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Vanessa Restrepo Schild.

viernes, 24 de julio de 2015

CEO Jennifer Lewis on the Future of Electronics 3D Printing & Voxel8’s Huge $12M Funding

This year, one startup shook the industry with the potential to push 3D printing to the next level and it wasn’t Carbon3D. Though Carbon3D’s ultra-fast CLIP technology has huge implications for the potential of 3D printing, it can only satiate the desire for speed and instant gratification. Still, CLIP will be, at least as it was presented to the public, a method for producing parts. Voxel8, however, is working towards the ability to produce, not parts, but completely functional objects with their Developer’s Kit, a unique desktop platform for 3D printing electronics and other multi-material objects. And, now, the Boston-based Harvard spin-out has obtained $12 million to push this technology even farther.

Today, Voxel8 announced the closure of a Series A funding round that saw the startup receive $12 million in capital, led by Braemar Energy Ventures and ARCH Venture Partners, with participation from Autodesk’s Spark Fund and In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Intelligence Community. I had the opportunity to speak with CEO and Founder Dr. Jennifer Lewis, along with Co-Founder & Business Lead Daniel Oliver, about the new funding, what it means for Voxel8, and what Voxel8’s technology means for the future of 3D printing.

CEO and Founder of Voxel8, Dr. Jennifer Lewis.
There are two pathways that we’re going to be executing on with that funding,” Dr. Lewis began, “First and foremost, we’re going to be using those funds to ramp up manufacturing of the Developer’s Kits, for which we’ve received pre-orders across multiple industry sectors: aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, and beyond. We’re still targeting shipment of these pre-orders for Q4 of this year.” Manufacturing of the Developer’s Kits will be performed in house, which ensures the quality of each product, while also educating the startup as to the proper methods for building a quality assurance operation.

Then came the really exciting news, “And, at the same time, there’s a lot of market pull for our next advanced industrial-scale – what we’re calling – a ‘pro printer’, if you will. So, some of those dollars will go towards bringing that product to market, as well.

What is the Developer’s Kit?
Currently, the Developer’s Kit works with two materials,
  • PLA plastic and 
  • conductive silver ink, 
to combine traditional fused filament printing with electronic circuitry. Plastic is extruded out of one portion of the printhead and the conductive ink is dispensed out of another to create electric traces. With the help of Autodesk’s Project Wire, users can drag and drop components, such as transistors and resistors, into a CAD model so that, using Voxel8’s proprietary toolpath software, the printer can pause at the appropriate moment during a print task for the manual embedding of these electronics within the print. Printing then continues and, in the end, the user has a fully-functional object. The startup showcased this ability by 3D printing a quadcopter that, once completed, was able to fly off of its printbed.
The, now famous, Voxel8 3D printed quadcopter, unveiled at CES.
There are already conductive filaments on the market, meant for 3D printing projects that involve electronics, so I asked the Voxel8 founder to elaborate on the difference between their conductive ink and the filaments currently being sold. Lewis replied,“Right now, so, if people get desktop printers that use filaments – They’re typically carbon-filled, so they have really low conductivity because carbon particles are much less conductive than metallic particles. So, we’re developing these silver-based inks. First of all, they have this higher-conductivity particle phase and, secondly, they’re not based on polymer filaments. It’s really a low-viscosity solvent.
The conductivity of Voxel8’s silver ink, as compared to other conductive 3D printing materials on the market.
She goes on to discuss the dispensing mechanism that makes the Voxel8 platform possible, “It’s an extrusion-based, pneumatic dispenser and that’s one of the really big innovations on the desktop printing platform. We’re moving beyond fused filament deposition and we’re complementing that with pneumatically dispensed inks. That opens up, basically, every ink design we’ve developed in my lab at Harvard, all of which are dispensed in that fashion. So we can bring a broad range of materials to the printing platform.

Combining multiple materials, Oliver adds, gives users the ability to interface objects created by the Developer’s Kit with other technologies, “The ability to print multiple materials together really works well with interfacing with other technologies. 
  • We can print conductive traces
  • We’re able to interface with a large amount of electronic components out there. 
So, you can see the power of these electronic components within a 3D printed object and we look to expand that in the future. The key here though is being able to print multiple materials together on the same printer. And that allows you to interface with more and more technologies, really expanding the dimensions of what’s on the printer.”

Challenges in Developing the Developer’s Kit
As you might imagine, bringing the hardware, software, and materials together in just the right way to pull off multimaterial electronics printing is no easy task. Dr. Lewis describes the different obstacles Voxel8 has overcome to bring about this novel device,“The challenges we’re tackling on all fronts. It’s materials integration: trying to integrate disparate materials, like thermoplastics with conductive inks. It’s the hardware, which brings together multiple printheads.”

She continues, “And this, frankly speaking, is also on the software side. We’ve been very fortunate to partner with Autodesk, through their Spark platform on the software Project Wire, which allows designers and engineers to actually create, in their CAD models, the ability to embed these conductive features and electronic parts. But then Voxel8 has proprietary software for slicing for toolpath planning and, as you start to think about co-printing multiple types of materials – the matrix, the plastic, and the conductive materials – that toolpath planning is also very important.”

The CEO concludes, “So, tertially speaking, there’s challenges across all three key components of the printing platform – the materials, the hardware, and the software. And Voxel8 is tackling those.

