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asia research news 2011 A ResearchSEA publication to highlight research in Asia

NANOBIOTECH Probe that reads nerve responses

LIGHT SPEED Devising faster and more compact computers EYE-OPENER Shaping retinas from stem cells

PALAWAN PREDATOR When tigers roamed the Philippines

IN SEARCH OF JOBS Pain and pifalls in way of women migrant workers


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CONTENTS

Editor's Desk

Editors-in-Chief Magdeline Pokar Daniel Raymer

The rise of Asia as an economic powerhouse has been well documented; now its burgeoning prowess in research is receiving the attention it deserves. This issue of Asia Research News brings together interesting research ranging from antimatter to reviving Malay opera. A critical issue for a world smothered in pollutants is working towards a carbon-neutral environment. Research at Asian science centres is pioneering developments in novel photocatalyst material that can fuel clean energy. Carbon capture and hybrid vehicle technology are some of the advances being made in the chase to secure a greener planet (Chemistry, Pages 1622). In the car industry, the prospective ‘Detroit of Asia’ has developed an innovative technique to produce lighter vehicle parts (Business, Page 13). Biological breakthroughs, such as growing eye-like structures from stem cells, promise the potential for treatment of retinal degenerative disorders (Biology, Page 10). A new dimension in

the interface between nanotechnology and biology was reached with the development of a nanodevice to detect neural responses (Technology, Page 57). In secondary medicine, researchers are working to develop one vaccine for all serotypes of life-threatening dengue viruses, studying plant enzymes to yield cancer-killing secrets, as well as to suppress E.coli growth (Health & Medicine, Pages 38-44). The field of social sciences examines the hazards faced by women migrant workers, gender inequality and plight of workers in the informal sector (People, Pages 45-48), and conservation of mangroves and wetlands or educating fisher folk to cope with the impending impact of climate change (Environment, Pages 31-37). As Asia moves forward with its innovations, Asia Research News, for its part, is committed to facilitating knowledge of Asian research and its global impact. We welcome your feedback.

Editor Matt K George Assistant Editor Robin Bisson Contributing Editor and Writer Ruth Francis Contributing Writer Gemma Watkinson Marketing Executive Jan Brownfoot Design Fulton Design

Front Cover Image Nicolas P Rougier

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ENVIRONMENT

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BUSINESS

COMPUTERS

CHEMISTRY

Asia Research News 2011 is published by ResearchSEA Limited, Asia’s premier platform for raising awareness of Asian research and experts.

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PEOPLE

Research featured in Asia Research News 2011 is based on information provided by the research institutions listed in the contact information. ResearchSEA Editors have strived to ensure the accuracy of information and aims of the projects featured. Readers are advised to contact the academics for confirmation of current details and status of projects. ResearchSEA Limited accepts no liability for any loss, damage or expense incurred resulting from the use of information in this publication. ISSN 2042-0536. Copyright ResearchSEA Limited 2011. If you would like to reproduce any articles in Asia Research News 2011, contact ResearchSEA. ResearchSEA Asia Research News 13 Sterndale Close Girton, Cambridge CB3 0PR United Kingdom

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Tel: +44 (0)1223 276227 Fax: +44 (0)8706 220887

PHYSICS

TECHNOLOGY

...2012

info@researchsea.com www.researchsea.com


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A G R I C U LT U R E & A Q U A C U LT U R E

MUHAMMAD BAHTIAR MASIDIN

production rates. The findings can be saved and analyses routinely performed to monitor the health of the bee colony. The technology will assist bee keepers to identify storage cells in the hive and help them to decide when to harvest the honey. The i-BEE software consequently has high commercial value for researchers and apiarists. The technology is easy to use and users require no prior knowledge of bee farming or image processing. It is also compatible with standard computer operating systems.

For further information contact: Liew Lee Hung Faculty of Computer & Mathematical Sciences Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: lhliew@sarawak.uitm.edu.my

Keeping bees in the pink of health Understanding bee culture is a smart strategy as global businesses seek to estimate the value of the ecosystem to the economy. A novel computer programme, Bee Comb Images Detector (i-BEE), developed at UiTM, Sarawak, enables quick and accurate identification of cells in honey bee combs. The digital images provide a valuable method for evaluating the health of bee colonies and supporting apiarists. Bees provide an essential pollination service in agriculture, besides producing honey which is widely known for its medicinal benefits. The existing methods for evaluating bee colony health involve visual judgment, estimation and visual counting by trained personnel, making it time consuming. Moreover, accurate evaluations are dependent on the expert involved. The i-BEE software uses two-dimensional shape identification technology to automatically identify bee cells in a comb from digital images, and detecting different cell types and numbers. Researchers obtained 60 samples of bee comb images from local bee farms. Pre-process techniques were employed to eliminate variations in images caused by differences in light, camera type and setting. Some of the images were utilised to calibrate the i-BEE software during the development stages, and the output of the system was tested with the remaining images. The results were compared with those obtained from the manual methodology. Cells were identified by i-BEE as either “empty cell”, “honey cell” or “brood cell”. An understanding of the composition of cells constructed in a hive will further enhance knowledge of bee behaviour and the “division of labour”. Since growth, vigour and productivity of a bee colony is directly related to the amount and diversity of cells in each comb, the health of the colony can be quickly determined. The ratio of different cell types is calculated to give a rating for the health of the comb. A rating of one denotes a sick and infected colony; a rating of six signifies the healthiest colony with optimum honey

Farmers get a say in the face of globalisation There have been few studies of the economic, social and political effects of globalisation on local agricultural communities. The University of the Philippines Diliman has now taken steps to determine the overall impact of globalisation in Bilar, Bohol, in Central Visayas. The Philippine Government, in response to its commitment to the World Trade Organisation and the Agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, established a Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act in 2002. The Act protects the exclusive rights of breeders regarding new plant varieties. It is expected to encourage private enterprises and investment in the development of new varieties, promoting national development. The current study supported by the university will determine the economic effects of globalisation on local communities, allowing the challenge or validation of claims the Act will contribute to economic growth at the macro level. Few studies have focused at the local level. This research looks at how and why local people’s behaviour and experiences have changed over time, particularly in response to the impact of the PVP. Farmers in Bilar, for example, have pioneered community registries as a way of coping. Data will be obtained using document analysis, literature reviews, focus group discussions and interviews with key participants, such as community leaders, representatives of people’s organisations and government officials. The study will help to determine whether local government and non-governmental organisations successfully articulate the interests of local communities in national government policymaking forums. For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Maria Ela L. Atienza Department of Political Science University of the Philippines Diliman Email: ma_ela.atienza@up.edu.ph


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A G R I C U LT U R E & A Q U A C U LT U R E

STEVIE MANN/ILRI

Healthy livestock breeds disease-free society Improving farming practices and looking after livestock will have an immeasurable effect on the health of the human population, especially as threequarters of all recent emerging infectious diseases – such as avian flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS – originated in animals. As global health experts recognise the important link between controlling animal disease and protecting human health, researchers have joined forces to create a veterinary public health system in Sri Lanka capable of controlling emerging infectious diseases in animals before human health is put at risk. But there are many low and middle-income countries that lack a welldeveloped veterinary public health system. A Canadian and Sri Lankan research team in Sri Lanka is developing the various components of a comprehensive system that seeks to understand and address the links between public health and animal health and production. The initiative is also aimed at helping to protect the country’s important livestock sector. As animal health improves, farmers also stand to benefit from more efficient agricultural production.

The programme receives support from the Global Health Research Initiative, a partnership of five Canadian federal agencies. The researchers are building professional and institutional networks to pass on the findings to researchers, governments and communities in other South and South-East Asian countries. For further information contact: Dr Sam Daniel Ministry of Estate Infrastructure and Livestock Development, Sri Lanka Email: dplldri@slt.lk Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca


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ONEVILLAGE INITIATIVE

Keeping nitrogen where it counts

For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Dr Osumanu Haruna Ahmed Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences Universiti Putra Malaysia Email: osman60@hotmail.com

In oceans fished almost to extinction, the tilapia offers a source of fresh fish. The development of a breed of the fish tolerant to salt water by scientists at the University of the Philippines Diliman enables tilapia cultivation to flourish in areas where freshwater habitats are scarce. The Philippines is a major producer of farmed tilapia, being the third biggest in the world. In 2008 the country harvested 257,132.52 metric tons of tilapia. The fish is mostly cultured in freshwater ponds, rice paddies and in cages in lakes and reservoirs. Brackish water ponds remain underutilised, so there is now increasing demand to cultivate tilapia in brackish water environments, particularly in areas where freshwater is limited. The most popular species to be cultured is the Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus, due to its rapid growth rate. However, it is unable to tolerate a wide range of salinity levels, making it unsuitable for cultivation in brackish water environments. The Mozambique tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus, is one of the most tolerant to saline conditions, but its poor growth in ponds and early sexual maturation make it unpopular in South-East Asian aquaculture. A new hybrid called Molobicus (picture) has been developed from these two species using crossbreeding and backcrossing. When experimentally cultured in brackish water ponds, the hybrid showed a faster growth rate despite the high saline environment.

UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES DILIMAN

Since reducing pollution is an environmental priority, cutting down nitrogen loss will enhance quality of the soil and air. At Universiti Putra Malaysia, nitrogenbased fertilisers derived from organic wastes are being modified to reduce nitrogen seepage. This development will have significant benefits for agricultural output besides beneficial effects for the environment. Urea fertiliser is applied to agricultural soils to increase the nitrogen content which is an essential nutrient for plant growth. But up to 60 per cent of nitrogen in urea can be lost as ammonia, resulting in pollution of the air, soil, the water table, rivers and streams. Urea, which has been modified with humic and fulvic acids, however, has been found not to leach ammonia. Palm Oil Mill Effluent (Pome) is an extremely polluting agricultural waste product and finding an environmentally friendly disposal method poses an economic burden on industries and communities. Researchers at UPM have succeeded in extracting liquid humic acid and fulvic acid from Pome sludge; finding a use for this waste presents significant benefits for the environment and economy. Since modified urea significantly retains exchangeable ammonia and available nitrogen, little is lost by leaching from the soil, reducing environmental pollution; consequently more nitrogen is available for crops. Glasshouse experiments demonstrated that maize dry matter production rose by 30 per cent to 50 per cent. It has been estimated that a saving of $400 could be made by using modified urea for every one tonne of urea used in agriculture. The effectiveness of this innovation in the field is now being investigated. The research offers significant benefits for farmers, environmentalists, and fertiliser industries by facilitating the production of cheaper and more environmentally friendly nitrogen-based composts.

Saline-friendly tilapia

There are nevertheless health concerns that have to be addressed. Vibriosis is a disease of tilapias, caused by the bacteria Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which can cause fish mortality rates of up to 50 per cent. Outbreaks of the disease can result in financial loss to fish farmers, as well as lead to potential trade conflicts. V.parahaemolyticus causes gastroenteritis in humans, and is spread by the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood. Tilapias that are cultured in brackish water ponds are known to be more sensitive to infections particularly during periods of environmental stress. V.parahaemolyticus is a highly salt tolerant bacteria, making the new brackish water tilapia hybrid potentially very susceptible to infection. The Molobicus hybrid is currently being tested for its resistance to infection by V.parahaemolyticus using microbiological techniques. Infection rates are being compared for different salinities, representing freshwater, brackish and marine environments. This research was conducted in collaboration with Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Center for International Research in Agronomic Development in France, and the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development. For further information contact: Donna Salve P Cornes Institute of Biology University of the Philippines Diliman Email: donnasalve_2@yahoo.com


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WORLDFISH BANGLADESH OFFICE

Fishing for growth Encouraging fisher folk to sustainably manage and exploit the natural habitat will pay more dividends as growth in aquaculture and fishery management is helping rural communities to raise their income. An initiative by The WorldFish Center to directly engage local communities aims at increasing productivity in aquaculture and small-scale fisheries to ensure sustainable output in the future. Another consequence of looking after the well-being of rural communities is greater political and social stability. In Bangladesh, three-quarters of the population live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture and the exploitation of natural resources for food and livelihood. In the low-lying coastal country there is one hectare of water for every 20 people, and as the number of freshwater ponds increase because of soil excavation for construction, aquaculture is becoming more popular. Aquaculture production has grown by an average 10 per cent per year since 1984, three times faster than output from cereal production and inland capture fisheries. The WorldFish Center, in collaboration with the Bangladesh Government and non-governmental organisations, has explored how adoption of low-input aquaculture practices can benefit communities to improve productivity, raise employment and income. Farmers taking part in the project have seen daily incomes rise from $3.77 to $4.98 per day, almost nine times higher than non-participating farmers. The gross income of project households has more than doubled and their annual fish consumption per person has increased by 6.6 per cent, compared to only 2.3 per cent in non-participating households. As fish is an affordable and protein-rich food, increasing aquaculture production can improve nutrition and safeguard food security to feed Bangladesh’s growing population. In the Solomon Islands where more than 80 per cent of the population depend on subsistence agriculture and fishing, marine resources and smallscale inshore fisheries are under threat of degradation.

The demands of a growing population pose serious consequences for communities highly dependent upon these resources. The WorldFish Center has been involving the community to devise plans for the establishment of resilient small-scale fisheries to ensure sustained fish supplies. The approach becomes critical to combating future threats from climate change. In this participatory diagnostic approach the fishery dependent communities in Western, Isabel and Malaita provinces are equal partners. The residents have participated in focal group discussions to identify threats and vulnerabilities, as well as to articulate their communal and cohesive strengths that underpin their resilience. The people have a say in drafting the rules they want implemented in the management plans, and determine the indicators they would use to monitor the success of the project. Women and school children have also been drafted. Educated women have been encouraged to spread the message about marine resource management to other women while pupils in Malaita, the largest island in the Solomons, are monitoring biological markers using fish length and weight data collected by fishermen. The WorldFish Center believes that giving the communities a sense of ownership will help to improve fishery conditions and enhance community-based resource management The concerted approach will help local communities to address threats of diminishing fish stocks and degraded habitats, reduce their vulnerability to external unpredictable world market trends and commodity prices. The ultimate aim is to develop and test a generic adaptive management framework to be used in less easily managed environments and communities.

For further information contact: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org


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M ARUNPRASAD/ABHISHEK JACOB (inset)

A tapping system to improve productivity in rubber plantations has been developed and tested by researchers at Prince of Songkla University, Thailand. Over the last 20 years the average size of smallholdings in the main rubber growing areas of southern Thailand has fallen to about two hectares. Hence increasing tapping productivity is a high priority, leading to the adoption of very intensive tapping systems which has resulted in overexploitation, high rates of tapping panel dryness and low productivity. The newly developed “Double Cut Alternative” (DCA) tapping strategy aims to optimise high tapping frequencies, using two different cuts that are tapped alternately to increase time for latex regeneration. Trials since 2007 have found that the DCA system, equivalent to the conventional half spiral cut every two days, provided a latex yield 21 to 22 per cent higher. A network of on-farm trials will compare the DCA system with conventional tapping methods currently in use, and the results so far have been promising. Further tests are needed before implementing the double cut method on a large scale across southern Thailand. Presently, the DCA system has only been tested on 600 clone plantations. Extended farm trials will need to include other rubber clones, in order to validate feasibility and sustainability of the Double Cut Alternative system.

For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Dr Sayan Sdoodee Faculty of Natural Resources Prince of Songkla University, Thailand Email:sayan.s@psu.ac.th.

Plants of the genus Striga, the world’s most destructive species of parasitic weeds, cause billions of dollars in damage to global agriculture every year. Researchers from the RIKEN Plant Science Center have helped to uncover germination mechanisms for Striga, offering the promise of producing parasiteresistant crops. As parasite plants, Striga possess few storage reserves of their own and survive off nutrients produced by their hosts, which include some of the world’s most important crops such as sorghum and wheat (picture below). Dormant Striga seeds can lie in the ground for many years, only germinating when they sense a host nearby. Triggering this mechanism is the plant hormone strigolactone, though the mechanism responsible is poorly understood. To clarify the processes behind Striga germination the researchers investigated strigolactone production in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. As a model plant Arabidopsis is more amenable to experimentation, with some genetic mutants possessing characteristics very similar to Striga. The team analysed the effect of 10,000 molecules on seedling development in Arabidopsis, leading to the first of two important findings: a group of five structurally-similar compounds called ‘cotylimides’ boost production of strigolactone. The presence of cotylimides led to bleaching of seedling leaves. Testing these compounds on 520,000 genetic variants of Arabidopsis, the researchers identified 246 lines which exhibited reduced bleaching, indicating cotylimide resistance. Of these 246 lines, analysis was carried out on those which possessed characteristics similar to Striga, leading to the second important finding. Light was shown to boost strigolactone production showing the plant hormone plays a role similar to sunlight in stimulating germination and greening. By exposing a previously-unknown relationship between light and strigolactone, these results expand our understanding of the germination mechanisms of parasitic plants. When every year across Africa, Asia and Australia weeds of the genus Striga cause billions of dollars in agricultural damage, such findings may contribute to tackling worldwide food security challenges by providing a step toward developing parasite-resistant plant species. For further information contact: Dr Yuji Kamiya Growth Regulation Research Group RIKEN Plant Science Center, Japan Email: ykamiya@riken.jp

MATTBUCK

A cut above for more latex production

Getting to the root of parasitic weed


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BIOLOGY

TAKATO MARUI

Japanese genome mapping gives clues to diseases The entire genome of Japanese citizens has been sequenced and analysed by scientists at the RIKEN Center for Genomic Medicine and the University of Tokyo in order to provide clues into the rare genetic variations that may influence susceptibility to diseases such as prostate cancer. The genome is the complete make-up of an organism’s genetic material. There is broad diversity within the human genome and differences in the genome of individuals are mainly due to genetic variants In recent years, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These prostate cancer variations have been shown to has risen rapidly influence susceptibility to in Japanese men, disease. But so far technologies that enable determination of and there is the genetic make-up of an growing public organism normally target interest in common variants, so the roles played by rare or novel variants understanding on one’s vulnerability to disease the associated are largely unknown. genetic factors To overcome this gap in understanding, massively parallel sequencing technology was employed to analyse for the first time the entire genome of a Japanese individual. More than three million single nucleotide variations were identified and compared to genomes reported in earlier studies of six individuals from across the world. As a result many single nucleotide variants that influence gene function, which had previously been overlooked, were discovered. The results of this project provide valuable insight into disease susceptibility among the Japanese. In recent years incidences of prostate cancer has risen rapidly in Japanese men, and there is growing public

interest in understanding the associated genetic factors. The researchers at RIKEN began to investigate genetic variations linked to prostate cancer. Genome-wide association studies scan the whole genome for variations that are linked to a particular disease, in this case prostate cancer. Previous studies of European citizens found 31 SNPs linked to prostate cancer. In the present study these SNPs were compared for the genomes of 4,584 Japanese men with prostate cancer and 8,801 control subjects. Of the 31 SNPs associated with prostate cancer in Europeans, 19 were also associated with prostate cancer in Japanese individuals. The other 12 previously identified SNPs showed no association to prostate cancer in Japanese subjects. However, a further five new genomic regions which hadn’t been reported in the previous European studies were identified as associated with prostate cancer in the Japanese. These findings provide the first glimpse of a genetic basis for prostate cancer susceptibility in nonEuropeans, and reveal variations in vulnerability among ethnic populations. Understanding these variations will enable greater accuracy in assessing risk, improving screening protocols and prescription of more effective clinical treatments. For further information contact: For Japanese genome: Dr Tatsuhiko Tsunoda Research Group for Medical Informatics RIKEN Center for Genomic Medicine, Japan Email: tsunoda@src.riken.jp For genetic variation linked to prostate cancer: Dr Hidewaki Nakagawa Laboratory for Biomarker Development RIKEN Center for Genomic Medicine, Japan Email: hidewaki@ims.u-tokyo.ac.jp


