2011 in review

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 87,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Military Develop New and Targetted Eye in the Sky

Military Develop New and Targetted Eye in the Sky

A new motion tracking system could improve the efficiency of security and military surveillance.

The system, a collaboration between the Naval Research Laboratory and Space Dynamics Laboratory, has been shown in testing to accurately recognise, geographically pin point and take high quality images of moving objects, without any human input.

In the tests, carried out in March of this year, the system was able to track vehicles and also showed the possibility of being able to identify humans. “The demonstration was a complete success,” said Dr. Michael Duncan, Office of Naval Research program manager.

In these tests the researchers used a camera known as the Eyepod, developed by the Space Dynamics Laboratory. This camera, when operated from a height of 5000 feet, can identify objects on the ground from 17-80 cm across, depending on the set up. The camera was able to accurately track objects on the ground and relay high quality images and information to  a communications centre, via a high-speed data-link.

A representation of the new system (Click to Enlarge)

“These tests display how a single imaging sensor can be used to provide imagery of multiple tracked objects,” said Dr. Brian Daniel, a research physicist who worked on the project, “A job typically requiring multiple sensors.”

There are many different potential applications for this research, ranging from the more obvious military uses to high-end private security. With the UK containing more CCTV cameras per person than any other country interest in this technology is likely to be high.

Both military and security surveillance generates a huge quantity of footage, which is time and money consuming for humans to observe in entirety.  It is believed that this new technology could help make surveillance more efficient and to improve the speed with which intelligence reports can be produced.

Genetic basis of lazy eyes uncovered

Genetic basis of lazy eyes uncovered

The underlying gene responsible for crossed or lazy eyes has been discovered.

The condition, scientifically known as strabismus, affects 1 in 20 children and typically the first symptoms will be seen between the ages of 1 and 4. Whilst it had previously been observed to run in families the genetic factors responsible were unknown until now.

The research, carried out by an international team including scientists from Harvard, identified the faulty gene TUBB3. This gene codes for the important cellular component tubulin in nerve cells. This is essential for maintaining nerve axons and ensuring accurate transport.

The study took 15 years and looked specifically at the congenital occurrence of strabismus in a family from Victoria. “We looked at about 50 members of the family (and) about 25 of them were affected in different ways. Some of them had both eyes turning, for others it was one side,” said Dr John Ruddle, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne Centre for Eye Research Australia, and one of the lead scientists in the project.

The family members in the study portrayed particularly strong indications of hereditary strabismus. However, this is not the most common form of the condition. It is hoped that the research will help understanding of non-congenital strabismus progress. There are many theories as to what may cause “simple strabismus” including viral infection and deficiencies in eye sight. “The discovery was important because it has helped build understanding of the development of the nerves that control eye,” said Dr Ruddle.

The current recommended treatments range from wearing an eye patch to corrective surgery.  The former highlights the emotional and social distress that the condition can cause for a sufferer, whilst with the later there are risks and complications associated with the surgery.

The research also identified that other problems in the developing brain may have a link to the same defective gene. This includes intellectual and behavioural impairments and facial paralysis, the researchers have term the spectrum of disorders TUBB3 syndromes.


Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotune the Abstract: Singing in the Brain

Autotuned sensation Rebecca Black is very excited about this new concept...

As a science communication student I find myself constantly coming across new and different ways people try and get across scientific data and knowledge. It can range from typical things such as news articles and blog posts to knitted representations of science. Whilst some of the crazy ways people try and get out their research may seem misguided, I think this blatant eccentricity should be applauded and encouraged.

It is with this sentiment in mind that I decided for this post to create my own oddball way of presenting research. After much deliberation I decided to autotune the abstract of a science paper. The first step in my attempt to revolutionise science publishing was to pick a lucky research paper to become the launch song. After much scouring of Google Scholar I found the following:

“Singing in the brain: Professional singers, occasional singers, and out-of-tune singers: Gottfried Schlaug; Acoustical Society of America (2009)”

Which, given its subject matter, felt like the perfect research to autotune. Now, unfortunately not every research scientist is a professional sound technician. However, this is something that can be overcome as there are plenty of apps for Iphone and Android that will do all the complicated technical stuff for you! For this first attempt I selected one called “Songify” which is an app produced by the Gregory Brothers, the band who produce the popular online series ‘Autotune the News’.

So without further ado here is the first Autotune the Abstract:

I hope that this practice will become as established in scientific publishing as peer review. I also expect to see the awesomeness of the produced songs incorporated into the impact factors of journals.

