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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Modern wine owes a significant part of its genetic heritage to 30-million-year-old plant viruses

Modern wine owes a significant part of its genetic heritage to 30-million-year-old plant viruses | Amazing Science |
Next time you pour a glass of wine, raise a toast to the 30-milion-year-old viruses that have contributed to the genetic make-up of modern grapes.

A team of UQ-led plant scientists has discovered that the Pinot Noir grape variety owes a significant part of its genetic heritage to ancient plant viruses.

In a study published in Nature Communications, Dr Andrew Geering and colleagues have mapped the presence of 30-million-year-old viruses in Pinot Noir DNA. Viruses are usually a curse to farmers because of the damage they cause to crops, but this study also suggests they play a vital evolutionary role.

Dr Geering, a plant pathologist at the UQ's Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, said most flowering plant species, even the most primitive ones, contain sequence signatures of viruses in their genetic material.

"Animals can move to avoid threats but because plants are anchored to the ground they are obliged to adapt to environmental pressures, such as those brought about by drought or grazing, using novel strategies.

"Plants cope with such threats by acquiring new biochemical pathways or growth habits."

"Pulling new genetic material from the environment, such as from viruses that infect the plant, means evolution can be sped up considerably."

Much like humans, plants are regularly exposed to harmful chemicals or radiation, which can cause damaging and heritable mutations to their genes which, if left unrepaired, could be lethal to their descendants.

"Fortunately, there are special mechanisms to repair these mutations. It's during this repair procedure that foreign DNA such as that originating from viruses can be inserted into the plant's own genetic code, much like using putty to fill a crack in the wall."

"When this happens, the viral DNA can become 'domesticated' if it provides a selective advantage to the plant."

Diane Johnson's curator insight, November 12, 2014 10:40 AM

So interesting. Nice application for genetics studies.

Ed Rybicki's curator insight, February 5, 2015 7:40 AM

Two of my favourite things - wine and viruses - appear to owe each other something. I'll drink to that!

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'Quantum reporters' measure the magnetic resonance of a single proton

'Quantum reporters' measure the magnetic resonance of a single proton | Amazing Science |

The positions of individual protons on a surface can be pinned down to within 0.1 nm, thanks to a new quantum technique based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) developed by researchers in the US. The method, which works at room temperature, uses an effect that is usually considered a nuisance because it degrades the performance of diamond-based quantum bits (qubits). The researchers say that the technique could be used to study individual proteins or even spins in a superconductor.

At the heart of the new method are crystal defects that occur in diamond when two adjacent carbon atoms are replaced by a nitrogen atom and a vacant site. These "nitrogen-vacancy" (NV) centres have an electronic spin that is very well isolated from its surroundings, which means that they could play a key role in future quantum computers. And because an NV centre can emit just a single photon if excited by a laser, quantum information could be stored for long times in this kind of defect before being read out as a photon.

While NV centres that lie deep within a diamond are well-isolated, those within a few nanometres of the surface interact strongly with electron spins on the surface. Such centres would not, therefore, be used to make a quantum computer, but physicists have used them to study the properties of electrons on the surface of diamond. Two independent groups have also used NV centres to do NMR studies of molecules on the surface of diamond (see "Diamond downsizes classical MRI and NMR").

Now, Alex Sushkov and colleagues at Harvard University have developed a new NMR technique that uses the surface electrons as "quantum reporters" to measure the positions of individual protons on the surface of diamond. The first step involves mapping the locations of surface spins that are within a few nanometres of a NV centre, by applying a magnetic field to the diamond and then firing a sequence of radio-frequency pulses (RF) at the sample. Known as double electron–electron resonance (DEER), this is an established technique used to measure the distance between electrons in a molecule. Information is extracted from the system by measuring the final spin state of the NV centre by observing the fluorescent light it emits. By repeating the measurement with the magnetic field in different directions, the team can map the locations of the surface spins nearest to the NV centre (see figure above).

In an experiment reported in Physical Review Letters, the team was able to locate four surface spins that were within several nanometres of an NV centre, which itself was about 3 nm below the diamond's surface. The team then focused its efforts on the spin nearest to the NV centre. Using an applied magnetic field and a different sequence of RF pulses, the researchers were able to make a "spin-echo" measurement of the magnetic field near that single "reporter" spin. This measurement is affected by the presence of the nuclear magnetic moments of nearby protons that happen to be stuck to the diamond surface. Two protons were seen to be near to the reporter spin and, by careful analysis of the spin-echo data, the team was able to determine the locations of the protons to within 0.1 nm. This distance is on a par with the spacing between atoms in molecules and solids.

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Beyond Interstellar: New visualizations of the event horizon of black holes

Beyond Interstellar: New visualizations of the event horizon of black holes | Amazing Science |

University of Arizona (UA) astrophysicists are taking the special effects in the movie Interstellar a step further, generating what happens when matter flowing into a black hole crosses the event horizon, the point of no return, and then disappears.

To do that, the astrophysicists are using UA’s new supercomputer — nicknamed El Gato — combining knowledge from mathematical equations and astronomical observations to generate visualizations of an object known by astronomers as Sagittarius A* (“Sagittarius A star”), a supermassive black hole comprising the mass of 4.3 million suns. It is located 26,000 light-years from Earth at the center of our galaxy.

The team just published visualizations of what a space traveler might see upon approaching SgrA* in two reports in theAstrophysical Journal — one focusing on imaging and the other on computing — providing some of the groundwork for the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, a huge undertaking involving scientists and observatories around the world to take the first-ever picture of SgrA*.

For the film Interstellar, a special-effects team of about 30 experts reportedly spent up up to 100 hours running calculations to create each frame. “Our team of four here at the UA can produce visuals of a black hole that are more scientifically accurate in a few seconds,” said Feryal Ozel, a UA associate professor of astronomy and physics.