The Voxel8 Pro
Details about Voxel8’s “pro printer” are still “locked down” at this point, according to Lewis, but Dan Oliver was able to elaborate on the fact that it will be developed based off of input from their first Developer’s Kit customers, “We’re working with our current customers and our initial partners to effectively guide the design of the next, pro platform. Michael, as you and I have talked about in the past, the idea with the Developer’s Kit was to get them out there and to spark people’s imagination. We’ve gotten really great feedback of what people would want down the line and they’re super excited to get their printers. So, we’ll be working with those initial customers to help define what those next types of platforms would look like and make sure we’re executing on our customers’ input.
From Dr. Lewis’s work on elastomers, published in Advanced Materials.
As exciting as conductive ink is, my mind was reeling with possibilities for the next generation machine – which I label in my mind “the Voxel8 Pro”. Dr. Lewis’s work with her Harvard lab and, previously, her University of Illinois lab, fill the spectrum of materials sciences and 3D printing, from 3D printing microscale lithium ion batteries to fabricating channels for possible uses with bioprinting. Though some of this work may not necessarily make it into her startup, the pneumatic dispenser at the heart of Voxel8’s hardware was developed right out of her lab and opens the doors to a huge array of materials for desktop printing.

So, while the Voxel8 Pro may be an overall improved machine, it will also likely have the ability to print a greater variety of materials, including epoxy and elastomers. Lewis explains, “It’s not only the printing platform – you know, bringing an improved platform with higher resolution and these kinds of things to market – but it’s also a broader palette of materials. Releasing a customized set of materials that best meets our users’ needs. In addition to the conductive ink that’s going to be launched with our Developer’s Kit, we’re going to broaden the matrix materials to include epoxy and elastomeric materials. Just a broader palette of matrix and functional inks.

Who Wants to Buy a Voxel8 Printer?
The ability to 3D print electronics and, in the future, elastic materials with rigid materials, has, naturally, garnered a lot of attention. Without disclosing their customers, Dr. Lewis was able to speak to one possible application for their platform,“We can talk generically about some use cases. We’ve been given, by prospective customers and people that have already pre-ordered our developer’s kit, applications in the biomedical space – we see hearing aids as a big target opportunity. There are use cases in almost every vertical I’ve mentioned already that we’ve either received CAD files for or have had discussions.

As enticing as it would be know who these clients were, Oliver was quick to point out that the diverse industries represented by their clients indicate just how widely applicable the Voxel8 platform could be. “The most interesting thing to talk about here is our customer list,” Oliver explains. “You have the leading companies in automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics, medical devices, and apparel. We have really interesting companies that have bought the printer, so, the use cases span the gamut of those customers.
Voxel8’s 3D printed quadcopter under CT scan.
Dr. Lewis added, “We should also mention the defense companies, because they’re also prominent early adopters.”In fact, Voxel8 has already received interest from some pretty important customers. Among them is In-Q-Tel, the non-profit venture capital arm of the Intelligence Community, who have just contributed even more to the startup. As you may have guessed, this work is top secret, but the investment speaks to the profound power that multi-material electronics 3D printing has.

Voxel8 has also signed an agreement with the government-focused MITRE Corporation, for whom the startup is researching the possibilities of 3D printing antenna arrays. Of course, as they’re doing this work on behalf of an unnamed government sponsor, this work is also under wraps. “We can’t really say more than that we’re working on 3D printed embedded antenna and antenna arrays. That’s all that we’re at liberty to say. But I think you can imagine that what our printer can deliver is three-dimensional antenna designs that simply can’t be manufactured by other means.”

Dan Oliver, however, was able to elaborate on the benefits that 3D printing brings to fabricating antennas. “Standard antennas are made on standard PCB boards, which are two-dimensional. Antennas themselves, though, really live in the three-dimensional world. So, we’ve created these large-footprint antennas by forcing them to live in two dimensions,”Oliver says. “But what we’re really excited about is being to create these high-performance antennas that are three-dimensional. And ours is one of the few technologies that’s able to do that.

Voxel8 2.0 & 3D Assembly
These projects will only be pushed further with the latest funding round and the future of the technology looks bright. At the moment, electronic components must be manually placed into an object during the printing process, but this is definitely a feature that could be made obsolete. Lewis and Oliver explain that all of the technologies to automatically fabricate fully functional electronic devices already exist, but separately from one another.

When asked about the possibility of automatically inserting transistors and resistors into 3D printed objects, Lewis responded, “Yes. At this point, with our desktop printer, we’re already embedding these kinds of functional objects. We’re doing it by manual pick and place, but it’s very easy to conceive that, on our road map, transitioning to automated pick and place is the future. So, absolutely, that will be accommodated by our printing platforms.

Oliver elaborated, “One thing we think about a lot is, ‘what is the next printer going to look like?’ And the answer to that is to ask what is needed. Effectively, the technologies to print that all automatically exist separately, if you combined our technology with pick and place technology. So. it becomes, not solving the technological problems – though we still have work to do there – it’s what things we need to put together that’s really going to push this to the next level.

In fact, Oliver says, there is a lot going on behind the closed doors of the Voxel8 lab that just aren’t ready to be launched with this first product. “So, something like the quad copter. We’re already doing that. We don’t have an automatic pick and place system because that doesn’t make sense for the developer’s kit. So, a lot of these things that seem futuristic, we’re doing every day out back in the lab.

