TV science news roundup for March 26th 2014

In my science news roundup for breakfast news show Firstline this morning, I decided to summarise three very different stories which you can view by clicking on the video link below:

The first involved a PNAS paper published on March 24th 2014 entitled “Extended lifespan and reduced adiposity in mice lacking the FAT10 gene” in which researchers found that turning off the gene FAT10 produces a variety of beneficial effects in mice.

When compared to control mice, FAT10 gene deficient mice had a series of benefits including:

  • a reduction in body fat even though the mice ate more
  • an increase in skeletal muscle
  • production of an immune molecule which reduced circulating insulin levels protecting against type 2 diabetes
  • 20 percent longer lifespan

So basically these mice look great, live longer, eat more and apparently have more luxurious fur – there must be a drawback!

Although the researchers didn’t find any drawbacks in their study, they did comment that the mice were brought up in ideal lab conditions which does not represent that of real life.  As fighting infection requires energy there is a fear that mice without the FAT10 gene might be too lean to fight infection effectively whereas standard mice would use their fat stores for energy if they were ill.

But these are mice, I hear you say – what does that have to do with humans?

The DNA and protein sequences of the FAT10 gene are highly conserved between man and mouse meaning that it is likely that it has the same functions for both and thus human studies would likely have a similar outcome.

The researchers are excited that blocking how FAT10 coordinates immunity and metabolism could lead to new therapies for metabolic disease, cancer and healthy aging.


Story two involved the news that a new type of contact lens could be developed that act like night vision goggles by detecting infrared light.
Although no contact lenses have been made yet, the technology described in the paper “Graphene photodetectors with ultra-broadband and high responsivity at room temperature” published in Nature Materials on March 16th 2014 describes a new method for generating the electrical signal required to convert the low energy infrared light into a strong electrical signal. Instead of using the traditional method of measuring the electrons that are released when light strikes the material, this new device amplifies an electrical current generated by the incoming light.

The device consists of two single layers of graphene with an insulating dielectric material in the middle.  The top layer of graphene acts as the primary photodetector and when light strikes it the electrons are able to perform a quantum tunneling effect where the hot carrier tunnels through the dielectric middle to the graphene on other side.  This creates a charge build up which results in a strong change in conductance.

The end result is an amplified signal from a small number of absorbed photons that hit the top layer are turned into a large change in conductance of the the bottom layer.

Due to the small size and transparent nature of this new device it lends itself easily to a contact lens coating, or could easily be applied to the camera on a smart phone to allow easy portable IR vision.


Finally e-cigarettes are an unregulated device in which an electronic cigarette vaporises liquid nicotine by passing it through a battery powered heating element.

A new scientific study is putting pressure on the e-cigarette manufactures to remove advertising suggesting that e-cigarettes are an effective way to quit smoking as their scientific evidence showed that they didn’t help.

The study entitled “A Longitudinal Analysis of Electronic Cigarette Use and Smoking Cessation” published on March 24th 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine followed 949 people and found that there was no difference in the rate of quitting between smokers who used an e-cigarette and those who did not.

The study looked at the 88 people in the study who used e-cigarettes and found that they were no more likely to have quit or reduced their smoking after a year than other smokers.



Taking on Rhys Darby and Nanotech

reasonsI’m going to start with saying that I love Rhys Darby, the man who brought life to Flight of the Conchords, Yes Man and a certain mobile phone company.  However, when I tuned into the Nerdist channel on youtube and watched the video ‘NANOTECH – Rhys Darby’s Reasons to be Scared of the Future‘ I felt like I had to say something.

As a nanotechnologist who uses her science for good, not evil I am often approached by people who have a fear of nanotechnology.  When I ask them what they are scared of they mention nanobots eating their brains!

Sci-Fi movies have a lot to answer for and although the Borg Collective used nanoprobes for assimilation, and Kryten’s nanobots take over the Red Dwarf ship we need to remember that this is science fiction and not science fact!

So I took to twitter and asked Rhys if I could respond in a scientific way to his video and he replied with “please do”.


Figuring the best way to reply to a video was with a video I went managed to get some professional video help and created my response.

There were a few things in Rhys’s video that I feel I need to comment on in more detail:

Minute 2:35 – Rhys states that “researchers at the university of buffalo have developed microscopic gold rods that change how you think”.