“It’s a bit like gaming on steroids,” she explained. “El Gato uses a massively parallel architecture of hundreds of graphic processors working side by side, with each node functioning as a renderer in real time,” based on algorithms capable of calculating the paths of millions of individual photons in mere seconds as they shoot toward the black hole.

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A battery made up of billions of nanoscale batteries that could fit on a postage stamp

A battery made up of billions of nanoscale batteries that could fit on a postage stamp | Amazing Science |

Imagine a battery made up of billions of nanoscale batteries — the ultimate miniaturization of energy storage. That’s what researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) have invented, using a structure based on a nanopore: a tiny hole in a ceramic sheet that holds electrolyte to carry the electrical charge between nanotube electrodes at either end. Chanyuan Liu, a Ph.D. student in materials science & engineering, says that it can be fully charged in 12 minutes and can be recharged thousands of time.

Many millions of these nanobatteries can be crammed into one larger battery the size of a postage stamp. Each nanopore is shaped just like the others, which allows them to pack the tiny thin batteries together efficiently. They are all connected in parallel, each composed of an anode, a cathode, and a liquid electrolyte confined within the nanopores of anodic aluminium oxide, The space inside the holes is so small that the space they take up, all added together, would be no more than a grain of sand.

Now that the scientists have the battery working and have demonstrated the concept, they have also identified improvements that could make the next version 10 times more powerful. The next step to commercialization: manufacturing the battery in large batches.

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The Namibian Beetle (Stenocara gracilipes) harvests water from air in one of the driest habitats in the world

The Namibian Beetle (Stenocara gracilipes) harvests water from air in one of the driest habitats in the world | Amazing Science |

Scientists are also actively fighting water scarcity by taking inspiration from the creatures that handle it best. The Namibian Beetle (Stenocara gracilipes) is native to the southwest coast of Africa, one of the driest deserts in the world. The Namib Desert is known for its high temperatures, strong winds, and negligible rainfall, although it does experience fogs that move in from the Atlantic Ocean early in the morning and late at night.

The Namibian Beetle capitalizes on this windborne dew and gains an average of about twelve percent of its body weight through a technique known as fog-basking. When fog-basking, the beetle points its back at the oncoming breeze carrying the tiny dewdrops and waits. The back of the beetle is hydrophobic, but spotted with small hydrophilic bumps. When the dew-carrying breeze blows by, tiny water droplets are attracted to the hydrophilic bumps and condense, accumulating on the beetle’s back.

When the drops grow to a substantial size, the weight of the droplets and the force of the wind exceed the hydrophilic forces and the drops fall down the hydrophobic back, finally sliding into the beetle’s mouth. Products like fog nets have been enlisted to help solve human water scarcity, but mimicking the beetle’s perfectly efficient biology can help scientists confront the water issue more effectively.

Andrew R. Parker, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, and Chris R. Lawrence, an investigator at the defense research firm QinetiQ, headquartered in Farnborough, England, discovered that Stenocarabeetles take advantage of those basic properties of water. On the beetle’s elytra—its hardened, outer pair of wings—there is a pattern that alternates hydrophilic bumps, just one-fiftieth of an inch across, with waxy, hydrophobic (water-averse) valleys. A fog droplet collects on each little bump, and further droplets attach to the first. The droplets coalesce and grow until they reach about two-tenths of an inch in diameter. At that size, because the insect’s back slopes at roughly forty-five degrees to the horizontal, the drops are heavy enough to unstick from the bumps and buck the wind. Each drop slides down the wings toward the beetle’s mouth like a bead of rain on the hood of a freshly waxed car.

It’s a neat trick, but it hardly seems practical to have teeming hoards of beetles harvesting fog for water. What would you do with them for the fogless rest of the day? And how would you keep them from drinking the water themselves, rather than donating it to crops, livestock, or people? Fortunately, Parker and Lawrence have a solution. They developed a surface to mimic the beetle’s elytra that seems to work as well as the beetle’s wings do. The two investigators partly embedded dozens of glass spheres, each about the diameter of a poppy seed, in a thin layer of wax. After de-waxing the top of each glass sphere with alcohol, they had an array of hydrophilic bumps in a hydrophobic field. In tests, they found that neatly ordered arrays of beads caught more mist than random, disordered ones did. But both kinds of array caught more than did smooth, waxy surfaces; most water drops just bounced off the latter. Water landing on bare glass drained in unpredictable directions.

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Scientist grows uniform array of cadmium telluride nanowires

Scientist grows uniform array of cadmium telluride nanowires | Amazing Science |
A researcher from Missouri University of Science and Technology has developed a new way to grow nanowire arrays with a determined diameter, length and uniform consistency. This approach to growing nanomaterials will improve the efficiency of various devices including solar cells and fuel cells.

These semiconducting nanowires could also replace thin films that cover today's solar panels. Current panels can process only 20 percent of the solar energy they take in. By applying the nanowires, the surface area of the panels would increase and allow more efficient solar energy capture and conversion. The wires could also be applied in the biomedical field to maximize heat production in hyperthermia treatment of cancer.

In fuel cells, these nanowire arrays can be used to lower production expenses by relying on more cost-efficient catalysts. "My team and I hope to replace or outperform the current use of platinum and show that these nanowire arrays are better catalysts for the oxygen reduction reactions in the cells," says Dr. Manashi Nath, assistant professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T.

The nanowires, which are grown on patterned nanoelectrodes, are visible only through an electron microscope. Nath creates the nanowire arrays through a process that she calls confined electrodeposition on lithographically patterned nanoelectrodes.

To grow the nanowires, Nath writes an image file that creates a pattern for the shape and size she wants to produce. Using electron beam lithography, she then "stamps" the pattern onto a polymer matrix and the nanowires are grown by applying electric current through electrodeposition.

