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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    This Week in Science Oct. 21: Computers track cancer and researchers perfect mind reading


    Courtesy of University of Washington

    University of Washington graduate student Jose Ceballos wears an electroencephalography (EEG) cap. The cap is part of an experiment that records brain activity and sends a response to a second participant over the Internet.

    Sili-gone; “metamaterials” look to replace electronic devices

    Where most electronic devices’ dominant material is silicon, photonics, the science of light, has always been able to employ a wider variety of materials depending on the purpose of the device. Now they will employ a metamaterial.

    Researchers at Harvard University have designed a new material meant to optimize the properties of light for the purpose of information transfer. This metamaterial, a synthetic mixture not found in nature, is made of a series of pillar arrays nestled in a polymer matrix and coated with gold film.

    What is so “meta” about this material is that it allows light to defy space. This means is that most materials cause the crests of any given wavelength of light to slow down by a certain ratio. For instance, the crests in any wavelength of light slow down by a factor of 1.3 in water. This is called water’s refraction index. However, this material has been expressly designed to have a zero refraction index.

    This means that the light no longer has any more troughs and crests. Instead, its troughs and crests become more or less infinitely long, and no longer oscillate with respect to space, but only time.

    The material will allow light-carrying information to be scaled down from the macroscale to the nanoscale efficiently, as well as bend and twist with relative ease, according to Dr. Eric Mazur, a co-author of the study. It could also solve some previous problems regarding the limited relationship between space and entanglement in quantum optics. Most importantly for the average user, it promises to be incredibly fast.

    TumorTracer detects cancer in two days

    Researchers at the Department of Systems Biology at the Technical University of Denmark have created a self-learning algorithm that can effectively determine the source of cancer in two days with an 85 percent success rate.

    A self-learning algorithm is one wherein the computer is able to independently determine patterns in a given set of data. It is not provided with the correct answer by a human, nor a series of rewards that help to lead it.

    Called TumorTracer, the algorithm addresses the problem of metastases for cancer patients in which the source is unknown. These patients are usually given a combination of chemotherapy, biological therapy, targeted therapy and hormonal therapy in the hopes that something will work, which lacks general efficiency and causes unnecessary pain.

    The algorithm, once given a set of data, takes the pattern of mutations in these cases and derives the localization from certain tell-tale signs. It has proven to be 85 percent accurate.

    The hopes are that the artificial intelligence will only increase in efficiency and accuracy, possibly screening for cancer from a blood test in a matter of hours.

    Open-sourcing your mind; thoughts to be sent over the internet

    The University of Washington is working on transmitting signals from the brain nonverbally over the internet. Using electroencephalograph scans, questioners were able to correctly find the answer to a game of “20 Questions” 72 percent of the time.

    The responders, who had in mind a single object, sent “yes” or “no” signals regarding inquiries about their object solely in the form of brain waves. Hooked up to an EEG, which detects electrical activity in the brain, they focused their sight on either the “yes” or “no” side of the screen. These sides of the screen flashed at different frequencies, which was reflected in the brainwaves of the responder depending on the side they looked at.

    These brain waves were interpreted, sent over the Internet and received by the questioner in the form of a pulse to the back of the head using a transcranial magnetic stimulation device. A strong pulse to the back of the head was interpreted as a “yes” and little to no pulse was interpreted as a “no”.

    This nonverbal collaboration resulted in the questioner correctly guessing the object 72 percent of the time.

    Though the experiment is considered a success, a few factors remain for the future of more complex thought communication over the Internet.

    Brainwaves related to vision are relatively straightforward. Our visual perception is a basic function, and for this reason does not receive much interference when scanned by a device such as the EEG. This creates a crisp set of data that can even allow scientists to guess a complex picture that someone is seeing.

    Verbal thought, however, is more complex and the next sphere of electrical brainwave interpretation to tackle.

    Anemone, forever young

    Immortality is tentatively in the tentacles; further research into the genome of the scarlet sea anemone genome shows considerable regrowth in the bodies of anemones with little to no signs of aging.

    Research from Dan Rokhsar, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, is continuing to pry loose surprising secrets from these sea creatures.

    In general, anemones are simple. Though they lack a brain or a central nervous system, they do have specialized nerve cells. They can voluntarily open their mouths to ingest prey, and they can immobilize prey with their tentacles.

    The surprise is that these anemones show little to no changes in the integrity of their genomic structure even when most of their cells have been replaced. Usually, replenishing cells over the long run ends up causing some damage to the genome, specifically the telomeres. Eventually, telomeres shorten in humans, causing any given cell to stop dividing or die. This process is usually associated with aging. However, in the sea anemone, cells seem to endlessly replenish themselves without these obstacles.

    As well as being able to regrow amputated mouths and tentacles, sea anemones have been observed to live up to 100 years in prime condition. The main hypothesis as to why they have not been observed living for longer periods of time is because they are usually eaten or poisoned at some point. There seems to be no reason other than these external forces to stop these anemones from living indefinitely.

    Ongoing research attempts to answer whether this insight into immortality is applicable to humans; preserving complexity comes at the price of excessive oxidative stress production, one of the processes that shortens telomeres and causes aging.

    I got beagle muscles baby

    A group of researchers from five different Chinese centers have reported that they edited the DNA of a dogs to make them more muscular.

    The scientists are able to make the dogs grow more muscular thanks to a mutation in a gene called myostatin. Normally, myostatin regulates the growth and development of muscle cells. When myostatin is mutated, which sometimes occurs in nature, muscle cells grow larger and more numerous, giving the dogs extra muscle mass. The researchers said in an interview with the MIT Technology Review that they had no plans on selling the genetically modified dogs, but their experiment shows how powerful gene editing technology has advanced in the last decade.

    The scientists were able to change the dog’s DNA using the CRISPR-Cas9 system. CRISPR and Cas proteins occurs naturally in certain bacteria and act as a rudimentary immune system. When a virus inserts its DNA into a bacteria in an attempt to take it over, Cas proteins capture a sample of the DNA and insert it into a specific region of the bacterial genome. The bacteria then expresses the new viral DNA and attaches it to another Cas protein. This combination of virus and protein allows the bacteria to find the virus, bind to it and cut it.

    Researchers use this last step to make changes to DNA in animals they are interested in. Scientists can target genes in animals and cut the DNA to mimic mutations that cause diseases in humans. They can also use CRISPR to insert large portions of DNA into the animal so they have entirely different traits such as expressing a protein that makes them glow green.

    As CRISPR becomes cheaper and more understood, scientists can one day be used to create designer animals or fix genetic problems before birth. In September, the Beijing Genomics Institute announced that it would sell micropigs that were created using the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

    Follow Alexandria Farrar on Twitter.

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