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BIOLOGY

Understanding ‘death dance’ of stem cells

For further information contact: Dr Yoshiki Sasai Laboratory for Organogenesis and Neurogenesis RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Japan Email: yoshikisasai@cdb.riken.jp

RIKEN scientists have made a startling breakthrough by growing eye-like structures from stem cells. The study helps to answer unsolved questions in developmental biology and unlocks exciting potential for applications in regenerative medicine. Using a cutting-edge tissue culture system a team at RIKEN’s Laboratory for Neurogenesis and Organogenesis found that mouse embryonic stem cells organised themselves into a three-dimensional structure reminiscent of the “optic cup”, a structure that develops into the retina during embryonic growth. By removing cells and culturing them separately the researchers showed that all retinal cell types could develop, including photoreceptor neurons, providing striking proof that the structures were on their way to becoming genuine retinas. Manipulation of the stem cells’ DNA to produce a green fluorescent protein meant it was possible to observe in real time the amazing sequence of events that occurs in the early stages of mammalian eye development. Moreover, this meant it was possible to computer simulate the mechanics of the process and explore in 3D the mechanisms responsible. The fact that the stem cells selforganised into complex tissue without being pushed, pulled or “pressurised” into any particular shape is particularly remarkable. The question of how complex tissues and organs develop in the embryo on a cell biological level has remained something of a mystery, with debate arising over whether chemical signals from neighbouring tissues or inherent programmes within cells are responsible. Yoshiki Sasai, the team director, observed: “What we’ve been able to do in this study is resolve a nearly century-old problem in embryology, by showing that retinal precursors have the inherent ability to give rise to the complex structure of the optic cup.” The results signal promising potential for treatment of retinal degenerative disorders, such as retinitis pigmentosa, and the study of diseases and drugs affecting the retina. Growing complex tissue and obtaining sufficient numbers of photoreceptor cells for transplants in patients with untreatable blindness has been a significant challenge in stem cell research. “It’s exciting to think that we are now well on the way to becoming able to generate not only differentiated cell types, but organised tissues, which may open new avenues toward applications in regenerative medicine,” Dr Sasai said. For further information contact: Dr Yoshiki Sasai Laboratory for Organogenesis and Neurogenesis RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Japan Email: yoshikisasai@cdb.riken.jp

ELYZHIUM

The molecular mechanisms that cause the death of human embryonic stem cells after their separation in the laboratory has been described for the first time in a research project at RIKEN’s Center for Developmental Biology in collaboration with Kyoto University. Human embryonic stem cells must be cultured in a YOSHIKI SASAI clump which makes their manipulation difficult. When separated, the cells immediately undergo apoptosis, a process of programmed cell death. The project at RIKEN identified the mechanism that triggers the suicide of these cells, which will enable more efficient culturing of human stem cells for research into therapeutic Fluorescent imaging of ‘blebbing’ in human stem cells treatments for a range of debilitating degenerative diseases. Live-cell imaging and laboratory analysis showed that after a few hours of separation, the membranes of the embryonic stem cells started bulging out in fingerlike projections, in a process known as blebbing. This sequence occurred because the cell membrane broke away from the cell’s internal cytoskeleton, the network of microscopic structures within the cell that gives the cell its characteristic shape. The cells moved around in what was dubbed a “death dance”, which ended after several hours with the cells bursting. The whole process was triggered by the loss of intercellular contact, and the onset of the death dance was found to be caused by hyperactivation of myosin, a contractile protein that is associated with cell movement. Myosin hyperactivation was directly caused by the enzyme ROCK (Rho dependant protein kinase), and the activity is regulated by the compound Abr. Understanding the molecular mechanism of apoptosis permits manipulations to be effected, thus improving the survival of human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory and making them more flexible to handle. A ROCK enzyme inhibitor, or an inhibitor of the myosin called blebbistatin, could be applied. Future research will seek to understand why cells die when myosin hyperactivation occurs and the mechanisms for Abr activation.

Watching embryonic eyes grow


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BIOLOGY

Steps to safeguard health of sex workers

For further information contact: Windell L. Rivera Institute of Biology University of the Philippines Diliman Email: wlrivera@science.upd.edu.ph

Compensating for lost genes Research from the RIKEN Plant Science Center has shed light on the relationship between genes and their phenotypic effects. A study on the species Arabidopsis thaliana has revealed the roles of two processes that compensate for gene loss. The standard approach of knocking out individual genes to assess their effect on an organism’s biological characteristics or “phenotype” runs into the problem of genetic robustness: organisms compensate for gene loss by reproducing the gene’s function via other means. Narrowing this effect to genes responsible for producing metabolites – the products of biochemical reactions – two compensation mechanisms enable this to happen. Either

TOMAS CASTELAZO

A recent study at the University of the Philippines Diliman revealed different strains of the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis, as well as identifying high-risk individuals to help to target intervention efforts. Trichomonas vaginalis is a non-viral parasite that causes trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI) common throughout the world. The Philippines study took 57 isolates of T. vaginalis from across the country, and DNA sequencing identified six different sequence types. Two were represented by high numbers of isolates, showing the variations were not just random mutations but are different strains of the T. vaginalis parasite. The distinctions may allow correlations to be made between different strains and corresponding clinical symptoms. The prevalence of T. vaginalis in female sex workers in Angeles City, Pampanga, was determined using vaginal swabs. Of the 377 participants in the study, 9.55 per cent were infected with T. vaginalis, the most highly affected being among 18-22 year olds. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method used was very sensitive, amplifying the T. vaginalis DNA from just one cell. Angeles City is a priority area for STI control and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) prevention. Understanding the virulence of parasitic organisms is essential for planning preventative measures. The results of the study could help to set specific guidelines for T. vaginalis screening and enable intervention efforts to be targeted at high-risk groups. T. vaginalis has been shown to be a co-factor in HIV transmission, so reducing the spread of this STI-causing parasite will help to reduce the risk of HIV transmission and infection.

the metabolites can be produced by duplicate genes on the genome, or the reactions producing the metabolites can occur through alternative chemical pathways in “metabolic networks”. The species Arabidopsis thaliana was chosen to investigate these two compensation mechanisms, since, according to lead researcher Kousuke Hanada, “Arabidopsis suited our purposes beautifully because many gene knockout mutants have been generated and many of its metabolic networks are known.” To study the robustness of Arabidopsis metabolic networks the researchers knocked out individually some 2,000 genes and analysed the effects on 35 metabolites; 17 out of 35 were primary metabolites found in all organisms, while the remaining 18 were secondary metabolites produced specifically by Arabidopsis and its relatives. The results revealed two important findings. First, only duplicate genes with very high similarity to a missing gene play a significant role in compensating for effects on metabolite production. Second, any effects on the production of primary metabolites tended to be compensated for by alternative pathways. Together, the results uncover a complementary relationship between compensation mechanisms in Arabidopsis, indicating that duplicate genes play an important role only when the number of alternative pathways is low. Primary metabolites are more likely than secondary metabolites to be essential for plant survival, and Dr Hanada suggests that the existence of multiple alternative pathways for producing primary metabolites makes these particular Arabidopsis networks highly robust to the loss of individual genes. “Our findings shed valuable new light on the gene–phenotype relationship, laying the groundwork for new theoretical models in systems biology,” Dr Hanada observed. For further information contact: Dr Kousuke Hanada Gene Discovery Research Group RIKEN Plant Science Center, Japan Email: kohanada@psc.riken.jp

iSTOCKPHOTO/PKUJIAHE


BIOLOGY

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OLIVER ORSCHIEDT

Brain waves give chess masters head start The brain is the centre of the vertebrate nervous system and fascinates scientists and the interested public. At the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako City, Japan, various teams are attempting to get to grips with different aspects of this complex organ. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) researchers recently shed light on the neural mechanisms involved in the intuitive responses of chess players. The results showed specific brain regions seeming to give chess masters and players of the Japanese board game shogi their superior skills, and offered insights into the neural origins of expert intuition. Besides this revelation, the work opens the door to further insights into brain function, establishing a link between brain science and cognitive psychology research. PROBING NEURAL ACTIVITY: Thomas Knöpfel and colleagues, also at Wako, have developed a genetically encoded voltage sensor that can be used to probe electrical activity from specifiable groups of neurons in brains of animals. The sensor is based on voltagesensitive proteins that insert themselves into the membrane of genetically targeted nerve cells and emit a fluorescent signal in response to the changes in membrane voltage which occur during neuronal activity. Understanding how complex neuronal circuitry processes information is challenging; it requires measuring the activity of groups of specified cells. By inserting electrodes into the cells and observing them under the microscope, the researchers found that single spontaneous nervous impulses were accompanied by an increase in yellow fluorescence. “This will facilitate the investigation of fundamental questions of information processing in the brain,” says Knöpfel,“ and will also be applicable to directly visualise cognitive function.”

SENSING COLOURS: At Toyohashi Tech researchers are investigating two different functions in visual perception, and how the brain switches between them as a situation demands. The two functions, categorisation and fine discrimination, are both apparent in colour vision and the team set out to study whether differences in tasks assigned affect the responses of colour-selective neurons in the inferior temporal (IT) cortex in the brain. Two monkeys were trained to perform different tasks involving colour categorisation and colour discrimination, and the researchers recorded how neuronal activity changed depending on the tasks performed. Judgment of colour by these IT neurons occurs during the categorisation task but is suppressed during the discrimination task resulting from modulation of their activities. The research suggests that the flow of colour information from the IT cortex is strongly controlled by top-down signals representing the continuing task rule presumably sent from the prefrontal cortex. For further information contact: Insight into intuition: Dr Keiji Tanaka Cognitive Brain Mapping Laboratory RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan Email: keiji@riken.jp Probing neural activity: Dr Thomas Knöpfel Laboratory for Neuronal Circuit Dynamics RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan Email: tknopfel@knopfel-lab.net Sensing Colours: Dr Kowa Koida Electronics Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS) Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan Email: koida@eiiris.tut.ac.jp


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BUSINESS

GENESIS STOCK PHOTO. INSET: PRINCE OF SONGKLA UNIVERSITY

Aluminium components manufactured by the SSM processing method

‘Detroit of Asia’ revs up search for lighter car parts Thailand’s metal-forming industry faces competition on two fronts: low-price and high-quality foreign products. An innovative technique of producing parts by semi-solid metal (SSM) processing has been proposed in a project at Prince of Songkla University (PSU). The approach promises to reduce costs and raise quality, allowing Thailand to compete in global markets. The demand for aluminium parts in the motor industry is growing as production of vehicles increases along with soaring fuel prices, driving a trend for lighter components. The process is very likely to continue, particularly in light of the Thai Government’s stated policy to make the country the “Detroit of Asia”. With demand increasing, the competition is expected to become more intense. Thailand’s metal-forming industry will have to compete with both cheap products from countries with lower labour costs such as China, Vietnam and India, and high quality products from countries with existing metal-forming technologies. So as to avoid buying in expensive technologies from abroad, it is imperative that Thailand develops its own metal-forming technologies, and a project by a Thai researcher from PSU aims to do just this. The project proposes to develop a novel method of SSM processing, which is not only cheaper than the

conventional die-casting method, but also results in higher quality products. Laboratory studies have shown the concept to be feasible, and promising results have been obtained, indicating that the process has the potential to be commercially successful. In SSM processing, the structure of the liquid metal is modified during cooling to produce “slurry”. This process reduces structural weaknesses, raising the quality of products. It also lowers costs and speeds up production since the process can occur at lower temperatures. These advantages have generated global attention in recent years on developing viable approaches for implementing SSM processing in commercial metal-forming industries. The proposed project at PSU aims to conduct further R&D to bring it to a commercial stage. If successful it offers a great opportunity for the Thai casting industry, enabling the country to be competitive in the global aluminium parts manufacturing market.

For further information contact: Prof. Jessada Wannasin Department of Mining and Materials Engineering Prince of Songkla University, Thailand Email: jessada.w@psu.ac.th


BUSINESS

14

JOOST J BAKKER

Green gauge for shipping industry

Defining Malaysian companies’ social duty

Global shipping firms are responding to environmental concerns about resource depletion and CO2 emissions by embracing green shipping practices (GSP). Since Hong Kong is a pillar of the international shipping chain, cost and service advantages could be created here. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University is contributing to the stock of knowledge about GSP by investigating environmental impacts, and determining the various stakeholder forces that affect the industry. Up to now studies on environmental management in the shipping industry, a key enabler of international trade activity, have primarily focused on greener manufacturing and production practices. The university’s Department of Logistics and Maritime Studies, in response to growing environmental concerns about the industry, is now researching the different stakeholder forces that shape maritime trade. The stakeholders could include regulatory bodies – which enforce regulations that shipping firms must adhere to; international trade pressures that affect the competitive environment; and shippers’ businesses on which their livelihood depends. Apart from identifying the stakeholder interests that drive GSP adoption, the study will help to determine whether adopting environmental practices is in the overall interests of shipping companies’ economic and environmental performance and management. The research will also assist in identifying specific green practices that contribute to improved performance and would be worthwhile to take on board. Developing and validating scale measurements for GSP would enable green shipping companies to identify competitive weaknesses and evaluate performance outcomes for the industry. The findings will give insights into generating gains in productivity while protecting the environment in line with governmental rules overseeing the sector. The results will also provide informative reference on green practices to the manufacturing and retailing industry and organisations which have long worked with shipping companies to facilitate their supply and logistics needs.

Social responsibility reporting by companies has been described in previous studies as “self-laudatory” and an attempt to “green-wash” their operations. A study by UiTM seeks to create a new framework for companies to explain their underlining motivation and subscribe to a social responsibility assurance model (SRA). The final structure could be relevant to other developing countries. The veracity of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, monitored by independent agencies, increases its credibility and contributes to stakeholder confidence that it operates in a sustainable way. However, SRA practice is still at infancy stage in Malaysia and it is felt imperative for the Government to promote a strategic plan to improve transparency and corporate governance in line with its Green Technology policy. The outcome of the study will provide insight into the motivating factors as well as impediments in implementing good social assurance practices. The new model is expected to enhance understanding about the influence stakeholders and institutional forces play on Malaysian companies and help regulatory authorities and the Securities Commission to promote SRA, and enhance transparency and accountability. The low take-up of a robust CSR agenda is because a SRA motivational model is lacking. In the past the needs of stakeholders – shareholders, consumers and regulators – were investigated separately from institutional challenges such as coercive, normative and mimetic forces. The new study will combine the two theories. The research will target companies engaged in manufacturing because of their wider social and environmental impact on society. Corporate communications units of listed companies have been identified as questionnaire respondents because these departments are empowered with preparing companies’ CSR reports.

For further information contact: Dr Lai Kee-hung Department of Logistics and Maritime Studies The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Email: lgtmlai@polyu.edu.hk

For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Dr Faizah Darus Faculty of Accountancy Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: faizahd2@yahoo.com


15

EKTA PARISHAD

Stable funding for institutional muscle

BUSINESS

In an attempt to strengthen the influence of research institutions in national policymaking, the Think Tank Initiative is funding 16 independent policy research establishments in South Asia. The initiative, a partnership of several major donors, has committed $21 million in multi-year funding till 2014. Relying on short-term project grants and consultancy contracts prevents think-tanks from attracting, retaining and building local talent. Substantial core funding over the next four years would help these institutions to develop independent research programmes and ensure their ability to engage in policy debates. The Think Tank Initiative is a multiagency programme dedicated to strengthening independent research institutions in the developing world. It currently supports 52 think-tanks in 23 countries in South Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. BANGLADESH: The think-tanks benefitting from the largesse in Bangladesh are the Centre for Policy Dialogue, which focuses on macroeconomic analysis, agricultural and rural development, trade, investment promotion and climate change; and the Institute of Governance Studies focusing on political processes, power mapping and urban conditions among others. INDIA: In India the relevant organisations are the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability which targets issues regarding transparency, accountability and participatory governance, and people-centred budgets. The Centre for Policy Research looks at law, regulation and policy, accountability and governance, urbanisation, security and foreign policy, while the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy researches energy and environment, infrastructure, emergency and disaster management. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies examines democratic representation and governance, development policies, social equity and education. The Indian Institute of Dalit Studies investigates development concerns of the marginalised and socially excluded groups and studies the nature and consequences of exclusion, discrimination, and collective action. Other organisations are the Institute of Economic Growth (rural development, globalisation and trade, health economics, environment and resource economics, population and development and social change); Institute of Rural Management (rural poverty, livelihood systems and social and ecological concerns); the National Council of Applied Economic Research whose forte includes rural development, household behaviour, growth, trade and economic management; and the Public Affairs Centre which looks into public policy and participatory governance. NEPAL: In Nepal, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition researches climate change, water resources, migration and urbanisation issues. PAKISTAN: The beneficiary organisations in Pakistan are the Social Policy and Development Centre, which

studies issues regarding poverty, inequality, governance, provincial finances, gender and macroeconomic policy; and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute that focuses on the environment, global and rural livelihoods, human development, information and communications. SRI LANKA: In Sri Lanka the Centre for Poverty Analysis studies relevant concerns around urban poverty, child poverty, resettlement, infrastructure services, conflict, aid effectiveness and inequality, while the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka has as its remit issues of poverty and social welfare, environmental economics, agricultural economics and human resources development. The Think Tank Initiative, managed by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is a partnership between IDRC, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development, and the Netherlands Directorate-General for International Cooperation. For further information contact: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca


CHEMISTRY

16

TALI BAMBA

Clean energy from photosynthesis technology Researchers at the National Institute for Materials Science, Japan, have discovered a novel photocatalyst material that has high activity under visible light, with potential for use in the clean energy industry as a substitute for fossil fuels. Photocatalysts are substances that absorb light and catalyse a chemical reaction, producing hydrogen by the splitting of water molecules. The function has attracted a lot of attention because it can be applied in clean energy producing technologies. Photocatalyst technology has been called artificial photosynthesis technology because the process is similar to that of photosynthesis in plants. Since the conventional photocatalyst titanium dioxide (TiO2) has poor efficiency and requires ultraviolet light to react, research and development has focused on photocatalytic materials that react in visible light, called visible light-responsive photocatalysts. A novel high activity catalyst, silver phosphate (Ag3PO4), has been discovered, which under irradiation with visible light, exhibits very high reactivity. An oxygen generation test showed that silver phosphate was more efficient than other visible light-responsive catalysts, with a quantum yield of 90 per cent. The quantum yield

is a measure of the efficiency of the radiation induced process, using the number of times that the reaction occurs per photon of light energy absorbed. Silver phosphate is therefore able to produce large amounts of hydrogen and oxygen from the decomposition of water under visible light irradiation. Silver phosphate could be used to decompose and remove harmful substances using only sunlight. It may also be used as a thin film electrode material for photoelectrode systems. Another important application is the production of fuels and resources, through the production of hydrogen by water decomposition and the reduction of CO2. There are high expectations that the discovery of the silver phosphate photocatalyst is a turning point in the development of artificial photosynthesis systems.