Nath grows the nanowires in a parallel pattern, which resembles a series of nails protruding from a piece of lumber. One end is held secure to a metal conductor like copper or gold, while the other end spikes outward. The entire structure is surrounded by a polymer matrix. Nath and her research team can produce wires of any shape or size. To increase the nanowires' surface area, Nath can make them hollow in the middle, much like carbon nanotubes found in optics and electronics.

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Optical control for simultaneous stimulation and neural recording of motor functions in the spinal cord

Optical control for simultaneous stimulation and neural recording of motor functions in the spinal cord | Amazing Science |

MIT researchers have demonstrated a highly flexible neural probe made entirely of polymers that can both optically stimulate and record neural activity in a mouse spinal cord—a step toward developing prosthetic devices that can restore functionality to damaged nerves.

"Our goal was to create a tool that would enable neuroscientists and physicians to investigate spinal-cord function on both cellular and systems levels with minimal impact on the tissue integrity," notes Polina Anikeeva, the AMAX Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and a senior author of the paper published Nov. 7 in Advanced Functional Materials.

Although optogenetics, a method that makes mammalian nerve cells sensitive to light via genetic modification, has been applied extensively in investigation of brain function over the past decade, spinal-cord research has lagged. Earlier this year Caggiano and Bizzi have demonstrated inhibition of motor functions using optogenetics, and now the collaboration between the two groups yielded a device suitable for spinal optical excitation of muscle activity, while giving the researchers an electrical readout.

"Laser pulses ... delivered through the [polycarbonate] core of the fiber probe robustly evoked neural activity in the spinal cord, as recorded with the ... electrodes integrated within the same device," the researchers report.

The fiber was inserted into the proximal lumbar section of the spinal cord in mice, and light delivered through it triggered activity in one of the calf muscles, the gastrocnemius muscle. The results in the optically-sensitive mice were validated by comparison with results in wild type mice, which showed no response to the optical trigger. A toe pinch showed the device could still record mechanically stimulated neuronal activity in the wild-type mice. The researchers monitored muscle activity through electromyographical (EMG) recording, while the conductive polyethylene electrodes in the new device recorded neuronal activity in the spinal cord.

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Brain-to-brain interface via Internet replicated and improved

Brain-to-brain interface via Internet replicated and improved | Amazing Science |

University of Washington researchers have successfully replicated a direct brain-to-brain connection between pairs of people as part of a scientific study following the team’s initial demonstration a year ago, reported on KurzweilAI.

In the newly published study, which involved six people (instead of two), researchers were able to transmit the signals from one person’s brain over the Internet and use these signals to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal.

In the 2013 study, the UW team was the first to demonstrate two human brains communicating in this way. The recent more-comprehensive study was published Wednesday (Nov. 5) in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

“The new study brings our brain-to-brain interfacing paradigm from an initial demonstration to something that is closer to a deliverable technology,” said co-author Andrea Stocco, a research assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “Now we have replicated our methods and know that they can work reliably with walk-in participants.”

Collaborator Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, is the lead author on this work.

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Novel process could let consumers 3D-print metal parts for the first time

Novel process could let consumers 3D-print metal parts for the first time | Amazing Science |

A novel 3D printing process called Selective Inhibition Sintering (SIS) promises to allow manufacturing of consumer 3D printers* that can print parts made of high-performance metals, which high-cost industrial 3D printers can already do.

The new process, developed at the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at USC, is based on existing low-cost inkjet printing technology. It differs from traditional research in powder sintering* (a process of fusing materials using heat and pressure), which focuses on enhancing sintering.

Instead, SIS prevents sintering in selected regions of each powder layer, using a sintering inhibitor — the inverse of traditional metal additive-manufacturing processes. The engineers explain this innovative process, show sample parts printed using the technology, and discuss the next steps in research and development in an article in the journal 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing


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Transplant of stem-cell-derived dopamine neurons shows promise for Parkinson's disease

Transplant of stem-cell-derived dopamine neurons shows promise for Parkinson's disease | Amazing Science |
Parkinson's disease is an incurable movement disorder that affects millions of people around the world, but current treatment options can cause severe side effects and lose effectiveness over time. In a new study, researchers showed that transplantation of neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells, hESCs, can restore motor function in a rat model of Parkinson's disease, paving the way for the use of cell replacement therapy in human clinical trials.

"Our study represents an important milestone in the preclinical assessment of hESC-derived dopamine neurons and provides essential support for their usefulness in treating Parkinson's disease," says senior study author Malin Parmar of Lund University.

Parkinson's disease is caused, in part, by the death of neurons that release a brain chemical called dopamine, leading to the progressive loss of control over dexterity and the speed of movement. Currently available drug and surgical treatment options can lose effectiveness over time and cause serious side effects such as involuntary movements and psychiatric problems. Meanwhile, another approach involving the transplantation of human fetal cells has produced long-lasting clinical benefits; however, the positive effects were only seen in some individuals and can also cause involuntary movements driven by the graft itself. Moreover, the use of tissue from aborted human fetuses presents logistical issues such as the limited availability of cells, hampering the effective translation of fetal tissue transplantation as a realistic therapeutic option.

To rigorously assess an alternative hESC-based treatment approach, Parmar and lead study author Shane Grealish of Lund University transplanted hESC-derived dopamine neurons into brain regions that control movement in a rat model of Parkinson's disease. The transplanted cells survived the procedure, restored dopamine levels back to normal within five months, and established the correct pattern of long-distance connections in the brain. As a result, this therapy restored normal motor function in the animals. Importantly, the hESC-derived neurons show efficacy and potency similar to fetal neurons when transplanted in the rat model of Parkinson's disease, suggesting that the hESC-based approach may be a viable alternative to the approaches that have already been established with fetal cells in Parkinson's patients.

