of megabits per second to meet today’s digital communication requirements,” said Asst Prof Lim, who is from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NUS Faculty of Engineering as well as Centre for Quantum Technologies at NUS.

In the study, the research team developed a QKD system based on time and phase bases which allows for more secret bits to be packed into a single photon. Notably, the team had achieved two secret bits in a single photon, with a secret key rate of 26.2 megabits per second.

The findings of the study were published online in scientific journal Science Advances on 24 November 2017.

Time-bin encoding

Encoding quantum information in the time and phase bases is a promising approach that is highly robust against typical optical channel disturbances and yet scalable in the information dimension. In this approach, secret bits are encoded in the arrival time of single photons, while the complementary phase states — for measuring information leakages — are encoded in the relative phases of the time states. This encoding technique, in principle, could allow one to pack arbitrarily many bits into a single photon and generate extremely high secret key rates for QKD. However, implementing such high-dimensional systems is technically challenging and tools for quantifying the practical security of high-dimensional QKD are limited.

To overcome these problems for their QKD system, the researchers used a novel combination of security proof techniques developed by Asst Prof Lim and an interferometry technique by Professor Daniel Gauthier’s research group from Duke University and Ohio State University. Asst Prof Lim was involved in the protocol design of the QKD system as well as proving the security of the protocol using quantum information theory.

“Our newly developed theoretical and experimental techniques have resolved some of the major challenges for high-dimensional QKD systems based on time-bin encoding, and can potentially be used for image and video encryption, as well as data transfer involving large encrypted databases. This will help pave the way for high-dimensional quantum information processing,” added Asst Prof Lim, who is one of the co-corresponding authors of the study.

Learn more: NUS scientist develops “toolboxes” for quantum cybersecurity


The Latest on: Quantum cybersecurity
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Dec 122017

via EurekaAlert!

Ultrastretchable and deformable bioprobes using Kirigami designs

A research team in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Information Engineering and the Electronics-Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS) at Toyohashi University of Technology has developed an ultrastretchable bioprobe using Kirigami designs. The Kirigami-based bioprobe enables one to follow the shape of spherical and large deformable biological samples such as heart and brain tissues. In addition, its low strain-force characteristic reduces the force induced on organs, thereby enabling minimally invasive biological signal recording. The results of their research will be published in Advanced Healthcare Materials on December 8, 2017.

High stretchability and deformability are promising properties to increase the applications of flexible film electronics including sensors, actuators, and energy harvesters. In particular, they have great potential for applications related to three-dimensional soft biological samples such as organs and tissues that exhibit large and rapid changes in their surface area and volume (e.g., a beating heart). However, conventional elastomer-based stretchable devices require a large strain-force to stretch it, that arises from an intrinsic material property. This makes it impossible to follow the deformation of soft biological tissues, thereby preventing natural deformation and growth. For device applications pertaining to soft biological samples, it is extremely important to reduce the strain-force characteristic of the stretchable devices to realize low invasiveness and safe measurements.

A research team in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Information Engineering and the EIIRIS at Toyohashi University of Technology has developed an ultrastretchable bioprobe using Kirigami designs.

“To realize the ultrastretchable bioprobe with low strain-force characteristic, we used a Kirigami design as the device pattern. The remarkable feature of Kirigami is that rigid and unstretchable materials can be rendered more stretchable compared to other elastomer-based stretchable materials. The stretching mechanism is based on an out-of-plane bending of the thin film rather than stretching of the material; therefore, the strain-stress characteristic is extremely low compared to that of elastomer-based stretchable devices,” explains the first author of the article, Ph.D. candidate Yusuke Morikawa.

The leader of the research team, Associate Professor Takeshi Kawano, said, “The idea germinated in my mind one morning when I woke up and saw my son playing with Origami and Kirigami. I saw him realize high stretchability of the paper while creating the Kirigami designs. This made me wonder whether it is possible to develop stretchable electronics using the concept of Kirigami. Surprisingly, our preliminary studies on Kirigami-based parylene films by microelectromechanical systems technology exhibited high stretchability of 1,100%. In addition, we are extremely excited that the fabricated Kirigami-based bioprobes possess the distinct advantages of high stretchability and deformability, and are capable of recording biological signals from the cortical surface and beating heart of a mouse.”

The research team believes that the Kirigami-based bioprobes can also be used to probe tissues and organs that exhibit time-dependent changes in their surface and volume due to growth or disease. This is expected to lead to the eventual realization of a completely new measurement method that can be instrumental in understanding the mechanisms governing growth and diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Learn more: Revolutionizing electronics using Kirigami


The Latest on: Kirigami electronics
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  • Watch: Revolutionary Electronics Design Inspired by Japanese Paper Art
    on December 8, 2017 at 2:09 pm

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Dec 122017

via Wikipedia

Researchers from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ITQ), Valencia’s Polytechnic University (UPV) and the Superior Council of Scientific Investigations (CSIC) have developed ceramic membranes which make it possible to produce compressed hydrogen from methane in a cleaner, cheaper way.

Results of the investigation have numerous uses in the field of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well as the chemical industry, as this new method is capable of generating hydrogen from methane gas and electricity in just one step and with near-zero energy loss.

