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asia research news 2015 Building molecules with atomic precision Finding the first dolphins Scientists team up against deadly viruses Protecting food, energy and livelihoods Storing energy using cigarette butts Detecting indigenous linguistic knowledge

A ResearchSEA publication to highlight research in Asia


CONTENTS

Food 14

Health 19

Environment 4

Meet the Asia Research News team Magdeline Pokar is Editor-in-chief of Asia Research News. A PhD and MSc Geophysics graduate from Leeds University and Universiti Sains Malaysia, her research has ranged from Antarctic ice layers to groundwater pollution. The Salzburg Global Fellow and Chevening Scholar, set up ResearchSEA and later Asia Research News to help raise the profile of research in Asia. She has contributed to the European Geophysical Society, New Scientist, New Straits Times and Business Times. Dyna Rochmyaningsih is a science journalist with a biology degree from Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University. She has written for The Jakarta Post, The Jakarta Globe, Science Magazine and SciDev.Net. Dyna is an alumnus of Science Journalism Cooperation Asia, a program created by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Ian Fyfe studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in neuroscience, and then completed a PhD in molecular pharmacology. He now works as a technical writer for UK photography magazines, while continuing to use his scientific background as a freelance science writer.

John Eberlee joined the Asia Research News team after ten years as a science writer at the National Research Council of Canada. John was previously managing editor of Reports Online, published by Canada's International Development Research Centre. He earned a BSc and studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. Nadia El-Awady is a science journalist and copy editor. She has a BSc in medicine from Cairo University, and an MA in journalism and mass communication from the American University in Cairo. A past president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, Nadia has taught science journalism and worked as a director of communication. Richard Stone oversees Science magazine's international news coverage. The two-time Fulbright Scholar opened Science’s Asia bureau in Beijing in 2007, after four years in Cambridge, UK as Science’s European Editor. Rich has also contributed to Discover, Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines, and is the author of "Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant.”

Vivien Chiam is our marketing consultant for Singapore and Southeast Asia. She was the Partnerships and Communications Manager of Canada's International Development Research Centre in Singapore, working closely with Asian research insitutions to build capacity in communications and fundraising. Motoko Kakubayashi represents us in Japan. She has an MSc in Physics and a graduate diploma in journalism from Massey University in New Zealand. Currently, at the Japanese Science and Technology Agency, she is also the Japan correspondent for Radio New Zealand, and international media officer for the Science Media Centre of Japan. Djuke Veldhuis is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University. A biological anthropologist from Cambridge University, her interests range from evolutionary anthropology to human ecology and psychology. She is passionate about science communication, as a journalist and past coordinator of the global FameLab competition.

Aya Kawanishi s a journalist with a degree in journalism from the University of Stirling. She is our representative in Europe and keeps our readers updated on our social media networks. She was an editor for The Japan Times ST and was involved with Scotland’s International Network of Street Papers. She is also the Japan correspondent for Chemical Watch. Keane Shore is an Ottawa-based journalist with experience in newspaper, wire service and magazine writing and editing. Keane has also helped to produce a series of flagship books for Canada’s federal statistics agency. For the past 15 years, he has specialized in reporting on international development, science and technology issues. Ruth Francis is Head of Communications for BioMed Central and Head of Corporate Communications for Springer, UK. Previously, she was Head of Press for Nature Publishing Group. Ruth is the current Chair of Stempra, a network for press officers in science, medicine, engineering and technology, and has run media training workshops in Asia and Africa.


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Technology 46

Front Cover Image Dr. E.G.Gordeev, Ananikov Laboratory, Moscow Editorial Consultants Daniel Raymer Pokar Vellaykuti

People 39

Editor's Desk Welcome to the 2015 edition of Asia Research News. In our 7th issue, Asia Research News highlights compelling research conducted by our partner institutions and those working with partners in Asia. From the discovery of the earliest-known dolphin fossils to the mapping of lunar landscapes, this issue showcases exciting discoveries across a broad range of disciplines. Read about advances in nanotechnology, microchips and the Internet; how cigarette butts can store energy and combat dengue; graphenepowered artificial muscles and antibiotic kits for amateurs in our technology section. In our environment pages, we look at dugong conservation efforts in Malaysia, marine biodiversity in the Philippines, climate change in the Himalayas and managing city heat in Singapore. How does ozone help papaya growers, why are salt-stressed plants high in antioxidants and can eating out be bad for your health? Find out more in our food section. Our health section highlights advances in understanding and diagnosing cancer, a text-based electronic platform for improving maternal health, a radiation-free method for diagnosing scoliosis, and how quail breeding discoveries shed light on human sexuality. Finally, our people section profiles, among other things, efforts underway to understand how gender roles contribute to urban violence in Pakistan, the impacts of media and small-scale mining in Indonesia, and how open data helps get toilets to people in need. Happy reading and we welcome your feedback. If you have exciting research to share, please contact Magdeline Pokar at m.pokar@researchsea.com