In a related Forum article published in the same issue, Roger Barker of Addenbrooke's Hospital and the University of Cambridge laid out the roadmap for taking stem-cell-derived dopamine neurons to the clinic for treating Parkinson's disease. "This involves understanding the history of the whole field of cell-based therapies for Parkinson's disease and some of the mistakes that have happened," he says. "It also requires a knowledge of what the final product should look like and the need to get there in a collaborative way without being tempted to take shortcuts, because a premature clinical trial could impact negatively on the whole field of regenerative medicine."

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It May Be Possible To Prevent HIV Even Without a Vaccine

It May Be Possible To Prevent HIV Even Without a Vaccine | Amazing Science |

Natural immunity is the most reliable way to protect yourself from viruses, bacteria and parasites. And the best way to acquire such immunity, in most cases, is to expose your immune system to the bug in question—either by getting infected or getting immunized.

Until now, such protection was only possible with diseases like chicken pox or polio. But now, scientists at Harvard University say that people might soon arm themselves against HIV in a similar way, but through a different method.

Chad Cowan and Derrick Rossi, both in the department of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University, and their colleagues report in the journal Cell Stem Cell that they have successfully edited the genomes of blood cells to make them impervious to HIV. In order survive, HIV needs to insert its genome into that of a healthy cell, and to infect these cells, HIV latches onto a protein on their surface called CCR5. If CCR5 is mutated, however, it’s as if the locks have been changed and HIV no longer has the right key; it can’t attach itself and the cells are protected from infection. So the scientists tried a new gene editing technique called CRISPR that allows them to precisely snip out parts of a cell’s genome, and they spliced out the CCR5 gene. To their surprise, the technique was relatively efficient, transforming about half of the cells they treated with CRISPR into CCR5-free, or HIV-resistant, cells.

“It was stunning to us how efficient CRISPR was in doing the genome editing,” says Cowan. Scientists have previously used CRISPR to make another change in how HIV infects cells; they snipped out the HIV genes that the virus inserted into healthy cells. That process essentially returned HIV infected cells back to healthy ones.

The latest results, however, suggest that the technique may be useful even before HIV gets inside cells. CRISPR could be useful in treating HIV patients if it can replace patients’ own immune cells with the blockaded versions. The cells Cowan and Rossi used were blood stem cells, which give rise to the body’s entire blood and immune system. In order to work as a potential treatment for HIV, patients would provide a sample of blood stem cells from their bone marrow, which would be treated with CRISPR to remove the CCR5 gene, and these cells would be transplanted back to the patient. Since the bone marrow stem cells populate the entire blood and immune system, the patient would eventually have blood cells that were protected, or “immunized,” against HIV. “We’re removing the doorway that HIV uses to get into cells,” says Cowan.

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Strategies for containing Ebola in West Africa

Strategies for containing Ebola in West Africa | Amazing Science |

A multinational Ebola outbreak of unprecedented magnitude was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on August 8, 2014 (1). From Guinea, the outbreak has spread to the neighboring nations of Liberia and Sierra Leone, subsequently expanding into Nigeria and Senegal (2). Imported Ebola cases have recently led to transmission in the US and Spain (2). As of 15 October, over 9,000 cases and 4,000 fatalities have been reported, with the majority of both occurring in Liberia (2).

The ongoing Ebola outbreak poses an alarming risk to the countries of West Africa and beyond. To assess the effectiveness of containment strategies, a team of scientists has now developed a stochastic model of Ebola transmission between and within the general community, hospitals, and funerals, calibrated to incidence data from Liberia. They find that a combined approach of case isolation, contact tracing with quarantine and sanitary funeral practices must be implemented with utmost urgency in order to reverse the growth of the outbreak. Under status quo intervention, their projections indicate that the Ebola outbreak will continue to spread, generating a predicted 224 (95% CI: 134 – 358) cases daily in Liberia alone by December, highlighting the need for swift application of multifaceted control interventions.

CheunSeungHwan's curator insight, November 6, 2014 8:45 PM

Ebola is not a only problem of Africa. The west should support the medical team more also pharmaceutical company.

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Birth of Planets Revealed in Astonishing Detail in ALMA’s ‘Best Image Ever’

Birth of Planets Revealed in Astonishing Detail in ALMA’s ‘Best Image Ever’ | Amazing Science |

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities. 

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.  

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

"These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image," said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder. 

All stars are believed to form within clouds of gas and dust that collapse under gravity. Over time, the surrounding dust particles stick together, growing into sand, pebbles, and larger-size rocks, which eventually settle into a thin protoplanetary disk where asteroids, comets, and planets form. 

Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they dramatically reshape the structure of their natal disk, fashioning rings and gaps as the planets sweep their orbits clear of debris and shepherd dust and gas into tighter and more confined zones.

The new ALMA image reveals these striking features in exquisite detail, providing the clearest picture to date of planet formation. Images with this level of detail were previously only seen in computer models and artist concepts. ALMA, living up to its promise, has now provided direct proof that nature and theory are very much in agreement. 

"This new and unexpected result provides an incredible view of the process of planet formation. Such clarity is essential to understand how our own Solar System came to be and how planets form throughout the Universe," said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which manages ALMA operations for astronomers in North America. 

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X-ray study shows protein switch for programmed cell death in motion

X-ray study shows protein switch for programmed cell death in motion | Amazing Science |

A study conducted in part at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has revealed how a key human protein switches from a form that protects cells to a form that kills them – a property that scientists hope to exploit as a 'kill switch' for cancer.

The protein, called cIAP1, shields cells from programmed cell death, or apoptosis – a naturally occurring crackdown on unhealthy cells and tissues. When a cell is in trouble, a signal activates cIAP1, which rapidly transforms into a state that allows apoptosis to take place.  