Hydrogen is an excellent fuel which, due to its high energetic density and zero greenhouse gas emission, is essential in a great number of industrial processes. Its combination with oxygen in the atmosphere produces energy and water as its sole by-product, making it one of the main candidates to substitute fossil fuels as a source of energy for the transport sector.

CSIC research professor and head of the investigation José Manuel Serra explains that ‘the development and introduction in the market of hybrid  and electric cars will allow us to reduce the impact of transport in CO2 emissions in coming years, and as a result, the greenhouse effect on the planet. The next natural step, as proven by the investment made by large automotive industry brands, is the implementation of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, which have greater autonomy and charge faster than electric ones’.

Researchers at the ITQ have developed a gas separation membrane reactor which is operated electronically and allows for the endothermic production of hydrogen with a near-zero energy loss.

“Our investigations show that it is possible to generate compressed hydrogen in just one step with high efficiency from electricity and methane gas or biogas and, simultaneously, isolate the CO2 and not release it into the atmosphere. Our method allows for the hydrogen to be produced at high pressure in a distributed manner, which means it could be produced in petrol stations, residential areas, garages or farms. By using electricity from renewable sources, our system allows us to generate hydrogen with a very low carbon footprint. We can also store the leftover renewable energy in the form of compressed hydrogen for a later use when the electrical demand is higher, or as fuel for vehicles”, Serra adds.



The Latest on: Compressed hydrogen from methane

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Dec 112017

By using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, along with academic collaborators, have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. With this process, researchers have printed beams, planes, struts at arbitrary angles, lattices and complex and uniquely curved objects in a matter of seconds.

While additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3D printing, is enabling engineers and scientists to build parts in configurations and designs never before possible, the impact of the technology has been limited by layer-based printing methods, which can take up to hours or days to build three-dimensional parts, depending on their complexity.

However, by using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), along with collaborators at UC Berkeley, the University of Rochester and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. The novel approach is called “volumetric” 3D printing, and is described in the journal Science Advances(link is external), published online Dec. 8.

“The fact that you can do fully 3D parts all in one step really does overcome an important problem in additive manufacturing,” said LLNL researcher Maxim Shusteff, the paper’s lead author. “We’re trying to print a 3D shape all at the same time. The real aim of this paper was to ask, ‘Can we make arbitrary 3D shapes all at once, instead of putting the parts together gradually layer by layer?’ It turns out we can.”

The way it works, Shusteff explained, is by overlapping three laser beams that define an object’s geometry from three different directions, creating a 3D image suspended in the vat of resin. The laser light, which is at a higher intensity where the beams intersect, is kept on for about 10 seconds, enough time to cure the part. The excess resin is drained out of the vat, and, seemingly like magic, researchers are left with a fully formed 3D part.

The approach, the scientists concluded, results in parts built many times faster than other polymer-based methods, and most, if not all, commercial AM methods used today. Due to its low cost, flexibility, speed and geometric versatility, the researchers expect the framework to open a major new direction of research in rapid 3D printing.

Volumetric 3D printing creates parts by overlapping three laser beams that define an object’s geometry from three different directions, creating a hologram-like 3D image suspended in the vat of resin. The laser light, which is at a higher intensity where the beams intersect, is kept on for about 10 seconds, enough time to cure the object.

“It’s a demonstration of what the next generation of additive manufacturing may be,” said LLNL engineer Chris Spadaccini, who heads Livermore Lab’s 3D printing effort. “Most 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies consist of either a one-dimensional or two-dimensional unit operation. This moves fabrication to a fully 3D operation, which has not been done before. The potential impact on throughput could be enormous and if you can do it well, you can still have a lot of complexity.”

With this process, Shusteff and his team printed beams, planes, struts at arbitrary angles, lattices and complex and uniquely curved objects. While conventional 3D printing has difficulty with spanning structures that might sag without support, Shusteff said, volumetric printing has no such constraints; many curved surfaces can be produced without layering artifacts.

“This might be the only way to do AM that doesn’t require layering,” Shusteff said. “If you can get away from layering, you have a chance to get rid of ridges and directional properties. Because all features within the parts are formed at the same time, they don’t have surface issues.

“I’m hoping what this will do is inspire other researchers to find other ways to do this with other materials,” he added. “It would be a paradigm shift.”
Shusteff believes volumetric printing could be made even faster with a higher power light source. Extra-soft materials such as hydrogels could be wholly fabricated, he said, which would otherwise be damaged or destroyed by fluid motion. Volumetric 3D printing also is the only additive manufacturing technique that works better in zero gravity, he said, expanding the possibility of space-based production.

The LLNL logo in 3D printed technology.

The technique does have limitations, researchers said. Because each beam propagates through space without changing, there are restrictions on part resolution and on the kinds of geometries that can be formed. Extremely complex structures would require lots of intersecting laser beams and would limit the process, they explained.

Spadaccini added that additional polymer chemistry and engineering also would be needed to improve the resin properties and fine tune them to make better structures.

“If you leave the light on too long it will start to cure everywhere, so there’s a timing game,” Spadaccini said. “A lot of the science and engineering is figuring out how long you can keep it on and at what intensity, and how that couples with the chemistry.”