For further information contact: Dr Jinhua Ye Photocatalytic Materials Center National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: jinhua.ye@nims.go.jp


17

Research at two institutions – the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan, and the A*STAR Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), Singapore – has led to the development of processes to capture waste carbon dioxide from power plants before it is emitted into the atmosphere. These methods could be important in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the future, besides providing useful products with economic potential. Over recent years there has been increasing concern about the levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere primarily because of their potential to cause global climate change. It is expected that the main energy source over the next century or so will be dependent on fossil fuels, aggravating the greenhouse gas effect. Research has therefore focused on ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for sustainable economic development. Up to now carbon sequestration or the capture of carbon dioxide and its storage underground has been a main solution to the problem. The newly developed processes, however, capture the gas and convert it into a useable product. In Singapore carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are estimated at 14-28 million tonnes per year for the next decade. The island state has no geological formations and land availability for carbon storage is limited. So the novel, fast and energy efficient processes of carbon dioxide sequestration developed by ICES are of particular relevance. Silicate minerals that contain magnesium are used to capture carbon dioxide waste from power plants in two different processes. In the first process, magnetite, hydromagnesite, iron hydroxides and silica all of high purity are produced; these high-value products can be sold giving the carbon capture process economic as well as environmental benefits. In the second process, nesquehonite, iron hydroxides and coarse silica are by-products, all of which are valuable materials in the construction industry and can be used in landfill sites given Singapore’s extensive land reclamation projects. An estimated 18-35 million cubic metres of carbonate sand product could be produced per year which would help to meet the expected 1km2 expansion in landfill per year over the next decade. These new processes provide a promising approach to carbon sequestration because they consume little energy because the actions take place at ambient temperatures and there is no secondary contamination. The required infrastructure investment, moreover, is low. A demonstration unit is presently being designed and set up, and carbon dioxide and energy balance will be analysed. CATALYST FOR CARBON CAPTURE: Many of the carbon dioxide conversion techniques presently in use require expensive metal catalysts and involve protracted procedures. But recent work at the RIKEN Institute has led to the development of a catalyst system that uses waste carbon dioxide as a free source of carbon to produce useful organic materials. For the past two decades N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs), which are molecules, have been used as replacements for metal catalysts or attached to metals to influence their catalytic

UWE HERMANN

Capturing carbon in novel ways

CHEMISTRY

behaviour. NHCs added to the naturally abundant metal copper created a complex which catalysed the addition of carbon dioxide to boron ester molecules. It was hoped that the NHC-copper catalyst could do the same with aromatic compounds – hydrocarbon molecules that contain a benzene ring-like structure – made up of six carbon and six hydrogen atoms. The most efficient way of introducing the carbon dioxide molecule into the aromatic molecule is to replace a carbon to hydrogen (C-H) bond, but this bond is generally unreactive. However, the aromatic compound benzoxazole has a C-H bond situated between a nitrogen atom and an oxygen atom, which makes it easier to activate. The crystal structures of intermediate compounds in this process were analysed, and they showed that a carbon-copper bond was formed on the benzoxazole at the C-H bond site. The carbon dioxide molecule was inserted into this bond, releasing the copper atom and the catalyst was then regenerated. The binding of the NHC to copper in the catalyst was essential in providing electrons to activate the C-H bond of the benzoxazole and make the insertion of carbon dioxide into the aromatic molecule easier. Solid carboxylic acid derivatives and esters were produced in high yields which can be utilised in pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals and dyes. Further experiments will adjust the catalyst complex and reaction conditions, so that they can be used for other aromatic carbon molecules with less reactive C-H bonds.

For further information contact: Carbon sequestration processes using magnesium silicate minerals: Dr Bu Jie Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: Bu_Jie@ices.a-star.edu.sg New catalyst for carbon capture: Dr Zhaomin Hou Organometallic Chemistry Laboratory RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: houz@riken.jp


18

CHEMISTRY

GEREON MEYER

Improved catalyst for vehicle exhausts A novel approach has been applied by researchers at the National Institute for Materials Science, Japan, to develop a new catalytic metal material that combats performance loss at high temperatures. This will result in the reduced use of rare metals. Metal catalysts are often used in environmental and energy technologies, such as for the removal of toxic gases from automobile exhaust emissions. At high temperatures, however, the catalytic converters experience thermal agglomeration – with catalyst particles fusing at high temperatures – resulting in fewer active sites for catalytic reactions to occur, and consequently reducing performance. To overcome this problem often sizeable amounts of rare metals, including platinum, palladium and rhodium, are applied to inject excess active sites in the catalyst. The NIMS team developed a “metallic cell” which resists thermal agglomeration up to ten times better than that of conventional materials. The threedimensional shape of the material was altered at the nano-scale, to create metal spheres of 1/100mm in diameter, surrounded by a thin cell wall containing pores to enable substances and energy to pass through to the cell from the atmosphere. The cell wall protects the cell, resulting in excellent long-term catalytic properties at high temperatures. The “metallic cell” was synthesised by precipitating a platinum film onto the surface of polystyrene powder, and then heating the material to 500ºC to vaporise the polystyrene. This left a hollow topology and small pores were created in the platinum film where the polystyrene gas escaped from the material. This is a simple method which can be applied to other metals used for catalytic activity. One example is rhodium which has high NOx purification activity but is very expensive. This technology is not just restricted for use in exhaust gas catalysts. The excellent heat resistance and high flexibility of the technology makes it suitable for use in other environmental and energy applications, such as fuel cell technology, to reduce the quantity of rare metals that are required.

Powering magnet strength for use in hybrid vehicles

For further information contact: Dr Hideki Abe, Dr Katsuhiko Ariga Environmental Remediation Materials Center National Institute for Materials Science Email: abe.hideki@nims.go.jp Email: ariga.katsuhiko@nims.go.jp

MIKE ROBERTS

A new method to increase the magnetic strength of neodymium magnets without requiring much use of rare elements has been developed by the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), Japan. The development has practical applications in the production of neodymium magnets suitable for use in hybrid vehicles. Neodymium magnets are one of the strongest types of permanent magnet made from an alloy of neodymium (Nd), iron (Fe) and boron (B), with the chemical formula Nd2Fe14B. Neodymium magnet powder is made up of ultrafine crystals of about 250 nanometres in size. The coercivity of a magnet is the strength of its magnetic field. But in the case of neodymium magnets the coercivity decreases as temperature rises, making them unsuitable for use in hybrid vehicles whose motors combine an internal combustion engine and electric motors with operating temperatures reaching up to 200ºC. However, neodymium magnets can be modified to heighten coercivity at higher temperatures by using large amounts of the heavy element dysprosium (Dy). Since dysprosium is rare – and in order to meet the increasing demand for high coercivity neodymium magnets – the amount of Dy used should be reduced to less than 10 per cent that of neodymium instead of up to 40 per cent. One method to reduce the dysprosium used sees the element being diffused from the surface of the magnet and only neodymium at the grain boundaries actually substituted with dysprosium. But the NIMS innovation increases neodymium magnet coercivity without using any dysprosium. The chemistry of the crystal grain boundaries is modified by decoupling the ferromagnetic interactions between crystal grains. A neodymium-copper alloy is used which has a lower melting point than the neodymium magnet, at 550ºC. The melted neodymium-copper alloy is diffused along grain boundaries, increasing the neodymium concentration at the crystal grain boundaries. This increases grain coercivity by 20 per cent, without requiring the use of the rare element dysprosium. For further information contact: Dr Kazuhiro Hono International Research Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA) National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: kazuhiro.hono@nims.go.jp


19

CHEMISTRY

Conducting energy at low temperatures

MUHAMMAD BAHTIAR MASIDIN

Fuel-cell technology exploits the properties of materials to generate power both efficiently and sustainably. Research projects at the National Institute for Materials Science, Japan, and Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia, have focused on improving the properties of materials used in fuel-cells, enabling cheaper production and a wider range of applications. Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are efficient and environmentally friendly electro-chemical devices that convert chemical energy in fuels (e.g. methanol, ethanol or liquefied petroleum gas) into electrical energy. SOFCs contain a solid oxide electrolyte, a material that conducts the movement of ions between electrodes, which generates an electric current. SOFCs make attractive energy sources because they are efficient at converting fuel into electrical energy by a clean and reliable process. However, their high operating temperatures need to be reduced to below 700ºC for practical applications, and to below 450ºC for use in smaller portable electronic devices. Researchers at NIMS have found a method of manufacturing the electrolyte “yttrium-doped barium zirconate” (BZY) that has shown the largest proton conductivity reported at 350°C for any oxide material. Conventional methods of converting powdered BZY into a form usable in fuel cells reduce the material’s conductivity, but in an alternative approach, the team at NIMS used “pulsed laser deposition” to produce a highly ordered BZY film. This film not only displayed the largest proton conductivity values ever reported for BZY, but also practically applicable levels of conductivity at temperatures as low as 350°C. The pulsed laser deposition method is not suitable for mass production of BZY film, so the team also developed two types of manufacturable electrolytes based on BZY that operate at intermediate temperatures (500-650ºC). Both electrolytes have excellent chemical stability making them suitable for long term use in fuel cell devices. SOFCs are already used in stationary energy production applications, though their cost prohibits widespread use. Enrico Traversa, who leads the project, explains: “Reducing the operating temperature allows first of all to reduce SOFC costs and improve the lifetime. Moreover, miniaturisation can allow the use of SOFCs in portable electronic devices.” Substituting SOFCs for the Li batteries found in laptops, mp3 players and mobile phones would provide much better

energy efficiency, and avoid the need to plug in and charge up. Further research is planned to develop electrode materials that function well at reduced temperatures. ELECTROLYTES FOR HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS: Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA are looking at another type of fuel cell technology that utilises conductive ceramics and hydrogen as fuel. Hydrogenpowered fuel cells are a desirable alternative to some existing technologies since their only by-product is water, providing a greener method of producing energy through electrochemical devices. The study is looking at the effect of replacing cerium with zirconium in ceramic electrolytes. It is known that such ceramics can display high conductivity when supplied with hydrogen at temperatures above 400°C. Substituting zirconium at cerium sites has been reported to affect both the crystalline structure and the proton conductivity of the material, thus the project aims to examine the correlation between these variables and find the optimum level of zirconium doping to enhance conductivity. This study will add new knowledge on the understanding of crystal structures and conductivity enhancement, and the optimised electrolytes will benefit a range of fuelcell applications from the automotive industry to electricity generators.

For further information contact: BZY electrolyte films: Dr Enrico Traversa International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA) National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: Traversa.Enrico@nims.go.jp Electrolytes for hydrogen fuel cells: Hamidi bin Abd Hamid Faculty of Applied Sciences Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: hamidi@perlis.uitm.edu.my


CHEMISTRY

20

MARIO ROBERTO DURAN ORTIZ

Bioethanol from plant waste In the pursuit of a greener planet where traditional energy sources are depleting, bioethanol offers a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. Research projects at the A*STAR Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), Singapore, and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak have been improving production methods and finding sustainable ways of converting bioethanol into useful products. The use of food crops as a source of bioethanol is controversial because of demands to feed an increasing global population. But plant biomass which is a readily available waste product from other industries, including agricultural residues, is a viable alternative. Plant biomass is made up of complex sugars and a conventional method of producing ethanol from such biomass is to use the yeast S. cerevisiae, which converts the sugar xylulose into ethanol. However, 70-80 per cent of the sugar content in plant biomass consists not of xylulose but of xylose. Being unable to produce the correct enzyme, the yeast is unable to digest the xylose resulting in low ethanol yield. Researchers at ICES have overcome this problem by using modified E.coli bacteria which overexpress the gene for producing the desired enzyme “xylose isomerase”. Since the xylulose produced is simultaneously converted to ethanol by the yeast this is an easy and cost effective method of increasing ethanol yield. FUEL FROM SAGO: At Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, a 1,000 litre pilot plant has been designed for the production of ethanol from sago hampas, the solid waste by-product of the sago palm industry. The plant converts the starch and cellulose into sugars by a process called hydrolysis, in which water breaks up the molecules. The resulting sugars are fermented into ethanol, and since 50-60 per cent of the sugars in the hampas are recovered the results from this pilot plant

are promising for commercialisation. The research aims to produce bioethanol as a fuel additive for petrol-driven cars since an 18 per cent bioethanol addition to fuel does not require cars to undergo engine modifications. Future research will investigate the use of sago waste to produce biodiesel, and the use of the bioethanol plant to produce lactic acid, which is an expensive pharmaceutical commodity. PLASTICS’ PRODUCTION: Researchers at ICES are also investigating the use of bioethanol in the production of chemicals and plastics. Ethylene, a key building block in the production of many plastics, is currently produced from crude oil products in a very energy intensive process which emits 180 million tonnes of carbon dioxide worldwide. Ethylene can be produced sustainably by the catalysed dehydration of bioethanol, though the process is still energy intensive and the yield is low. The researchers have developed a new catalyst “phosphorus modified zeolite” which has been found to give ethylene yields of more than 98 per cent for 450 hours at relatively low reaction temperatures. For further information contact: Xylose isomerisation and yeast fermentation: Dr Liu Zhibin Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: liu_zhibin@ices.a-star.edu.sg Production of bioethanol from sago: Prof. Dr Kopli Bujang Faculty of Resource Science and Technology Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Email: bkopli@pps.unimas.my Chemicals and plastics from bioethanol: Dr Kanaparthi Ramesh Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: Kanaparthi_ramesh@ices.a-star.edu.sg


21

US AIR FORCE

Metallic oxides display thermoelectric potential

CHEMISTRY

K. ONG

Thermoelectric properties have been found in two metallic materials by researchers at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), Singapore. Platinum cobalt oxide (PtCoO2) and palladium cobalt oxide (PdCoO2) have been discovered to possess strong thermoelectric properties. This attribute enables them to directly convert a temperature difference into an electric voltage, as charge carriers within the material move from hot to cold areas of the material. The reverse process is also possible, with electrical potential being converted into heat. As these unique materials are oxides, they can be used for thermoelectric function in highly oxidising environments. Thermoelectric materials can have applications in clean energy technology and be used to generate electricity by harnessing solar heat or waste heat from industrial plants and cars. They are used to power spacecraft and can provide lowcost cooling solutions in consumer products. This project opens up a new area of thermoelectric research, and it is hoped the results will provide a model to investigate theories of electron and heat transport in metals. Future research will focus on the magnetic, optical and transport properties of these metal oxide materials. For further information contact: Dr Ong Phuong Khuong Institute of High Performance Computing Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: ongpk@ihpc.a-star.edu.sg Thermoelectric materials are used in space engineering

Environmentally friendly fire retardant was also superior to the second generation retardants beyond 400ºC. Further analysis indicated that the polymer also acts as a heat sink, releasing water at 150-500ºC. A standard flame spread test showed that the flame spread of PAK was less than half that of conventional second generation flame retardants and unlike them, no smoke was formed. The PAK polymer could have wide application as a fire retardant additive in coating formulations, foams, plastics and fibres. It could also be used as an additive in intumescent materials that swell on exposure to heat to form an insulating barrier for use in structural steel, shipping pallets, fire shields for automotive fuel tanks, and in airplanes to provide resistance to ignition. TANZANIA

A fire retardant polymer which offers greater performance and environmental benefits compared to conventional additives presently in use has been discovered by researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), Singapore. Many of the halogenated organic compounds traditionally used to make fire retardants have been banned in developed countries because of their negative environmental effects. The second generation of fire retardants utilise compounds containing phosphate and nitrogen but these also generate toxic gases when exposed to flames and heighten the dripping hazard posed by plastics. Research at ICES could meet the demands for a fire retardant that doesn’t release toxic gases or cause a plasticising effect. Char is the solid material that is left after the initial stage of combustion. In the polymer poly (aralkyl ketone) (PAK) there was high char production of 60 per cent at 800ºC, unusual for an organic polymer which is composed of aromatic and aliphatic units. Char was formed at low temperatures, allowing it to form a stable protective blanket layer. The stability of char produced

For further information contact: Dr A. Parthiban Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: aparthiban@ices.a-star.edu.sg


22

CHEMISTRY

HIROSHI SATO

Schematic representation of a porous polymer network of aryl azide and aryl nitrene molecules

Bending polymers to build muscles The discovery of revolutionary light responsive polymer materials that can be turned on and off when exposed to ultraviolet light represents a breakthrough in molecular design. The research at the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute opens new doors for a diverse range of technologies including artificial muscles, solar cells, sensors and purifiers. In one project it was found that a photosensitive polymer film bends when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light and relaxes again under visible light. This occurs because the material’s molecules are assembled into a large and highly ordered three-dimensional structure. It has previously been impossible to create this transformation, but now recent research offers an attractive way of designing materials and devices with novel uses. The photosensitive film was made up of “polymer brushes”, cylindrically shaped molecules that comprise a polymethacrylate backbone in the middle and outstretched side chains. Inserted into these side chains were photoreactive azobenzene molecules, which are made up of two benzene rings joined by a pair of nitrogen atoms. The polymer brushes were formed into a film by melting them at 130ºC and sandwiching them between two Teflon sheets that had been drawn tight in one direction. The tension in the Teflon sheet orients the Teflon’s internal structure so that the molecules are all aligned along a single axis, which acts as a template for the molten polymer brushes in between. The polymer side chains align horizontally to the Teflon, pulling the polymer brush upright and perpendicular to it. As all the polymer brushes align in the same way, it creates a repeating three dimensional arrangement which is “hot pressed” at 115ºC.