Design Fulton Design Asia Research News 2015 is published by ResearchSEA Limited, Asia's premier platform for raising awareness of Asian research and experts. Research featured in Asia Research News 2015 is based on information provided by the research institutions listed in the contact information. We 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 and the Asia Research News team accepts no liability for any loss, damage or expense incurred resulting from the use of information in this publication. ISSN 2042-0536. Copyright Asia Research News. We welcome you to reproduce articles published in Asia Research News 2015, provided appropriate credit is given to Asia Research News and the research institutions featured. Asia Research News PO Box 5048 Manly Brisbane QLD 4179 Australia My Mail Box 883126 919191 Singapore Singapore: vivienchiam@researchsea.com Japan: m.kakubayashi@researchsea.com Europe: a.kawanishi@researchsea.com Worldwide: m.pokar@researchsea.com www.researchsea.com


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ENVIRONMENT

Rapid action necessary to protect Malaysia’s sea cows and their habitat Malaysia aims to protect 10% of its marine environment by 2020. Less than 1%, however, is currently protected. This may have dire consequences for the country’s endangered dugong population, warn a Malaysian scientist and her research team. In the shallow, warm, coastal and island waters between East Africa and Australia lives a plump marine mammal, related both to the freshwater manatee and, surprisingly, the elephant. The dugong is an herbivore and is often called a sea cow because it grazes on seagrass meadows. Many of those meadows suffer from loss and degradation, threatening the livelihood of the dugong, which in turn, threatens the health of the ecosystem. Dugong populations also face pressures from fishing, hunting and coastal pollution. As a result, dugongs have declined or gone extinct in at least a third of their natural habitats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed this animal’s conservation status as vulnerable since 1982. In 2014, a Malaysian scientist received the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation to undertake much needed comprehensive research on Malaysia’s dugong population. Dr Louisa Ponnampalam, a research fellow at the University of Malaya, first conducted aerial surveys in 2010 around the islands on the south-eastern coast of West Malaysia – known as the Mersing group of islands – to assess the local dugong population. Her initial surveys covered almost 3,000km of water over a period of eight consecutive days and resulted in 93 sightings of dugongs, 22 of which consisted of mothercalf pairs. The maximum daily count was 20 dugongs, suggesting there is a relatively small dugong population. However, the high percentage of calf sightings indicates this population is reproducing. The highest concentrations of dugongs coincided with areas that have known seagrass meadows, but only 38% of sightings fell within the boundaries of local marine parks.

Dr Ponnampalam’s research suggests that the Mersing islands host the most significant congregation of dugongs in peninsular Malaysia. However, these areas are affected by trawl fishing (including encroachment into marine park areas), vessel traffic, agricultural plantations near the coast and mixed coastal developments. These are known to cause habitat degradation and water pollution and to threaten marine life. Her research team, which includes scientists from Malaysia, the United States and Japan, fears that the islands will not provide sustainable long-term habitats for dugongs if the threats increase. In fact, they conclude that “the conservation concerns are sufficiently urgent that policy makers should take quick action even though science has not yet provided complete answers to critical questions.” “Lack of comprehensive scientific information should not be a deterrent to the implementation of conservation actions,” write the researchers in their study published in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation. They recommend the establishment of a dugong conservation area and the undertaking of focused research in priority areas. Through her Pew Fellowship, Dr Ponnampalam began conducting aerial surveys again in 2014 to investigate dugong distribution patterns. She is also deploying acoustic recorders to study the animals’ habitat use, and collecting seagrass and sediment samples to study environmental contaminants and conduct a habitat health risk assessment for the dugongs. These data will assist with focused protected area planning with all relevant stakeholders, including management authorities and local communities. In 2015, the research team plans to expand its study to include seagrass mapping, an investigation of dugong feeding trails, and an assessment of the total economic value of the main dugong areas in the Mersing islands and its seagrass meadows.