But, when, I wondered aloud, will someone be able to take a Voxel8 printer and fabricate a quadcopter completely without manual intervention. Dr. Lewis gave me, what I thought, was a very promising response, “I would say within the next few years is our target.

A Team Effort
All of this news and the opportunity to speak directly with the innovators behind what has been, to me, the most important development in 3D printing so far this year, was truly exciting. And, from the sound of it, Dr. Lewis was on an exciting ride herself. “I think it’s really gratifying to see some of the ideas we’ve worked on in the lab to move out into the commercial sector and really have a chance to have a major impact in that way. For me and the research group, it’s really exciting to have this opportunity.

Lewis says, though, that this isn’t a one-person operation, “I really want to emphasize that that wouldn’t be happening without the amazing team we have at Voxel8. The boundaries between my lab and Voxel8 is one where we’ve done lab-based research at Harvard and at my former institution at Illinois, but to take that to the next level and do commercialization, the team at Voxel8 is just doing incredible well. You know, with Dan Oliver and with the three other team leads: Michael Bell, Travis Busbee, Jack Minardi – materials, hardware, and software – it’s really just been tremendous… Dan, of course, has been pushing forward on the marketing side and driving the whole team forward. The four co-founders are incredibly invaluable… The energy, the drive, the talent and expertise that Voxel8 have is really just making this happen.

The new funding, of course, allows them to build this team even further, Lewis says.“We’ll definitely expand the team. We’ve already made some really exciting hires from some IT companies, like iRobot, Philips Medical, Warby Parker, and DEKA, which is behind Dean Kamen’s Segway. We’ve been able to attract a lot of really awesome talent and that’s only going to continue to build as we go forward with the new funding.

What they do next, whether it’s “locked down” or not, is sure to be amazing. In some ways, what’s been left unsaid – potential materials and customers – really paints a powerful picture. Without knowing who or what will be involved, my mind is left to illustrate a wild painting that sees Nike printing smart orthotics, the CIA building tiny spyplanes, or e-NABLE 3D printing bionic arms. Then, Dr. Lewis leaves me with the conclusion, “It just comes back to our driving motivation: to establish 3D printing platforms that enable the integration of form and function. So, to go beyond prototyping shapes or complex forms and to really create things that have embedded functionality.


Michael is Editor-In Chief of 3D Printing Industry and the founder of The Reality™ Institute, a service institute dedicated to determining what’s real and what’s not so that you don’t have to. He is a graduate of the MFA Critical Studies & Writing Program at CalArts, and a firm advocate of world peace. Michael currently resides in San Pedro with his magical wife, Danielle.

JULY 24, 2015

Scientists Implant Tiny Lasers Into Living Cells

photo credit: A living macrophage cell showing the implanted laser (green dot). Marcel Shubert et al./St.Andrews
It sounds like a plot from a science fiction movie, but quite incredibly scientists have managed to implant tiny lasers into living cells. In the quest to track cells as they move about and interact, the researchers have created miniature lasers that when internalized by the cell can be used to follow cells for weeks at a time. The study is published in Nano Letters.

For the “biointegrated” laser to work, like other conventional lasers, it requires three main components: 
  • some sort of material that will emit light when stimulated, known as the “gain medium,” 
  • a resonator that confines the light by total internal reflection, and 
  • a “pump source,” or a way of transferring energy from an external source to the gain medium.
The researchers, from the University of St. Andrews, achieved this by making what they call a “whispering gallery mode microsphere resonator” out of a particular plastic called polystyrene divinylbenzene. They were able to make these resonators with a radius of just 5-10 µm (0.005-0.01 mm), or small enough to be able to fit inside a living cell.

Previously, gain mediums such as vitamins and naturally produced fluorescent proteins had been used, but these needed resonator cavities much larger than typical cells, and so had limited use. For this study, the scientists instead turned to a green fluorescent dye inserted into the microsphere resonators. The pump source was provided by nanosecond pulsed output from an “optical parametric oscillator laser system.

They then tested how well four different cells types engulfed the microspheres, using 
  • human macrophages (found in the immune system), 
  • mouse fibroblasts (that help give tissue structure), 
  • mouse microglia cells (found in the brain), and 
  • human embryonic kidney cells. 
They found that the cells were able to internalize the miniature lasers, and that the macrophages then continued to move, dragging the tiny tech as they go.

Once the lasers were stimulated and started emitting their own light, the scientists then followed the cells for 19 hours, and found no significant difference in the amount of light they were releasing over the time period. They also managed to show that the macrophages were able to live normally and survive for up to four weeks with the laser still embedded.

There are quite a few advantages of using a tiny laser to track cells over more traditional techniques, such as fluorescent proteins. The range in different light frequencies emitted by the microspheres, determined by their diameter, coupled with the ability to use around 30 different dyes to stain them, means that scientists could theoretically uniquely tag up to 100,000 individual cells. The technique also allows them to follow cells in 3D structures, and is less complicated to carry out then other tagging methods. 

They hope that this new method will allow better imaging of cell cultures in the lab, but also the tracking of 
  • macrophages in their immune response
  • dendritic cells in lymph nodes, or 
  • even map circulating tumor cells

by Josh L Davis
July 24, 2015

martes, 21 de julio de 2015

Peeking into the brain's filing system

Aspects of a single memory can be scattered throughout the outer "cortex" of the brain

Storing information so that you can easily find it again is a challenge. From purposefully messy desks to indexed filing cabinets, we all have our preferred systems. How does it happen inside our brains?