Learn more: Volumetric 3D printing builds on need for speed


The Latest on: Volumetric 3D printing

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Dec 112017

Shan Dou (from left), Jonathan Ajo-Franklin, and Nate Lindsey were on a Berkeley Lab team that used fiber optic cables for detecting earthquakes and other subsurface activity. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

Berkeley Lab researchers successfully use distributed acoustic sensing for seismic monitoring

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown for the first time that dark fiber – the vast network of unused fiber-optic cables installed throughout the country and the world – can be used as sensors for detecting earthquakes, the presence of groundwater, changes in permafrost conditions, and a variety of other subsurface activity.

In a pair of recently published papers, a team led by Berkeley Lab researcher Jonathan Ajo-Franklin announced they had successfully combined a technology called “distributed acoustic sensing,” which measures seismic waves using fiber-optic cables, with novel processing techniques to allow reliable seismic monitoring, achieving results comparable to what conventional seismometers can measure.

“This has huge potential because you can just imagine long stretches of fibers being turned into a massive seismic network,” said Shan Dou, a Berkeley Lab postdoctoral fellow. “The idea is that by using fiber that can be buried underground for a long time, we can transform traffic noise or other ambient vibrations into usable seismic signals that can help us to monitor near-surface changes such as permafrost thaw and groundwater-level fluctuations.”

Dou is the lead author of “Distributed Acoustic Sensing for Seismic Monitoring of the Near Surface: A Traffic-Noise Interferometry Case Study,” which was published in September in Nature’s Scientific Reports and verified the technique for monitoring the Earth’s near surface. More recently, Ajo-Franklin’s group published a follow-up study led by UC Berkeley graduate student Nate Lindsey, “Fiber-Optic Network Observations of Earthquake Wavefields,” in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), which demonstrates the viability of using fiber-optic cables for earthquake detection.

What is dark fiber?

Dark fiber refers to unused fiber-optic cable, of which there is a glut thanks to a huge rush to install the cable in the early 1990s by telecommunications companies. Just as the cables were buried underground, the technology for transmitting data improved significantly so that fewer cables were needed. There are now dense corridors of dark fiber crisscrossing the entire country.

Distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) is a novel technology that measures seismic wavefields by shooting short laser pulses across the length of the fiber. “The basic idea is, the laser light gets scattered by tiny impurities in the fiber,” said Ajo-Franklin. “When fiber is deformed, we will see distortions in the backscattered light, and from these distortions, we can measure how the fiber itself is being squeezed or pulled.”

Jonathan Ajo-Franklin (left) installing an experimental fiber optic test array at the Richmond Field Station. (Courtesy Jonathan Ajo-Franklin)

Using a test array they installed in Richmond, California – with fiber-optic cable placed in a shallow L-shaped trench, one leg of about 100 meters parallel to the road and another perpendicular – the researchers verified that they could use seismic waves generated by urban traffic, such as cars and trains, to image and monitor the mechanical properties of shallow soil layers.

The measurements give information on how “squishy” the soil is at any given point, making it possible to infer a great deal of information about the soil properties, such as its water content or texture. “Imagine a slinky – it can compress or wiggle,” Ajo-Franklin said. “Those correspond to different ways you can squeeze the soil, and how much energy it takes to reduce its volume or shear it.”

He added: “The neat thing about it is that you’re making measurements across each little unit of fiber. All the reflections come back to you. By knowing all of them and knowing how long it takes for a laser light to travel back and forth on the fiber you can back out what’s happening at each location. So it’s a truly distributed measurement.”

Having proven the concept under controlled conditions, the team said they expect the technique to work on a variety of existing telecommunications networks, and they are currently conducting follow-up experiments across California to demonstrate this. Ongoing research in Alaska is also exploring the same technique for monitoring the stability of Arctic permafrost.

Added Dou: “We can monitor the near surface really well by using nothing but traffic noise. It could be fluctuations in groundwater levels, or changes that could provide early warnings for a variety of geohazards such as permafrost thaw, sinkhole formation, and landslides.”

Using fiber for quake detection

Building on five years of Berkeley Lab-led research exploring the use of DAS for subsurface monitoring using non-earthquake seismic sources, Ajo-Franklin’s group has now pushed the envelope and has shown that DAS is a powerful tool for earthquake monitoring as well.

Nate Lindsey trims cable at the Richmond Field Station (Courtesy Jonathan Ajo-Franklin)

In the GRL study led by Lindsey in collaboration with Stanford graduate student Eileen Martin, the research team took measurements using the DAS technique on fiber-optic arrays in three locations – two in California and one in Alaska. In all cases, DAS proved to be comparably sensitive to earthquakes as conventional seismometers, despite its higher noise levels. Using the DAS arrays, they assembled a catalog of local, regional, and distant earthquakes and showed that processing techniques could take advantage of DAS’ many channels to help understand where earthquakes originate from.

Ajo-Franklin said that dark fiber has the advantage of being nearly ubiquitous, whereas traditional seismometers, because they are expensive, are sparsely installed, and subsea installations are particularly scarce. Additionally, fiber allows for dense spatial sampling, meaning data points are only meters apart, whereas seismometers typically are separated by many kilometers.

