Faking cellular suicide could help control inflammation

14 Sep 2017, 2:54 pm

What a good death looks like

AS PARACELSUS first pointed out in the 16th century, it is the dose that makes the poison. Inflammation, in particular, is vital to fighting infection or healing wounds. If it lingers, however, it can cause more harm than good. Chronic inflammation often impedes the very healing that it is meant to promote. Many drugs have been invented to combat that problem, but none is as effective as doctors would like. Now, as they describe in a paper in ACS Macro Letters, a team led by Mitsuhiro Ebara at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan have come up with a new approach. They have worked out how to persuade cells in inflamed tissues to believe that other cells nearby have just committed suicide.

Cells can suffer chaotic deaths or orderly ones. Chaotic deaths are the end result of a process called necrosis, in which toxins, pathogens or other forms of damage cause a cell to fail...Continue reading

As electric motors improve, more things are being electrified

14 Sep 2017, 2:54 pm

HENRY FORD may have brought motoring to the masses in 1908 with the Model T, but his wife, Clara, preferred to drive an electric car. Combustion engines were noisy, dirty and in their early years required hand-cranking to start. Mrs Ford’s 1914 Detroit Electric, however, moved away instantly, was nearly silent and its speed was easy to control by pushing or pulling on a wooden rod that selected the required amount of power from a bank of nickel-iron batteries. Her car could travel for about 80 miles on a single charge and exceed speeds of 20mph.

Mr Ford’s mass-production techniques soon cut a Model T’s price to $500—one seventh that of Mrs Ford’s car. As refuelling stations spread, the internal-combustion engine went on to conquer all. Now electric cars are cruising back, as performance improves and costs fall. Tesla’s new Model 3, for instance, reaches 140mph and its lightweight lithium-ion battery has enough juice for 300 miles. But it is not just better and cheaper batteries...Continue reading

Two years on, the Kuiper Belt is in sight

14 Sep 2017, 2:54 pm

The heart of the matter

ON SEPTEMBER 11th, nearly 6bn kilometres from Earth, beyond the orbit of Neptune, a spacecraft emerged from hibernation. The primary task of New Horizons, launched by NASA in 2006, was to explore Pluto. It completed that mission in July 2015, zooming past Pluto at almost 50,000kph, then spending over a year transmitting back a trove of data and images that astronomers are still analysing.

Now, after five months asleep, New Horizons is turning its attention to its secondary objective, which is to explore the even more remote Kuiper Belt. A much larger analogue of the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt is a cosmic junkyard, full of rubble thought to be left over from the formation of the solar system. But whereas the asteroid belt is made mostly of rock and metal, objects in the Kuiper Belt are composed largely of frozen water, ammonia and methane. Pluto is one such chunk, albeit considerably...Continue reading

The giant panda is on a bit of a roll

13 Sep 2017, 8:33 pm

Climbing out of a hole

PANDAS are famously shy. Rather than counting them directly, surveyors must infer their presence from dung and semi-chewed bamboo stalks scattered on the forest floor. But they are also hard to find because there are not many left. A mix of hunting and habitat destruction has ravaged the species. By the late 1970s, their numbers had fallen to around 1,000 individuals.

Such precarity is why zoos spend so much effort trying to persuade captive pandas to reproduce. But it is a tricky task. On September 11th Edinburgh Zoo announced that Tian Tian, its resident panda, had failed to carry a pregnancy to term, the fifth time that attempts to produce a cub have failed. In America, keepers at the Smithsonian National Zoo, in Washington, DC, are waiting anxiously, hoping that a bear called Mei Xiang will have better luck.

Yet things are looking up for this most charismatic of megafauna. China’s most recent survey, completed in 2014,...Continue reading

A clever way to transmit data on the cheap

13 Sep 2017, 4:32 pm

THE word “smart” is ubiquitous these days. If you believe the hype, smart farms will all employ sensors to report soil conditions, crop growth or the health of livestock. Smart cities will monitor the levels of pollution and noise on every street corner. And smart goods in warehouses will tell robots where to store them, and how. Getting this to work, however, requires figuring out how to get thousands of sensors to transmit data reliably across hundreds of metres. On September 15th, at a computing conference held in Miami, Shyam Gollakota and his colleagues at the University of Washington are due to unveil a gadget that can do exactly that—and with only a fraction of the power required by the best devices currently available.

Dr Gollakota’s invention uses a technology called “LoRa” (from “long range”). Like Wi-Fi, this allows computers to talk to each other with radio waves. Unlike Wi-Fi, though, LoRa is not easily blocked by walls, furniture and other...Continue reading

After exploring Saturn, Cassini faces a fiery end

7 Sep 2017, 2:44 pm

On a mission to the end

ON SEPTEMBER 11th, around 1.2bn kilometres from Earth, Cassini, a robotic spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn for 13 years, will make a final flypast of Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon. Since April the NASA craft has been conducting a series of long, looping orbits that take it between Saturn itself and the innermost of the planet’s famous rings. After passing Titan, Cassini will dive back towards Saturn, but this time, it will not return. On September 15th, at about 1pm London time, it will kiss the outer edges of Saturn’s atmosphere and begin to tumble, losing contact with Earth. A few minutes later it will burn up as a shooting star, bringing down the curtain on a long and dramatic mission to an under-explored corner of the solar system.