Somewhere within the dense, damp and intricate 1.5kg of tissue that we carry in our skulls, all of our experiences are processed, stored, and - sometimes more readily than others - retrieved again when we need them.

It's what neuroscientists call "episodic memory" and for years, they have loosely agreed on a model for how it works. Gathering detailed data to flesh out that model is difficult.

But the picture is beginning to get clearer and more complete.

A key component is the small, looping structure called the hippocampus, buried quite deep beneath the brain's wrinkled outer layer. It is only a few centimetres in length but is very well connected to other parts of the brain.

People with damage to their hippocampus have profound memory problems and this has made it a major focus of memory research since the 1950s.

Quick learning
It was in the hippocampus, and some of its neighbouring brain regions, that scientists from the University of Leicester got a glimpse of new memories being formed, in a study published this week.

Single brain cells in the hippocampus can form associations very rapidly
They used a rare opportunity to record the fizz and crackle of single human brain cells at work, in epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery.

Individual neurons that went crazy for particular celebrities, like Clint Eastwood, could be "trained" to respond to, for example, the Statue of Liberty as well - as soon as the patients were given a picture of Clint in front of the statue.

It seemed that single brain cells, in the hippocampus, had been caught in the act of forming a new association. And they do it very fast.

But that outer wrapping of the brain - the cortex - is also important. It is much bigger than the hippocampus and does myriad jobs, from sensing the world to moving our limbs.

When we have a particular experience, like a trip to the beach, different patches of the cortex are called up to help us process different elements: recognising a friend, hearing the seagulls, feeling the breeze.
So traces of that experience are rather scattered across the cortex.To remember it, the brain needs some sort of index to find them all again.

And that, neuroscientists generally agree, is where the hippocampus comes in.

"Think of the [cortex] as a huge library and the hippocampus as its librarian," wrote the prominent Hungarian neuroscientist Gyorgy Buszaki in his 2006 book Rhythms of the Brain.

Does the brain have a librarian?
The elements of our day at the beach might litter the cortex like specific books along miles of shelving; the hippocampus is able to link them together and - if all goes well - pull them off the shelf when we want to reminisce.

Completing patterns
Another brand new study, out this week in the journal Nature Communications, looks inside the brain using fMRI imaging to see this filing system in action.

By getting people to learn and remember imaginary scenarios while inside a brain scanner, Dr Aidan Horner and his colleagues at University College London collected the first firm evidence for "pattern completion" in the human hippocampus.

Pattern completion is the mechanism behind a phenomenon we all recognise, when one particular aspect of a memory - the smell of salt in the air, perhaps - brings all the other aspects flooding back.

"If you have an event that involves the Eiffel tower, your friend and, say, a pink balloon… I can show you a picture of the Eiffel tower, and you remember not only your friend, but also the pink balloon," Dr Horner told the BBC.

While his volunteers had just this sort of experience inside the scanner, Dr Horner saw interplay between different parts of the cortex, associated with different parts of a memory, and the hippocampus.

The brain activity flowed in a way that showed "pattern completion" was indeed underway - and the cortex and the hippocampus were working just like the library and the librarian in Prof Buzsaki's analogy.

The hippocampus (darker brown) is centrally located and very well connected
"If I cue you with the location, and I get you to explicitly retrieve the person, what we also see is activation in the region that's associated with the object for that event," Dr Horner explained. "So even though it's task-irrelevant, you don't have to retrieve it, it seems that we still bring that object to mind.

"And the extent to which we see that activation in the 'object' region correlates with the hippocampal response. So that suggests that it's the hippocampus that's doing the pattern completion, retrieving all these elements.

"It's able to act as an index, I suppose, by linking these things together - and doing it very very quickly, that's the key thing."

If the cortex were left to make its own connections between the fragments of a memory, he added, it would be far too slow.

"That's clearly not a system we want, if we're going to remember a specific event that happens once in a lifetime."

Beat this: Episodic memory is a key challenge for artificial intelligence systems
Dr Horner said the findings also dovetail nicely with the single-neuron, celebrity-spotting results from the Leicester study.

"We can look across the cortex and the hippocampus, and we can relate it to recollection. But what they can do is say look, these cells [in the hippocampus] have learned really quickly.

"So that's the sort of underlying neural basis of what we're looking at, at a slightly broader scale."

Science, it seems, is finally managing to unpick the way our brains record our lives. It is a remarkable, beautiful, fallible system.

Building some sort of memory storage like this is regarded as one of the next key challenges for researchers trying to build intelligent machines.

Our own memories, for all their flaws, are a hard act to follow.

By Jonathan WebbScience reporter, BBC News
5 July 2015 

3 ways ravens are among the smartest animals on the planet

Photo: Teri Franzen/MNN Flickr Group 
1) Ravens can keep track of the social status of other ravens both in their own group and in groups of unfamiliar ravens.
This is a useful strategy particularly if a raven has any plans to leave their own group and join another — they'll know just where they fit in the pecking order and also who to be submissive to in order to work their way into the group.