For further information contact: Dr Louisa S. Ponnampalam Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences University of Malaya, Malaysia E-mail: louisa@um.edu.my

Did you know? The dugong can stay underwater for several minutes before surfacing. It grows up to three metres in length and up to 500 kilograms in weight. The female dugong is pregnant for a full year before giving birth. Young dugongs remain close to their mothers for about 18 months and form a very close bond. Dugongs need to eat at least 30 kilograms of seagrass per day to sustain themselves. They can travel several hundred kilometres in search of suitable seagrass beds.

Julien Willem/CC


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The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List currently includes more than 500 marine-related species that are critically endangered[1], endangered[2] or vulnerable[3]. Below are just five examples of threatened species native to South-East Asia.

ENVIRONMENT

[1] There is an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. [2] There is a high risk of extinction in the wild. [3] There is a high risk of endangerment in the wild.

OpenCage/C

Rhina ancylostoma Bowmouth guitarfish Vulnerable 2003 Indian Ocean and West Pacific Ocean. In South-East Asia, this species is native to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Threats: Targeted and non-targeted fishing, habitat destruction and pollution.

Species: Common name: Red List category: Year published: Habitat:

Stefan Brending/CC

Orcaella brevirostris Irrawaddy dolphin Vulnerable 2008 Tropical and subtropical Indo-Pacific, almost exclusively in estuarine and fresh waters. This dolphin’s range extends from Borneo and the central islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, north to Palawan, Philippines, and west to the Bay of Bengal, including the Gulf of Thailand. Threats: Gillnet entanglement, vessel strikes, habitat loss and degradation.

Species: Common name: Red List category: Year published: Habitat:

Australian Conservation Society

Thunnus maccoyii Southern bluefin tuna Critically endangered 2011 Temperate and cold waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In South-East Asia, this tuna is native to Indonesia. Threats: Intensive fishing since the early 1950s.

Species: Common name: Red List category: Year published: Habitat:

citron/CC

Carcharhinus longimanus Oceanic whitetip shark Vulnerable 2006 Tropical and subtropical ocean waters all over the world. This shark is native to the following South-East Asian countries: Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Threats: Fishing

Species: Common name: Red List category: Year published: Habitat:

asands/CC

Manta alfredi Coastal manta ray/reef manta ray Vulnerable 2011 In or along near-shore environments in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Threats: Targeted and incidental fishing, habitat degradation, climate change, pollution.

Species: Common name: Red List category: Year published: Habitat:


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ENVIRONMENT

University of the Philippines Diliman

Philippines creates marine biodiversity database The world’s epicentre of marine biodiversity is under threat. Researchers in the Philippines are developing a marine biodiversity database to help identify local hotspots requiring urgent management. The Philippines hosts the highest diversity of shore reef fish species in the world. Human activities and climate change, however, pose a serious threat. Around 10% of the diversity of reef fish and their associated species have disappeared from the Visayas region in central Philippines in the last five decades, with an estimated 2% of total species lost per decade. Much of this is due to high fishing pressures: coastal communities in the Philippines are highly dependent on reef fish for their food security and livelihood. To address this issue, researchers at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute are creating a large database using existing information from their archives. Their aim is to compile and analyse archival data to identify local biodiversity hotspots requiring urgent management. The database will fill in information gaps related to diversity trends, issues and threats, as well as the status of management efforts in these areas. Initially, the researchers are focusing on consolidating information on marine fishes but will eventually expand this to include other marine taxa, particularly focal research organisms being studied in the institute. The researchers will also explore the potential of their database to support decision-making in biodiversity conservation. Once the database is established, the researchers will focus on enhancing it using reference collections and information generated by ongoing programs from institutions across the Philippines. The team hopes that the identification of data gaps will help guide future research directions.

“

Sweetlips This school of large fish, called sweetlips, was photographed in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Palawan, Philippines. While these fish seem to be unafraid of divers, in unprotected areas sweetlips are usually shy and will quickly hide among the rocks when a diver or swimmer approaches.

Common clownfish The common clownfish, Amphiprion ocellaris, is a popular species for diving tourists to spot. Although not harvested for food, the clownfish is in high demand by aquarium hobbyists and, therefore, is at high risk for overexploitation. As with most aquarium fish, its capture often involves the use of poisonous substances.