Lindsey added: “Fiber has a lot of implications for earthquake detection, location, and early warning. Fiber goes out in the ocean, and it’s all over the land, so this technology increases the likelihood that a sensor is near the rupture when an earthquake happens, which translates into finding small events, improved earthquake locations, and extra time for early warning.”

The GRL paper notes other potential applications of using the dark fiber, including urban seismic hazard analysis, global seismic imaging, offshore submarine volcano detection, nuclear explosion monitoring, and microearthquake characterization.

Learn more: Dark Fiber: Using Sensors Beneath Our Feet to Tell Us About Earthquakes, Water, and Other Geophysical Phenomenon


The Latest on: Dark fiber
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  • Dark Fiber Networks Can Sense Seismicity
    on December 15, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Scientists are exploring the use of fiber optic cables—like the ones that form the backbone of the internet—to monitor earthquakes. Julia Rosen reports. When an earthquake hits or a volcano erupts, scientists traditionally record the shaking using a ... […]

  • Verizon (VZ) Acquires WideOpenWest's Chicago Fiber Assets
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  • State Law Stands Between a Washington Town and Dark Fiber
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  • That Was Then, This Is Now: Fiber Optic Cables Find New Use as Seismic Sensors
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  • Dark Fiber: Using Sensors Beneath Our Feet to Tell Us About Earthquakes, Water, and Other Geophysical Phenomenon
    on December 7, 2017 at 9:07 am

    Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown for the first time that dark fiber – the vast network of unused fiber-optic cables installed throughout the country and the world – can be used ... […]

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Dec 112017

The new Firefly microscope is optimized to perform optogenetic studies examining many neurons at once. Each bright spot here represents a neuron from a genetically modified mouse.Image Credit: Vaibhav Joshi, Harvard University.

New microscope has more than 100 times larger field of view for studying brain activity  

A newly developed microscope is providing scientists with a greatly enhanced tool to study how neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease affect neuron communication. The microscope is optimized to perform studies using optogenetic techniques, a relatively new technology that uses light to control and image neurons genetically modified with light-sensitive proteins.

“Our new microscope can be used to explore the effects of different genetic mutations on neuronal function,” said Adam Cohen from Harvard University, USA, and the leader of the research team that developed the microscope. “One day it could be used to test the effects of candidate drugs on neurons derived from people with nervous system disorders to try to identify medicines to treat diseases that do not have adequate treatments right now.”

The new microscope, called Firefly, can image a 6-millimeter-diameter area, more than one hundred times larger than the field of view of most microscopes used for optogenetics. Rather than studying the electrical activity of one neuron, the large imaging area makes it possible to trigger the electrical pulses neurons use to communicate and then watch those pulses travel from cell to cell throughout a large neural circuit containing hundreds of cells. In the brain, each neuron typically connects to one thousand other neurons, so viewing the larger network is important to understanding how neurological diseases affect neuronal communication.

In The Optical Society (OSA) journal Biomedical Optics Express, Cohen and his colleagues report how they assembled the new microscope for less than $100,000 using components that are almost all commercially available. The microscope not only images a large area, but also collects light extremely efficiently. This provides the high image quality and fast speed necessary to watch neuronal electrical pulses that each last only one thousandth of a second.

Using light to see neurons fire

The new microscope is ideal for studying human neurons grown in the laboratory. In the past decade, scientists have developed human cell models for many nervous system disorders. These cells can be genetically modified to contain light-sensitive proteins that allow scientists to use light to make neurons fire or to control variables such as neurotransmitter levels or protein aggregation. Other light-sensitive fluorescent proteins turn the invisible electrical pulses coming from neurons into brief flashes of fluorescence that can be imaged and measured.

These techniques have made it possible for scientists to study the input and output of individual neurons, but commercially available microscopes aren’t optimized to fully utilize the potential of optogenetics approaches. To fill this technology gap, the researchers designed the Firefly microscope to stimulate neurons with a complex pattern containing a million points of light and then record the brief flashes of light fluorescence that correspond to electrical pulses fired by the neurons.

Each pixel of the light pattern can independently stimulate a light-sensitive protein. Because the pixels can be many distinct colors, different types of light-sensitive proteins can be triggered at once. The light pattern can be programed to cover an entire neuron, stimulate certain areas of a neuron or be used to illuminate multiple cells at once.

“This optical system provides a million inputs and a million outputs, allowing us to see everything that’s going on in these neural cultures,” explained Cohen.

After stimulating the neurons, the microscope uses a camera imaging at a thousand frames a second to capture the fluorescence induced by the extremely short electrical pulses. “The optical system must be highly efficient to detect good signals within a millisecond,” said Cohen. “A great deal of engineering went into developing optics that can not only image a large area but do so with very high light collection efficiency.”

To efficiently collect light over a large area, the Firefly microscope uses an objective lens about the size of a soda can rather than the thumb-sized objective lens used by most microscopes. The researchers also used an optical setup that increases the amount of light stimulating the neurons to help ensure the neurons emit bright fluorescence when firing.

“The one custom element in the microscope is a small prism placed between the neurons and the objective lens,” explained Cohen. “This important component causes the light to travel along the same plane as the cells rather than entering the sample perpendicularly. This keeps the light from illuminating material above and below the cells, decreasing background fluorescence that would make it hard to see fluorescence actually coming from the neurons.”

