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In-Depth Jobs

Volume-7, 19-25 May, 2018

Recent Scientific and Technological Breakthroughs

Rayies Altaf

Science and technology is becoming an inherent part of our lives.  We can not imagine our life without taking into account the various instruments and electronic devices which have become an essential part of our lives.
For our esteemed readers, we bring some of the interesting news stories and recent technological breakthroughs from the world of science. Scientific developments and breakthroughs have the potential of changing our culture, influencing our economy and also enhancing the quality of  our  life.
Bacterium that can degrade plastics
Consumption and proliferation of plastic and plastic products is becoming one of the greatest environmental threats to our ecosystem. An estimated 311 million tons of plastic products are produced and used annually in the world. Biological degradation of plastics is still a challenge for us all including our scientific community. Until recently no organism was known to decompose it. It seems that scientists now have an answer  to this problem. Scientists in Japan have been successful in discovering a bacterium which can break down and consume plastics. This new species of bacterium is called Ideonella Sakaiensis and was isolated outside a bottle-recycling plant. It feeds on plastic and consumes it. It breaks down Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and uses it as a source  of energy and carbon, thus leaving behind simple elements and compounds which are easy to degrade. This discovery, if commercially successful will help in biodegradation of plastics in an ecofriendly way and help humans get rid of non-biodegradable waste.
The first mobile medical app to help treat substance-use disorders
Digital medicine is the next big thing you are going to hear. At a time when everything around us is becoming digital, then why not 'digital pills'. Doctor will soon prescribe digital pills to patients for the treatment of specific problems. A new category of prescription for medical treatments in the form of mobile apps are being developed by many drug manufacturing companies, which doctors can prescribe to treat specific disorders. One such app is Reset, which can give patients lessons to modify their behavior. This application would be used as outpatient therapy to treat alcohol, cocaine and marijuana addiction. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US cleared this app last year and now doctors in US can prescribe this app to treat substance-use disorders. Few health companies are working to develop prescription software applications for treatment of diseases like schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. 
Creating and deleting magnets with laser beams
A team of scientists from Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) Germany and University of Virginia in the US have been successful in creating powerful magnets out of alloy of iron and aluminium by using laser beams. This development will open new and exciting possibilities in the areas of optical technology and data storage. In their experiment scientists directed high intensity laser beam at the alloy. The laser beam destroyed the ordered arrangement of iron atoms in the alloy which in turn brought them closer to one another. This new arrangement of iron atoms created magnetic properties in the alloy, thus making it a powerful magnet. Shooting the same laser beam again but now with less intensity laser rearranges the atoms into a well-ordered structure, thus deleting the magnetic properties. Therefore this technique helps create a strong magnet out of an alloy and then deleted it, at one's own will.
Gene Therapy 2.0
In medical field gene therapy is the therapeutic delivery of genetic material (or DNA) into the patient's cells for the treatment of a disease. In this technique genetic material is introduced into cells via an engineered virus, to compensate for defective or abnormal genes or to make a healthy protein. The engineered virus acts as a vector or carrier which delivers the new gene by infecting the cell. The vector is put into the body through an intravenous injection  onto specific tissue or affected body part, where it is taken by the individual cells. The new gene delivered by the vector starts making normal and functional proteins. This approach is expected to bring a radical change in treatment of rare hereditary disorders and diseases such as heart disease, cancer etc. So far gene therapies were not approved by regulatory agencies around the world. But now first gene therapies are about to get approval in the US regulatory bodies.
In earlier Gene therapy experiments it was difficult to edit or cut gene or genome at specific points. Now with the invention of CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing technique, it is possible for scientists to identify the defected gene and edit or remove it in a more precise manner.
Flu Virus Genome finally sequenced in its native form using 'Nanopore Technology' Biologists from US Center for Disease Control and Prevention at Atlanta, Battelle Memorial Institute, Atlanta, USA and Oak Ridge Institute of Science Education (ORISE), Oak Ridge USA, have been successful in sequencing the complete genome of influenza virus. This is for the first time that genome of any flu virus has been sequenced in its native form. The native form of genome in most viruses exists as RNA. To reveal and sequence this RNA fully was not an easy task for scientists. The methods used earlier (e.g. chemical degradation of radiolabelled RNA), were not only time consuming and cumbersome but also less efficient as they used to reveal only short sequences and not the full genome.
The new technique which was used in this study is known as Oxford Nanopore technology, where RNA strands get revealed while they pass through a tiny molecular channel. The importance of this new breakthrough lies in the fact that it would open up new ways and possibilities of understanding the nature and working of viruses, which may lead to creation of fast, reliable and better treatment of many viral diseases such as common cold, polio, measles, hepatitis C etc. 
RNA is similar to its cousin DNA and serves as an intermediary between DNA encoded genes and proteins and also performs other tasks in the cell.
Smarter Drugs
After smart phones and smart TVs, it is now turn of 'smarter drugs'. A new method of using nanotechnology for making 'smarter' drugs has been developed. These novel drugs and medicines would be called as nanomedicines. Scientists at University of Lincoln have developed a new technique of making nanomedicines which would be more effective and more precise in targeting any specific area or part of the body such as cancer tumour. This novel method invented by the nanobiotechnologists at University of Lincoln will have wide ranging applications in treatment via drugs. In this technique very minute gold nanoparticles would be coated with a biological protein and then combined with drugs to make it to travel through the body and reach the affected area without getting consumed in the blood or finished on the way. Drugs made through this technique would have two potential benefits. One, nanoparticles can hold drugs on their surface, which otherwise have danger of getting degraded in blood, second, due to their extremely small size they can pass through membranes, small intestines and other such body organs (which usually hamper drug activity and thus prevent them from reaching the target), thus reaching the affected body part effectively and in shorter time. This new technique would enable pharmacologists to organize and put proteins onto the gold nanoparticles in organized layers in order of their choice, thus safeguarding the integrity and originality of the protein so that drug is more precise and effective.
High Resolution 3D Video of Working Cell Inside a Living Tissue
Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Jenelia Research Campus in Virginia USA, have been able to capture a live 3D video of a working cell inside a living tissue. This success was recently reported in most prestigious science journals including Nature and Science. This move is unprecedented in itself, as never in the history of human research, a live cell, while it was normally working inside the tissue of Zebrafish's inner ear, was captured in a high resolution video in 3D. Scientists and biologists always want to observe the behavior of a cell in a living tissue or body only. This is now possible with sophisticated and cutting-edge microscopy technique. It was a big challenge to shoot live cells while they are alive and working inside their tissues because the cell's own surroundings which includes other cells and body fluids have tendency of distorting the view thus giving improper, blurred and sometimes false images. To solve this problem, scientists, led by Physicist Eric Betzig, used light-sheet microscopy and adaptive optics technique. The result was smooth, crisp and clear three-dimensional videos.
This technique of capturing live cells in good quality video formats, would help scientists, especially medical researchers in understanding the nature of cells itself (which are basic functional units of living organisms including humans) and cell behavior under abnormal conditions such as behavior of cancer cells in living tissues and thus would open up possibilities of solutions to many human and animal diseases in future. By this method researchers now would also be able to capture interaction between the cells in high resolution videos.
(The Author is a Science Communicator and Science Policy Researcher based in New Delhi) E-mail: raiesaltaf@gmail.com
(Images Courtesy : Google)