Science & Technology


University students design solar-powered desalination system that produces potable ocean water

© Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.
Ryan Wasserman, E'15, tests his group's solar desalination system on a particularly sunny day on campus.
Five Northeastern University student-researchers have worked to address the worldwide water crisis, designing a solar-powered desalination system that produces potable ocean water.

They created the device for their senior capstone project, which was supervised by mechanical and industrial engineering professor Mohammad Taslim. Team members comprised Eric Anderson, Jon Moll, Dave Rapp, Murphy Rutledge, and Ryan Wasserman, all E'15.

In their project report, the students pointed to the urgent need to solve the global water shortage: Some 750 million people lack access to clean water, according to, and approximately 840,000 people die each year from a water related disease. Indeed, the water crisis represents the greatest risk facing the world today.

"We wanted to work on this project precisely because of the world's water problem," said Wasserman, who recently graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. "Developing nations like Haiti need a cost-effective method for obtaining usable water without power input."

Cell Phone

Hacker implants NFC chip to bypass security scans and exploit Android phones

Chips in hand.
Going by hacker stereotypes, it'd be pretty easy to physically identify anyone committing an act of digital crime. A combination of pallid skin, hoody and laptop is the biggest giveaway. Such hackneyed images of hackers are, of course, evidently wrong, bordering on offensive. Real hackers penetrating business networks have the common sense to avoid cliched clothing and try to conceal their tools.

For those who can bear the pain, biohacking, where computing devices are injected under the skin, provides a novel way to acquire real stealth to sneak through both physical and digital scans. That's why US navy petty officer Seth Wahle, now an engineer at APA Wireless, implanted a chip in his hand, in between the thumb and the finger - the purlicue apparently - of his left hand. It has an NFC (Near Field Communications) antenna that pings Android phones, asking them to open a link. Once the user agrees to open that link and install a malicious file, their phone connects to a remote computer, the owner of which can carry out further exploits on that mobile device. Put simply, that Android device is compromised. In a demo for FORBES, Wahle used the Metasploit penetration testing software on his laptop to force an Android device to take a picture of his cheery visage.

Comment: Another can of cyber worms! As they say: If it is possible, it has already been done!

Biohacking or wetware hacking is the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic. It encompasses a wide spectrum of practices and movements one of which are the "grinders" who design and install do-it-yourself body-enhancements such as magnetic implants.

According to Wahle, he put the chip in when he was still employed by the military and it was never detected despite going through scanners every day. Imagine the currently unlimited options...and what the upcoming crack-down will impose on the public-in-general. A probing question, indeed.


Nature or nuture? Twins hold the answer

© shironosov/iStockphoto
The degree to which we are a product of our genes or the environment has been calculated by an analysis of 50 years of twin studies.

In a study published today, an international team including Australian researchers shows an almost 50-50 split in the influence of genes or the environment on the development of various human traits.

The finding, published in Nature Genetics, is based on a review of 2748 studies involving 14 million twin pairs from across 39 countries.

The twins involved in the various studies ranged in age from 18 to 64 years.

Co-first author Dr Beben Benyamin, at the Queensland Brain Institute, says it has long been established that genetics influence almost all human traits.

"But there is still some controversy and differences in terms of how much of the variation [in traits] is due to genetics and how much is due to environment," Benyamin says.

He says the team, including Dutch and American researchers, looked at all published twin studies to answer this puzzle.

Benyamin says while identical twins are genetically the same, non-identical twins share 50 per cent of their DNA.

The researchers were able to determine the contribution of genetics and the environment on the trait by measuring how similar various traits are between identical twins and non-identical twins.

"If the trait is genetic then you would expect identical twins will be more similar than the non-identical twin. The more similar an identical twin to a non-identical twin then we can infer the trait is largely due to the genetic factor," says Benyamin.


Enormous craters discovered on bottom of Lake Neuchâtel

© ETH Zurich / based on Reusch et al. 2015
This shows the scheme of Crazy Crater.
Anna Reusch, a doctoral student at ETH's Geological Institute, was utterly amazed one morning: during a routine measuring run with her research vessel on Lake Neuchâtel, she suddenly saw an unusual shape on the control panel screen. Beneath the boat, at a depth of over 100 metres, had to be something no one had ever seen before. She immediately informed her professor, Michael Strasser: "We've found something that you absolutely have to see."

An initial rough data analysis on board indicated that Reusch and her colleagues were looking at a scientific sensation: an enormous crater, measuring 10 metres deep and 160 metres in diameter. "I'll remember this day for a long time -- I never expected anything like this," recalls Reusch, adding: "It just goes to show that even in the 21st century, there are still thrilling and exciting discoveries to be made in Switzerland!"

Searching for signs of earthquakes

Reusch made this discovery as part of "Dynamite," a project sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The objective of her subproject is to investigate the sediment in the lakes on the western Swiss Plateau for traces of past earthquakes. Her work involves taking high-resolution measurements of the floor of Lake Neuchâtel to find evidence of tectonically active zones that could trigger major earthquakes. The period Reusch is looking at is geologically speaking very recent: sometime in the past 12,000 years.