Watching 85 neurons at once

The researchers demonstrated their new microscope by using it to optically stimulate and record the fluorescence from cultured human neurons. “The neurons were a big tangled mess of spaghetti,” said Cohen. “We showed that it was possible to resolve 85 individual neurons at the same time in a measurement that took about 30 seconds.”

After the initial stimulation and imaging, the researchers were able to find 79 of those 85 cells a second time. This capability is important for studies that require each cell to be imaged before and after exposure to a drug, for example.

In a second demonstration, the researchers used the microscope to map the electrical waves propagating through cultured heart cells. This showed that the microscope could be used to study abnormal heart rhythms, which occur when the electrical signals that coordinate heartbeats do not work properly.

“The system we developed is designed for looking at a relatively flat sample such as cultured cells,” said Cohen. “We are now developing a system to perform optogenetics approaches in intact tissue, which would allow us to look at how these neurons behave in their native context.”

The researchers have also started a biotech company called Q-State Biosciences that is using an improved version of the microscope to work with pharmaceutical companies on drug discovery.

Learn more: Innovative Microscope Poised to Propel Optogenetics Studies


The Latest on: Optogenetics
  • Hope for autism: Optogenetics shines light on social interactions
    on December 14, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Ilana Witten didn’t set out to study spatial learning. She thought she was investigating how mice socialize — but she discovered that in mouse brains, the social and the spatial are inextricably linked. “This research could help us understand autism ... […]

  • Light-Triggered Genes Reveal the Hidden Workings of Memory
    on December 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

    With that high-profile result, Tonegawa was off and running. About 10 years ago, he was able to take his work to a new level of precision in part by employing a technique called optogenetics. Developed by the Stanford University bioengineer Karl Deisseroth ... […]

  • Structure of channelrhodopsin determined
    on December 13, 2017 at 12:00 am

    Optogenetics enables specific nerve cells to be turned on and off using special light-sensitive 'protein switches'. One of the most important of these switches is Channelrhodopsin 2, the first 'light switch protein' to have been successfully expressed in ... […]

  • A light bulb moment: the optogenetics revolution
    on December 11, 2017 at 6:50 am

    Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on Pinterest Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Ever since the late 1700s when the Italian physician Luigi Galvani found that static electricity could induce a deceased frog’s leg ... […]

  • Optogenetics research sheds new light on social-spatial learning
    on December 8, 2017 at 2:28 am

    Ilana Witten didn't set out to study spatial learning. She thought she was investigating how mice socialize--but she discovered that in mouse brains, the social and the spatial are inextricably linked. "The data had to be screaming at us for a while before ... […]

  • North America Optogenetics Industry is estimated to reach USD 17.80 million by the end of 2021
    on December 7, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    North America Optogenetics Industry was worth $ 8.70 million in 2016 and estimated to reach $ 17.80 million by the end of 2021 with a CAGR of 15.4 %. Browse Industry data tables and in-depth TOC of the North America Optogenetics Industry to 2021 @ http ... […]

  • Innovation Forum Optogenetics lays the foundation for a research agenda
    on December 5, 2017 at 2:11 am

    Melanie Gauch Marketing & Communications Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. Biological functions can be controlled with light. Using this mechanism, the participants of the Innovation Forum on Optogenetics - Technologies and Potentials (INOTEP), which took place ... […]

  • Flickering light could one day be a powerful neurological switch for brain disorders — if scientists can learn how to harness it properly
    on February 6, 2017 at 1:03 am

    It could help patients with a whole host of disorders, from Alzheimer's to PTSD. This is one of the main drivers behind the field of optogenetics, which is a biological technique where light is used to control the activity of brain cells in living animals. […]

  • Optogenetics sheds new light on brain’s behavior modulators
    on November 6, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Called optogenetics, for optics and genetics, the technology harnesses the power of light-activated ion channels from algae and combines it with genetic techniques to study isolated neuron populations. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool…probably the ... […]

  • Optogenetics: New Technology to Manipulate Memories
    on June 4, 2014 at 3:30 am

    Who would decide which memories to keep and which to erase? Optogenetics as a new technology to manipulate memories needs to be in the hands of the right people. […]

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Dec 112017

Photographer: Picture: VTT

A new Finnish invention by EEE Innovations Ltd and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland revolutionizes the way black ice is detected and provides several other improvements in traffic safety as well. The software installed in vehicles can also guide drivers to drive more economically. Software-based, the invention can be installed into a majority of heavy vehicles in particular with no additional equipment.

The new invention allows slippery road conditions to be detected extremely accurately and even in real time and with costs significantly lower than by any other methods currently in use. The first application of this patented technology is offered for heavy traffic use, but the invention can be applied to private vehicles as well.

– The driving optimization system we have developed is the only one capable of recognizing the driver’s input in economical driving, taking also into account factors independent of the driver, such as weather conditions, traffic jams and vehicle-related differences, says Jarmo Leino from EEE Innovations Oy, the company that has developed the service.

Data gathered from the vehicles is refined and delivered forward. The driver guidance system can be installed as a part of software already existing in the vehicles. It can also be installed as an independent entity, containing both the driving optimization and slipperiness detection components.