When they are irradiated with ultraviolet light, the structure of the azobenzene molecules in the side chains change, causing the molecule to deform and therefore the side chain to react, converting the light energy into a mechanical force. As the side chains are all aligned, when those at the surface were hit by the UV light, all the side chains curled up together causing the film to bend. This reaction is reversible and when visible light, which is of a different wavelength to UV light, was used to irradiate the film it reverted to its original shape. It is expected that the polymer film technique can be used with other polymer brushes that contain similar side chains. The technology could have application in creating artificial muscles and future research will experiment with cross-linking side chains to prevent the structure from becoming disordered with repeated curling and relaxing. This would improve the lifetime of a film and artificial muscle. Other potential applications to be assessed include constructing highly efficient thin layer solar cells. STRUCTURAL POROUS STABILITY: In a second project a porous polymer material containing highly reactive photosensitive molecules that can be turned on and off using UV light was developed. The polymer had an interlinked network structure constructed from aryl azide molecules. These molecules are relatively inactive but when irradiated with UV light, they produce aryl nitrene molecules which are highly reactive. This occurrence creates a dense set of reactive nanoscale pores. Even when a significant proportion of the dormant aryl azide molecules were converted into aryl nitrene molecules, the underlying porous network maintained structural stability. The activation of these molecules gives the material new functionality. A porous material has a large surface area making it useful for accelerating chemical reactions and for gas storage. After irradiation, the polymer’s oxygen storage capacity increased by a factor of 29. The aryl nitrene molecules have also been seen to react with carbon monoxide gas, opening up technological possibilities of using this material to detect or filter out this dangerous gas. Other reactive molecules may be activated in this manner, giving the potential for a variety of gases to be captured or converted. Further research is however required to make this technology useful. Although the activity of the nitrene molecules can be turned on and off with the use of UV light, the reactions that take place are not reversed, and gas molecules cannot be released. A main focus of future research will be in making this material reusable. For further information contact: Dr Takuzo Aida Functional Soft Matter Research Group RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: aida@macro.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp STRUCTURAL POROUS STABILITY: Dr Ryotaro Matsuda ERATO Kitagawa Integrated Pores Project Japan Science and Technology Agency Email: ryotaro.matsuda@kip.jst.go.jp Dr Susumu Kitagawa The Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, Kyoto University Email: kitagawa@icems.kyoto-u.ac.jp


23

COMPUTERS

MATT HOWARD. Inset: ZAERETH

Crunching data at light speed By combining the sciences of photonics and electronics faster and more compact computers can be devised. Photonics offers light-speed processing while electronics delivers ever more miniature machines. A team from the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), Singapore, has proposed a model that overcomes the restrictions of miniaturisation that photonics demands, while researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi MARA have been improving applications of the element germanium in converting optical signals to electrical impulses. In photonics light can be used to reproduce the functionality of electronics at much higher speeds. However, while it is possible to make nanometre-size electronic devices, diffraction limits the size of optical components to approximately one micrometre. To overcome this technological limitation researchers at IHPC have proposed a theoretical device that exploits hybrid particles of light and electrical charge. Particles of light can become coupled with oscillating electrons at the surface of a metal to create hybrid particles called “surface plasmon polaritons�, or SPPs. Since SPPs oscillate at very high frequencies they possess the potential for intriguing applications in communications, information processing and sensing because they could enable the rapid transfer of large volumes of data. Furthermore, in the application of SPPs, it is possible for light to propagate along sub-100 nanometre tracks and be focused into very small volumes, overcoming the size limitations that photonics imposes. Scientists, however, have as yet been unable to find a way of efficiently capturing SPPs. The device proposed by IHPC would efficiently convert an optical signal carried by the SPPs into electrical current by use of a pair of metallic nanorods. The gap between the two nanorods would focus the power of the SPPs, amplifying the optical energy just like the body of a guitar amplifies

sound waves. The enhanced optical signal would suffice to generate a current in the material germanium which can then be processed by subsequent electrical circuits. By allowing information to be transferred optically and then processed electrically, the device would take full advantage of both photonic and electronic technologies. Researchers at the Nano-Optoelectronics Research Lab, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and NANO-SciTech Centre, Universiti Teknologi MARA, meanwhile, have also been studying the use of germanium in combining electronics and photonics. Germanium, like silicon, is a cheap and readily available semiconducting material. It also has unique optical properties at the nano-scale, making it useful for applications in photonics. As high-performance computing systems expand in speed and capability, the level of interconnection within the systems increases, raising temperature intensity being generated and consequently escalating the requirement for heat removal. To overcome the difficulty of achieving cost-effective heat removal, ultra-efficient communication links within the systems can be achieved by replacing copper wires with high-speed optical interconnects. Germanium is an ideal material for use in such interconnects because a current can be induced in germanium under exposure to light. In order to improve its applications in the interface between electronics and photonics, the researchers are exploring novel ways of growing germanium nanostructures. For further information contact: Plasmon detector: Dr Bai Ping Institute of High Performance Computing Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: baiping@ihpc.a-star.edu.sg Germanium nanostructures: Alhan Farhanah Abd. Rahim Faculty of Electrical Engineering Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: alhan570@ppinang.uitm.edu.my


COMPUTERS

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ALEXANDERALUS

The material graphene is a two dimensional, hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms

Atomic boost for electronics The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2010 was awarded for experiments on graphene, a two-dimensional film of carbon (picture above) which is remarkably strong and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. In order to pinpoint the unique properties of graphene and realise the promise it offers as a next-generation electronic element, researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science are focusing on investigating the conductivity of graphene and producing the world’s smallest electronic components. Graphene is the thinnest atomic film on Earth, consisting of a one layer lattice of carbon atoms, and possessing extraordinary metallic-like conductivity. It has been proposed as a solution to the limitations that are expected to surface in the continuing miniaturisation of electronic devices. The chemical and structural properties of semiconductor materials such as silicon mean that adequate current control is expected to be impossible after a certain level of miniaturisation. Hence, the conductive properties of graphene are of keen interest. However, to develop miniature switching devices using graphene the film requires a bandgap. Electronic switching devices function because the existence of a bandgap in semiconductors denotes that a current will only flow if enough voltage is supplied, whereas in conductors such as graphene a current can flow at any voltage.

Theoretically, it should be possible to introduce a bandgap and thus attain semiconductor characteristics by applying a perpendicular electrical field to two layers of graphene. However, while this process had been demonstrated in optical research, there have been no observations of a bandgap for the most important properties of electrical conductivity, leading to a worldwide debate about graphene’s “missing gap”. By developing a novel method of applying an electrical field with the highest efficiency in the world, the researchers were able to conduct a clear investigation into the characteristics of a graphene bi-layer. As a result, the physical factors necessary for the appearance of the missing gap were elucidated, and the results discovered are not only relevant to graphene but to any conductor in which a bandgap can be introduced. The results indicate that it is possible to produce devices where the bandgap can be controlled, and the researchers have been fabricating basic logic devices utilising graphene. They have been able to produce a circuit component, an inverter, which demonstrates excellent switching characteristics compared with standard devices because of the enhanced current control which graphene offers. Further research is planned to reveal greater latent properties of graphene and to develop smaller and more efficient electronic devices to replace those relying on semiconductors. For further information contact: Dr Kazuhito Tsukagoshi International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA), National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: tsukagoshi.kazuhito@nims.go.jp


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Brainy computers A research group led by Dr Anirban Bandyopadhyay from Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science has succeeded in creating the world’s first "evolutionary circuit", emulating processes similar to those of the human brain. By using an organic molecular layer as a processor, the group created a system in which information processing circuits selfevolve in a manner similar to human neurons. The molecular processor has the distinctive features of allowing massively parallel processing and the ability to “heal” itself. While the world’s fastest supercomputers process bits sequentially, the newly developed circuit is capable of instantaneously processing up to 300 bits at a time. Furthermore, the self-organising ability of the organic molecular layer provides a self-healing property not found in any existing computer, so that if a component is lost, its functions are taken over by another circuit. To demonstrate these unique features the group simulated two natural phenomena: diffusion of heat and the evolution of cancer cells. The properties that distinguish the evolutionary circuit mean that in future it may be possible to solve complex problems currently beyond conventional computers, such as predicting natural disasters and epidemics of disease. For further information contact: Dr Anirban Bandyopadhyay Advanced Nano Characterisation Center National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: Anirban.Bandyopadhyay@nims.go.jp

Cooling computers

COMPUTERS

Resistance of manganites A characteristic of some materials – whose electrical resistance dramatically alters under the influence of a magnetic field – is attracting attention because it offers the potential of developing low-power plus more compact alternatives to conventional electronic devices. Research by scientists at RIKEN and Stanford University has revealed clues on the microscopic processes underlying this property, which until now has been poorly understood. In materials such as manganites which undergo “colossal magnetoresistance” (CMR) a small change in a strong magnetic field can trigger an enormous change in resistance. This remarkable transition means that such materials can transform from being purely electrical insulators to metallic-like conductors, suggesting that they could be used to develop radically new memory and switching devices. Having previously produced manganite films capable of undergoing this transition, the team discovered that filamentary metallic domains emerge in the films when subjected to a very powerful magnetic field. In other words, interconnected filaments of particles in the manganite films were aligned in the same direction due to crystallographic strain, providing the first ever evidence of a microscopic mechanism for CMR. This discovery marks a major advance in the race toward new memory and switching devices whose impact promises to revolutionise computing technology. For further information contact: Dr Masashi Kawasaki Functional Superstructure Team RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: m.kawasaki@riken.jp

For further information contact: Mazlan Mohamed Faculty of Mechanical Engineering Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: mazlan547@ppinang.uitm.edu.my

ROB LAVINKSY/iROCKS.COM

The issue of heat management is becoming more acute as traditional methods of cooling computers are too bulky for smaller, lighter and more powerful electronic devices. In a research project at Universiti Teknologi MARA an alternative way of cooling computers by using plastic leaded chip carriers (PLCCs) is being investigated. In the experimental setup, instead of using integrated computer chips, the chips were contained in PLCCs and placed on top of the motherboard of a computer. The whole system was placed in a wind tunnel and the temperature monitored over time. It was found that in comparison to standard circuit boards, the experiment reduced chip temperatures and the overall thermal resistance of the computer. Moreover, when the chips were made from nano-silver rather than epoxy, temperatures fell further. Given that the durability of electronic devices is often dictated by thermal management the research enhances the manufacture of better performing devices in the future.

Manganite in mineral form


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COMPUTERS

Making the most of wireless networks

As Asian societies become increasingly digitally connected there is growing controversy about information security and privacy in general. Canada’s International Development Research Centre is funding research teams in Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand to explore a range of emerging concerns that overlap individual rights, national security issues and business interests. Privacy and security are almost always presented by governments as mutually exclusive principles that require trade-offs. How the tensions between these two competing principles are reconciled in the digital age is a matter of growing urgency especially as governments and companies now possess the ability to capture and store data on every facet of an individual’s digital life. In Asia, home to the greatest number of internet and mobile-phone users, privacy protection is scant and human rights are fast eroding, often in the name of enhanced national security concerns. Researchers in India, for example, are examining how adoption of a Universal Identity Card, with the concurrent potential for increased surveillance, will affect human rights. In the Philippines a research team is investigating the interception of citizens’ mobile communications. Research in Pakistan and Nepal is focusing on the increased digital tracking of the populations because of heightened security anxieties in these countries. All the researchers are reviewing existing laws and practices, and suggesting policyrelevant recommendations and interventions.

The sheer volume of digital communications is exacerbating problems of spectrum scarcity and transmission security. Research conducted at the A*STAR Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), Singapore, and involving co-workers at Nanyang Technological University, applied information theory to demonstrate the best way to securely share wireless spectrum. An increase in wireless communication has led to a decrease in available spectrum over which wireless transmissions are sent and received. One solution to spectrum scarcity is to establish “cognitive radio” networks whereby transmitters and receivers detect which communication channels are in use and switch over to utilise vacant channels. Cognitive radio networks allow licensed “primary” users, such as mobile carriers and television broadcasters, to share the idle spectrum with unlicensed “secondary” operators such as private users, ensuring no wireless spectrum is underused. However, cognitive radio networks do not solve the problem of transmission security, a major concern when communicating confidential information over a wireless network that others can electronically tap into. To tackle this problem the research used information theory, a branch of applied mathematics, to demonstrate the most secure way to operate a cognitive radio network. Information theory can be used to study transmission rates in different communication channels in a network, as well as to study the capacities of legitimate and illegitimate communication channels, making it applicable to both spectrum scarcity and security issues. Since information theory is a valuable tool for looking at both issues, it is highly useful for reconciling the two. The researchers found a method of calculating the maximum rate at which information can be securely transmitted between the secondary users over a cognitive radio network. They began by mathematically formulating the complex problem of finding the maximum secure rate of transmission. By developing a novel set of mathematical transformations it was possible to reduce this intractable problem to a sequence of simpler, more manageable problems that are performed routinely on unsecured cognitive radio networks. By making inroads into the problem of transmission security, the research allows the advantages that a cognitive radio network has for spectrum scarcity to be retained. According to lead researcher Dr Liang YingChang, the study of cognitive radio security can be applied broadly because “the results are relevant both for existing cellular wireless networks and for new technologies like femtocells, which broadcast cellular signals to indoor users over spectrum that is shared with outdoor users."

BORIS VELDHUIJZEN VAN ZANTEN

Securing human rights in the digital age

For further information contact: Gus Hosein Privacy International, UK Email: privacyint@privacy.org Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca

TEDEYTAN

For further information contact: Dr Liang Ying-Chang Institute for Infocomm Research Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: ycliang@i2r.a-star.edu.sg


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C U LT U R E

UNIVERSITI MALAYSIA SARAWAK

Stage craft: special effects bring a thrilling dimension to the opera Periuk Kera Ajaib or Magical Pitcher Plant

Marrying art and technology to rescue Malay opera Can the application of technology rescue Malay opera which is in terminal decline? The 120-year-old art form was the staple entertainment in urban areas up to the 1920s and 1930s. But from then on it declined because of social, economic and political changes in the country; today the art form is alien to a younger generation. Presently there aren’t any professional Malay opera groups in existence and neither are there practitioners who can perform this theatre art in its original form. Research being under taken intends to test and explain whether technology could be an answer towards efforts of preserving Malay opera. Previous studies carried out by theatre scholars such as Rahmah Bujang (1975), Cameons Cantius Leo (1981), Wan Abdul Kadir (1988), Tan Sooi Beng (1993) and Abdul Samat Salleh (1996) had contributed historical knowledge on the development and change of the art form and music and acting. The present research aims to study the applicability and the efficiency of technology, specifically in terms of using pre-recorded

songs and projected backdrops, and promotion and marketing. This effort also examines the performance structure of Malay opera. The introduction of technology would address issues around staging because of the unavailability of skilled artistes or manually operated apparatuses. The research over two years will involve experts in the fields of arts, theatre, music, industrial design, fine arts and arts management. The findings will be presented to the public and audience responses will be collated to test whether the application of technology could assist efforts to preserve and promote Malay operatic traditions. For further information contact: Dr Nur Afifah Vanitha binti Abdullah Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Email: anafifah@faca.unimas.my


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C U LT U R E

ENRICO LLUCH

Digging into the past The discovery of primitive tool artefacts from the Neolithic and Palaeolithic periods in the Philippines will immensely contribute to the understanding of the country’s ancient cultures and potentially promote the development of the rich archaeological sites as lucrative tourist destinations. Such a development could provide a livelihood for local peoples. The artefacts, dating from 14,000 to 10,000 years ago, were excavated by researchers from the Archaeological Studies Program of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. The discovery in the Ille Cave in Dewil Valley, Palawan, in particular, sheds new light on the tools that were in use in pre-historical South-East Asia. Although the artefacts were mostly irregular shaped flakes made up of inferior materials such as andesite – a finegrained volcanic rock – and radiolarite – a compacted siliceous sedimentary rock, microscopic analysis has shown that the tools were employed for a wide range of purposes. The “wear and tear” trace patterns and residual matter on the artefacts revealed they were used to work tougher organic materials such as bone, antler, wood and bamboo. Several of the tools were fitted with handles made from wooden or bamboo shafts and fixed with resinous mastic, showing for the first time that complex composite tools were being manufactured. The use of red ochre pigment in worked shells demonstrated artistic behaviour. Evidence of hide processing was also found. Since many of the archaeological digs have focused on Palawan Island, little is known about other histories such as that of Mindanao Island. This may be due to its southern archipelagic location, the security conflict there and a general lack of interest within the archaeological community. The lack of a co-ordinated archaeological approach across the Philippines also poses limits to ascertaining relationships between artefacts found and ethnicity. A well-developed regional strategy will enable a richer, integrated and comprehensive picture of the country’s national history to emerge. Steps, however, are under way to collate more information, with a second project in progress to evaluate archaeological treasures of the Bicol region in south-eastern Luzon. The exercise, drawing on 300 artefacts from published and unpublished materials, archaeological finds and exhibits from four of Bicol’s museums, will contribute to increasing awareness of heritage, besides developing the role of museums in education and administering of the collections. The

treasures, dating from the 19th century to the Neolithic period, include bangles and bracelets, beads, ceramics, net sinkers, spindle whorls, metal implements, modified shell and bone, stone tools and human remains. Micro analyses to determine their chemical compositions and use-wear studies have been conducted. The ensuing results will help curators to improve restoration and conservation, as well as train museum personnel. In the case of Mindanao a project begun in April 2010 seeks to unearth the archaeological history of the island’s Jasaan municipality. The excavation of colonialera Spanish ruins, including a Jesuit church, municipal hall and cemetery, in Karaang Jasaan (Old Jasaan) in Sitio Cota, Barangay Aplaya, is the first of its kind in northern Mindanao. According to local history, Old Jasaan was the original settlement before the population moved, because of scarce water and infertile soil, to its present location in Barangay Poblacion. The dig, involving 12 trenches, at Karaang Jasaan has unearthed 675 artefacts, among them Qing porcelain, Manila Ware and European Ware from the 18th to the 20th centuries. There has yet been no evidence of an early settlement in the Aplaya region. The project will investigate other sites in Jasaan for older habitation as well as upland areas in the districts or barangays of San Antonio, Danao and I.S. Cruz, and further north in Jasaan where Villabongga Cave and Llausas Rockshelter have been uncovered. The project, besides detecting sites of archaeological significance that need conservation and protection for future studies, will help to enhance understanding of the Philippine national identity and cultural heritage. The historical discoveries will hopefully generate tourist interest and provide a source of livelihood in the areas.