"Cancer cells produce excess amounts of cIAP1 in an attempt to shut down apoptosis and evade death," says senior staff scientist Thomas Weiss from SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a DOE Office of Science User Facility, who participated in the study. "The search for drugs that would switch apoptosis back on to eradicate cancer is a very active research field."

The researchers used X-rays from SSRL to watch in real time how cIAP1 transitions from one state to another. The results are an important step towards becoming able to control the protein's switching properties.

"Our study closely ties cIAP1's motions to its role as a switch," says Allyn Schoeffler, a senior research associate at Genentech Inc. in South San Francisco and lead author of the study, published Nov. 10 in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. "We now know why cIAP1 can act as a strictly controlled fail-safe for apoptosis and, at the same time, remain flexible enough to undergo rapid structural transitions."

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ESA explores the concept of a 3D-printed moonbase

ESA explores the concept of a 3D-printed moonbase | Amazing Science |

The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently exploring the possibility of establishing a permanent lunar base with the aid of 3D printing technology. The space agency and Foster + Partners, the London-based architecture firm that worked closely with the agency in the exploration of the project, have released a video outlining how they envision a future mission to construct a moonbase may unfold.

Whilst the idea of a frontier settlement on Mars has captured the imagination of the general public, establishing a base on the Moon would be a much more attainable prospect and could even serve as a proving ground for a mission to the Red Planet.

For mankind to establish a permanent outpost beyond low-Earth orbit, certain safeguards are required to protect us from the harsh conditions that prevail beyond the defensive shield of our planet's atmosphere. On a body such as the Moon that only has a minimal atmosphere, an outpost would be exposed to a plethora of dangers including solar radiation and micro-meteoroid impacts.

To mitigate these dangers, ESA has been investigating the potential of using rover-like automatons to 3D print a moonbase around an inflatable habitat dome located at the lunar south pole. Previous experiments carried out by the agency and its partners have already demonstrated that 3D printing such an outpost is indeed viable with lunar materials.

The experiment used basaltic rock extracted from a volcano in central Italy to mimic the qualities of lunar soil with a fidelity of 99.8 percent. Using this material, the team printed a 1.5 tonne (1.7 ton) building block with a hollow closed-cell structure. It is hoped that such building blocks may one day be instrumental in creating a permanent outpost on the Moon.

"3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth," states Scott Hovland of ESA’s Human Spaceflight Team. "The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy."

The process of transforming the "lunar" material into a usable building block began by mixing the basaltic rock with magnesium oxide. This created a paper-like substance that was then manipulated by a 6 m (20 ft) mobile printing array supplied by Monolite UK Ltd. The block was then built up layer by layer and sprayed with a salt-based binding solution that turned the sand-like construction rock hard.

Italian firm Alta SpA, working in conjunction with engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, took the project one step further, examining how the terrestrial based 3D printing technique would fare in a vacuum. "The [3D printing] process is based on applying liquids but, of course, unprotected liquids boil away in vacuum," explains Giovanni Cesaretti of Alta. To remedy the issue, the team inserted nozzles distributing the binding solution inside the lunar soil, dispensing 2 mm droplets, small enough to bind the material without boiling away. ESA and its partners are now looking to refine the process, including exploring the possibility of using concentrated sunlight to melt the lunar material into a solid state, which would remove the need to use a binding solution.

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Inkjet-printing of electronics: Pushing the envelope

Inkjet-printing of electronics: Pushing the envelope | Amazing Science |

New technology allows you to print electronic devices in the same way your inkjet printer prints a document or photo. Now researchers at Palo Alto Research Center have pushed this technique to another level by building a portable X-ray imager and small mechanical devices.

“It’s a demonstration of how far this technology can go,” said Tina Ng of the Palo Alto Research Center, who will describe these devices at the AVS 61st International Symposium & Exhibition, being held Nov. 9-14, 2014, in Baltimore, Md.

Making electronics on conventional silicon wafers can be costly and time consuming. Traditional photolithography methods, Ng explained, are complex. You first have to deposit layers of material, place a stencil-like mask on it, and then shine ultraviolet light to etch away the exposed material. You then repeat the process to create the patterns needed to form electronic circuits and devices.

But researchers have been developing ways to deposit patterns of metals, semiconductors and other material directly, just like how a printer deposits patterns of ink. The materials are dissolved in a liquid solution, which can then be printed on a variety of substrates, such as plastic, paper and even fabric. When the “ink” dries, the material remains.

Printing a digital X-ray sensor and solar cells: As a demonstration of this technology, Ng and her colleagues built a digital X-ray sensor. Using printing techniques, the researchers fabricated flexible X-ray imager arrays on plastic films that are much more portable than the behemoths at your dentist’s office. Such a device could be used by doctors in the field, serve as small security scanners, or even help soldiers identify bombs in battle.

This printing technique won’t work for producing the high-end silicon chips in your computers and phones, Ng said. Instead, “we’re going for more high-volume, simple but useful systems.” In the future, for example, you might be able to print sensors onto clothing or some other device attached to the skin to monitor vital signs — and alert a doctor in case of emergency. Some researchers have also been printing devices to make flexible solar cells; imagine wearing a jacket that doubles as a solar panel. Another possibility, Ng said, is to print flexible antennas for wireless communication.

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Robotic underwater gliders reveal why the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 150 billion tons per year

Robotic underwater gliders reveal why the Antarctic ice sheet is melting 150 billion tons per year | Amazing Science |

At current rates, ice sheet loss will become the most significant  contributor to global sea level rise during this century, yet there is still a lot that scientists  don't know about the underlying causes. This is partly because Antarctica is such a difficult place to take measurements.