The database will fill

in information gaps related to diversity trends, issues and threats, as well as the status of management efforts in local hotspots.

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depositphotos.com

For further information contact: Dr Hazel O. Arceo Assistant Professor, Marine Science Institute College of Science University of the Philippines Diliman E-mail: hoarceo@msi.upd.edu.ph

Dwarf hawkfish The dwarf hawkfish, Cirrhitichthys falco, is commonly found in Philippine reefs. Its thick, elongated pectoral fins allow this species to perch effortlessly on coral surfaces while it eyes its surroundings like a hawk.


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ENVIRONMENT

First dolphins appeared millions of years earlier than previously thought Japanese researchers have described the earliest species of a true dolphin in the known fossil record: the oldest Miocene delphinid fossil including a skull. Their research has huge implications for our understanding of dolphin evolution. It may be long dead, but a little known – and potentially crucial – dolphin fossil raised its head above water in 2014 when researchers re-described and renamed it in a scientific article. Their research suggests that true dolphins existed 3-8 million years earlier than was previously believed. A delphinid fossil was discovered near the Oshirarika River in Hokkaido, Japan and reported in Japanese literature in 1977. It was originally named Stenella kabatensis. In 2005, a review article noted that S. kabatensis was the only known Miocene epoch delphinid to include a skull. Researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo began to question the fossil’s description under the genus Stenella and proposed a new taxonomic assignment within the genus Eodelphinus. They published this, along with their morphological phylogenetic analysis, in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The team, led by Dr Mizuki Murakami and Dr Hiromichi Hirano, narrowed the fossil’s age to the late Miocene epoch some 13-8.5 million years ago, making it the earliest true dolphin species described. The fossil record previously showed the oldest true dolphin fossils to be less than six million years old. Eodelphinus kabatensis gives us significant insights into the early evolutionary history of dolphins, suggesting they arose in the middle Miocene, possibly in the Pacific Ocean. The Waseda team is now studying the origin and early evolution of toothed whales, a group that includes dolphins, porpoises and sperm whales.

Eodelphinus

kabatensis is the earliest true dolphin species ever described.

Skull of Eodelphinus kabatensis Yuhji Soeda

Skull of Eodelphinus kabatensis Mizuki Murakami, (c)Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

For further information contact: Dr Mizuki Murakami Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences Waseda University, Japan E-mail: mizuki-m@aoni.waseda.jp

Mizuki Murakami, Chieko Shimada, Yoshinori Hikida,Yuhji Soeda & Hiromichi Hirano (2014) Eodelphis kabatensis, a new name for the oldest true dolphin Stenella kabatensis Horikawa, 1977 (Cetacea, Odontoceti, Delphinidae), from the upper Miocene of Japan, and the phylogeny and paleobiogeography of Delphinoidea. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 34(3): 491-511. DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2013.816720 • Reprinted by permission of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology


ENVIRONMENT

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Kiril Rusev/flickr

The Saturday market in Namche Bazaar in the Nepalese Himalayas.

Adapting to climate change in the Himalayas An international research consortium aims to equip Himalayan communities with the skills and knowledge needed to address climate change. The research focuses on three river basins where the impacts of climate change are likely to be severe. With the largest mass of snow and ice outside the polar regions, the Hindu Kush Himalayas are a life-giving water source for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population. More than 200 million people inhabit the mountain ranges that wind through eight In the Himalayas, countries, from Afghanistan to Burma, with another 1.3 billion people living downstream. climate change is Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayas act as a natural buffer to the region’s highly increasing the variable climate, releasing water when temperatures rise. But under changing frequency and climatic conditions, the glaciers are receding. Climate change is adding to the frequency and intensity of extreme intensity of extreme events such as floods, heat events such as floods, waves and droughts. It may also affect weather patterns that drive the South Asian summer monsoon, putting countless livelihoods at risk. heat waves and An international research consortium, launched in 2014, aims to equip communities droughts. in the region with the skills and knowledge needed to address the challenges that lie ahead. The Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience project (HI-AWARE) brings together five institutions, led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, and draws on expertise from across Asia and beyond. The research focuses on three Himalayan river basins – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra – where the impacts of climate change on water and the livelihoods of the poor are likely to be severe. Within these basins, HI-AWARE is examining 12 sites at different altitudes and with varying climatic, social, economic and demographic conditions. Teams are collaborating on three streams of