But the discovery of the enormous crater and subsequently of other similar structures has turned her doctoral dissertation almost completely upside down. "The craters were so interesting that we simply had to take a closer look at this phenomenon," she explained.

Cloud Lightning

Electric wound care developed in England

© Thinkstock
Hospitals might need to capture this in the future.
Researchers at the University of Manchester are developing a shocking new solution to an age old problem: A medical method that can improve wound healing by electrifying a patient's skin.

Dr. Ardeshir Bayat and his colleagues recruited 40 volunteers and gave each of them a harmless, half-centimeter cut on their upper arm. Those study participants were then divided randomly into two groups - one group that was left to heal normally, and another which was treated with electrical pulses over a two-week period.

The researchers found that those pulses stimulated angiogenesis—or the process of forming new blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the wounded area. As a result, individuals receiving this type of treatment saw their wounds heal significantly faster than the control group. The authors published their findings in a recent edition of the journal PLOS One.


First views of Pluto's tiniest moons emerge


Artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons probe zooming through the Pluto system in July 2015.
As NASA's Pluto probe nears the planet, it managed to grab some spectacular photos of its small moons for the first time. The New Horizons spacecraft is now in position to view the entire Pluto family.

"Detecting these tiny moons from a distance of more than 55 million miles is amazing, and a credit to the team that built our LORRI long-range camera and John Spencer's team of moon and ring hunters," principal investigator Alan Stern remarked on the discoveries and the people behind them.

The moons themselves have been glimpsed only in the space of the last two years, though scientists knew of their existence before: the gigantic Charon - in July 2013; Hydra and Nix - in July of the following year and January 2015, respectively. We're now up to Kerberos and Styx - the smallest and faintest of the Pluto family that NASA has released.

"New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery," mission member John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says. "If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before."


What's going on? Russian Proton rocket feared lost after another botched launch

© Still from Roskosmos video
The launch of Russian Proton-M rocket went bad when its telemetry stopped, sources told media. There is concern that the rocket and its payload, a Mexican communication satellite, may be lost.

Telemetry stopped a minute before the MexSat-1 satellite was due to be placed into orbit. Roscosmos agency specialists are working to determine what exactly happened.

"It's not known yet what happened, but apparently the detachment of the third stage of the vehicle did not go as scheduled," a source in the space agency told RIA Novosti.

Another source said the third stage's engines shut down after Proton had spent 498 seconds in flight.

"Preliminary data indicate that the third stage and the Mexican satellite may fall in the Chita region [of Russia]. The emergencies ministry has been notified," the source told Interfax.

Comment: Interestingly enough, exactly a year ago a Proton-M rocket carrying Russia's most advanced satellite also failed after reaching the third stage. And in April 2013 another Proton-M rocket crashed, apparently due to the foreign matter that has been deliberately placed into crucial components of the booster in order to provoke malfunction. Coincidence?


First warm-blooded fish found

© NOAA Fisheries, Southwest Fisheries Science Center
Southwest Fisheries Science Center biologist Nick Wegner holds a captured opah, the first-ever warm-blooded fish..
The car-tire-size opah is striking enough thanks to its rotund, silver body. But now, researchers have discovered something surprising about this deep-sea dweller: It's got warm blood.

That makes the opah (Lampris guttatus) the first warm-blooded fish every discovered. Most fish are exotherms, meaning they require heat from the environment to stay toasty. The opah, as an endotherm, keeps its own temperature elevated even as it dives to chilly depths of 1,300 feet (396 meters) in temperate and tropical oceans around the world.

"Increased temperature speeds up physiological processes within the body," study leader Nicholas Wegner, a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California told Live Science. "As a result, the muscles can contract faster, the temporal resolution of the eye is increased, and neurological transmissions are sped up. This results in faster swimming speeds, better vision and faster response times."

The result, Wegner said, is a fast-swimming fish with an advantage for hunting slow, cold-blooded prey. [See Photos of the Gigantic Warm-Blooded Opah (Moonfish)]


Scientists genetically modify chicken to have the features of a Velociraptor

© Reuters
Scientists for the first time have created animals with dinosaur features using fossils as a guide. They have transformed chicken beaks into something similar to a dinosaur snout.

Many have pondered the idea of recreating dinosaurs while novelists and sci-fi film directors tempted our imagination with such as creations the Jurassic park film and novel series.

A research team led by Yale paleontologist and developmental biologist Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and Harvard developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov, have conducted a successful experiment which allowed them to create chickens with dinosaur-like features. They published their discoveries in a study in the journal "Evolution" on Tuesday.

Comment: Also see: Old fossils solve mystery of earliest bird extinction

Arrow Down

Sperm grown in lab for first time ever

© Thinkstock
Good ol' lab-grown sperm.
In what is being hailed as a potential breakthrough in the treatment of male infertility, a team of researchers from a private French research center has grown human sperm cells in a laboratory for the first time ever.

While the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, scientists at the Kallistem laboratory in Lyon have allegedly turned spermatogonia into mature sperm in a test tube - doing something that researchers have been trying to do for 15 years, according to Discovery News.

Kallistem plans to conduct pre-clinical trials next year. If those trials are successful, they will be able to take an immature spermatogonia sample from a man, change that genetic material into mature sperm, then either use it for IVF or freeze it for later use.