The paper that he is referring to is “Nanotechnology approach for drug addiction therapy: Gene silencing using delivery of gold nanorod-siRNA nanoplex in dopaminergic neurons” and involves using gold nanorods to help silence the protein DARPP-32 which is understood to be the central trigger for the cascade of signals that fire in drug addiction.  The research is trying to reduce the physical craving for the drug  by developing a stable nanoparticle that delivers short RNA molecules in the brain to disable the gene that has proven to be responsible for drug addictions.

Firstly there is no “drilling into your brain” as Rhys claims, the research was carried out in vitro which means they were not tested on a person, but the concept of binding nanorods and neuronal cells was carried out in a lab dish.

Minute 3:22 – Rhys states that “Scientists are implanting microchips into microbial lifeforms to create the worlds smallest cyborgs”.

I’m not sure where this came from, but I could find no evidence of papers showing scientists are implanting microchips into bacteria and viruses.  Researchers working on the smallest microchip currently state that theoretically 20 nanometers would be the limit for the smallest microchip it seems quite unlikey at the moment to implant a microchip into a virus which range in size from 20-300nm.

Minute 4:23 – Rhys implies that nanoparticles that were transported to our brains through a virus transport system then jump off and communicate with other nanoparticles to kill off our humanness and cause us to become techno zombies.

BenI love this – this should be a new movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the nanobot hunter who solves the mystery for how to disassemble the nanomatrix that is zombifying the brain of Rhys and the rest of the world.

Sadly, this is not possible.  Although self assembly of nanoparticles is achievable in the lab, it required very carefully controlled conditions.  To self assemble a complex nanorobot purely from nanoparticles, is currently not possible if we define a nanorobot to be a self-propelling, functional unit with independently moving parts.

In my video I refer to nanobots, however as they can not self propel through the body but travel via the blood stream flow they too are not really nanobots but classed as functionalised nanoparticles.  Thier specific antibody coating causes them to bind with a specific type of cell (in this case cancer cells) to allow easier visualisation of tumors when imaged with computer tomography (CT scans) and upconversion luminescnece (UCL scans) to help view and fight cancerous tumours.

Minute 5:12 Rhys concludes with “Just because a robot is too small to see, doesn’t mean that its too small to kill you”.

Although true, I’m pretty sure that the number of deaths from natural bacteria and viruses including Ebola, West Nile, the flu, the bubonic plague, tuberculosis and pneumonia, which are also too small to see, are much more likely to kill you than a nano robot.

I don’t want to end this post as the crabby scientist who takes out all of the fun of a comedy sketch – I just want to make sure that in the end the science is correct and hopefully less people will come to me telling me that they think their brain is being eaten by nanobots 🙂

Plus – how else am I going to have a valid excuse to cover myself in chocolate syrup and call it scientific research?



Since the video went live on YouTube, Rhys positively replied via twitter giving the final result as:

Scientists are awesome 1- Scientists are evil 0



3D Printing New Parts For Your Skull


3D printed polymer structure being researched in my lab (photo credit Mengbin Ye and Amy Pit)

3D printing has had a lot of bad press recently with discussions about whether or not the recently house-passed bill extending the undetectable firearms act of 1988 should have included more legislation about 3D printed guns.  Although I think that we always need to be careful about the harm that new technologies can cause, its important to remember that 3D printing has huge potential in transforming how we design and manufacture components for science and technology applications.

I’m a big fan of 3D printing, I often use it in my research lab to create new micro-structures with complex and intricate features for biomimetics, as well as at home for fun to create personalised gifts or quirky sci-fi ornaments.

The 3D printers that most of us have provide cheap and easy access to be able to print objects using plastics such as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic acid (PLA).

You don’t just have to 3D print using plastics though as metals, ceramics and even biological cells have been printed to create innovative and complex structures.  It is this interaction between engineering and biology that I see as the field where the technology could have a huge impact, and the ability to tailor medical devices and implants based on an individuals need could change the way we personalise medical treatment.