For further information contact: University of the Philippines Diliman Ille Cave lithic artefacts Dr Alfred F. Pawlik Email: alfred.pawlik@up.edu.ph Archaeology of Bicol Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio Email: amragragio@yahoo.com Archaeology of Jasaan Leee Anthony M. Neri Email: leee_anthony.neri@up.edu.ph

UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES DILIMAN


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C U LT U R E

G BARRETTO-TESORO

From death springs new research into life Cemeteries have long been regarded as “dead” spaces. But the Archaeological Studies Programme of the University of the Philippines Diliman views graveyards as “live” spaces because appropriate research could shed light on Filipino culture and values. The study also focuses on materials and structures found in cemeteries and their links to mortuary practices in the past. Cemeteries have been venues of rituals and traditions. They are also places where people interact with the spirit world; visits to graves of loved ones reveal people’s concept of life and death. The research aims to demonstrate that cemeteries are alive and dynamic places through the analyses of burial structure, design, sculpture, epitaphs and location. Initial analyses show a variety of representations: private graves depict the identity, age, sex, and trade of the deceased and his or her social persona in life. Group burials of Masons, Hebrews, firemen, military personnel, American educationists and Boy Scouts emphasise their social affiliation, ethnicity, and work association. The graves of infants are poignant because of the epitaphs, primarily grief and pity, and the designs. In the Heroes’ Cemetery (Libingan ng mga Bayani) conformity was the norm but

the presence of a few crosses testified to how families viewed their deaths. Since the death of a patriot could be surrounded in political controversy the appearance of the burial structure and the absence of symbols reflect their revolutionary activities. Graves also play a heritage role, especially those of political figures such as Ramon Magsaysay, the third President of the Republic of the Philippines who died in a plane crash in 1957. The tombs of revolutionary leaders, literary figures and stars of the entertainment world evolve to become historical icons. Mausoleums, for example, define class and social status of significant families and personalities in the history of the country. Their architectural style denotes the socio-political context of the era. Pet cemeteries explore people’s relationship with animals. The sightings of ghosts or apparitions play a part in popular myth. The research concept began in 2008 but funding was only sourced in 2010 from the Creative and Research Scholarship Programme of the University of the Philippines System.

For further information contact: Dr Grace Barretto-Tesoro Archaeological Studies Programme University of the Philippines Diliman Email: mdbarretto@up.edu.ph


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C U LT U R E

RAMON HORMILLO

A look through the lens at Filipino culture

VOICE OF THE OPPRESSED: Widening the aperture to include multiple subjects, the Mendiola Narratives project by Joel F. Ariate Jr records personal accounts of those involved in protest actions in Mendiola Street, Manila (picture above). The street has witnessed regular violent confrontations between protesters and government troops. The project records the testimonies of those who participated in marches between 1945 and the present. The memories of mobilisations and confrontations with the State are now accessible on-line at: http://mendiolanarratives.blogspot.com/. The participants describe their struggle to voice their opinions under regimes that muzzled dissent or readily resorted to violence when opposed. The project reconstructs the narratives around four major themes: constructing Mendiola as a space for contesting the State; memory and textual representations of Mendiola; social movements’ repertoire of collective action in Mendiola; and battles over Mendiola in the realm of memory and history. CULTURAL PARADIGM: In another examination of the country’s past, Raul C. Navarro examines the role of Imelda Marcos as “Grand Architect” of a cultural redesign imposed upon the people. Remembered for her ostentatious tastes and vast collection of shoes, she may seem an unlikely muse, but for Navarro her role offers a route to his larger project. Music and the New Society: Restructuring the Filipino Culture and Society looks at how arts and politics can recreate a society through material

CELLULOID TO DIGITAL: Two separate studies examine the country’s recent history through the perspective of celluloid. The Filipino Cinema of the 90s, and the Political Economy of Digital Cinema in the Philippines 1999-2009 inspect their chosen decades in very different ways. The first is a book project, edited by Nicanor G. Tiongson and is the third in a series, compiling articles, reviews and interviews by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino – the first film critics’ organisation in the country. The series celebrate the major achievements of Filipino movies of the 1990s, with articles focusing on cinematic trends, issues and themes during the period. The reviews analyse representative or outstanding examples of genre films for commercial consumption and productions of the “new cinema” with artistic integrity. Interviews with major directors active during the decade and a filmography of movies shown in the country from January 1, 1990, to December 31, 1991, with production data and synopses of most of the films are included. The second study looks at how and why digital cinema emerged in the Philippines between 1999 and 2009 and what aesthetic forms it generated. The work traces the technological shift from celluloid to digital film-making in the country. It sheds light on the political economy of digital cinema in the Philippines by elucidating how such films are produced, distributed, and exhibited. The study examines the aesthetic tendencies that emerged from the shift to digital movie making and explores the notions of independence that arose from the introduction of digital cinema in the Philippines. For further information contact: University of the Philippines Diliman: E Paglalayag sa mga Gunita: Prof. Elyrah Salanga Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature Email: lyrahbelle@yahoo.com Mendiola Narratives: Joel F. Ariate Jr Third World Studies Centre Email: jfariate@up.edu.ph Music and the New Society: Dr Raul C. Navarro College of Music Email: rcnavarro_music@yahoo.com The Filipino Cinema of the 90s: Dr Nicanor G. Tiongson College of Mass Communication Email: adarnatucat@yahoo.com The Political Economy of Digital Cinema in the Philippines, 1999-2009: Dr Eloisa May P. Hernandez Department of Art Studies Email: eloindigoart@gmail.com

DATU JHAMER ABAG

Fragmented and colourful; the recent cultural challenges faced by the Philippines are being investigated in several research outputs from University of the Philippines Diliman. From 1945 onwards, via the cultural rebirth of 1965, to digital film-making in the present, these projects question notions of art and politics, memories, muses and cultural identity. E Paglalayag sa mga Gunita is a personal journey rediscovering the history of a poet-journalist with the aim of understanding how writers interact when they are persecuted for their political beliefs. Alfrredo N. Salanga helped to found literary organisations such as the Philippine Literary Arts Council and the Manila Critics Circle, and received many literary awards for his creative works and journalism. His son Elyrah Salanga attempts to re-define and re-mould his father’s craft in a country where freedom of expression is highly valued. The work aims to re-introduce Alfrredo Salanga to lovers of the written word by de-mystifying the image of a poet-journalist in a developing country.

culture, in particular how music has been used as propaganda to renew the political and cultural outlook of the Filipino. From 1965, with Imelda playing the roles of muse and "mother" and her husband President Ferdinand Marcos in the role of "father", the country found itself on a road to change. This is the first in-depth inquiry into the role music and culture played in the orchestrated restructuring of Filipino culture that will hopefully trigger a debate on the wider role of arts in the transformation of the Philippines.


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ENVIRONMENT

PER EDIN

Reef databases key to protecting coral

How ocean currents sway coastal seagrass

Protecting coral reefs will pay dividends because they comprise a unique habitat in the ecosystem. ReefBase, a global database on coral reefs housed at The WorldFish Center in Penang, Malaysia, will provide a vital source of information about the location, status, threats, monitoring and management of coral reef resources. Coral reefs cover only 0.2 per cent of the world’s oceans but are thought to hold more species per unit area than any other global ecosystem. These “rainforests of the sea” provide an important natural resource to coastal communities as a source of income, food, and livelihood. Coral reefs also protect coastal regions and act as climate change indicators, while goods and services derived from reefs are estimated at $375 billion each year. However, coral reefs – which are ultra-sensitive to even minute changes in water temperature and salinity – are easily vulnerable to damage from disease, pollution, overfishing and the perceived threat of climate change. The collation and sharing of reef data can be used to improve research and better protect reef resources, providing the motivation for The WorldFish Center’s ReefBase project. The databases and knowledge materials developed through the ReefBase project are free to use and easy to access. They include access to publications on 10,000 reef ecosystems covering over 100 countries, and the information can be displayed on interactive GIS maps. The databases complement the global marine databanks such as SeaLifeBase and FishBase which hold information on species’ distribution, ecology and biology.

Seagrass ecosystems are important but little studied in Thailand and the surrounding region. Prince of Songkla University’s Seaweed and Seagrass Research Unit, Thailand, is determining patterns of seagrass diversity with respect to ocean currents and climate change. On Thailand’s southern reaches, the Gulf of Thailand coast is influenced by the currents of the South China Sea, whereas the Andaman coast is influenced by the North Equatorial current. Intensive field collections of model organisms, including Padina and Halimeda species of seaweeds, are currently being harvested to study species composition and population genetics of both coastal communities with regard to the influence of the respective ocean currents. Understanding the patterns of biodiversity and genetic distribution of seaweeds and seagrasses in the region will be useful when making decisions for their conservation and management of protected areas. Morphological and anatomical variations in common species of seagrass are also being investigated, to determine whether environmental changes affect seagrass biology and adaptation. This study will contribute to those being carried out in collaboration with New Zealand, Belgium, USA and Japan. The extended studies will help to determine geographic distributions and genetic variations of the same species across a wide landscape.

For further information contact: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org

For further information contact: Dr Anchana Prathep Seaweed and Seagrass Research Unit Prince of Songkla Unversity, Thailand Email: anchana.p@psu.ac.th


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ENVIRONMENT

CHALLIYAN

Mangroves could be a carbon money-spinner Two projects by The WorldFish Center seek to enhance understanding of the value provided by the mangrove forests of the Solomon Islands and the delta wetlands of China’s Yellow River. The aim is to increase awareness of these ecosystems, their importance to local communities and identify sustainable management options to enhance their provision and intrinsic value as carbon sinks. The global area under mangrove forests has decreased by a third since the 1980s although they intrinsically help to protect coastal communities from storm damage. Mangrove conservation will become increasingly important with predicted increases in storms as climate change occurs, particularly in the Solomon Islands. Mangrove forests could also mitigate the damages of climate change by acting as carbon sinks. The novel project in the Solomons has been looking at whether mangrove forests – whether intact or degraded – could be included in carbon offset schemes to secure credits against greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised countries. If viable, the sale of carbon credits could enhance livelihood opportunities for rural communities, reduce poverty and enable investment in health and education provision to improve future prospects. Such a monetary value would encourage conservation efforts and spur the restoration of degraded mangrove swamps and forests. On the ground, local communities are being educated in the value of the mangrove ecosystem. At the official level the project is working with the Solomons Government to identify and quantify the potential carbon storage service mangroves provide. Such a guide will help to determine government policy about engaging communities with the international carbon offset market. The project findings will apply to the ecosystem across the Solomons, as well as provide a blueprint for protecting mangrove forests nationwide.

A separate venture looks at increasing local awareness of the importance of delta wetlands as an ecosystem asset. Around Dongying, in China’s northeast Shandong Province, the Yellow River Delta wetlands, although increasing by 18km2 each year, are threatened by reclamation works to support rapid economic growth in the area. Unfortunately, the wetlands are generally regarded as wastelands. The project will also propose sustainable development strategies for the delta. The natural benefits of the delta’s nature reserve, including its role in water regulation and purification, can be quantified and enhanced. Wetlands are moreover a very strong carbon sink, with a carbon sequestration rate per hectare higher than that of tropical mangroves and other tropical forests, and saline conditions in the delta inhibit bacterial production of the greenhouse gas methane. The inclusion of wetlands in carbon offset schemes would be significant for China, which is among the highest greenhouse gas emitters. The health of the delta ecosystem is dependent on a sustained supply of freshwater, but this flow is influenced by land and water use upstream and in the surrounding area. Small rivers and tributaries that supplement the delta are polluted because of agricultural runoff and industrial effluents. Cleaner industries need to be established and enforced to reduce water pollution. The impact of the agriculture industry could be lessened by growing crops that require less water. The carbon impact of aquaculture could be reduced by cultivating species that feed low on the food chain, including algae which will increase carbon uptake as well as fetch a high market price as a health food. Farming shellfish will enhance purification of the coastal waters. Such economic activities could co-exist alongside natural wetland conservation efforts and complement the ecosystem services. The win-win result could result in an efficient green economy in Dongying and could be emulated within China and in deltas and wetlands elsewhere. For further information contact: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org


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The effects of climate change on coastal communities dependent on fisheries and aquaculture cannot be underestimated. To help to design effective policies to assist the people and regions that will be affected, the links between food, livelihood and climate change need to be understood. To better understand these linkages The WorldFish Center is conducting global research focusing on four areas: the vulnerability of different regions since climate change will not have a uniform impact everywhere; examining how fishing communities had responded to the adverse effects of previous natural disasters including climate variability so as to enhance their resilience to future impacts; investigating mitigation strategies such as restoring mangrove cover, introducing carbon offset schemes and implementing aquaculture technology requiring less energy consumption; and, building the capacity of communities that could be affected to respond and adapt. Under the first research theme, the national economies of 132 countries have been examined to determine their vulnerability to climate change impacts on capture fisheries. Parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America were identified as highly vulnerable; two-thirds of these countries are in Africa, where fish provide a substantial portion of all animal protein intake. Since coral reefs are particularly sensitive to climate change, communities within the Coral Triangle, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste have been assessed for their dependence on reefs at a local and national scale. In the Solomon Islands, already facing the brunt of tsunamis and overfishing, the research is examining how fishing communities have been coping with these stresses. A QUEST-Fish project, meanwhile, is looking at how national fisheries systems might respond to climate change under different population, trade, economy and policy scenarios. The Niger River Basin is one of the areas being studied under the second research theme. Here fishing communities are threatened by drought. The study will assist governments to design strategies to enable communities to become resilient as their livelihoods become threatened. From drought to seasonal floodprone areas: in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Mali and Vietnam communities that culture fish on seasonal flood plains are the focus of a study looking at how they have adopted livelihood strategies to cope with severe wet to dry environmental variations. Locally appropriate fishculture technologies where appropriate will be developed. Under research theme three, assessments are being developed to determine the sustainability of Asia’s aquaculture produce for the European market demanding a smaller carbon footprint. The study would help to identify opportunities to reduce energy use and emissions resulting from aquaculture. In Sub-Saharan Africa strategies for integrated agriculture-aquaculture are being developed under

PATRICK DUGAN

Preparing fisher folk to cope after climate change impacts

ENVIRONMENT

research theme four. In Malawi ponds are integrated into smallholder farming systems for more flexible livelihoods, increasing food production and income in drought periods. In Bangladesh and Myanmar work with fishing communities hit by cyclones and those affected by tsunamis elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific has led to developing guidelines for rehabilitation of fisheries and aquaculture following such natural disasters.

For further information contact: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org


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ENVIRONMENT

MOHAMAD HAFIZUL AMIR ABD RASHID

The resulting mix will be tested for its effectiveness in adsorbing lead and cadmium. This study is expected to become a key reference point for other researchers in understanding the chemistry of interactions between heavy metal ions and a bioadsorbent solution produced from plant life.

OMAR MAHARI ANDRE

Tamarind seeds

Natural remedies to clean polluted water Plant based materials are being tested to treat contaminated and polluted water. Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA Pahang and the Pulau Pinang campus, Malaysia, are investigating the adsorption qualities of Neem and tamarind seeds as a green alternative to removing metal ions from waste water. Waste water from industrial estates, agriculture, mining activities and urban overflow is resulting in heavy pollution of Malaysian rivers. The presence of metal ions such as zinc, cadmium, chromium, copper and lead, which are non-biodegradable, is toxic to aquatic life, and need to be separated from the water. One treatment involves adding chemicals called coagulants to the waste water. The metal ions are attracted to the surface of the coagulant by a process called adsorption, forming a precipitate in the water which can then be removed. Two commonly used coagulants are aluminium and iron salts but in developing countries these can be costly and availability could be scarce. Moreover, aluminium residues in treated water have been associated with the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease. In the light of greater environmental awareness, natural alternatives to coagulants have been researched. The tamarind seed, a natural waste product of the plant widely used in cooking and flavouring food, is being investigated to see whether it can adsorb zinc and chromium from waste water. Its effectiveness, optimum dosage and ideal mixing rate are to be tested. The Neem tree, a fast growing native of India and Malaysia, is widely celebrated for its beneficial health values in the Ayurveda system of traditional medicine. But little is known of its adsorption capability. Future research has been outlined for a study into using Neem leaves to remove heavy metal. The leaves will be washed, dried and crushed to powder form before being modified using a chemical known as EDTAD.

Neem trees are common in Malaysia and India

For further information contact: Neem tree Dr Megat Ahmad Kamal Megat Hanafiah Faculty of Applied Sciences Universiti Teknologi MARA, Pahang, Malaysia Email: makmh@pahang.uitm.edu.my Tamarind seeds: Salina Alias Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: salina346@ppinang.uitm.edu.my


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The year 2011 has been declared as the UN International Year of Forests to raise awareness of sustainable management and conservation of the world’s forests. In Malaysia Universiti Teknologi MARA has been investigating an alternative raw material – the common Malaysian roadside tree Petai belalang – as a source of building materials to relieve pressures on standing forests. Researchers have been looking into whether the Petai belalang (Leucaena leucocephala) can be used as a substitute for rubber wood fibres in the manufacture of cement bonded particle boards (CBP). Rubber trees taken from old plantations have been commonly used, but with rising demand from other industries for the wood its prices are expected to soar. The usage of other woods is associated with deforestation. Since Petai belalang is of a similar colour to rubber wood, and is a fast growing tree across South-East Asia, it offers a faster and constant supply of wood fibres for CBP manufacturers. The research has shown that the mechanical and physical properties of Petai belalang CBP are as good as those produced from other woods, and passed the minimum requirements at a relatively low wood particle to cement ratio of 1:1.75. Eight-year-old tree trunks had greater mechanical strength than older ones enabling the material to be harvested much sooner than from rubber trees which take 25 years to mature. Having few current uses, Petai belalang is cheap, and with the lower requirement for costly cement in particle boards made using it, Petai belalang has significant economic potential. For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Dr Hamidah Mohd Saman Faculty of Civil Engineering Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: hamid929@salam.uitm.edu.my

ÉCLUSETTE

Roadside tree a cheap source of wood fibre

ENVIRONMENT

Borneo’s wealth of plant life

MOHAMAD HAFIZUL AMIR ABD RASHID

Over the last five years researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak have identified 19 new species on the island of Borneo. The island of Borneo is widely acknowledged as a mainstay of plant biodiversity. There are an estimated 10,000-12,000 species of flowering plant, or six per cent of the world’s total, with a staggering 50 to 60 per cent of these species restricted to the island. Botanical excursions since 2005 covering Sarawak’s Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, Gunung Api Mulu National Park, Crocker Range National Park, Gunung Murud, the Bau limestone area, Tutuh River, Kota Samarahan, Serian, and Lapok have defined a further 19 new species. The finds include: three new species and five new varieties in the banana family; Alpinia epiphytica – the first species of the genus to be recorded with an epiphytic habit of growing on another plant; and Begonia kurakura – so named not only because its leaves are eaten by the tortoise (kurakura) but its leaves also resemble a tortoise shell. For further information contact: Prof. Dr Isa bin Ipor Faculty of Resource Science and Technology Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Email: ibipor@frst.unimas.my

The fast growing tree Petai belalang


ENVIRONMENT

36

ANNA MAE SUMAYA

Barcoding birds and beasts of the Philippines A pilot study at the University of the Philippines Diliman has marked the beginning of the genetic barcoding of the animal species of the Philippines. The project aims to generate a barcode for each species using a unique DNA sequence obtained from a specific gene fragment which is used as a standard for all animal barcoding. In collaboration with the Philippine Eagle Foundation in 2008, the university acquired equipment to develop a DNA barcoding laboratory, using samples of DNA taken from six bird of prey species held at the Philippine Eagle Centre in Davao City. Work has already begun on barcoding all bird species across the archipelago, as well as that of economically important freshwater fish. It is hoped the project will expand to cover other taxa including mammals and amphibians, and so build a barcode database for the Philippine’s animals. DNA of an unknown species can be easily obtained – from feathers, hair or blood – without harming the animal. After being sequenced, the DNA can be

compared to barcodes held in a database to identify a species. DNA barcoding provides a method of species identification complementary to the use of morphological characteristics which are often limited and give insufficient information for a confident identification. The barcoding exercise will also exhibit biodiversity implications, allowing species with similar morphological traits to be separated out. Unknown species could be easily identified by non-specialists such as law enforcers, enabling them to detect whether a species is endangered and so preventing their illegal trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