But now robotic underwater gliders are giving scientists new insight into why the Antarctic ice sheet is melting. An ice sheet is a huge layer of ice that sits on land. The two on the Earth today are found on Antarctica and Greenland, but in the last ice age there were also ice sheets on North America and northern Europe.

The Antarctic ice sheet spans more than 14 million square kilometers, which is roughly the same size as the US and Mexico put together. The ice sheet also spills out onto the surrounding ocean in the form of ice shelves.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  estimates that the Antarctic ice sheet is currently losing around 150 billion tonnes of ice per year. One of the main areas of ice loss is from the Antarctic Peninsula, shown in the red rectangle in the map below.

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Oceans arrived early on Earth: Primitive meteorites were the likely source of water

Oceans arrived early on Earth: Primitive meteorites were the likely source of water | Amazing Science |

Earth is known as the Blue Planet because of its oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet's surface and are home to the world's greatest diversity of life. While water is essential for life on the planet, the answers to two key questions have eluded us: Where did Earth's water come from and when? While some hypothesize that water came late to Earth, well after the planet had formed, findings from a new study significantly move back the clock for the first evidence of water on Earth and in the inner solar system.

"The answer to one of the basic questions is that our oceans were always here. We didn't get them from a late process, as was previously thought," said Adam Sarafian, the lead author of the paper published Oct. 31, 2014, in the journal Science and a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student in the Geology and Geophysics Department.

One school of thought was that planets originally formed dry, due to the high-energy, high-impact process of planet formation, and that the water came later from sources such as comets or "wet" asteroids, which are largely composed of ices and gases.

"With giant asteroids and meteors colliding, there's a lot of destruction," said Horst Marschall, a geologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. "Some people have argued that any water molecules that were present as the planets were forming would have evaporated or been blown off into space, and that surface water as it exists on our planet today, must have come much, much later -- hundreds of millions of years later."

The study's authors turned to another potential source of Earth's water -- carbonaceous chondrites. The most primitive known meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, were formed in the same swirl of dust, grit, ice and gasses that gave rise to the sun some 4.6 billion years ago, well before the planets were formed. "These primitive meteorites resemble the bulk solar system composition," said WHOI geologist and coauthor Sune Nielsen. "They have quite a lot of water in them, and have been thought of before as candidates for the origin of Earth's water."

In order to determine the source of water in planetary bodies, scientists measure the ratio between the two stable isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and hydrogen. Different regions of the solar system are characterized by highly variable ratios of these isotopes. The study's authors knew the ratio for carbonaceous chondrites and reasoned that if they could compare that to an object that was known to crystallize while Earth was actively accreting then they could gauge when water appeared on Earth.

To test this hypothesis, the research team, which also includes Francis McCubbin from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico and Brian Monteleone of WHOI, utilized meteorite samples provided by NASA from the asteroid 4-Vesta. The asteroid 4-Vesta, which formed in the same region of the solar system as Earth, has a surface of basaltic rock -- frozen lava. These basaltic meteorites from 4-Vesta are known as eucrites and carry a unique signature of one of the oldest hydrogen reservoirs in the solar system. Their age -- approximately 14 million years after the solar system formed -- makes them ideal for determining the source of water in the inner solar system at a time when Earth was in its main building phase. The researchers analyzed five different samples at the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility -- a state-of-the-art national facility housed at WHOI that utilizes secondary ion mass spectrometers. This is the first time hydrogen isotopes have been measured in eucrite meteorites.

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Exoplanet Survey Satellite TESS mission cleared for next development phase

Exoplanet Survey Satellite TESS mission cleared for next development phase | Amazing Science |

NASA has officially confirmed the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, clearing it to move forward into the development phase. This marks a significant step for the TESS mission, which would search the entire sky for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets.

TESS is designed to complement several other critical missions in the search for life on other planets. Once TESS finds nearby exoplanets to study and determines their sizes, ground-based observatories and other NASA missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope, would make follow-up observations on the most promising candidates to determine their density and other key properties. By figuring out a planet's characteristics, like its atmospheric conditions, scientists could determine whether the targeted planet has a habitable environment.

"TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets within two hundred light years of Earth," Ricker said. "Most of these will be orbiting bright stars, making them ideal targets for characterization observations with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope."

"The Webb telescope and other teams will focus on understanding the atmospheres and surfaces of these distant worlds, and someday, hopefully identify the first signs of life outside of our solar system," Volosin said.

TESS will use four cameras to study sections of the sky's north and south hemispheres, looking for exoplanets. The cameras would cover about 90 percent of the sky by the end of the mission. This makes TESS an ideal follow-up to the Kepler mission, which searches for exoplanets in a fixed area of the sky. Because the TESS mission surveys the entire sky, TESS is expected to find exoplanets much closer to Earth, making them easier for further study.

In addition, Ricker said TESS would provide precision, full-frame images for more than 20 million bright stars and galaxies. "This unique new data will comprise a treasure trove for astronomers throughout the world for many decades to come," Ricker said.

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Robot that moves like a caterpillar could go places other robots can't

Robot that moves like a caterpillar could go places other robots can't | Amazing Science |

The peculiar way that an inchworm inches along a surface may not be fast compared to using legs, wings, or wheels, but it does have advantages when it comes to maneuvering in small spaces. This is one of the reasons why researchers have designed and built a soft, worm-like robot that moves with a typical inchworm gait, pulling its body up and extending it forward to navigate its environment. The robots could one day be used in rescue and reconnaissance missions in places that are inaccessible to humans or larger robots.

The researchers, Wei Wang, et al., at Seoul National University in South Korea, have published their paper on the inchworm-inspired robot in a recent issue of Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

In nature, the inchworm is the larvae phase of the geometer moth and measures about an inch or two long. The small green worm has two or three legs near its front, and two or three foot-like structures called "prolegs" at its rear end. Although they don't have bones, inchworms have complex muscle systems that allow them to perform a variety of body movements, including standing up vertically on their back prolegs.