Computer generated model of Stephens skull created from CT scan (the ring above his skull are the staples used to close his scalp tissue after surgery)

Computer generated model of Stephens skull created from CT scan (the ring above his skull are the staples used to close his scalp tissue after surgery)

One story that caught my eye this week was the tale of 29 year old UK resident Stephen Power who broke his cheek bones, eye sockets, upper jaw and skull in a 2012 crash. Consultant maxillofacial surgeon Adrian Sugar who treated Stephen described how they were looking for a way to correct the patients left cheek and eye socket without the risk of damaging his sight further.  Their challenge was the complexity of needing to create a new cheekbone which would fit perfectly in the right place and dealing with the thin, delicate bones around the eye socket.  In a statement from the National Health Service of Wales they described how combining the expertise from Hospital’s Maxillofacial Unit and the National Centre for Product Design and Development Research (PDR) created a 3D printing solution which pushed the boundaries of what surgeons can achieve.  To try and restore the symmetry in Stephens face, doctors used CT scans to build up a 3D computer image of his skull, which they then printed out into a 3D model.  The model allowed them to physically hold and visually see any problem areas, as well as try out different solutions to help solve the symmetry issue with Stephens face.  Once they had determined the shape and dimensions of the implant structures that needed to be built, they could practice by attaching them to the 3D skull model first so they knew it would be a perfect fit during surgery.

3D printed model of Stephens skull (purple) with 3D printed titanium implanted attached (grey)

3D printed model of Stephens skull (purple) with 3D printed titanium implanted attached (grey)

The surgery would be highly complex and precise cuts were needed to be made in the skull, however using the 3D printing technique a custom fitting cobalt chromium alloy saw guide was made which fit securely around the face of the patient and incorporated slots positioned to guide the surgeon’s movement.  This took out the guesswork associated with surgery, so that the surgeon had a template to use for every cut that needed to be made. The guide also incorporated slots in which the implants would fit, allowing the whole structure to slot together during surgery ensuring the implant was secured in the exact position.  Finally once everything was in place, the cutting guide was removed leaving the skull with the new implants in place.

The main advantage of using 3D printing for this procedure is the potential speed that these models and implants can be made.  In this example they were produced off site by a contracted company, but in the future I can foresee hospitals having specialist internal workshops in which they could scan the patients and print the required device or implant within a short time frame.  With the advancement of 3D printers and the rapid growth and uptake of the technology, the cost of creating personalised hardware will inevitably go down in time.

This is not the first story using 3D printing and biology that has caught my interest recently and the combination of engineering materials and biology continues to accelerate.  If you are interested then the new innovation of combining cells with nanoparticles to 3D print bionic ear is an interesting paper with the authors suggesting it could potentially restore or enhance human hearing.  NASA also funded project looking at 3D printing wood and spider silk for projects both here on earth and in space with suggestions of 3D printed trees becoming a reality.

Flight 370 did not explode; it vanished – really? That is your scientific argument?

Its a terrible time in the aviation industry and for the families who are still waiting for news about the 239 loved ones who were aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

malaysia-airlines-boeing-777-200-640x353As I write this three days after the plane disappeared from radar and communication was lost, we still don’t know what happened.

With a personal interest in aircraft and a background in materials failure forensics (piecing back the pieces of broken engineering structures to try to figure out what caused it to break), I have been glued to every news media source I can find, looking for answers, trying to see if there is a clue out there that might explain what happened to the plane.
Sadly there have been many aircraft incidents in the recent past, however if any good can come from these tragedies it is the knowledge that we gain about what happens to planes when they crash.

Using previous historical information in addition to knowledge about the construction of Boeing 777’s, the materials that they are made from and how those materials can fail (break) we can use our engineering knowledge to try and figure out what might have happened, and at the very least rule out many possibilities to narrow down the most likely event that would have caused MH370 to vanish.

Understanding engineering principles and analysing data in a logical scientific manner is really important when it comes to engineering disasters to make sure that every tiny detail is covered and nothing is overlooked.

While I was trying to validate the sources for the information that I found floating around the internet, I stumbled across an article from Natural News which claims to be a “source of scientific discoveries”.

In their article entitled “Six important facts you’re not being told about lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370” they list what they claim to be facts and then finish up with the scientific conclusion that “Flight 370 did not explode, it vanished” and that “some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force is at work on our planet which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence”.