For further information contact: Dr Perry S. Ong Institute of Biology University of the Philippines Diliman Email: ongperry@yahoo.com


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Archaeological evidence from up to 14,000 years ago has revealed that climate change, the environment and human activity have had an influence on the vertebrate community groupings of the Philippines. The research also provides a historical perspective on the changing ecology of the Palawan Island. The archipelago is widely considered to be a biodiversity hotspot but little is known of changes in the numbers and types of different species or genetic variations over historic periods. Archaeological studies conducted by the University of the Philippines Diliman in 2007 at a cave site in the Dewil River Valley, North Palawan, identified substantial changes in vertebrate fauna over the last 14,000 years. Evidence of four species now known to be locally extinct was found in the cave’s sediments. Canid bones dating back 10,000 years, thought to be that of the endangered Dhole wild dog (Cuon alpinus) were found, increasing the known biogeographic range of this species into the Philippines archipelago. Bones of the endangered Calamian hog deer (Axis calamianensis), endemic to the islands of Busuanga and Culion to the north of Palawan, have also been identified. The discovery demonstrates the species was once widespread across Palawan before it separated from the other islands after the last Ice Age. Intensive hunting by humans across Palawan could have caused the local extinction of the Calamian breed and another deer species also found. Up to 10,000 years ago the tiger (Panthera tigris) was also present. The archaeological evidence suggests that species’ reductions in geographic range are not just a recent phenomenon caused by hunting and habitat destruction. Instead, these local extinctions began thousands of years ago because of climate change and associated habitat loss. During the Holocene epoch (10,000 years ago) around 70 per cent of Palawan’s landmass was lost as a result of sea levels rising. The research has built a foundation for studies in chronicling Palawan’s historic biodiversity, and changes in mammal distribution resulting from natural and human impacts. For further information contact: Dr Philip J. Piper Archaeological Studies Programme University of the Philippines Diliman Email: Phil_piper2003@yahoo.ie

JEAN-MARIE HULLOT

When tigers roamed the Palawans

ENVIRONMENT

Hydropower threat to Mekong ecosystems

UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES DILIMAN

The proliferation of hydro-electric dams is of concern because their effects on the ecosystem are underestimated. The WorldFish Center has conducted a study into proposed developments along the Mekong River and the dams’ potential impacts on the ecohabitat and the stability of the community. There are serious concerns about the number of dams being proposed for construction along the length of the Mekong River from China to Vietnam. These largescale projects undergo an environmental assessment but the value of ecosystem services on fish biodiversity, particularly in the case of migratory species, is often underestimated. Hydroelectric dams will significantly impact fish biodiversity which in turn will affect local communities dependent on fish for food and income. The study assessed two scenarios of the impact such development would have. The more pessimistic scenario would be that the proposed dams will lead to social disruption for millions of people who will be unable to adapt to their loss of livelihoods. The predicted result is mass migration of people into urban locations. To prevent such a social upheaval an alternative scenario being investigated is to involve and enable communities to adapt to the environmental and economic impacts of generating hydroelectric power. National income derived from exporting power could be re-invested to drive economic diversification for the affected communities. Unfortunately, such a practical approach or initiative has been elusive in and near major rivers of the region where hydropower developments exist. The study suggests research is required into developing innovative solutions to mitigate the loss of ecosystem services. Substantial investment is necessary to provide the peoples of the Mekong with alternative livelihood strategies. The WorldFish Center study was conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Studies in Japan, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand, and the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Cambodia. For further information contact: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org

Mandibles of an extinct deer (a, b, c) and of the Calamian hog deer (d, e, f)


H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

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CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTIOn (mosquito) ANDRES RUEDA (syringe inset)

One vaccine for all dengue viruses A promising method for producing a dengue vaccine has been developed by researchers in Thailand. By genetically modifying the genome of one of four viruses that causes the disease, a vaccine candidate with the potential to provide blanket immunity from all serotypes of the disease-causing agent has been produced. Dengue is a potentially life-threatening tropical disease, endemic in more than 110 countries, and is primarily spread through mosquito bites. It is estimated that nearly 50 million dengue virus infections occur annually in the world, with almost 75 per cent of the cases in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific region. The development of a vaccine for dengue has eluded the efforts of scientists partly because the disease is caused by four closely related viruses. These four “serotypes” are viruses with different genetic sequences, requiring the immune system to produce different antibodies to combat each of them. Any vaccine for dengue must therefore induce the body to produce antibodies specific for each of the four viruses without causing serious illness. To produce non-virulent versions of the dengue viruses, the researchers first put each serotype through a process called “serial passage”. This technique of repeatedly infecting new cells in the laboratory is used to alter the genetic make-up of viruses, and it was found that modifications in the genome of a serotype 2 virus attenuated the virus’ virulence. Using the understanding from this non-virulent form of serotype 2 as a starting point, the researchers were able to manipulate the viral genome to produce three additional “chimeric” viruses – viruses which should activate the immune system into producing antibody against one particular type of virus.

Proteins on the outermost parts of viruses are responsible for initiating the infection of new cells and are the target for antibodies produced by the immune system. To create the chimeric viruses, the researchers replaced regions of the genome coding for the production of these proteins in serotype 2’s genome with similar regions from genomes of the other three serotypes. A cocktail of these four manipulated viruses could then provide a comprehensive yet safe vaccine for dengue. Nopporn Sittisombut, of the Department of Microbiology at Chiang Mai University, explains: “By immunising these four viruses together, it is expected that the antibody response would be adequate to provide protection to all four serotypes of dengue viruses.” After promising results from tests on mice, the chimeric viruses were considered to have excellent potential to be further developed. Initial trials of the chimeric virus for serotype 1 in monkeys demonstrated the principle was sound, and hopes are high that the other serotypes will perform equally well. Dr Sittisombut is optimistic that the vaccine will be ready for human use within ten years. He admits that “this may seem discouraging” but emphasises that “scientists have been trying to develop vaccine for dengue for more than 30-40 years”. In February 2011 a licensing agreement for the chimeric dengue vaccine was announced between Chiang Mai University, Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency, Mahidol University and the Thailand-based biotechnology company BioNet-Asia. It is expected that this collaboration will lead to a commercial dengue vaccine being available first to Thais, and then to the ASEAN market and beyond. For further information contact: Assoc. Prof. Nopporn Sittisombut Department of Microbiology, Chiang Mai University, Thailand Email: nsittiso@mail.med.cmu.ac.th


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AYENA

Delivering pill, patch or implant effectively

H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

The Drug Delivery System Excellence Center of Prince of Songkla University takes a multidisciplinary approach to developing drug delivery systems for the population. Pulmonary system: Pharmaceutical aerosols, such as an inhaler device, deliver proteins and peptides for systemic and localised effects through the lungs. Since many proteins are susceptible to chemical or physical degradation and deteriorate on swallowing, a “breathing in” delivery system could provide a suitable alternative. However, only a fraction of the formulated dose – and rarely more than 15 per cent – is delivered to the system, making the aerosol method unsuitable for the delivery of expensive drugs. Present research is focusing on morphology of the active drug and carrier substances to allow absorption of the drug molecules in the lung. Protein chemicals prepared in freeze dried conditions are often unstable, thus stabilisation of proteins in a solid state is of great importance to the success of drug delivery by inhalation. The design of aerosol devices is another key research area. Sufficient turbulence needs to be generated to dislodge drug particles from the carrier substance to efficiently deliver the correct amount of medicine to the lung tissue. It is difficult to predict drug quantities deposited in the lung from laboratory studies. Conventional lung deposition models have been adapted to take into account patients’ dynamic breathing patterns, drug particle size and velocity to predict the drug dose delivered to the lung. Skeletal drug delivery and tissue engineering: Biodegradable polymers and ceramics used to produce composite tablets, implants or injectable hydrogels have been developed to deliver antibiotics and therapeutic agents to specific skeletal sites. Biologists and engineers are collaborating to create tissues from cultured cells so as to repair or replace damaged bone tissue instead of patients having to undergo organ and tissue transplants. Osteoblast cells, responsible for bone formation, are obtained directly from the patient and grown on biodegradable scaffold supports to develop into bone tissue. Regulatory controls that stimulate osteoblasts to differentiate and become mineralised bone tissue need to be understood, and growth factor delivery systems will be important in transforming cultured cells into new tissues. The manufacture and design of scaffolds and their structural and biomechanical properties are being investigated and their biocompatibility, cellular interaction and biodegradability will also be assessed. R&D of materials for drug delivery: To maximise the therapeutic effects of drugs, optimal delivery to where they are needed is critical. Investigations have focused on the physical and chemical properties of pharmaceuticals, the stability and bioavailability of particular drugs, and the fraction of dosages administered that are taken up by the body. Furthermore, medicines that have poor water solubility are being improved through solid dispersion techniques to increase their bioavailability.

Nanotechnology: One strand of research has focused on the use of nano-biomaterials to improve all types of drug delivery. This would decrease drug toxicity, reduce treatment costs and improve drug bioavailability. Nanoencapsulation technology is one method being used to send drugs to a targeted organ. Transdermal patches: Delivering drugs through the skin for local and systemic effects prevents irritation of the gastrointestinal tract and prevent the active ingredients being metabolised by the liver. However, the outer layer of the skin presents a barrier, limiting drug diffusion into deeper skin layers. The latest research is investigating chemical enhancement of transdermal drug delivery using skin penetration enhancers to develop safe and effective transdermal delivery patches. Molecular recognition: Molecularly Imprinted Polymers (MIPs) – formed from a template imprint molecule – could be used to develop new medications and diagnostic tools as well as to monitor transdermal treatments. The research focuses on using novel functional monomers and cross linkages to improve polymer membrane performance. A complementary application could lead to extraction of pharmaceutical residues as well as toxic impurities from water sources.

For further information contact: Prof. Vimon Tantishaiyakul Email: vimon.t@psu.ac.th Assoc. Prof. Teerapol Srichana Email: teerapol.s@psu.ac.th Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences Prince of Songkla University, Thailand


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H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

Caring for the health of elderly people and youth BUNYAMIN NAJMI BANDUNG

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is undertaking research to improve healthcare of adolescents and the elderly by focusing on equipping health professionals with the required knowledge and skills. The quality of healthcare being meted out can be evaluated by the number of patients who return to hospital soon after they are discharged for more treatment. The research has led to the development of a transitional care model (ETCM) which involves a partnership between health and social services and provides for home visits and phone monitoring of the discharged elderly. A randomised and controlled trial led by the PolyU research team, supported by trained volunteers, was conducted to test the effectiveness of the care strategy. Significantly, there was lower readmission of the study group of patients and their overall quality of life was superior compared to control groups. There was also a significant cost saving of $65,034 (HK$506,827) over three months. Since the transitional care model has provided effective WLODEK CIECIURA

recuperative care and been a cost-saver the concept is to be rolled out to other districts. Training manuals for case managers and volunteer support staff have been developed alongside the success of the trial. The health of adolescents is another area of concern as insufficient consideration is focused on their general and psychological well-being. Meeting the healthcare needs of adolescents is a challenge in the Western Pacific region. Here, the objectives of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) adolescent health and development programme need to be integrated into healthcare delivery for youths so as to reduce mortality rates and preventable morbidity. The WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Nursing, with the support of the Chinese Consortium for Higher Nursing Education, are collaborating to deliver adolescent health and development training programmes. The programme looks to sharing information, knowledge and experience to improve education and development of nursing professionals. Healthcare professionals across Hong Kong, mainland China and neighbouring countries are also being trained to deliver the adolescent health and development agenda. The project has demonstrated a positive impact on the majority of professionals attending the adolescent and health development training programmes, thereby increasing the competency of healthcare professionals to address the demanding nature of adolescent health issues. They are equipped with the knowledge, right attitude, and a belief in their ability to instil positive changes in the lifestyles and psychological well-being of adolescents. For further information contact: Elderly people: Prof. Frances Kam Yuet Wong School of Nursing The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Email: hsfwong@inet.polyu.edu.hk Adolescents: Dr Regina Lee School of Nursing The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Email: hsrlee@inet.polyu.edu.hk


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H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

UNICEF

Remedies to relieve pain A review of accepted best practices for pain measurement and management has been the subject of research at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. The study will aim to introduce practice changes for improved patient care. In a separate programme involving Khon Kaen University in Thailand and Dalhousie University in Canada, Thai and Canadian researchers are developing new procedures for measuring and treating pain specifically in children. Poor clinical practice in pain assessment and management has been identified in several countries, but there is no published research on this aspect of healthcare for Malaysia. Responses to post-operative pain may vary in people of different cultures and backgrounds while age, gender and other factors can affect a patient’s pain threshold. Nurses have significant responsibility for post-operative pain management of patients, but inadequate communication can increase a patient’s suffering, in turn disturbing sleep, restricting movement and causing irritability, anxiousness and depression. The study by researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak aims to review the current best practices in public hospitals through a mix of qualitative and quantitative assessment methods. The research includes systematic assessment of pain intensity and pain relief. Analgesics are prescribed on a “when necessary” basis and nurses assess the pain intensity and evaluate the effectiveness of administered

analgesics for temporary pain relief. A nurse’s competency, attitude and application of knowledge also need to be taken into account when assessing the effectiveness of pain management. The study will explore effective pain management options; assist with planning nursing care based on patients’ reports; and improve training in pain management. The assessment and management of children’s pain is often under-recognised and under-treated, particularly in developing countries. Untreated childhood pain can result in long-term impacts, hindering development, altering the nervous system and raising the risk of suffering from chronic pain in later life. A collaborative project between Thai and Canadian researchers aims to improve understanding of children's pain and how it is managed in rural Thailand. The project is funded by the Global Health Research Initiative, a partnership of Canadian government agencies and departments that includes the International Development Research Centre. Seven hospitals in north-east Thailand have been participating in the project to develop new procedures and policies. A standardised approach will be rolled out to other hospitals through development of professional education programmes.

For further information contact: Dr Zadidah Putit Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Email: pzadidah@fmhs.unimas.my Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca


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H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

PEROJEVIC

Plants yield cancer-killing secrets Several plant extracts and a human enzyme have been identified as potential active compounds for the treatment of cancer. Of 15 plant species collected from the mountain forests of Kanawan, Bataan, in the Philippines, extracts from two species, Aglaia loheri and Voacanga globosa, have demonstrated a strong potential to kill human cancer cells. The research by the University of the Philippines Diliman aims to isolate the compounds that are responsible for the cancer-killing action to enable development of anti-cancer drugs. After the compounds are isolated they will be analysed to determine what type of substances are present. The yield of the active compounds is dependent on the extent it exists – minimal for these species particularly for A. Loheri – in the plant, But a project by researchers at UiTM Sabah, Malaysia, might assist in overcoming the problem of low yields of active compounds from plants. The research aims to produce synthetic compounds by semisynthesising selective pure compounds isolated from plants. In this case, the root and bark of the tree Manunggal (Brucea antidysentrica) contain bitter compounds called quassinoids which have potential for reducing cell growth, and have been investigated for their anti-cancer activity since 1972. Extracts from the tree will undergo isolation and purification so that the structure of the compounds can be identified. Conducting cytotoxicity assays using human leukaemia cells will determine the effectiveness of these extracts for treating leukaemia. Another new, safe and effective cancer treatment is being developed by researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. They have shown for the first time that the enzyme arginase, which removes the amino acid arginine from the blood, can kill drugresistant cancers. Last year the researchers gained industry recognition when they entered their business plan entitled “A new biological drug for treating lung cancer and colorectal cancer” in the SEED – Scientists to Entrepreneurs, Education and Development – competition in Shanghai.

For further information contact: Sonia D. Jacinto Institute of Biology University of the Philippines Diliman Email: soniajac2008@gmail.com Julenah Ag Nuddin Faculty of Applied Sciences Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: julen856@sabah.uitm.edu.my

THOMAS LEUNG

The enzyme arginase

Prof. Thomas Leung Lo Ka Chung Centre for Natural Anti-Cancer Drug Development Hong Kong Polytechnic University Email: bctleung@polyu.edu.hk


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H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

DADEROT

Enhancing the medicinal properties of plants Researchers at the University of Philippines Diliman have been investigating how chemically modifying plant extracts can be used to raise their potential for treating ailments. At Prince of Songkla University, Thailand, studies to increase production of extracts from plant root cultures with medical applications are under way. Plant extracts with medicinal potential can be chemically transformed to obtain natural product-like compounds for drug development. This method has been applied to methanol extracts of Kyllinga monocephala to examine whether the chemically modified by-products produce a greater treatment effect than the original plant extract after the introduction of new functionalities. K. monocephala extracts were reacted with the chemical hydrazine dihydrochloride, and the resulting mixtures were separated into two extracts using hexane and ethyl acetate solvents. Modified and unmodified extracts were tested for their activity as analgesic (painkilling), hypoglycemic (blood glucose lowering), and antidiarrhoeal (muscle relaxing) activity. Modified ethyl acetate extracts displayed significant analgesic activity, and significant hypoglycaemic activity was shown for both modified extracts. However, there was no significant antidiarrhoeal activity for either the hexane or ethyl acetate modified extracts. The root cultures of Impatiens balsamina have until now produced only low levels of naphthoquinone extracts, compounds which have strong antimicrobial, antiinflammatory and anti-allergic properties. But recent

research at Prince of Songkla University has been investigating ways to increase naphthoquinone production to levels sufficient for commercial production. Five different chemicals were incubated with the I. balsamina root culture, and their effects on naphthoquinone production were investigated. Methyl jasmonate was found to produce higher concentrations of the three naphthoquinones: lawsone, lawsone methyl ether and methylene-3,3’-bilawsone. Optimum production occurred with root cultures 21 days old, 300ΟM methyl jasmonate, and an incubation period of 36 hours. Naphthoquinone production was increased to levels sufficient for commercial production, up to ten fold higher than that of control root cultures. Future project work will focus on large scale production of I. balsamina root cultures. For further information contact: Kyllinga Monocephala: Evangeline C. Amor Institute of Chemistry University of the Philippines Diliman Email: ecamor@up.edu.ph Impatiens balsamina: Assoc. Prof. Dr Pharkphoom Panichayupakaranant Phytomedicine and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology Research Center Prince of Songkla University, Thailand Email: pharkphoom.p@psu.ac.th


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H E A LT H & M E D I C I N E

Proteins route to anti-cancer drugs

MOHAMAD HAFIZUL AMIR ABD RASHID

Rose chokes E. coli growth

US AIR FORCE

Plants are rich sources of active compounds and possess medicinal properties. Crude extracts, semi-purified compounds and purified compounds from natural resources have been used to treat bacterial infections. Researchers from Universiti Teknologi MARA are investigating findings from common Malaysian plants for their anti-bacterial and medicinal properties. Extracts from rose flowers following application of a range of solvents have been tested for use as antibacterial agents. Paper discs soaked in these extracts were laid on top of a bacterial agar plate. As the extracts diffused across the plate, bacteria susceptible to compounds in the extracts were unable to propagate; this was demarcated by a clear inhibition zone on the plate. Extracts obtained using ethyl acetate spawned the largest zone of inhibition, particularly restricting the bacteria Escherichia coli. The result gives potential for rose extracts to be used in the treatment of illnesses caused by E. coli such as diarrhoea and enlarged tonsils. Oils extracted from the seeds of the Saga tree, Adenanthera pavonina, are being tested for antibacterial properties. The hard, bright red seeds are played with by Malaysian children and found in abundance throughout the country. Traditionally, the cooked seeds have been used to treat boils and inflammations. Using solvents to extract antibacterial agents in saga seeds, the researchers hope to harness their potential to produce natural germ-resistant liquid hand soap.