– Our goal is to make all heavy vehicles moving slipperiness sensors and to refine the gathered data into valuable information, to benefit all traffic users and other parties, Jarmo Leino states.

The inventions originate from VTT heavy traffic research projects, and they have been piloted in one EU-level project as well as in Finland.

– The pilot project indicates that with the system, savings up to 20% in fuel consumption can be reached, in addition to improved road safety, says Principal Scientist Raine Hautala of VTT.

Learn more: A revolutionary new Finnish invention detects black ice in traffic


The Latest on: Detecting slippery road conditions

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Dec 102017

Illinois graduate student Hailey Knox and chemistry professor Jefferson Chan developed a photoacoustic molecular probe that activates in tissues low in oxygen, which could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of cancer, stroke and blocked or narrowed blood vessels.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen in tissue, are hallmarks of fast-growing cancers and of blockages or narrowing in blood vessels, such as stroke or peripheral artery disease. University of Illinois researchers have developed a way to find hypoxic spots noninvasively in real time.

The researchers developed an oxygen-sensitive molecular beacon that emits ultrasound signals in response to light, a process called photoacoustic imaging – a less invasive, higher resolution and less costly method than the current clinical standard, which uses radioactive molecules and positron emission tomography scans. In a paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers demonstrated the probe’s ability to image hypoxic tumors and constricted arteries in mice.

“We could give a doctor a three-dimensional, real-time view into the tissue to guide surgical procedures and treatment plans,” said chemistryprofessor Jefferson Chan, the leader of the study. Graduate student Hailey Knox and bioengineering professor Wawrzyniec Lawrence Dobrucki were co-authors of the paper.

“The ability to detect this in a way that doesn’t require surgery or doesn’t rely on indirect methods is really powerful, because you can actually see it as it’s developing,” Chan said.

Current methods for detecting hypoxia in tissue can only identify chronic hypoxia, and thus cannot help doctors find aggressive cancers or acute conditions like a stroke that require immediate intervention, Chan said. Such methods are limited to invasive procedures involving large electrode needles or indirect imaging with radioactive probes, which has the added challenges of off-target activation and interference.

The molecular probes Chan’s group developed only become active when oxygen is lacking. When excited by light, they produce an ultrasound signal, allowing direct 3-D imaging of hypoxic areas. They tested the system on cell cultures, and then in live mice with breast cancer and mice with constricted arteries in their legs.

“The system that we used in this study is a preclinical system for animals. However, in a clinical setting, you can take a regular ultrasound machine and equip it with a light source – you can buy LEDs for around $200 that are powerful enough and safe for clinical applications,” Chan said. Physicians would administer the photoacoustic molecules to the patient, either by injecting into a vein or directly to a tumor site, then use the modified ultrasound machine to visualize the area of interest.

The researchers found that their photoacoustic method could find hypoxia mere minutes after a mouse’s artery was constricted, showing promise for quickly finding stroke sites or blood clots in deep tissue. In the mice with cancer, the probes enabled detailed, 3-D ultrasound imaging of hypoxic tumors.

See a video of a 3-D rendering of a hypoxic tumor.

“We know that a lot of tumors are hypoxic, so many new treatments have been developed that become activated in oxygen-deficient conditions. But they have been inconsistent in clinical trials, because not all tumors are hypoxic,” Chan said. “This gives scientists and physicians a way to noninvasively look inside tumors and determine whether a patient’s tumor is hypoxic and they would be a good candidate for a new drug. If the tumor doesn’t look very hypoxic, they should go into a different treatment plan.”

Another advantage is the low cost of producing the molecules and their long shelf life, the researchers said. They can stay stable for years, whereas radioactive molecules must be used soon after manufacturing and require special training for use.

Chan’s group is exploring other types of photoacoustic molecules that could image other conditions. For example, they are working on probes that can detect specific cancers so they can find any places where cancer has spread or metastasized in a patient’s body.

“Not only can you detect a cancer and discover its properties, but it has a lot of avenues for patient care. We can look at the whole iceberg instead of the tip of the iceberg,” Chan said.

Learn more: Molecular beacon signals low oxygen with ultrasound


The Latest on: Photoacoustic molecules

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Dec 102017

UV light creates damaging links between atoms in the DNA building block thymine. An enzyme called photolyase, which is triggered by a different wavelength of light, cuts them out and repairs the damage. (Colored illustration by Dave Goodsell/PDB-101)

Biochemical ‘action shots’ with SLAC’s X-ray laser could help scientists develop synthetic enzymes for medicine and answer fundamental questions about how enzymes change during chemical reactions.

A research team at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is using the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) to study an enzyme found in plants, bacteria and some animals that repairs DNA damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light rays.

By studying this enzyme, called DNA photolyase, with the ultrabright and ultrafast pulses of the LCLS X-ray laser, researchers finally have the opportunity to watch the enzyme in action as it catalyzes a chemical reaction in real time and at the atomic scale to resolve longstanding debates about how these enzymes work. Ultimately, this knowledge could be used to engineer improved synthetic versions of enzymes that drive crucial reactions in biological systems, or to produce novel enzymes that do not exist in nature.