Researchers discovered this by experimenting with playing conversations between ravens to a subject raven, conversations that reversed the social ranking that the subject raven was familiar with.

IFLScience writes, "They found that ravens paid especial attention and seemed stressed -- displaying behaviors like head turns and body shakes -- when they hear playbacks that simulate a rank reversal in their group. They just didn’t expect a low-ranking bird to show off to a higher-ranking one -- this violates their rank relations. They were fine when the dominance structure in the playback reflects their hierarchy accurately. The ravens also responded to simulated rank reversals in neighboring groups, suggesting that they’ve figured out who’s boss among unknown birds just by watching and listening to them (since there was no physical contact between groups). It’s the first evidence of animals tracking rank relations of individuals that don’t belong to their own group -- a useful skill for a bird switching foraging units."

So, ravens learn social ranks well enough to even figure out what's what in foreign groups of ravens with whom they've never actually interacted. In other words, ravens are savvy politicians.

2) Ravens can remember individual human faces.
Researchers have experimented with wearing masks while trapping and tagging crows (extremely close relatives to ravens and also shockingly intelligent). They wore a particular mask when trapping and releasing crows, and then had another neutral mask that wasn't used when trapping. They discovered that crows learned and recognized the "face" of the trapper. And not only that — they teach their offspring and other group members just who is who so that their friends and family could avoid being trapped by the masked person.

The New York Times writes, "In the months that followed [the trapping and tagging], the researchers and volunteers donned the masks on campus, this time walking prescribed routes and not bothering crows. The crows had not forgotten. They scolded people in the dangerous mask significantly more than they did before they were trapped, even when the mask was disguised with a hat or worn upside down. The neutral mask provoked little reaction. The effect has not only persisted, but also multiplied over the past two years. Wearing the dangerous mask on one recent walk through campus, Dr. Marzluff said, he was scolded by 47 of the 53 crows he encountered, many more than had experienced or witnessed the initial trapping. The researchers hypothesize that crows learn to recognize threatening humans from both parents and others in their flock."

3) Ravens can solve puzzles.
Ravens have incredible problem-solving skills. In some experiments, they are presented with a new puzzle, which they study for a bit and then speedily solve.

Science Blogs writes about one set of experiments by researchers Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar, "They found that some adult birds would examine the situation for several minutes and then perform this multistep procedure in as little as 30 seconds without any trial and erroras if they knew exactly what they were doing. Because there was no opportunity for the birds to be confronted with a similar problem in the wild, the simplest explanation is that they were able to imagine the possibilities and to perform the appropriate behaviors. The authors also found that successfully performing this behavior required maturity: immature birds were unable to do it while year-old birds performed a variety of trials before they were able to succeed."

So not only can they figure out puzzles surprisingly quickly, but they learn from past experience to build on their conclusions about how to get what they want. In this PBS video, a raven figures out how to pull up a fishing line to steal the catch.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how ravens have displayed their intelligence and strategizing abilities. If you'd like to learn more, check out the book In the Company of Crows and Ravens. By the time you finish the last page, you'll never look at ravens in the same way again.

* * *

Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

ORIGINAL: Mother Nature Network
Jaymi Heimbuch
January 26, 2015

sábado, 18 de julio de 2015

Volcanic discoveries create Sydney’s hottest new suburb

A map of the newly discovered volcanic peaks off Sydney, showing their depth relative to the surface.

We’ve found a cluster of ancient hotheads just east of the Sydney CBD – forgotten relics of an era long passed. And no, it’s not the clientele at Bondi Icebergs on a Sunday afternoon.

Our new ocean explorer, RV Investigator, has discovered four extinct volcanoes 200 kilometres off the coast of Sydney, hidden under almost five kilometres of ocean. The calderas are estimated to be over 50 million years old, putting even the most seasoned Sydney socialites to shame.
Investigator was actually in the area on other business – searching for the nursery grounds of larval lobsters – when it came across the cluster. The ship is constantly mapping the sea floor as it travels, opening up a previously undiscovered and unknown world. Our previous research vessel could only map to 3000 metres, missing important geological features like the calderas. Investigator can map the ocean to any depth (although it’s yet to find James Cameron).

Being the handy little workers we are, we’ve created a 3D flyover of the volcano cluster for your viewing pleasure:

But the volcanoes aren’t the only hot new talking point in Sydney’s far-East. According to the chief scientist for the voyage, UNSW marine biologist Professor Iain Suthers, the team were amazed to discover an eddy off Sydney that was a hotspot for lobster larvae and other tiny critters, at a time of the year when they were not expecting them.

This discovery turned the previous understanding of juvenile commercial fish species on its head.

We had thought fish only developed in coastal estuaries, and that once larvae were swept out to sea that was end of them. But in fact, these eddies are nursery grounds for commercial fisheries along the east coast of Australia.

Check out some of the samples the team collected (a few of which wouldn’t look out of place on the dancefloor of the Eastern at 3am):

We can’t wait to hear about more amazing discoveries from the Investigator as it continues its travels. For all the latest on our Marine National Facility, including a virtual tour, check out our website.

Unfortunately, we can’t yet recommend the far-East as a solution to Sydney’s housing crisis. We hear they don’t even have a Gelato Messina out there yet.