To mimic the inchworm, the researchers used the soft, highly flexible silicone material PDMS for the robot's body. The researchers built an inchworm mold using a 3D printer, and then poured PDMS solution into the mold. Then they glued small pieces of polyimide film to make feet at the front and rear ends. To play the role of muscle fibers, the researchers used eight longitudinal shape memory alloy (SMA) wires that extend throughout the inchworm robot's body.

By actuating the SMA wires with electric currents, the researchers could cause the inchworm robot's body to move with a natural inchworm gait. Actuating the SMA wires symmetrically causes the robot's body to contract symmetrically, resulting in linear motion. Asymmetrical actuation results in asymmetric deformation and a turning locomotion using one foot as an anchor. In the inchworm gait, the feet must continually change from being used as anchors to sliding in order to generate the push-pull motion. The researchers used alternating low-friction and high-friction foot segments to replicate these foot changes.

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How to store solar energy more cost-effectively for use at night

How to store solar energy more cost-effectively for use at night | Amazing Science |

There’s currently no cost-effective, large-scale way to store solar energy, but Stanford researchers have developed a solution: using electrolysis to turn tanks of water and hydrogen into batteries. During the day, electricity from solar cells could be used to break apart water into hydrogen and oxygen. Recombining these gases would generate electricity for use at night.

There’s one major problem. Electrolysis uses electricity to crack the chemical bonds that hold H2O together. Cracking the chemical bonds of water produces a hydrogen ion — a proton with no electron to balance it out. A good H2 catalyst gives the proton a place to stick until it can pick up an electron to form a hydrogen atom on the catalyst surface and then pair up with a neighboring hydrogen atom to bubble off as H2.

The trick is finding a catalyst with the right stickiness. “If the binding is too weak, the ions don’t stick,” said chemical engineering Professor Thomas Jaramillo. “If it’s too strong, they never get released.” Platinum is perfect, but pricey. Last year the Stanford engineers discovered that a version of molybdenum sulfide called molybdenum phosphosulfide, a catalyst widely used in petrochemical processing, had some of the right properties, with an efficiency approaching that of platinum, to serve as a cheap but efficient alternative to platinum, as described in the German scientific journal Angewandte Chemie.

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The origins of multicellular life

The origins of multicellular life | Amazing Science |

The biological world around us is dominated by multicellular plants and animals. All of these intricate forms have evolved from far simpler, single celled ancestors.

What could explain the transition from single cells to cooperative groups, to groups of cells that put the prosperity of the whole group before the one? This is the essential question of how organisms evolved from single celled types and it is one of life’s greatest mysteries.

Researchers from New Zealand, Germany and the USA now report in Nature the real time evolution of life forms that have all the hallmarks of multicellular organisms.

Beginning with single cells, the researchers show how simple cooperating groups of bacteria can reproduce via a life cycle that incorporates ‘cheating’ cells as a primitive germ line.

Cheats are cells that do not contribute to the integrity of the group, but still take advantage of the benefits of being part of a collective. An over abundance of cheating cells can cause the group to collapse.

Lead researcher Distinguished Professor Paul Rainey from the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study (NZIAS) and Allan Wilson Centre at Massey University, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, points out that the idea that cheats might be integrated into a life cycle is counter-intuitive.

“Cheats are typically viewed as the greatest impediment to the emergence of multicellular life because they collapse cooperating groups — the obvious thing to do is to get rid of them.”

Joint first authors of the paper, Caroline Rose and Katrin Hammerschmidt, of the NZIAS, performed painstaking experiments over the course of five years in which they tested the idea that cheats might play a constructive role in evolution. They allowed simple microbial groups to evolve via a life cycle in which cheats were either embraced, or purged.

“When cheats were embraced we discovered something surprising,” Dr Rose says. “Evolution saw a new kind of entity — a group comprised of two different cell states: cheating and cooperating cells. Evolution couldn’t focus on just one state or the other; for lineages to persist, evolution had to see both types — it had to work on a developmental programme.”

Dr Hammerschmidt explains: “When this happened, the groups became better adapted, but they did so at the expense of the individual cells that made up the groups. This might seem nonsensical, but it is precisely what is thought to happen during major evolutionary transitions: the higher (group) level subsumes the lower (cell) level, with the lower level eventually coming to work for the good of the collective. Nothing so remarkable happened when we performed the same experiment, but with a life cycle in which we got rid of cheats.”

One of the most important outcomes of the work surrounds the origins of life cycles.

“Little is known”, explains Professor Rainey, “but life cycles involving at least two different states are almost universal in the world of multicellular organisms. I suspect that this is because multiphase life cycles generate an organismal configuration that delivers to natural selection a machine-like entity with which it can really work.

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Modified Alzheimer's antibodies sneak through blood–brain barrier

Modified Alzheimer's antibodies sneak through blood–brain barrier | Amazing Science |

Delivering medications to the brain could become easier, thanks to molecules that can escort drugs through the notoriously impervious sheath that separates blood vessels from neurons. In a proof-of-concept study in monkeys, biologists used the system to reduce levels of the protein amyloid-β, which accumulates in the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease1.

The blood–brain barrier is a layer of cells lining the inner surface of the capillaries that feed the central nervous system. It is nature's way of protecting the delicate brain from infectious agents and toxic compounds, while letting nutrients and oxygen in and waste products out. Because the barrier strictly regulates the passage of larger molecules and often prevents drug molecules from entering the brain, it has long posed one of the most difficult challenges in developing treatments for brain disorders.

Several approaches to bypassing the barrier are being tested, including nanoparticles that are small enough to pass through the barrier's cellular membranes and deliver their payload; catheters that carry a drug directly into the brain; and ultrasound pulses that push microbubbles through the barrier. But no approach has yet found broad therapeutic application.