Cassini is not the first spacecraft to visit Saturn. Pioneer 11 flew past in 1979 on its way to...Continue reading

Antibiotic resistance in fish farms is passed on from fish food

7 Sep 2017, 2:44 pm

THE mucky sediment below fish farms usually teems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The presence of such bacteria is a cause of increasing concern because resistance can limit the ability to fight diseases, but it is also not that surprising: pisciculturalists have a long history of dosing fish they are breeding and rearing with antibiotics. But some scientists suspect there is more to it than that. One group, led by Jing Wang of Dalian University of Technology in China, has found that the problem is also linked to what the fish are being fed.

Dr Wang knew from previous reports that fish farmers who had not used antibiotics for years, or had never used them at all, still had sediment in their marine farms carrying bacteria with many of the genes associated with drug resistance. The genes had to be getting into the bacteria somehow; one possible pathway was through antibiotic-resistance genes in fish food mingling in various ways with bacteria in the sediment.

Working with a...Continue reading

Advances in AI are used to spot signs of sexuality

6 Sep 2017, 8:03 pm

MODERN artificial intelligence is much feted. But its talents boil down to a superhuman ability to spot patterns in large volumes of data. Facebook has used this ability to produce maps of poor regions in unprecedented detail, with an AI system that has learned what human settlements look like from satellite pictures. Medical researchers have trained AI in smartphones to detect cancerous lesions; a Google system can make precise guesses about the year a photograph was taken, simply because it has seen more photos than a human could ever inspect, and has spotted patterns that no human could.

AI’s power to pick out patterns is now turning to more intimate matters. Research at Stanford University by Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang has shown that machine vision can infer sexual orientation by analysing people’s faces. The researchers suggest the software does this by picking up on subtle differences in facial structure. With the right data sets, Dr...Continue reading

Researchers produce images of people’s faces from their genomes

6 Sep 2017, 8:03 pm

What the genes predicted, and what we got

CRAIG VENTER, a biologist and boss of Human Longevity, a San Diego-based company that is building the world’s largest genomic database, is something of a rebel. In the late 1990s he declared that the international, publicly funded project to sequence the human genome was going about it the wrong way, and he developed a cheaper and quicker method of his own. His latest ruffling of feathers comes from work that predicts what a person will look like from their genetic data.

Human Longevity has assembled 45,000 genomes, mostly from patients who have been in clinical trials, and data on their associated physical attributes. The company uses machine-learning tools to analyse these data and then make predictions about how genetic sequences are tied to physical features. These efforts have improved to the point where the company is able to generate photo-like pictures of people without ever clapping eyes on...Continue reading

Robotic flippers reveal how plesiosaurs swam

31 Aug 2017, 2:51 pm

Plesiosaurs roamed Earth’s oceans for nearly 150m years, until their extinction 66m years ago. They were propelled by four equal-sized flippers, unlike any animal alive today. A question that has long bothered palaeontologists is, did all four flap up and down, or were they rowing rather than flapping, or did the back ones steer rather than flap or row? As he reports in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Luke Muscutt of Southampton University, in England, has now answered this definitively. By testing robotic replicas of plesiosaur flippers in a water tank he has shown that all four flapping up and down is by far the most efficient and powerful arrangement.

A wonder drug for heart disease that isn’t that wonderful

31 Aug 2017, 2:51 pm

ON AUGUST 27th the results of a trial of an anti-inflammatory medicine called canakinumab were released at a meeting, in Barcelona, of the European Society of Cardiology. Press reports were gushing, telling of a fabulous new drug that would cut the risk of heart attacks and cancer at the same time. The coverage was so positive that people reading or hearing it might have been forgiven for wondering when this treatment would be available to everyone. The answer is probably “never”, for canakinumab’s benefits have been greatly oversold. This trial was, nevertheless, important. Though it offered no immediate treatment, it confirmed what has long been suspected—that inflammation is an important factor in heart disease.

It has been common knowledge for decades that one way to reduce someone’s risk of having a heart attack is to keep his cholesterol levels low. But that is only part of the story. About half of heart attacks happen to those who have what are considered...Continue reading

Microscopic lasers may stop tumours spreading around the body

31 Aug 2017, 2:51 pm

Set spasers to “kill”

IT IS more than 50 years since “Fantastic Voyage” hit the silver screen. The film’s premise, shrinking a submarine and her crew of doctors to the point where they can travel through a patient’s bloodstream to repair damage in situ, though entertaining, remains as absurd as it was in 1966. Not so the idea that therapeutic machines small enough to circulate in this way might be built. Indeed, perhaps inspired by the film, several such efforts have been made. Some are drug-delivery devices. Some are ways of concentrating externally applied energy into tissue that needs to be killed. And they are starting to be approved for clinical use.

The latest attempt, by Vladimir Zharov of the University of Arkansas and Mark Stockman of Georgia State University, in Atlanta, involves injecting cancer patients with hordes of tiny lasers that will seek out and destroy so-called circulating tumour cells (CTCs). These are...Continue reading