Science Hoax of the Week: Human Flavoured Tofu

Science Hoax of the Week: Human Flavoured Tofu

Hmmm fake human...

There are a lot of weird food-stuffs out there, this makes it particularly difficult to tell if an outlandish food is real or a hoax. One product in particular that sought to play with this boundary was HUFU, aka Human flavoured Tofu.

“[Hufu is] a great convenience food for cannibals. No more Friday night hunting raids! Stay home and enjoy the good healthy taste of hufu,” said the Hufu website (which ran from 2005 to 2006), which also offered a range in baby seal tofu.  The product was aimed at cannibals who want to quit their antisocial practice and anthropology students studying cannibalism.

Of course no such product exists or has existed, is was a spoof product created by Mark Nuckols, who at that point was a student at the Tuck School of Business. He claimed that the idea came to him when he was eating a tofurkey (a tofu based faux turkey) sandwich whilst reading a book on cannibalism.

If you want a good laugh and to know a bit more about Hufu then I would recommend checking out The Daily Show’s segment, featuring an interview with Mark Nuckols, below:

Viral Science: Cymbal At 1000 Frames Per Second

Viral Science: Cymbal At 1000 Frames Per Second

Science can produce some amazing sounds. But sometimes, the visuals behind the sounds are more impressive. In the above you can see the vibrations and waves travelling through a cymbal.

I chose to share this today as a bit of a sneak preview to a sound focussed post on the Inside Knowledge Blog we are currently  producing. Once it is up online I will share it here…so watch this space.

Scientists Engineer E.Coli to Produce Key Precursor of Spandex

Scientists Engineer E.Coli to Produce Key Precursor of Spandex

The Future: Bacteria Produced Hot Pants?

Scientists from the company Genomica have genetically engineered E.Coli to produce 1,4-Butanediol (BDO), a key chemical in the production of Spandex, clothing of choice for superheroes, glam rockers and 80′s disco enthusiasts.

The work, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, has the potential to drastically change the way BDO is produced. Currently one million metric tons are produced per year and all of this is derived from oil and natural gas. Almost half of the BDO produced globally is dehydrated to produce Tetrahydrofuran. This can then be polymerised to polytetramethylene oxide, the primary use of which is in fibres such as spandex.

The researchers faced several challenges whilst trying to produce their engineered bacteria. The first of which being identifying a synthesis mechanism, as there is no known naturally occurring biological synthesis pathway for BDO. Instead they had to compute all potential pathways from the typical E. coli metabolites to BDO. The computer algorithm they used  identified over 10,000 four-six step pathways that could result in synthesis of BDO from common metabolites, including acetyl-CoA, succinyl-CoA and glutamate.

These methods were then narrowed down based on theoretical yield, pathway length and thermodynamic feasibility. After this they picked out the following pathway as the best way for E.Coli to produce BDO:

The BDO synthesis pathway. Each number indicates an enzyme: (1) 2-oxoglutarate decarboxylase; (2) succinyl-CoA synthetase; (3) CoA-dependent succinate semialdehyde dehydrogenase; (4) 4-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase; (5) 4-hydroxybutyryl-CoA transferase; (6) 4-hydroxybutyryl-CoA reductase; (7) alcohol dehydrogenase. Steps 2 and 7 occur naturally in E. coli, whereas the others are encoded by heterologous genes introduced in this work.

With an elucidated pathway, then came the challenge of how to get a bacterium to carry it out. Not all the enzymes required for the pathway are present in the wildtype E.Coli. As a result of this, the group identified several different mechanisms for generating the intermediate 4-Hydroxybulymate (4HB) settling on; the addition of three genes sucCD (E. coli), sucD and 4hbd (P. gingivalis).

The final stage in the process, 4HB to BDO, also required some manipulation. The change requires two reduction steps, catalyzed by dehydrogenases. This can occur by the addition of exogenous 4HB to wild-type Clostridium acetobutylicum. However, for efficient production they needed to have the process contained within E.Coli. So instead  they expressed the 4-hydroxybutyryl-CoA transferase (cat2) gene from P. gingivalis for the conversion of 4HB to 4HB-CoA. The final stages then involved the action of  4-hydroxybutyryl-CoA reductase and the native alcohol dehydrogenase, finally resulting in a viable BDO product.

Whilst this discovery does not directly result in the production of spandex or other useful fibres by bacteria. This could prove to be an efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce crime-fighting and disco outfits at some point in the future!