July 13, 2015

Robot Demonstrates Self-Awareness

photo credit: The robot on the right was able to pass a self-awareness test. RAIR Lab/YouTube
A king is seeking a new advisor, and to do so he invites three wise men to his castle. He tells them he will place a hat on each of their heads that will be either white or blue, and at least one of the hats will be blue. The wise men must work out the color of their own hat they are wearing without talking to each other to become the advisor. After a few minutes of sitting in silence, one of the wise men stands up and guesses correctly.

This riddle (you can read the solution here) is a famous test of logic and self-awareness, and a group of researchers have now recreated a similar test in robots to prove the ability of artificial intelligence to be self-aware – within, of course, limitations.

Three humanoid Nao robots were programmed to think that two of them had been given a “dumbing pill” that prevented them from speaking. All of them were asked “which pill did you receive?” but as two of them were mute, only one was able to answer, saying: “I don’t know.” It then works out that, as it can talk, it must not have been given the pill, so it changes its answer to: “Sorry, I know now. I was able to prove that I was not given a dumbing pill.

Results of the test, carried out by the Rensselaer Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning (RAIR) Laboratory, will be presented in a paper at RO-MAN 2015 later this year. Selmer Bringsjor from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the test’s administrators, told Vice that it showed that a “logical and a mathematical correlate to self-consciousness” was possible, suggesting that robots can be designed in such a way that their actions and decisions resemble a degree of self-awareness.

Before you start preparing for an onslaught of Terminator-style killer robots, though, it should be noted that this test was obviously rather limited. Nonetheless, it suggests that self-awareness is something that can be programmed, and may open up new avenues for artificial intelligence. Just being able to understand the question and hear their own voice to solve the puzzle is an important skill for robots to demonstrate.

There are myriad additional steps that need to ultimately be taken,” the researchers write in their paper, “but one step at a time is the only way forward.


by Jonathan O'Callaghan
July 17, 2015

viernes, 17 de julio de 2015

The Future of Synthetic Biology: Reading and Writing DNA Using Nanopores

Biology is nothing more than a computational system. Granted, it’s far more sophisticated than any other computer available to us today, but we’re slowly beginning to learn how to read and write DNA as we would with code. Thanks to a group of researcher fellows of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), we’ve now taken one extra step towards a future of synthetic biology.

Published on IEEE Access, researchers used nanopores – a tiny hole inside of a membrane that allows singular molecules of DNA to pass through – in order to read DNA and proteins, and subsequently write new DNA by inserting mini-genes into mammalian cells.

In conclusion, the future is brilliant, if you think small and do a bit more research. Nanopores can be used to both READ: detect and sequence DNA and sense proteins, and WRITE DNA into cells. These tools will provide methods to explore areas of biology either impractical to reach, or at least logistically intractable.” – IEEE Study

Photo Credit: IEEE / Genetic Literacy Project
Not only is this breakthrough research helping us better understand our own biology, but is equally bringing everyone else along for the ride. By simplifying the methodological ability to sequence single-cell DNA using nanopores, these researchers have provided molecular and sub-molecular analysis within reach for all bench-top scientists and clinical labs outside of the confines of genomics or spectrometry specialists.

But don’t jump off your seats just yet in celebration, because more research is needed for synthetic biology to make a significant impact.

Prospects for synthetic biology (and manufacturing) using nanopores to program cells (or micelles) and deliver materials are especially alluring. Chemical processing generally becomes more efficient in a microreactor because mass transport limitations are practically eliminated. However, the synthesis, so far, has been focused at a single cell or few nano-reactor level; it needs to be scaled up.” – IEEE Study

The precision of molecular configuration of ions passing through the pores of membranes points to a future of tiny research making extremely large impacts on the health of society. The future of medicine will largely rely on our ability to read and write DNA like code in order to upgrade our bio-computational systems against fatal diseases. By using nanopores as a means of reading and writing DNA, we are steadily revealing the secrets of our own biology, consequently unlocking future possibilities of enhancing our longevity.

ORIGINAL: Serious Wonder

jueves, 16 de julio de 2015

Scientists Find Single Molecule that Controls Fate of Mature Sensory Neurons

In the neocortex, neighboring cells are shown making connections to the visual cortex (red) and the somatosensory cortex (green). Image: Salk Institute for Biological Studies

La Jolla, CA (Scicasts) — Scientists at the Salk Institute have discovered that the role of neurons—which are responsible for specific tasks in the brain—is much more flexible than previously believed.

By studying sensory neurons in mice, the Salk team found that the malfunction of a single molecule can prompt the neuron to make an “early-career” switch, changing a neuron originally destined to process sound or touch, for example, to instead process vision.

The finding, reported May 11, 2015 in PNAS, will help neuroscientists better understand how brain architecture is molecularly encoded and how it can become miswired. It may also point to ways to prevent or treat human disorders (such as autism) that feature substantial brain structure abnormalities.

We found an unexpected mechanism that provides surprising brain plasticity in maturing sensory neurons,” says the study’s first author, Andreas Zembrzycki, a senior research associate at the Salk Institute.

The mechanism, a transcription factor called Lhx2 that was inactivated in neurons, can be used to switch genes on or off to change the function of a sensory neuron in mice. It has been known that Lhx2 is present in many cell types other than in the brain and is needed by a developing foetus to build body parts. Without Lhx2, animals typically die in utero. However, it was not well known that Lhx2 also affects cells after birth.