“The biochemical reactions performed by enzymes are at the heart of the adaptability and efficiency of living things,” says Thomas Joseph Lane, an associate staff scientist at LCLS. “But the details of how enzymes work is hidden in chemical processes that occur on extremely short timescales, down to millionths of a billionth of a second, so we needed LCLS to reveal their secrets.”

A Powerful Repair Machine

In just a few seconds, ultraviolet light from the sun can damage DNA by creating hundreds of unwanted links within DNA’s double helix. These modifications make the genetic material bulky and unreadable by DNA replication tools, leading to permanent mutations that can cause cancer and other diseases if left unrepaired.

But the same sunlight that carries damaging UV rays also contains blue light that can induce photolyase to quickly repair any DNA damage.

Photolyase is thought to be one reason why plants – which have hours of exposure to the sun each day – are less susceptible to UV damage than humans, who lack photolyase. Humans and other mammals must fall back on alternative DNA repair mechanisms (or avoid going out into the sun altogether).

Using an Ultrafast X-ray Camera

With LCLS, researchers now have access to some of the fastest and brightest X-ray laser pulses in the world to study how living things defend themselves from UV damage.

Earlier this year, for instance, a team of scientists led by Thomas Wolf, an associate staff scientist at SLAC, used LCLS to see the first step of a protective process that prevents UV damage in the DNA building block thymine.

“Before LCLS, other X-ray ‘cameras’ were too slow,” Lane explains. “Trying to precisely image enzymes and other proteins with those X-ray sources would be like trying to take an action shot of Michael Phelps swimming with an old camera. You would only get a few blurry images over his entire 100-yard butterfly event, which would hardly make for an exciting or informative photo.”

But with LCLS, he says, “Imagine a series of high-resolution shots in sequence – you would be able to capture every drop of water and every twist of Phelps’ wrist as he butterflies. That’s what LCLS lets us do when visualizing enzyme activity.”

Building Better Enzymes

In contrast to Wolf’s experiment on how DNA protects itself from damage, Lane’s team is studying how photolyase repairs UV damage once protective mechanisms have failed. Photolyase can be controlled with great precision by exposing it to light, making it an ideal enzyme to study using laser-generated light.

To see photolyase chemistry in detail, the researchers activated the enzyme with a carefully controlled light pulse from a laser. They subsequently exposed the enzyme to the LCLS-generated X-ray pulse, creating a characteristic X-ray scatter pattern in a specialized detector. The analysis of scattered X-ray data revealed chemical and structural changes in the enzyme at atomic level and occuring at a time scale of a millionth of a billionth of a second.

Top: An optical microscope image of crystallized photolyase enzymes before they are probed by the LCLS X-ray laser. Bottom: An X-ray diffraction pattern from the photolyase crystals. These patterns, made by X-rays interacting with atoms in the crystal, are used to determine the structure of the molecule. (Thomas Joseph Lane/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

One of the ultimate goals of studying the enzymatic DNA repair process is to engineer synthetic enzymes that mimic but are even better than those found in nature.

“There are still some major gaps in our understanding of how enzymes work, highlighted by the fact that man-made enzymes have yet to match nature’s performance,” says Lane. “We hope our experiments here at LCLS will help us bridge those gaps, getting us closer to understanding and harnessing the chemistry living things do every day.”

Learn more: Research Zooms in on Enzyme That Repairs DNA Damage from UV Rays


The Latest on: Enzymes
  • Glowing plants imbued with firefly enzymes might one day replace lamps
    on December 15, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Your bedpost plants might one day double as a reading lamp if MIT’s latest proect ever takes off. The team, which specializes in nanobionics, embedded nanoparticles into the watercress plant (Nasturtium officinale) to make it glow in a dim light. […]

  • North America Specialty Enzymes Market Trends, And Forecasts (2016–2021)
    on December 15, 2017 at 4:48 am

    (EMAILWIRE.COM, December 15, 2017 ) The North America Specialty Enzymes Market is worth USD billion in 2016 and estimated to grow at a CAGR of %, to reach USD billion by 2021. The North America Specialty Enzymes market is developing at an exceptionally ... […]

  • Global juices processing enzymes market scrutinized in new research
    on December 15, 2017 at 3:00 am

    The Global Juices Processing Enzymes Market Research Report 2017 contains historic data that spans 2012 to 2016, and then continues to forecast to 2022. That makes this report so invaluable for the leaders as well as the new entrants in the Industry. […]

  • Feed Enzymes Market Global Outlook 2017- Novozymes, DuPont, Aum Enzymes, BASF, Kemin
    on December 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Deerfield Beach, FL -- (SBWIRE) -- 12/13/2017 -- The purpose of Feed Enzymes Market report is to provide the newest industry data and Feed Enzymes industry future trends, allowing consumers to identify the Feed Enzymes market Application, Type ... […]

  • NREL researchers engineer better cellulose-degrading enzymes
    on December 14, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have gained new insights into how glycosylation—the natural attachment of sugars to proteins—affects a key cellulase enzyme. This work could be used to improve ... […]

  • Enzymes Industry: 2017 Global Market Size, Overview, Trends, Growth and Region Analysis Forecasts to 2022
    on December 13, 2017 at 3:45 am

