Science and Technology - Briefs

Published: Sunday 30 June 2013

It makes images using rapidly shifting black and white patternTECHNOLOGY
Pixel power

A new camera uses just one pixel to take 3D pictures of objects, including ones emitting light beyond the visible spectrum. It works by having a projector beam a rapidly shifting black and white pattern onto an object. Amount of white light reflecting off the object is then recorded. An algorithm uses this reading to form a 2D image. Four single pixel detectors then convert this image into a 3D one. The system costs only a few dollars, while a standard 3D system that produces similar results costs tens of thousands of dollars. It could be used for locating oil and helping doctors find tumours. Science, May 17

Itchy logic

What makes us itch? It’s a small protein, Nppb, lodged in a nerve cell in the spinal cord. Itch sensory neurons use it to send a message to the rest of the central nervous system that is later experienced in the brain as an itch. When the gene that produces this protein was removed from mice through genetic engineering, the animals stopped responding to itch-inducing compounds. And once the protein was injected back into the mice, they started itching again. The discovery could help develop new treatments for chronic itching conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis. Science, May 24

Small and swift

Short plants evolve five times faster than tall ones. That’s the conclusion of an analysis of a database of more than 20,000 species of plants that shows that the DNA of shorter plants, such as tomato, mutates faster than that of taller plants, such as most trees. This happens because shorter plants copy their genomes more frequently. The more a plant copies its genome, the more mistakes it makes and higher number of mutations it has. This could mean that tall, slower-growing plants and trees are in greater danger from the rapidly changing climate than their smaller relatives, because the greater rate of mutation gives shorter plants more opportunities to adapt. Nature Communications, May 21

Visual cue


A simple visual task has been found to be an accurate predictor of a person’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ). The simple test measures the unconscious ability of a person’s brain to filter out distracting background visual movement. People who are better at automatically suppressing background motion also have a higher IQ. The exercise is the first purely sensory assessment to be strongly correlated with IQ and may provide the scientists with a non-verbal and culturally unbiased tool to identify the brain processes responsible for intelligence. Current Biology, May 23

Core change


Earth’s core consists of a liquid-metal outer layer and a central solid, superhot ball of iron and nickel alloy. It has long been known that the inner core is out of sync with the rest of the planet and rotates faster than the mantle. An analysis of 24 earthquakes that occurred between 1961 and 2007 has revealed that its speed keeps fluctuating from decade to decade. It was rotating faster in the 1970s and 1990s, but slowed down in the 80s. The finding could lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of the planet. Nature Geoscience, May 12

Thin as skin

Bulky heart monitors are a thing of the past now. A surprisingly thin, wearable device has been developed that can detect stiff arteries and other cardiovascular problems. Thinner and smaller than a postage stamp, the skin-like device is made of flexible organic material and can be worn under an adhesive bandage on the wrist. It consists of a thin middle layer of rubber covered with tiny micron-sized pyramid bumps. Any change in blood pressure deforms the pyramids and causes a change in the current flow in the device, which gives away a person's pulse. Efforts are on to make the device wireless, rendering it more efficient and easy-to-use. Nature Communications, May 14

Food fact

Agriculture in China predates the farming of rice, show new findings from the country’s southern region of Xincun. New research conducted on stone tools recovered from 3000 BC show people in the region may have been practising agriculture back in that era, but it was not rice. The finding pushes the emergence of agriculture in the region to 5,000 years ago. PLoS ONE, May 8

Animal atlas


First map of world’s unique and most endangered animals has been prepared. It pinpoints the areas where evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered (EDGE) mammals and amphibians occur. The map also highlights that just a few areas that are identified as priorities for these distinct creatures are protected. Only 5 per cent of the regions that are priorities for mammals are conserved and just 15 per cent in case of amphibians. Among the Indian species highlighted by the map are Gangetic dolphin, purple frog, Asian elephant and dugong. PLoS ONE, May 15

Tsunami alert

Global positioning system (GPS) can do much more than help you find your way. It can also be used to provide an accurate tsunami warning within a few minutes after an earthquake strikes a sea-floor. Tsunamis occur after an underwater earthquake forces the seafloor upwards, generating huge waves. If installed on the coast, GPS transmitters can, in just a few minutes after the quake, help measure how much a coastline is rising or falling in conjunction with the seafloor. This would allow for faster and more accurate tsunami alerts and would buy people time to flee. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, April 19

Sweet poison

People are often advised to drink more fluids to prevent repeat cases of kidney stones. It has been found that it’s not just the amount of fluid but also the type of drink that matters and daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages may increase the risk of kidney stones, instead. Participants of a study who consumed one or more servings of sugar-sweetened, non-cola soft drinks a day were found to have a 33 per cent higher chance of developing a kidney stone, compared to those who had less than one serving a week. Why this happens is not yet confirmed. Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, May 15 (online)

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