Researchers at RIKEN Advanced Science Institute have been using proteomic techniques to accurately classify anti-cancer drugs based on their target molecules, which will allow more effective drug research. The complex relationships between cancer drugs and their specific molecular targets have not been fully understood to date because of the vast variety of proteins and the complexity of drug target networks. This impasse often leads to low drug effectiveness and dangerous side effects following treatment. Proteomics is the study of proteins, identifying their structure and determining their functions and interactions. One of the powerful techniques in proteomics employed by this study is two-dimensional difference gel electrophoresis (2D-DIGE). The procedure was used to analyse and compare protein expression levels for laboratory cultured cancer cells that had been treated with 19 of the well-known anti-cancer agents. The method successfully classified compounds of different structures but sharing molecular target(s). Compounds that had previously been reported to work by inhibiting the same process were clustered into different groups. This research showed that there were in fact differences in the underlying interaction mechanisms of the compounds. The proteomic technique allows researchers to characterise specific compounds in terms of how they interact with biomolecules. The findings will contribute to future anti-cancer treatment research to minimise side effects, and potentially develop safer and more effective drugs.

For further information contact: Rose extracts: Roziana Mohamed Hanaphi Faculty of Applied Sciences University Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: roziana@perlis.uitm.edu.my Saga antibacterial soap: Radziah Wahid Faculty of Chemical Engineering Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: radziah@salam.uitm.edu.my

For further information contact: Dr Hiroyuki Osada Chemical Library Validation Team RIKEN Advanced Science Institute Email: hisyo@riken.jp


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PEOPLE

MOHAMAD HAFIZUL AMIR ABD RASHID

Creative thinking for a competitive era Recent research at the Universiti Teknologi MARA has developed possible education frameworks that will improve the Asian education system to meet 21st century learning requirements and develop creative and innovative thinkers for a more competitive era. Internet technology has become part and parcel of gathering and imparting information in the 21st century, significantly impacting on reading strategies. One example is when perusing hypertext, or online text, quick mental reactions are triggered because additional information is immediately accessible through a hyperlink. But clicking on all available hyperlinks in a text could also be a frustrating exercise because at times the prescribed link destinations can be unpredictable. Readers also have to develop a judicious approach in surfing the vast quantity of information that is available on the World Wide Web. Essentially, three types of online readers were identified. Novices tended to click on all or most of the hyperlinks, ending up feeling disoriented, confused or overwhelmed. Cautious readers ignored all the links or used these only after the whole of the primary text had been read. Skilled readers were able to skim through the text, select relevant and appropriate information while constantly monitoring their comprehension of the text before deciding to click on a hyperlink. The research findings will enable design and development of a framework to enhance hypertext literacy and produce skilled and confident online readers. THINKING MATTERS: Current educational curricula are largely aimed at teaching pupils to pass exams, rather

than equipping them with the ability to think and solve problems for themselves. In a second project, a new education framework is being proposed to encourage innovative thinking among students. The proposed curriculum will focus on motivating students to think, imagine, solve, and decide on subject matter and apply these mental approaches to life. There are four key elements in the framework. First, children are to be encouraged to think freely and not to be conditioned or restricted by fear of what others might say. Second, a reading habit is to be fostered, combined with periods of contemplation. Parents are to be deterred from punishing failure by discipline and chastisement but should treat it as an opportunity to encourage problem solving and child development. Third, children ought to be encouraged to ask questions and challenge teachers, who in turn should adopt less authoritative attitudes in class. Lastly, lessons and lectures should be taught in a stimulating environment to motivate students to think creatively rather than be spoon-fed information.

For further information contact: Dr Cynthia Doss Academy of Language Studies Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: cnyrich@gmail.com. Encouraging thinking: Dr Megawati Omar Academy of Language Studies Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: megawati@salam.uitm.edu.my Prof. Dr Abu Bakar Abdul Majeed Faculty of Pharmacy Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: abubakar@salam.uitm.edu.my


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PEOPLE

SUSAN MURRAY

Template for writing theses

Extending distance learning across Asia Research teams in several Asian countries are working to improve the quality of distance education and extend its reach across the region. The Virtual University of Pakistan is coordinating the research aimed at developing good distance-learning models for Asia. In the digital age distance learning could cater to the educational and training needs of remote communities, particularly as existing colleges and universities would be hard-pressed to meet increasing demand for higher education. The populace would also be able to pursue lifelong education or “re-tooling” their skills without needing to leave workplaces or hometowns. Digital technology would provide remote communities with access to city-based teachers; moreover, online teaching materials could be constantly updated. Researchers in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, and the Philippines – collaborating within a network known as PANdora – are experimenting with a variety of methods, tools and software. Policymakers will use the findings, combined with a set of standards and performance indicators, to design a methodology to deliver effective formal and informal distance learning across Asia. The researchers are also exploring ways to develop and share open educational resources for lifelong learning, and adapting them to meet local needs. In Mongolia, for example, researchers are testing ways of using text messaging to instruct rural health workers in the proper handling of the Hepatitis B vaccine. In Cambodia farmers are using multimedia course material to learn about new farming techniques. Although they are studying on their own they are supported and assessed by instructors using text messaging and other digital communication technologies. For further information contact: Dr Naveed Malik Virtual University of Pakistan Email: rector@vu.edu.pk Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca

Newly developed software will improve student writing abilities across Malaysia by helping them to organise content in literature reviews. Software that assists teachers to analyse and adapt language textbooks will also improve learning and teaching of languages. There is currently no standardised or wellestablished format for writing a good literature review and many social science academics and students find it difficult to create a novel conceptual framework or model for their research proposals. Mind mapping is a useful tool but students have difficulty organising complex content. Computer-aided mapping has therefore been suggested. Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia, have developed integrative literature review software to assist academics and postgraduate students to write evaluations of their research. The software guides students to keep their reading systematic and organised, and the template allows identification, analysis and synthesis of concepts. The effectiveness of the software will be tested by 100 randomly chosen postgraduate students who will use it to write a review for a given topic; their work will be evaluated by invited academics. EVALUATING TEXTBOOKS: Researchers at Universiti Putra Malaysia have developed language textbook evaluation software called Retrotext-E. The present method of evaluating textbooks is visual and impressionistic or by use of a literal checklist. The new software uses a multi-aspect format, giving a greater range of options for effective evaluation of textbook language. Computerised appraisal detects word distribution patterns such as repetition and recycling, which can be illuminated to improve learning and teaching. Teachers are encouraged to continuously evaluate the text by applying the software’s simple checklist so as to provide a more accurate view of the books’ effectiveness; the results are saved for future analysis. Immediately after lessons, a qualitative evaluation (based on non-numerical data) can be conducted to enable suggestions to be adapted to enhance textbook performance. The software will assist teachers when selecting new textbooks, and the diagnosis and adaptation of textbooks currently in use will be improved. The software has been copyrighted and has won several international awards. The software is to be made accessible worldwide through the internet, which will enable teachers to access evaluation data of other teachers for the same textbook.

For further information contact: Integrative literature review software: Dr Teoh Sian Hoon Faculty of Education, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia Email: teohsian@salam.uitm.edu.my Language textbook evaluation software Assoc. Prof. Dr Jayakaran Mukundan Faculty of Educational Studies Universiti Putra Malaysia Email: jaya284@gmail.com


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The first comprehensive analysis of linguistic and communication practices in a major offshore call centre site in the Philippines is being conducted by researchers at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The objective is to help to define the roles of language and those of individuals in the relationship between social structures within the agency and the capacity of individuals to act independently. In a study of 20 Filipino offshore customer service representatives, language was highlighted as an area of dispute despite the layers of control to restrict and constrain the ability of call centre workers to think and act independently. These linguistic and communication strictures are often challenged and resisted as workers find them demeaning, depersonalising and limiting. The individuals in this study were constructing an ideology that positions the offshore call centre industry as an equalising space, where workers have a stake in the industry’s practices and can develop and work to protect their values. The study proposes that when individuals are positioned differently within the social structure they can negotiate constraints and gain an amount of control to act in ways that are meaningful and beneficial to them. However, such independence in decision-making will come with new sets of constraints which need to be engaged and negotiated. This study contributes to the emerging literature on communication practices in offshore call centres and firmly establishes itself within a growing research area that views language as a local tool and its usage needs to be examined in a home-grown context from the point of view of its users. For further information contact: Aileen O. Salonga Dept. of English and Comparative Literature University of the Philippines Diliman Email: aosalonga@yahoo.com

FOTAMBULO

Staff at offshore call centres seek a voice

PEOPLE

Giving workers in the informal sector a stake

JULIAN HEIN

The International Development Research Centre is examining the role of informal employment in reducing poverty and its contribution to economic growth. For increasing numbers of Chinese and Indian in the labour force employment conditions are at best informal as people are either self-employed or work within contracts, benefits or some legal protection. For policymakers, however, informal employment poses significant developmental issues such as how to raise incomes, stimulate domestic demands, collect taxes, enforce labour regulations, and provide adequate social protection. Unlike in India, China is only now beginning to grapple with these implications for policymaking and development. A comparative study is being carried out in China and India into the role of informal employment in economic growth and poverty reduction, with the aim of helping policymakers in both countries to improve the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable workers. For further information contact: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca


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PEOPLE

DANIELFOSTER437

Raw deal for women migrant employees Increasing numbers of women in Asia are migrating to cities and travelling abroad in search of new opportunities. They, however, face many hurdles such as poor working conditions, limited career progression, and lack of access to information and services as well as exclusion from policymaking processes. Research into these gender-based issues across Asia aims to identify strategies to improve the livelihoods and well-being of women. IN SEARCH OF JOBS: A study by the International Development Research Centre has assessed the factors behind the decisions of Chinese women to migrate within the country and the working and living conditions they experience. As a result, proposals for legal and policy reforms to improve their circumstances have been made. In the case of many Indonesian women migrating to work in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries it has been found that they often end up in unskilled and unregulated jobs, with unpaid overtime, poor working conditions and often facing violence. The study will suggest ways in which their rights can be protected as well as how they can find decent employment. GENDER AND THE CAREER LADDER: A project by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, in a first study to investigate demographic factors on employee career progression, analysed the role of gender in career advancement of 158 engineers from ten multinational manufacturing companies in northern Peninsula Malaysia. The findings showed that rising up the career ladder was related to gender, supervisor’s support and length of time in service. Women in male-dominated professions, especially such as engineering, were subjected to pressures to perform, besides facing social isolation and stereotyping.

TRAPPED BY SEXUAL DEMANDS: The numbers of women migrating in search of economic opportunities related to fishing are rising in many parts of the world. Estimates from The WorldFish Center for nine of the major fish producing countries suggest that 46 per cent of the pre- and post-harvest labour force in small-scale capture fisheries is made up of women. In Africa women travel to remote fishing camps in order to purchase fish and often engage in transactional sex. This is a complex issue and it is unclear whether women are forced into selling their bodies through poverty or if they choose it to reduce the price of the transaction. It is unclear whether this is an occupational hazard to cope with fish scarcity or increased demand, or a longstanding arrangement in these societies geared to building and maintaining personalised networks. The downside, however, is an increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection, and female sufferers may endure social stigma, marginalisation and increased poverty resulting from unemployment as well as having to pay for medical costs. The WorldFish Center has developed a model for sustainable solutions that will also restrict the threat of HIV/AIDS in fishery communities by promoting trader associations and funding to help women market traders to stabilise their business. Women, moreover, often have less access than men to information, services and healthcare. A sustainable solution will also involve raising awareness about HIV/AIDS issues. FISHER WOMEN HAVE LITTLE SAY: In the fisheries sector women are rarely involved in the decisionmaking process at the household, community, regional or national levels. Women who hold any leadership positions in community-based fisheries management committees are often the wives of male leaders. In a study of six sites in Cambodia by The WorldFish Center women identified their priority needs as reduced illiteracy, better healthcare, livelihood capacity, increased capabilities, and greater support from men in sharing household tasks so that they can participate in community-based management. Addressing gender inequity issues by improving women’s income, educational levels and their access to decision-making processes will improve their capabilities. Countries with greater gender equity have noticeably reached higher levels of economic growth and social well-being. For further information contact: Migration in China and Indonesia: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tasse International Development Research Centre, Canada Email: ibourgeault-tasse@idrc.ca Women in Asian small scale fishing communities: The WorldFish Center Email: worldfishcenter@cgiar.org Gender issues in career advancement: Dr Lo May Chiun Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Email: mclo@feb.unimas.my


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PHYSICS

YASUNORI YAMAZAKI

A stack of multi-ring electrodes for the cusp trap to synthesize an antihydrogen beam

What matters is antimatter Antimatter, the anti-particle counterpart of matter, is at the heart of some of the most challenging unsolved problems in science: for all fundamental particles there exist antiparticles with opposing properties which can combine to form atoms just as particles can. RIKEN scientists at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, have been harnessing antimatter in order to test fundamental physical theories in novel ways, pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe. Investigating the properties of antimatter promises to help to answer some big questions in physics, such as why is it that the universe is made up almost exclusively of matter and not antimatter. The best theories fail to provide an answer to this question, though many physicists suspect that tiny differences between the properties of matter and antimatter are responsible. These differences are manifested in violations of a theoretical principle called CPT symmetry which stipulates that atoms of matter and antimatter should behave in the same way. The simple structure of antihydrogen – its atoms consist of an antiproton and a positron (an anti-electron) – makes it an attractive candidate to enable testing of CPT symmetry. Capturing antimatter, however, for long enough to pin down its properties is challenging because when a particle or atom of antimatter meets its matter counterpart they annihilate each other in a burst of energy. The international ALPHA collaboration at CERN has successfully trapped atoms of antihydrogen, thus enabling measurement of the transition of positrons excited from the 1st to the 2nd orbital by high-precision lasers. Researchers from RIKEN in the ASACUSA group at CERN subsequently found an alternative way of testing properties of antihydrogen by developing a method to produce a beam of the atoms. The experimental setup, which produces antihydrogen by colliding positrons and antiprotons in a novel “cusp” trap, is an essential precursor to creating such a beam. The realisation of a beam of antihydrogen would enable scientists to study much smaller hyperfine transitions of positrons between orbitals using high-precision microwave spectroscopy, without requiring the atoms to be trapped.

Along with the studies being conducted on trapped antihydrogen the experiments on a beam of antihydrogen promise to enable the testing of CPT symmetry, offering ground-breaking insight into the nature of antimatter and clues to fundamental questions about the universe. COLLIDING ANTIPROTONS: In another project at CERN, an international collaboration including RIKEN scientists have produced unexpected results by colliding antiprotons with molecules of matter, challenging existing theories of atomic collision. Antiprotons, which have the same mass as protons but are negatively charged, are a unique probe of atoms and molecules because, unlike protons, they do not attract electrons, hence simplifying theoretical modelling. Antiprotons can be created by firing a beam of highspeed protons into a block of the metal iridium. In a facility called the Antiproton Decelerator, the scientists used magnets to focus the antiprotons they had created before applying strong electric fields to slow them down. By trapping and cooling the antiprotons to 0.01 per cent of the velocity of light, the team were able to control the speeds at which they fired the antiprotons into a gas of molecular deuterium. By using sensitive equipment to detect the remnants of collisions, the team found that the likelihood of ionisation of the deuterium molecules is linearly related to the velocity of the antiprotons – an unexpected result which contradicted theoretical expectations. The results imply that antiproton collisions with molecules are different to collisions with atoms, a conclusion about which RIKEN scientist Yasunori Yamazaki commented: “This was a big surprise, and it infers that our understanding of atomic collision dynamics, even at a qualitative level, is still in its infancy.” The ASACUSA and ALPHA group findings were jointly awarded Breakthrough of the Year for 2010 by Physics World. ASACUSA stands for Atomic Spectroscopy and Collisions Using Slow Antiprotons, but it was in fact named after the Asakusa Temple, the oldest in Tokyo, near the Tokyo University campus. For further information contact: Dr Yasunori Yamazaki Atomic Physics Laboratory RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: yasunori@riken.jp


PHYSICS

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TOKYOFOODCAST.COM

Superconductivity seeped in alcohol The discovery of iron-based superconductors has pointed to a gap in our understanding of the processes behind superconductivity. Researchers from Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) have found a surprising result – that immersing a previously non-superconducting iron-based compound in alcoholic drinks can induce the phenomenon; while a group from RIKEN have used atomic imaging to unveil superconductivity’s mysterious mechanisms. Superconductive materials, used in technologies such as MRI scanners, have the bizarre property of losing all electrical resistance when cooled to a particular temperature. First discovered in 2008, high temperature iron compound superconductors fly in the face of classical theory by displaying the property above the theoretical limit of 40K. Since 2008 a succession of similar iron-based compounds have followed suit, leading to high expectations for this “second vein” of high temperature superconductors. Investigating this group of compounds, the team from NIMS focused on iron-tellurium (FeTe) which despite being structurally similar to other superconducting compounds does not display the property due to its antiferromagnetic ordering. By carefully synthesising sulphur-doped FeTe, the team succeeded in obtaining a substance in which the antiferromagnetic ordering was eliminated, but which still did not display superconductivity; in other words, a substance positioned between magnetic materials and superconductors. However, when specimens were left in the air for an extended period of time superconductivity was eventually found to occur. Stranger still, it was found that this substance became a superconductor the following day when immersed in an alcoholic beverage and heated to approximately 70°C. Superconductivity was uniformly achieved in comparative experiments with red wine, white wine, beer, sake, shochu and whisky, with red wine being the most effective.