    Enzymes Market 2017 Industry Research Report has been analyzed in detail to assist clients with all the vital data to frame tactical business judgments and propose strategic growth plans. The Enzymes Market report offers a comprehensive insight into the ... […]

  • Digestive Enzymes Are an All-Natural Ally for Diabetes Sufferers
    on December 13, 2017 at 1:10 am

    Digestive enzymes are an all-natural ally for diabetes sufferers. These proteins actually continue to gain interest from consumers due to the significant roles they play. Today, they are consumed efficiently and conveniently through supplementation. […]

  • Scientists make kale plants glow in the dark with firefly enzymes
    on December 12, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    A team of MIT research have engineered plants that glow in the dark, using luciferase, the enzyme that lights up firefly butts. The answer to the question of why, precisely, anyone would want to do such a thing is clearly, “because science is cool.&rdquo […]

  • Novozymes: Innovation through enzymes
    on December 8, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Though it’s been a fixture in Davis for more than 25 years, Novozymes is not a household name — or is it? The Danish-based biotech company produces industrial enzymes and micro-organisms for more than 600 products. Those natural enzymes replace harsh ... […]

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Dec 102017

The Belmonte lab’s advanced in vivo Cas9-based epigenetic gene activation system enhances skeletal muscle mass (top) and fiber size growth (bottom) in a treated mouse (right) compared with an independent control (left). The fluorescent microscopy images at bottom show purple staining of the laminin glycoprotein in tibialis anterior muscle fibers.
Credit: Salk Institute

Approach could also be applied to reversing aging and age-related diseases such as hearing loss and macular degeneration

Salk scientists have created a new version of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology that allows them to activate genes without creating breaks in the DNA, potentially circumventing a major hurdle to using gene editing technologies to treat human diseases.

Most CRISPR/Cas9 systems work by creating “double-strand breaks” (DSBs) in regions of the genome targeted for editing or for deletion, but many researchers are opposed to creating such breaks in the DNA of living humans. As a proof of concept, the Salk group used their new approach to treat several diseases, including diabetes, acute kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy, in mouse models.

“Although many studies have demonstrated that CRISPR/Cas9 can be applied as a powerful tool for gene therapy, there are growing concerns regarding unwanted mutations generated by the double-strand breaks through this technology,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the new paper, published in Cell on December 7, 2017. “We were able to get around that concern.”

In the original CRISPR/Cas9 system, the enzyme Cas9 is coupled with guide RNAs that target it to the right spot in the genome to create DSBs. Recently, some researchers have started using a “dead” form of Cas9 (dCas9), which can still target specific places in the genome, but no longer cuts DNA. Instead, dCas9 has been coupled with transcriptional activation domains—molecular switches—that turn on targeted genes. But the resulting protein—dCas9 attached to the activator switches—is too large and bulky to fit into the vehicle typically used to deliver these kinds of therapies to cells in living organisms, namely adeno-associated viruses (AAVs). The lack of an efficient delivery system makes it very difficult to use this tool in clinical applications.

Izpisua Belmonte’s team combined Cas9/dCas9 with a range of different activator switches to uncover a combination that worked even when the proteins were not fused to one another. In other words, Cas9 or dCas9 was packaged into one AAV, and the switches and guide RNAs were packaged into another. They also optimized the guide RNAs to make sure all the pieces ended up at the desired place in the genome, and that the targeted gene was strongly activated.

“The components all work together in the organism to influence endogenous genes,” says Hsin-Kai (Ken) Liao, a staff researcher in the Izpisua Belmonte lab and co–first author of the new paper. In this way, the technology operates epigenetically, meaning it influences gene activity without changing the DNA sequence.

Hsin-Kai (Ken) Liao, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Fumiyuki Hatanaka
From left: Hsin-Kai (Ken) Liao, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Fumiyuki HatanakaCredit: Salk Institute

To test the method, the researchers used mouse models of acute kidney injury, type 1 diabetes and a form of muscular dystrophy. In each case, they engineered their CRISPR/Cas9 system to boost the expression of an endogenous gene that could potentially reverse disease symptoms. In the case of kidney disease, they activated two genes known to be involved in kidney function, and observed not only increased levels of the proteins associated with those genes, but improved kidney function following an acute injury. For type 1 diabetes, they aimed to boost the activity of genes that could generate insulin-producing cells. Once again, the treatment worked, lowering blood glucose levels in a mouse model of diabetes. For muscular dystrophy, the researchers expressed genes that have been previously shown to reverse disease symptoms, including one particularly large gene that cannot easily be delivered via traditional virus-mediated gene therapies.

“We were very excited when we saw the results in mice,” adds Fumiyuki Hatanaka, a research associate in the lab and co–first author of the paper. “We can induce gene activation and at the same time see physiological changes.”

Izpisua Belmonte’s team is now working to improve the specificity of their system and to apply it to more cell types and organs to treat a wider range of human diseases, as well as to rejuvenate specific organs and to reverse the aging process and age-related conditions such as hearing loss and macular degeneration. More safety tests will be needed before human trials, they say.

Learn more: Salk scientists modify CRISPR to epigenetically treat diabetes, kidney disease, muscular dystrophy


The Latest on: CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology

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