I’m always disappointed when I read a public article that claims to be scientific, yet seems to be stating facts that are just not true.
Claiming a “mysterious force” to be their scientific answer but having no scientific basis and no valid argument sadly misinforms the public.
I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert in everything, and I’ll lay on the table that I have a PhD in materials engineering, I teach aerospace engineering disasters at undergraduate and postgraduate level and I have a fascination with aircraft.  I’ll base my opinions in what I have learned through this experience.  Its quite hard to trace the background of the author of the article in question, but he does state to have a bachelor of science degree from an unnamed university in an unnamed subject, which doesn’t really help me understand where his argument is coming from.
In the article he states the fact that: All Boeing 777 commercial jets are equipped with black box recorders that can survive any on-board explosion.

Schematic of Flight Data Recorder (Black Box)

Schematic of Flight Data Recorder (Black Box)

The first part is true, the plane should have been fitted with a flight data recorder (commonly called a black box recorder) and these are designed to withstand an acceleration of 3400g (33 km/s²) for 6.5 milliseconds.  However there have been several incidents involving plane crashes where the black box was never found in water even more shallow than where we predict MH370 went down.  There have also been incidents where the black box was damaged and the recordings were not 100% recoverable.
If you are interested in flight data recorders and the testing that they are subjected to as well as their design, this is a great read (and where I took the schematic from).
Nothing is indestructible and so stating that it can withstand any on board explosion is inaccurate and also assumes that the device did not contain any pre-existing clacks or flaws which may have gone undetected and would have weakened the box.
Their next stated fact claimed that: All black box recorders transmit locator signals for at least 30 days after falling into the ocean.
This isn’t quite a fact.  Yes, the flight data recorder, which is this case was made by Honeywell International Inc. is designed to set off an underwater location beacon once it detects that it is submerged, and the power supply is designed to last for 30 days.  However, to pick up this beacon signal (we call it pinging), you have to be within 4.5km of it.  Seeing that we still don’t really know where the plane impacted the water, we can make two assumptions.

  1. The first assumption is that the plane disintegrated due to an explosion while at cruise altitude scattering debris for several hundred kilometers.
  2. The second assumption is that the pilots tried to glide the plane suffering from engine failure down for an emergency landing.  Assuming a typical glide angle of 10:1 from a cruise height of 10 kilometres above sea level, the search area would be over 30,000 square kilometres – an area slightly smaller than the size of Taiwan!

Current news reports state that the search area is 50 nautical miles from the last known point of the aircraft, which is much less than the size of Taiwan.


The final apparent fact that I want to tackle states that: Many parts of destroyed aircraft are naturally buoyant and will float in water..

Although this is true, we can not exclude the fact that the plane may have gone down intact which would have kept most the buoyant materials within the fuselage, or that the explosive fireball that may have engulfed the plane at altitude disintegrated much of the buoyant material and spread the rest over a large distance that has still not been covered by search teams, or that the search teams are searching in the wrong place.
So what do we know as a fact?
1 – We know that no distress call was made by the pilots.
Even if both engine generators went down, the 777 is equipped with emergency power systems which would allow the pilots to transmit a mayday call.  This implies that there may have been a catastrophic explosion while the plane was at cruise altitude which did not give the pilots the few seconds they would need to communicate.
I asked my commercial pilot friend Captain Vasavda (who flies Boeing 737’s) to comment on the procedure, and he stated that communication would be third in priority after aviating and navigating, and in his experience (which has not included any crashes) he believes that the pilots would have had time to send in a distress call.
Option two is that an event took out all communications meaning that all radio systems and the separate ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) did not work or were turned off.
2 – The 777 is made up of about 12% composite materials and 50% aluminium with a design brief of being able to withstand an internal explosion from the cargo bay.  Although a cargo explosion might cause a hole to appear in the aircraft, it should still be able to glide with some control for an emergency ocean landing.
3 – We are only on day 3 post event, and so historically this is still early days.  It took two years to recover the flight data recorder from Air France Flight 447  and so its just a case of continuing to search for the plane shaped needle in an ocean haystack.
I'm going to keep on flying :)
What I do know, is that I do not believe that there is a “new, mysterious and powerful force…which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence”.
Hopefully as the story unfolds, we will find the shred of evidence we have been looking for.
In the meantime, I’m going to trust the engineering and keep on flying 🙂