This process happens while the neuron matures and no longer divides. We did not understand before this study that relatively mature neurons could be reprogrammed in this way,” says senior author Dennis O’Leary, Salk professor and holder of the Vincent J. Coates Chair in Molecular Neurobiology. “This finding opens up a new understanding about how brain architecture is established and a potential therapeutic approach to altering that blueprint.

Scientists had believed that programming neurons was a one-step process. They thought that the stem cells that generate the neurons also programmed their functions once they matured. While this is true, the Salk team found that another step is needed: the Lhx2 transcription factor in mature neurons then ultimately controls the fate of the neuron.

In the mouse study, the scientists manipulated Lhx2 to make the switch in neuronal fate shortly after birth (when the mouse neurons are fully formed and considered mature). The team observed that controlling Lhx2 let them instruct neurons situated in one sensory area to process a different sense, thus enlarging one region at the expense of the other. The scientists don’t know yet if targeting Lhx2 would allow neurons to change their function throughout an organism’s life.

This study provides proof that the brain is very plastic and that it responds to both genetic and epigenetic influences well after birth,” says O’Leary. “Clinical applications for brain disorders are a long way away, but we now have a new way to think about them.

Since this study was conducted in mice, we don’t know the time frame in which Lhx2 would be operating in humans, but we know that post-birth, neurons in a baby’s brain still have not settled into their final position—they are still being wired up. That could take years,” Zembrzycki says.

However, the findings may be an ingredient that contributes to the success of early intervention in some very young children diagnosed with autism, adds Zembrzycki. “The brain’s wiring is determined genetically as well as influenced epigenetically by environmental influences and early intervention preventing brain miswiring may be an example of converging genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that are controlled by Lhx2.

Article adapted from a Salk Institute for Biological Studies news release.

Publication: Postmitotic regulation of sensory area patterning in the mammalian neocortex by Lhx2. Andreas Zembrzycki, Carlos G. Perez-Garcia, Chia-Fang Wang, Shen-Ju Chou, Dennis D.M. O’Leary. PNAS (2015):


After 85-year search, massless particle with promise for next-generation electronics discovered

An international team led by Princeton University scientists has discovered an elusive massless particle theorized 85 years ago. The particle could give rise to faster and more efficient electronics because of its unusual ability to behave as matter and antimatter inside a crystal, according to new research.

The researchers report in the journal Science July 16 the first observation of Weyl fermions, which, if applied to next-generation electronics, could allow for a nearly free and efficient flow of electricity in electronics, and thus greater power, especially for computers, the researchers suggest.

Proposed by the mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl in 1929, Weyl fermions have been long sought by scientists because they have been regarded as possible building blocks of other subatomic particles, and are even more basic than the ubiquitous, negative-charge carrying electron (when electrons are moving inside a crystal). Their basic nature means that Weyl fermions could provide a much more stable and efficient transport of particles than electrons, which are the principle particle behind modern electronics. Unlike electrons, Weyl fermions are massless and possess a high degree of mobility; the particle's spin is both in the same direction as its motion — which is known as being right-handed — and in the opposite direction in which it moves, or left-handed.

"The physics of the Weyl fermion are so strange, there could be many things that arise from this particle that we're just not capable of imagining now," said corresponding author M. Zahid Hasan, a Princeton professor of physics who led the research team.
An international team led by Princeton University scientists has discovered Weyl fermions, elusive massless particles theorized 85 years ago that could give rise to faster and more efficient electronics because of their unusual ability to behave as matter and antimatter inside a crystal. The team included numerous researchers from Princeton's Department of Physics, including (from left to right) graduate students Ilya Belopolski and Daniel Sanchez; Guang Bian, a postdoctoral research associate; corresponding author M. Zahid Hasan, a Princeton professor of physics who led the research team; and associate research scholar Hao Zheng. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

The researchers' find differs from the other particle discoveries in that the Weyl fermion can be reproduced and potentially applied, Hasan said. Typically, particles such as the famous Higgs boson are detected in the fleeting aftermath of particle collisions, he said. The Weyl fermion, however, was discovered inside a synthetic metallic crystal called tantalum arsenide that the Princeton researchers designed in collaboration with researchers at the Collaborative Innovation Center of Quantum Matter in Beijing and at National Taiwan University.

The Weyl fermion possesses two characteristics that could make its discovery a boon for future electronics, including the development of the highly prized field of efficient quantum computing, Hasan explained.

For a physicist, the Weyl fermions are most notable for behaving like a composite of monopole- and antimonopole-like particles when inside a crystal, Hasan said. This means that Weyl particles that have opposite magnetic-like charges can nonetheless move independently of one another with a high degree of mobility.
A detector image (top) signals the existence of Weyl fermions. The plus and minus signs note whether the particle's spin is in the same direction as its motion — which is known as being right-handed — or in the opposite direction in which it moves, or left-handed. This dual ability allows Weyl fermions to have high mobility. A schematic (bottom) shows how Weyl fermions also can behave like monopole and antimonopole particles when inside a crystal, meaning that they have opposite magnetic-like charges can nonetheless move independently of one another, which also allows for a high degree of mobility. (Image by Su-Yang Xu and M. Zahid Hasan, Princeton Department of Physics)

The researchers also found that Weyl fermions can be used to create massless electrons that move very quickly with no backscattering, wherein electrons are lost when they collide with an obstruction. In electronics, backscattering hinders efficiency and generates heat. Weyl electrons simply move through and around roadblocks, Hasan said.

