GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – AUGUST 2021

At A Stroke, Deep Mind Solves Human Protein Folding.

If anyone has ever doubted the massive potential of AI, the latest announcement about a process called “AlphaFold” from Britain’s Deep Mind should have removed all such doubt.

Marcelo Sousa, a biochemist at the University of Colorado Boulder, had spent ten years trying to crack a particularly tricky puzzle. Sousa and his team had collected reams of experimental data on a single bacterial protein linked to antibiotic resistance. Working out its structure, they hoped, would help to find inhibitors that could stop that resistance from building. But, year after year, the puzzle remained unsolved. Then along came AlphaFold. Within 15 minutes, DeepMind’s machine learning system had solved the structure.

It’s the kind of result that could soon be repeated in labs across the world. In a paper published in the journal Nature, DeepMind has released over 350,000 predicted protein structures. Included in that is almost the entirety of the human proteome, the proteins that make up the human body. Within these predicted structures could lie key insights into diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, the possibility of new drugs and even better ways to recycle plastic.

“AirBnB” For Private Swimming Pools

 Jim Battan’s tree-lined swimming pool at his home outside Portland, Ore., had been sitting untouched since his youngest daughter moved out two years ago. Then in September, he listed it through an online platform for renting private pools.

He booked the pool three times within the first two hours, and says he has hosted 2,700 guests in less than a year. Mr. Battan expects to have earned $111,000 by the end of the summer, which would just cover the $110,000 he and his wife spent on the custom-built pool eight years ago.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’ ” Mr. Battan said. “It’s nice to feel like we didn’t have to spend all $110,000 for nothing.”

He is one of 13,000 pool owners in 125 markets across the U.S., including cities like Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, who are cashing in on their underused pool by listing with the company Swimply, which some media reports have dubbed the “Airbnb for backyard pools.”

Swimply said its pool owners have made about 122,000 bookings since the start of 2020. Business began picking up before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it boomed during the health crisis as public pools closed and people sought to make extra cash or safely gather to swim after months of lockdown.

Gene Tweek Increases Rice and Potato Yields By 50%

Food security is a major potential problem, especially in the face of climate change. Now, researchers have shown that manipulating RNA in plants can drastically boost the amount of food they produce, and make them more resistant to drought conditions.

At its most basic level, the team inserted a single gene called FTO into potato and rice plants. The resulting plants were much more efficient photosynthesizers, meaning they grew much larger and produced much higher yields – three times more produce in the lab, and 50 percent more in the field. They also grew longer root systems that helped them tolerate drought conditions better.

“The change really is dramatic,” says Chuan He, co-lead researcher on the study. “What’s more, it worked with almost every type of plant we tried it with so far, and it’s a very simple modification to make.”

The team had previously found that the FTO protein, encoded by the FTO gene, erased chemical markers on RNA, which in turn can regulate the expression of DNA. In the case of these plants, wiping off those RNA markers reduces the signals that tell the plants to slow down their growth, right from an early stage in their development. As such, the modified plants produce far more RNA than control plants, which translates to higher biomasses.

A COVID-19 Vaccine That Is Tolerant Of High Temperatures

A new heat-tolerant COVID-19 vaccine has delivered strong preclinical results. The vaccine can remain stable for up to 30 days at around 37 °C (98 °F) and researchers are looking to begin human trials later this year.

One particular challenge in effectively distributing COVID-19 vaccines across the world is the need for most vaccines to be kept at cold temperatures. Pfizer and BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine, for example, famously requires ultra-cold storage between -80 ºC and -60 ºC (-112 ºF to ‑76 ºF) making delivery to remote communities profoundly difficult.

Aecent research from Pfizer amended those temperature guidelines, finding normal freezer temperatures of between -25 °C to -15 °C (-13 °F to 5 °F) are safe for at least two weeks. But even then, cold storage supply lines still make it challenging to widely distribute the vaccine.

“A thermostable or ‘warm vaccine’ is critical for remote or resource-limited locations with extremely hot climates which lack reliable cold storage supply chains, including regional communities in Australia’s outback and the Indo-Pacific region,” says Rob Grenfell, from Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO.

The new vaccine was developed by biotech start-up Mynvax, in conjunction with the Indian Institute of Science. Reporting in the journal ACS Infectious Diseases, researchers found the vaccine produces robust neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in mouse and guinea pig models.

“Our data shows that all formulations of Mynvax tested result in antibodies capable of consistent and effective neutralization of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern,” says S.S Vasan, co-author on the new study.

This heat-tolerant vaccine formulation was found to be impressively stable in warm temperatures. It is effective for a month at 37 °C (98 °F) temperatures and even remained stable for up to 90 minutes at boiling temperatures of 100 °C (212 °F).

Dubai Delivers Rain Storms To Order

 The United Arab Emirates often sees extremely hot temperatures, along with very little rainfall – an average of fewer than four inches annually, resulting in droughts. Now, weather-controlling drones could help to combat this deadly water shortage.

The UAE has invested $15 million in nine different rain-enhancement projects – one of which is the rain-controlling drones engineered by the University of Reading. The drones don’t create rain themselves but help to jump-start rain production via cloud seeding. They “zap” the clouds with an electric charge, subsequently charging the droplets inside. Since the beginning of 2021, the National Center of Meteorology (NCM) has conducted 126 instances of cloud seeding.