This surprising discovery is considered important for understanding the necessary conditions for realising superconductivity in iron-based compounds, and further research is being carried out in order to determine which component of the alcoholic beverages could be responsible. ATOMIC IMAGING TECHNIQUE: Researchers from RIKEN have experimentally determined the mechanism underlying superconductivity in the compound ironselenium-tellurium. The classical mechanism behind superconductivity, whereby two electrons are bound together in a pair by vibrations in the atomic lattice structure of solid matter, has never been confirmed for high temperature superconductors. The lack of explanation for a mechanism behind superconductivity in such substances poses an enigma for condensed matter physics. Using the atomic imaging technique “scanning tunnelling microscopy” on pairs of electrons, the researchers observed particular phenomena that are unique to a material with two types of electrons. An electron pairing mechanism that is based on two types of electrons with different momenta, rather than lattice vibrations, supports a mechanism for superconductivity based on magnetism. This discovery breaks new theoretical ground and marks a major advance toward unravelling the mystery of high temperature superconductivity.

For further information contact: Alcohol superconductivity: Dr Yoshihiko Takano Superconducting Materials Center National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: takano.yoshihiko@nims.go.jp Atomic imaging: Dr Tetsuo Hanaguri Magnetic Materials Laboratory RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: hanaguri@riken.jp


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PHYSICS

Quantifying motion in quantum or classical terms A new set of mathematical equations have been developed that can distinguish whether electrons in nanostructures display classical or quantum mechanical behaviour. Researchers from RIKEN, along with colleagues in Germany and Taiwan, developed the equations in an effort to overcome the problems of performing quantum measurements. On a macroscopic scale, everyday objects like pool or billiard balls follow the classical laws of motion along exact, predictable paths. On a microscopic scale however, objects such as electrons move according to the laws of quantum mechanics, where processes occur in a probabilistic manner. At the nanoscale, determining whether electrons are transported according to the classical laws of motion or the laws of quantum mechanics is challenging because many nanostructures fall in a grey area between both regimes. Franco Nori, of RIKEN and the University of Michigan, who led the research team, explains: “Measurements on quantum mechanical systems are difficult to distinguish from invasive measurements on classical systems.” He states: “It is important to be confident that experimental results are not originating from a classical effect, giving a false impression of quantum behaviour.” As a model system, the transport of electrons through vanishingly small pieces of matter known as

quantum dots was chosen. To identify quantum effects, the researchers developed a set of criteria for experimental data from these quantum dots, expressed as a mathematical inequality relation, so that any excess over a critical threshold represents a clear sign of quantum behaviour. By running simulations, several regimes at low temperatures where quantum effects should occur were found without having to resort to making uncertain invasive measurements. Since the inequality relation derived by the researchers is based on fundamental principles, it can be applied to many open, microscopic electron transport systems. Understanding the transport of electrons in nanostructures and biological molecules is crucial to understanding properties such as electrical conductivity and the biochemical behaviour of molecules.

For further information contact: Dr Franco Nori Digital Materials Team RIKEN Advanced Science Institute, Japan Email: fnori@riken.jp


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PHYSICS

Taking a good look at transparent objects

Researchers from Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) have succeeded in confining a multi-electron quantum system into a three-dimensional nano-space. The result, achieved by precisely engineering the materials used, has not been accomplished before and paves the way for harnessing the properties of the confined quantum system in technological applications. In semiconducting materials when an electron is excited from its place in an atom the hole that is left can be thought of as carrying a positive charge. A pair of an electron and hole can form a quasi-particle called an “exciton”, analogous to a hydrogen atom. Just as an extra proton or electron can be added to a hydrogen atom to produce a hydrogen ion, an extra electron or hole can be added to an exciton to produce a complex state of three particles, called a charged exciton. Unlike hydrogen, however, it is possible to confine electrons and holes in quantum dots – three dimensional spaces in the order of only a few nanometres. If charged excitons could be successfully confined in quantum dots, the energy released when an electron returns to a hole, the “stabilisation energy”, would be expected to increase. In order to achieve the confinement of charged excitons, the researchers fabricated quantum dots of gallium arsenide embedded in a host material of aluminium gallium arsenide. By using an original method developed at NIMS, it was possible to produce an unprecedented clean quantum structure. The scientists then observed that charged excitons had been successfully confined by measuring emissions of energy from single quantum dots, which were much greater than emissions from unconfined particles. This result elucidates for the first time the effect of confining a multi-electron quantum system in a nanospace. In terms of technological applications the control gained from using such engineered nano-structures could lead to the development of low-power semiconductor devices.

A new technique for distinguishing transparent objects without the standard practice of using a reference beam has been developed by researchers at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The method is both simpler and more accurate than previous procedures for differentiating between similar objects. “Phase-only” objects do not affect the intensity of light passing through them and only shift the positions of light waves. Objects such as biological specimens and optical lenses are phase-only, and by measuring the phase-shifts of light transmitted through them a map of the refractive index and thickness profile of an object can be obtained. Conventional methods of mapping phase-only objects require the use of a reference beam to make up for errors arising from the interaction of light with atoms, but the reference beam could also introduce additional errors into the phase maps. Unlike conventional methods where the light is all the same wavelength, the new method uses diffused light – light with mixed wavelengths – to produce phase maps of different objects. The correlation of the phase maps produced is then used to give a quantitative measure of the similarity of the spatial features between the objects. By varying the polarisation of the illumination beam, which is the degree to which all the light waves are travelling in the same plane, the polarisation properties of the test objects can also be found. The use of polarisation information and the reconstruction without a reference beam mean the new method enables high discrimination capability, yet with considerably reduced optical requirements.

For further information contact: Dr Takashi Kuroda Quantum Dot Research Center National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: kuroda.takashi@nims.go.jp

SPENCER DIAMOND

NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR MATERIALS SCIENCE

Packing electrons in a nano box

A phase contrast image of a cheek cell

For further information contact: Dr Percival F. Almoro National Institute of Physics University of the Philippines Diliman Email: pfalmoro@gmail.com


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TECHNOLOGY

BASE64/CAROLSPEARS

Taking HK’s temperature using climatic data

HONG KONG POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY

By using images from NASA’s Terra/ASTER satellite The collection of accurate data on Hong Kong’s urban sensor, along with state of the art methods of ground heat island (UHI) has proved difficult to achieve, data collection, the researchers developed a new image resulting in a limited understanding of the causative processing technique, termed “emissivity factors. But by combining high modulation”. This technique enables resolution climatic data drawn enhancement from the original 90 metre from fixed stations, information pixel resolution of the satellite images to from a satellite sensor and an improved resolution of 10 metre newly developed techniques of pixels, allowing ground surface thermal image processing, temperature to be more accurately researchers at Hong Kong mapped. Polytechnic University have The findings of the research are being been able to provide a used to make recommendations to comprehensive portrayal and planners and environmental authorities diagnosis of Hong Kong’s UHI in Hong Kong, where rising phenomenon. temperatures, deteriorating air quality Traditional methods of and reduced ventilation due to the collecting climatic data, using density of high-rise buildings have fixed stations and vehicle Thermal map showing heat intensities in Kowloon become serious public concerns. traverses, have not been successful in diagnosing the causative factors behind Hong Kong’s UHI because the data collected have been For further information contact: spatially incomplete. While spatially complete data can Dr Janet Nichol be remotely gathered from satellite sensors, such Department of Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics information is large scale and descriptive in nature so Hong Kong Polytechnic University cannot be used to improve understanding of UHIs at a Email: lsjanet@polyu.edu.hk detailed level.


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TECHNOLOGY

ALFRED PALMER

Zeroing in on toxic pollutants The ability to detect chemicals is of relevance to a range of tasks such as monitoring air pollution or identifying contaminants in water supplies. Research into developing chemical-sensing technology is geared towards creating sensors that are highly sensitive and extremely reliable. Heavy metal ions such as those of mercury and lead have long been recognised as harmful environmental pollutants, leading to development of systems to monitor and measure the presence of these toxic materials. A technique called “surface plasmon resonance” (SPR) provides an optical method of detecting such pollutants on the surface of thin metal films. Researchers at Universiti Putra Malaysia have been investigating the conducting polymer polypyrrole, which they have used to fabricate SPR sensors. Polypyrrole, however, displays poor mechanical properties such as brittleness and low level processability. To overcome this obstacle, a composite material was made of polypyrrole and the polymer chitosan.

Chitosan was chosen because it is biodegradable, biocompatible, non-toxic and cheap. The research found that using polypyrrole-chitosan composite in an SPR sensor provided greater sensitivity – being able to identify concentrations of mercury and lead ions in the region of 0.03 to 0.07 parts per million – than a sensor made using just polypyrrole. Further research has been proposed for the application of polypyrrole-chitosan composite in organic light emitting diodes, biosensing and drug delivery systems. The fact that both polypyrrole and chitosan are non-toxic and biocompatible makes them particularly appropriate for the purposes of biosensing and drug delivery systems.

Detecting gases

The second award was for an environmentally friendly “solid-phase micro-extractor” – a piece of technology used in the preparation of chemical samples for testing. The device was fabricated by first surrounding a silver wire with a porous layer of zinc, then applying a coating of polyethylene glycol. The polyethylene glycol adsorbs the substance of interest, while the porous zinc layer increases the surface area of the micro-extractor in order for more effective sampling. The extractive properties of the device were tested on styrene residue in polystyrene packaged food. Since the micro-extractor is robust, flexible and efficient, it is a powerful analytical tool and has a longer life compared to commercial micro-extractors, thus reducing costs and providing an environmentally friendly alternative.

Researchers from Prince of Songkla University have been developing new chemical sensor technology which is effective, economical and environmentally friendly. In recent years the Trace Analysis and Biosensor Research Center has won two invention awards from the National Research Council of Thailand. Its first award was for the invention of a passive sampler for monitoring volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere that are harmful to human health and the environment. The sampler consists of a plastic container holding glass bottles, each with a small amount of adsorbent material to which airborne pollutants adhere. The adsorbed particles can be extracted for testing using a thermal device. The effectiveness of the samplers was tested by monitoring benzene, toluene and xylene at gasoline stations. The simplicity of the design compared to commercial passive samplers means cost is dramatically reduced.

For further information contact: Prof. Dr Anuar Kassim Department of Chemistry Universiti Putra Malaysia Email: anuar@science.upm.edu.my

For further information contact: Prof. Proespichaya Kanatharana Trace Analysis and Biosensor Research Center Prince of Songkla University, Thailand Email: proespichaya.k@psu.ac.th


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Portable chemical sensors that demonstrate high sensitivity and high selectivity between different chemicals have proven difficult to develop. Most chemical sensors are based on inorganic materials, but Dr Nobuo Misawa, of Toyohashi University of Technology, along with colleagues at the University of Tokyo, have investigated the possibility of exploiting biological structures which exhibit unique reactions to a range of chemicals at the molecular level. The research team developed a chemical sensor using living cells from frogs’ eggs, which were genetically modified to express specific olfactory receptors; the proteins found within cell membranes that detect odour molecules and play a central role in the sense of smell. In the sensor, the egg cells were housed in compact fluidic devices, and pairs of electrodes were used to detect the cells’ response to the presence of a particular chemical. The chemical sensitivity of the sensor was found to be a few parts per billion in solution, and it was possible to simultaneously distinguish different types of chemicals with only slight differences in chemical structure. In order to maintain stable and reproducible odorant sensing, a semi-automatic method to fit the frogs’ cells to the fluidic device was successfully established. It was furthermore possible to integrate the chemical sensor with a robotic system. The fact that the sensor is compact, easy to replace in a robotic system, has high sensitivity and can distinguish between similar chemicals make it applicable as part of an active sensing system for uses such as environmental monitoring, food administration, and health management. For further information contact: Dr Nobuo Misawa Electronics Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute (EIIRIS) Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan Email: misawa@eiiris.tut.ac.jp

RAJ

Modifying cells to detect smells

TECHNOLOGY

Fibre shines light on sensors

BAZUSA

At the A*STAR Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) a group has used a new type of optical fibre, known as photonic-crystal fibre, to develop a chemical detection device with twice the sensitivity of commercial instruments. Photonic-crystal fibre (PCF) consists of a bundle of tiny hollow, hexagon-shaped tubes which can serve as microfluidic channels for a chemical sample. Since light gets trapped inside the tubes it is possible to carry out experiments to observe the interaction of light with chemical compounds. Due to the fibre’s ability to trap light efficiently, it can both strengthen optical signals and reduce random noise during such experiments. The doubling of sensitivity occurs because the fibre provides a much larger light field than previously achieved, allowing light to interact more closely with the chemicals. Due to its small size and accurate readings, photonic-crystal fibre can be used for microchip-sized medical devices, such as implantable sensors. Its unique properties also make it useful for applications in water pollution detection and biosensing.

For further information contact: Dr Yu Xia, Mandy Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore Email: xyu@SIMTech.a-star.edu.sg


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TECHNOLOGY

Marrying nanotechnology and biology

AYACOP

Crucially, the length of the chains affects the optical Nanotechnology is a rapidly expanding discipline with transmittance. diverse new applications being targeted. At Toyohashi In order to make the magnetic beads biologically University of Technology researchers are pursuing sensitive, the researchers covered them in the projects at the interface between nanotechnology and biomolecule biotin. The new biosensing method relies biology, such as developing new technologies for on the fact that biotin bonds very strongly to the protein biosensing. avidin, and when avidin was added to the solution it was Biosensing is a method of identifying a substance by found that the magnetic beads self-assembled into exploiting the way a particular sensitive longer chains. This change in the length of the biological material interacts with chains was measured with high accuracy by the substance of interest. The monitoring changes in the optical transmittance of technology is useful in a range of the solution when a beam of light was applications such as detecting shone through it. Importantly, the pathogens, monitoring toxins and increase in chain length was directly evaluating the activity of drugs. One related to the concentration of avidin current biosensing method uses added to the solution. In 30 seconds nano-sized magnetic beads which the researchers could quantitatively are immobilised on a substance determine the concentration of avidin added to and then detected using the solution, with a sensitivity of up to 100 electromagnetic sensors. The parts per million and the ability to detect application can be used for pointchanges in concentrations over a range of of-care medical diagnostics; however Biotin (balls) bound to avidin (blue ribbons) four orders of magnitude. The new method the existing technology requires is simpler and faster than the previous multiple steps, limiting the sensitivity, technology and provides a rapid, highly sensitive and speed, cost, and ultimately the size of the system. inexpensive means of biosensing. A team from the Electronics Inspired Interdisciplinary Research Institute at Toyohashi Tech have developed an alternative biosensing approach, also For further information contact: based on nano-sized magnetic beads. Chains of the Prof. Adarsh Sandhu beads are suspended in a solution and then rotated by Electronics Inspired Interdisciplinary Research the application of an external magnetic field. When a Institute (EIIRIS) beam of light is shone through the solution, the way the Toyohashi University of Technology Email: sandhu@eiiris.tut.ac.jp rotating chains affect the beam of light – the “optical transmittance” – can then be measured.

Lighting up life

WEI-CHUNG ALLEN LEE

gated ionotropic glutamate receptor), which is Researchers at the Electronics Inspired responsive to light. Interdisciplinary Research Institute at Toyohashi In neural cells with the modified receptor LiGluR, University, in collaboration with the University of exposure to light can cause either California, Berkeley, have been excitation or de-excitation of the cell. It was developing a way of not just detecting found that excitation was optimally evoked neural activity, but controlling neural and extinguished by UV and visible light, activity using nano-sized biological respectively. Furthermore, so called “yinmachinery. yang” optical control makes it possible for a Their research is based on single wavelength of light to elicit excitation controlling proteins called “ionotropic in one set of neurons, while de-exciting a glutamate receptors”, which are found second set of neurons in the same on cell membranes and are responsible preparation. This ability to optically control for the excitation of neural cells. Section of a brain showing a neural activity, remotely and reversibly, by Ionotropic glutamate receptors are neuron in green use of the photoswitchable nano-machine thought to be important in the processes LiGluR paves the way for engineering opponency in underlying learning and memory. neurons that mediate opposing functions. The researchers have developed a new family of chemicals called MAGs (maleimide-azobenzeneglutamates) which have the property of being For further information contact: Dr Rika Numano photoisomerisable, meaning that molecules of the Electronics Inspired Interdisciplinary Research chemical change their structure under exposure to light. Institute (EIIRIS) Because MAGs bind to the particular ionotropic Toyohashi University of Technology glutamate receptor iGluR6, the researchers were able to Email: numano@eiiris.tut.ac.jp produce a modified receptor, dubbed ‘LiGluR’ (light-


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MICHAEL STRöCK

Researchers at the International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science have developed world-leading “Hand-Operating Nanotechnology”. One of the uses the technology has been put to is the formation of a synthetic membrane with the ability to distinguish between two letters of the genetic code at greater than 60 times the previous sensitivity. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) are blueprints for biomolecules, and genetic information is precisely transmitted from DNA to RNA, as well as from DNA to DNA. There is only a one-carbon atom difference between the structures of the nucleic acid bases uracil (U) and thymine (T), and the accidental mixing of the two can be a cause of genetic mutation and disease. Due to the extremely similar structures of T and U, DNA does not distinguish between them and so a method that can reliably tell them apart is desirable for the identification and study of genetic disease. By using Hand-Operating Nanotechnology, the researchers fabricated a membrane of the molecule “armed Cyclononane” on the surface of water. The technology enables actions, such as grasping and releasing individual molecules, delivering drugs and arraying nanomaterials, to be controlled by simple hand movements and other routine operations. The researchers were able to finely deform the fabricated membrane by manual compression to make an optimal structure for distinguishing between T and U. The method has succeeded in achieving a maximum of 64 times the previous precision for distinguishing between these two nuclear acid bases that “even DNA cannot”. Moreover, the method can also be performed using the surface of a flexible polymer or gel and can be applied for precisely analysing the gene configuration of DNA, detecting genetic disorders and accurately sensing other biomolecules, such as asymmetric amino acids. For further information contact: Dr Katsuhiko Ariga International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (MANA) National Institute for Materials Science, Japan Email: ariga.katsuhiko@nims.go.jp

NICOLAS P. ROUGIER

Controlling nanotechnology

TECHNOLOGY

The "Toyohashi Probe" converts neural signals to digital data

Nano probe detects neural responses A research group at Toyohashi University of Technology has developed the first nano-device for simultaneously measuring neural signals at multiple sites over a two-dimensional area. The device, called the “Toyohashi Probe”, consists of vertically aligned arrays of micrometre-sized silicon wires mounted on a silicon base, similar to those used in microelectronic computer chips. The probes demonstrate potential as powerful devices for a range of neural recordings because of their small size, as well as their compatibility with standard computer electronics. The device was made using the “vapour-liquid-solid method”, a method widely used in nanotechnology for fabricating a variety of one-dimensional wire-structures including carbon nanotubes. To test the device’s performance the group used the retina of a fish, placing it onto the Toyohashi Probe. They found that the device successfully detected neural responses which were represented by local electrical potentials on the retina.

For further information contact: Dr Takeshi Kawano Department of Electrical and Electronic Information Engineering Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan Email: kawano@ee.tut.ac.jp


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