Neurobiologist Ryan Watts and his colleagues at the biotechnology company Genentech in South San Francisco have sought to break through the barrier by exploiting transferrin, a protein that sits on the surface of blood vessels and carries iron into the brain. The team created an antibody with two ends. One end binds loosely to transferrin and uses the protein to transport itself into the brain. And once the antibody is inside, its other end targets an enzyme called β-secretase 1 (BACE1), which produces amyloid-β. Crucially, the antibody binds more tightly to BACE1 than to transferrin, and this pulls it off the blood vessel and into the brain. It locks BACE1 shut and prevents it from making amyloid-β.

In their most recent study, published today in Science Translational Medicine1, the researchers adjusted the strength with which the antibody binds to transferrin. When they tested the drug in both mice and crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), they found that it spread throughout the animals’ brains and decreased levels of amyloid-β in their blood plasma by more than 50%. The antibody did not seem to affect the monkeys’ blood cells. It remains to be seen, however, whether the drug would mitigate the behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer's, because monkeys do not develop the disease or amyloid plaques in the way that humans do.

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European satellite Gaia could discover thousands of planets in our Milky Way galaxy

European satellite Gaia could discover thousands of planets in our Milky Way galaxy | Amazing Science |
A recently launched European satellite could reveal tens of thousands of new planets within the next few years, and provide scientists with a far better understanding of the number, variety and distribution of planets in our galaxy, according to researchers.

Researchers from Princeton University and Lund University in Sweden calculated that the observational satellite Gaia could detect as many as 21,000 exoplanets, or planets outside of Earth's solar system, during its five-year mission. If extended to 10 years, Gaia could detect as many as 70,000 exoplanets, the researchers report. The researchers' assessment is accepted in the Astrophysical Journal and was published Nov. 6 in advance-of-print on arXiv, a preprint database run by Cornell University.

Exoplanets will be an important "by-product" of Gaia's mission, Perryman said. Built and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and launched in December 2013, Gaia will capture the motion, physical characteristics and distance from Earth -- and one another -- of roughly 1 billion objects, mostly stars, in the Milky Way galaxy with unprecedented precision. The presence of an exoplanet will be determined by how its star "wobbles" as a result of the planet's orbit around it.

More important than the numbers of predicted discoveries are the kinds of planets that the researchers expect Gaia to detect, many of which -- such as planets with multi-year orbits that pass directly, or transit, in front of their star as seen from Earth -- are currently difficult to find, explained first author Michael Perryman, an adviser on large scientific programs who made the assessment while serving as Princeton's Bohdan Paczyński Visiting Fellow in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. The satellite's instruments could reveal objects that are considered rare in the Milky Way, such as an estimated 25 to 50 Jupiter-sized planets that orbit faint, low-mass stars known as red dwarfs. Unique planets and systems -- such as planets that orbit in the opposite direction of their companions -- can inspire years of research, Perryman said.

"It's not just about the numbers. Each of these planets will be conveying some very specific details, and many will be highly interesting in their own way," Perryman said. "If you look at the planets that have been discovered until now, they occupy very specific regions of discovery space. Gaia will not only discover a whole list of planets, but in an area that has not been thoroughly explored so far."

CheunSeungHwan's curator insight, November 6, 2014 8:39 PM

I hope that this satellite could reveal the mystery of galaxy.

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Cheaper, more compact particle accelerators are a step closer

Cheaper, more compact particle accelerators are a step closer | Amazing Science |

Scientists working on an experiment at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the US have taken a step forward in developing a technology which could significantly reduce the size of particle accelerators. The technology is able to accelerate particles more rapidly than conventional accelerators at a much smaller size.

One of the most impressive aspects of particle accelerators used for research such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is its physical size. Yet, even with a circumference of 27km, the LHC would be smaller than most of the next generation of proposed colliders. For example the International Linear Collider (ILC), a possible future collider of electrons and positrons (anti-electrons) could be 31km long, and there is even a proposal for a circular accelerator with an 80km circumference that could be built at CERN as part of the Future Circular Colliders (FCC) project.

The size of all of these machines is determined by our ability to build structures that can transfer energy to particles allowing us to accelerate them to greater speeds. The higher the speed, the greater the energy when these particle beams collide, giving scientists a better chance of answering fundamental questions about the universe. This is because higher energy collisions can create conditions that are similar to those existing when the universe was born.

Most current accelerators use a structure called an “rf cavity”, a carefully designed “box” through which the particle beam passes. The cavity transfers electromagnetic energy into the kinetic energy of particles, accelerating them. However, there is a limit to the amount of energy that an rf cavity can transfer to particles. This is because, despite operating in a vacuum, there is a risk that increasing electromagnetic fields can lead to lightning-like discharges of energy.

However, even routine experiments in places like the LHC require more energy than a single rf cavity can provide. That is why the current solution is to use very many cavities arranged in a straight line, if it is a linear machine such as the SLAC, or using the same cavity very many times if it is in a circular machine, such as the LHC.

Either solution presents challenges and requires a large machine to fit in the many parts needed. This raises the costs. Any technology which can increase the acceleration with smaller parts and without the need for more machinery will make future accelerators more compact.

This matters because particle accelerators are not just for particle physicists. They are increasingly used in medicine, industry and security. For example, accelerators provide X-rays and particle beams for cancer therapy, for the fabrication of minuscule devices and for scanning the contents of everything from suitcases to freight containers.

The new technology which could promise more compact particle accelerators has just been published in a study in Nature. The study suggests that, if bunches of electrons are passed through a short column of lithium vapour “plasma” in rapid succession, the electric field of the plasma is able to translate enough energy to accelerate particles hundreds of times quicker than the LHC. It is able to achieve all this while only being 30cm in length.

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