"It's like they have their own GPS and steer themselves without scattering," Hasan said. "They will move and move only in one direction since they are either right-handed or left-handed and never come to an end because they just tunnel through. These are very fast electrons that behave like unidirectional light beams and can be used for new types of quantum computing."

Prior to the Science paper, Hasan and his co-authors published a report in the journal Nature Communications in June that theorized that Weyl fermions could exist in a tantalum arsenide crystal. Guided by that paper, the researchers used the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM) and Laboratory for Topological Quantum Matter and Spectroscopy in Princeton's Jadwin Hall to research and simulate dozens of crystal structures before seizing upon the asymmetrical tantalum arsenide crystal, which has a differently shaped top and bottom.

The crystals were then loaded into a two-story device known as a scanning tunneling spectromicroscope that is cooled to near absolute zero and suspended from the ceiling to prevent even atom-sized vibrations. The spectromicroscope determined if the crystal matched the theoretical specifications for hosting a Weyl fermion. "It told us if the crystal was the house of the particle," Hasan said.

The Princeton team took the crystals passing the spectromicroscope test to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California to be tested with high-energy accelerator-based photon beams. Once fired through the crystal, the beams' shape, size and direction indicated the presence of the long-elusive Weyl fermion.

First author Su-Yang Xu, a postdoctoral research associate in Princeton's Department of Physics, said that the work was unique for encompassing theory and experimentalism.

"The nature of this research and how it emerged is really different and more exciting than most of other work we have done before," Xu said. "Usually, theorists tell us that some compound might show some new or interesting properties, then we as experimentalists grow that sample and perform experiments to test the prediction. In this case, we came up with the theoretical prediction ourselves and then performed the experiments. This makes the final success even more exciting and satisfying than before."

In pursuing the elusive particle, the researchers had to pull from a number of disciplines, as well as just have faith in their quest and scientific instincts, Xu said.

"Solving this problem involved physics theory, chemistry, material science and, most importantly, intuition," he said. "This work really shows why research is so fascinating, because it involved both rational, logical thinking, and also sparks and inspiration."

Weyl, who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study, suggested his fermion as an alternative to the theory of relativity proposed by his colleague Albert Einstein. Although that application never panned out, the characteristics of his theoretical particle intrigued physicists for nearly a century, Hasan said. Actually observing the particle was a trying process — one ambitious experiment proposed colliding high-energy neutrinos to test if the Weyl fermion was produced in the aftermath, he said.

Hasan (pictured) and his research group researched and simulated dozens of crystal structures before finding the one suitable for holding Weyl fermions. Once fashioned, the crystals were loaded into this two-story device known as a scanning tunneling spectromicroscope to ensure that they matched theoretical specifications. Located in the Laboratory for Topological Quantum Matter and Spectroscopy in Princeton's Jadwin Hall, the spectromicroscope is cooled to near absolute zero and suspended from the ceiling to prevent even atom-sized vibrations. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

The hunt for the Weyl fermion began in the earliest days of quantum theory when physicists first realized that their equations implied the existence of antimatter counterparts to commonly known particles such as electrons, Hasan said.

"People figured that although Weyl's theory was not applicable to relativity or neutrinos, it is the most basic form of fermion and had all other kinds of weird and beautiful properties that could be useful," he said.

"After more than 80 years, we found that this fermion was already there, waiting. It is the most basic building block of all electrons," he said. "It is exciting that we could finally make it come out following Weyl's 1929 theoretical recipe."

Ashvin Vishwanath, a professor of physics at the University of California-Berkeley who was not involved in the study, commented: "Professor Hasan's experiments report the observation of both the unusual properties in the bulk of the crystal as well as the exotic surface states that were theoretically predicted. While it is early to say what practical implications this discovery might have, it is worth noting that Weyl materials are direct 3-D electronic analogs of graphene, which is being seriously studied for potential applications."

The team included numerous researchers from Princeton's Department of Physics, including graduate students Ilya Belopolski, Nasser Alidoust and Daniel Sanchez; Guang Bian, a postdoctoral research associate; associate research scholar Hao Zheng; and Madhab Neupane, a Princeton postdoctoral research associate now at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Class of 2015 undergraduate Pavel Shibayev.

Other co-authors were Chenglong Zhang, Zhujun Yuan and Shuang Jia from Peking University; Raman Sankar and Fangcheng Chou from National Taiwan University; Guoqing Chang, Chi-Cheng Lee, Shin-Ming Huang, BaoKai Wang and Hsin Lin from the National University of Singapore; Jie Ma from Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Arun Bansil from Northeastern University. Wang is also affiliated with Northeastern University, and Jia is affiliated with the Collaborative Innovation Center of Quantum Matter in Beijing.

The paper, "Discovery of Weyl fermions and topological Fermi arcs," was published online by Science on July 16. The work was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundations Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative (grant no. GBMF4547); the Singapore National Research Foundation (grant no. NRF-NRFF2013-03); the National Basic Research Program of China(grant nos. 2013CB921901 and 2014CB239302); the U.S. Department of Energy (grant no. DE-FG-02-05ER462000); and the Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology (project no. 102-2119-M- 002-004).

ORIGINAL: Princeton
by Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications
July 16, 2015; 02:00 p.m.