“What we are trying to do is to make the droplets inside the clouds big enough so that when they fall out of the cloud, they survive down to the surface,” explained Keri Nicoll, one of the core investigators on the project.

The technique has successfully created rain over Dubai and has even resulted in safety warnings for drivers over slippery roads.

Of course, not everyone believes it’s a good idea to mess with natural weather patterns. Some experts argue that the cloud seeding technique is resulting in dangerous flooding. Sufian Farrah, meteorologist and cloud seeding expert at the NCM, doesn’t agree, though. “We only enhance the amount of rain; we are not creating floods. Even some clouds we avoid seeding, because it would be too dangerous for the aircraft to penetrate them,” he explained to Wired.

While scientists are optimistic about the material’s impact on rain, titanium dioxide nanoparticles’ are classified as “possible carcinogens” to humans” by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

As we continue seeing headlines about “once-in-a-lifetime” weather events week after week, we will likely also continue seeing innovative engineering solutions used to combat their effects. Keep an eye out for drones, and don’t forget an umbrella.

Could Airliners Run On Hydrogen “Pods”?

 Universal Hydrogen has signed letters of intent with three airlines to convert more than 15 regional airliners to run on green hydrogen. The company is developing conversion kits that accept interchangeable hydrogen modules that work like recyclable coffee pods.

The aircraft in question will be De Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, or Dash-8. Universal Hydrogen has been working on a Dash-8 kit for some time now, replacing the standard plane’s Pratt & Whitney turboprops and jet fuel tanks with a pair of two-megawatt Magnix electric motors, a hefty fuel cell and a modular hydrogen fuel system whose tanks pop in and out like great big seven-foot (2 m) long Nespresso pods. That’s a comparison the company seems keep to push, as evidenced by this recent Reuters interview.

The hydrogen conversion takes up some space – the Dash-8’s cabin shrinks from 56 seats to 40 – but these planes will offer a ground-breaking emissions-free travel service up to range figures around 460 miles (740 km). That covers about 75 percent of current routes flown by Dash-8s, says Universal, and they could extend that to 95 percent when they get liquid hydrogen figured out.

The company has signed letters of intent with Spain’s Air Nostrum for 11 aircraftRavn Alaskafor 5 aircraft, and Icelandair Group for an unspecified “fleet” of planes. All these deals would also establish Universal as the hydrogen pod service provider.

New “Forest School” Cleans Air And Has Cycling Track On Roof

 In India, the city of Pune, three hours by road from Mumbai, is densely populated and has seen substantial urban growth in the last decade. This has led to worsening air quality as the level of pollutants now regularly exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

Now, a new architecture firm called Nudes is seeking to do something about it. The firm won a competition to build an eco-friendly school in the city and its winning entry is nothing short of impressive.

Nudes submitted a design that is a vertical garden that cleans and purifies the air around it. At the top of the “forest school” is an infinity cycling track so that students may exercise.

The “Forest” is the winning entry for an invited competition design for a school project sited in Pune, India. The design explores the relationship between nature and pedagogy in dense urban settlements built on the foundations of “Grow”, “Learn”, “Reuse”, “Plant” and “Play”,” states Nudes on their website.

The project harbours two “green” cylindrical volumes stitched by a rooftop “infinity” loop track. Each cylindrical volume represents the stage of phased construction with planned programmatic activities. The project explores the dynamics and logistics of a vibrant space for student centric interaction and learning. The “Green” skin can be serviced and maintained by a peripheral service track that is accessible from both landing and mid-landing levels on every floor by horticulturists.”

Wearable Skin Patch Could Gives Advance Warning Of Cardiovascular Events

 It goes without saying that the earlier someone can be warned of an impending heart attack or stroke, the better. A new skin patch could provide such warnings, by sending ultrasound pulses into the wearer’s body.

Building upon a previously developed device, the patch was created at the University of California-San Diego by a team led by Prof. Sheng Xu. Worn on the neck or chest, it consists of a thin sheet of flexible, stretchable polymer, inside of which is a 12 by 12 grid of millimetre-sized ultrasound transducers. The patch is currently hard-wired to a computer and power source, but plans call for it to ultimately be self-contained and wireless.

In one operational mode, all of the transducers can be set to transmit ultrasound wave pulses at the same time. This produces an ultrasound beam that focuses directly down onto one area of the body, up to 14 cm (5.5 in) beneath the skin.

In the other mode, the transducers transmit their waves out of sync with one another, but still rapidly enough that they form one cohesive beam. In this case, however, that beam can be pointed in different angles, as opposed to just straight down from the patch. This means that different areas could be scanned without having to stick the patch right above each one.

In either case, the ultrasound beam travels through the body tissue and into a major blood vessel. The beam then echoes off the red blood cells moving through that vessel, and back up to the patch.

By analysing how the frequency of the echo is affected by the rate at which the blood cells are flowing, it’s possible to continuously monitor the wearer’s blow flow, blood pressure and heart function – all in real time. This information can in turn be used to determine if cardiovascular problems are beginning to occur.