research: the biophysical, socio-economic and governance dimensions of climate change adaptation. Governments in the region have many shared priorities. They want to protect agriculture, ensure food security, and protect urban areas and infrastructure. They need to prepare for disasters as they face more droughts, floods and cyclones, and possible impacts on human health. Working with various stakeholders, researchers are downscaling climate models to address local issues, such as how the changing climate may affect water resources and agriculture. The question of timing is crucial: people need to know what to expect and roughly when, including critical moments when specific climate risks, such as flooding, are highest. They also need to know when adaptation turning points may force them to abandon existing practices and adopt new strategies to sustain themselves. Equipped with this knowledge, people can more successfully respond in both the short and long term. HI-AWARE aims to build a solid base of evidence to inform these adaptation pathways, with emphasis on building the resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable people. HI-AWARE was launched in 2014 through the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development and Canada’s International Development Research Centre. For further information contact: Philippus Wester International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal E-mail: philippus.wester@icimod.org International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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123rf.com

Artificial enzymes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions

The team plans to modify and multiply the genes encoding for carbonic anhydrases using a molecular technique called random mutagenesis. The researchers will then place the mutated genes in the artificial environment to see which ones are most effective at converting carbon dioxide into carbonates. The best mutations will then be put through the modification and multiplication processes again. The researchers will repeat the whole process until they have isolated a mutated gene encoding for recombinant carbonic anhydrase that can convert CO2 into carbonates under industrial conditions. With the help of artificial enzymes, CO2-converted carbonates could be used in everything from baking soda and chalk to Portland cement and lime manufacturing. University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

An international team is developing artificial enzymes designed for industrial plants that could convert carbon dioxide into carbonates, with the ultimate aim of reducing CO2 emissions. Enzymes are biological catalysts that accelerate chemical reactions, such as the conversion of gaseous carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbonates. Carbonates are the basic component of coral reefs, mollusc shells, geological platforms and kidney stones. Although naturally occurring enzymes would be ideal for converting human-generated CO2 emissions into carbonates, they are generally incapable of coping with the extreme conditions of industrial plants. Led by Dr Ernesto Hernandez of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, researchers in Denmark, Malaysia, Spain and the United Kingdom are now developing artificial enzymes that can withstand the harsh environments of industrial plants while accelerating chemical reactions. His team ultimately aims to create a clean, cheap, practical and socially responsible solution for global warming by reducing CO2 emissions. “We believe that our novel artificial enzymes will be the first tailor-made enzymes for industrial plants to produce carbonates,” says Dr Hernandez. So far, Dr Hernandez and his colleagues have built an artificial environment composed of chimney-like equipment, measuring 1.5 metres in height and 15 centimetres in diameter, that mimics the smoke released by power plants. Using the artificial environment, the researchers will ensure that their artificial enzymes can function properly under extreme conditions consisting of hot, corrosive, poisonous and sticky smoke as well as soot and other gases produced by power plants. The team is basing the development of its artificial enzyme on naturally occurring carbonic anhydrase (CA), which accelerates the conversion of CO2 into carbonates. Carbonic anhydrase is capable of turning CO2 molecules into carbonates at a rate of one million molecules per second. However, “the enzyme’s CO2 conversion rate slows down dramatically under industrial conditions,” Dr Hernandez points out. He and his colleagues are now engineering artificial enzymes based on natural CA, using directedevolution techniques. Their first step involves the creation of a library of diverse genes that encode for carbonic anhydrases. “This library includes sequences of unique forms of carbonic anhydrases recently found near deep-ocean chimneys (hydrothermal vents),” says Dr Hernandez.

ENVIRONMENT

Dr Hernandez analyses the composition of water from a process for cleaning smoky carbon dioxide.

For further information contact: Dr Ernesto Hernandez Bioinspired Chemical Engineering Research Group The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus E-mail: Ernesto.Hernandez@nottingham.edu.my

We believe that our

novel artificial enzymes will be the first tailor-made enzymes for industrial plants to produce carbonates.


ENVIRONMENT

Waseda University

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The new technology

enables the smooth and accurate visualization of gamma rays, which are invisible to the human eye.

The new Compton camera incorporates high-accuracy, three-dimensional, gamma ray position measurement technology developed at Waseda University.

Gamma ray camera may help with Fukushima decontamination Japanese researchers have significantly improved the performance of a gamma ray-imaging “Compton” camera. The new technology has potential applications in scientific research, medical treatment and environmental monitoring, as well as radioactive decontamination work. Based on a high-sensitivity mobile gamma ray camera released by Hamamatsu Photonics in 2013, the new Compton camera incorporates high-accuracy, three-dimensional, gamma ray position measurement technology developed at Waseda University. Led by Professor Jun Kataoka, the Waseda team improved the original camera’s resolution by about two times and enhanced its sensitivity by approximately 70%. The new technology enables the smooth and accurate visualisation of gamma rays, which are

invisible to the human eye, and could be used to help with the removal of radioactive substances from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. The Waseda team is now working to make the detector even lighter and smaller: only 500 grams or less in weight and about 10 cubic centimetres in size. Professor Kataoka plans to use the detector to advance research on bio-function dynamics imaging and proton therapy. For further information contact: Professor Jun Kataoka Research Institute for Science and Engineering Waseda University, Japan E-mail: kataoka.jun@waseda.jp


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ENVIRONMENT

Tianyake / Flickr

Malaysia’s Langat River, where the researchers took water samples.

A “current” test for water pollution A simple test of electrical conductivity could be enough to measure water pollution in tropical rivers instead of the complex tests currently in use. In Malaysia, the Water Quality Index is based on six different water parameters, including dissolved oxygen, pH, biochemical oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, suspended solids and ammoniacal nitrogen.

The results showed that there are

consistently higher levels of electrical conductivity in more polluted downstream waters.

In a study published in the Journal of Tropical and Agricultural Sciences, Dr Chee Kong Yap of Universiti Putra Malaysia took nine periodic samplings of electrical conductivity at eight sites along Malaysia’s Langat River, including both unpolluted upstream sites and polluted downstream sites. The results showed that there are consistently higher levels of electrical conductivity in the more polluted downstream waters. This finding is in line with the results from two currently used water tests: dissolved oxygen and suspended solids. Since it is much easier and faster to measure electrical conductivity than other parameters, he recommends that this be used as a single indicator of water pollution in tropical rivers. In the next phase of his research, Dr Yap plans to develop a kit for the direct measurement of electrical conductivity, pending the acceptance of a grant application for this purpose. For further information contact: Dr Chee Kong Yap Associate Professor, Department of Biology Universiti Putra Malaysia E-mail: yapckong@hotmail.com

Developing “greener” household products The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore is working with a Japanese multinational company to develop safer, anti-odour and anti-bacteria household products that eliminate the use of harmful biocides. Scientists at A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and the consumer care giant, LION Corporation, are using a multi-purpose, customisable molecule and Agency for Science, Technology and Research all-natural formulations to develop products that keep laundry smelling fresh and kill bacteria without the need for chemical biocides. In the long run, this initiative could help prevent the growth of biocideresistant bacteria. LION, a major manufacturer of detergents, soaps, medications, oral hygiene products and other A*STAR is working with the LION Corporation, a major toiletries, is leveraging manufacturer of detergents, soaps, medications, oral IMRE’s technology to develop hygiene products and other toiletries. improved formulations for their products. Scientists from both organisations are working together in a laboratory based at IMRE. Most household products feature a mix of surfactants for removing dirt, fragrance enhancers and chemical biocides to kill germs. Some of the surfactants and chemical biocides ultimately leach into the environment through water run-off. IMRE has been working on a host of all-purpose, natural polymers that are more environmentally friendly. The multi-purpose molecule being used in the project is one of more than 100 proprietary molecules that IMRE has accumulated in its Some surfactants and fast-growing polymer bank. “The polymer molecules and chemical biocides ultimately materials we are using are unique to IMRE,” says Dr Loh Xian Jun, lead leach into the environment IMRE researcher and manager of A*STAR’s Personal Care Programme. through water run-off. He adds that the base polymer molecule can be “accessorised” with different polymer chains to suit different purposes. Such base polymers form the backbone for a multitude of molecular combinations that can be tailor-made to suit different functions – from anti-bacteria to fragranceenhancement – in one molecule. In 2015, the partners plan to work on several joint projects to develop new materials for use in household care products within the next few years.

For further information contact: Dr Loh Xian Jun Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: lohxj@imre.a-star.edu.sg


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ENVIRONMENT

South-East Asian haze increases risk of respiratory mortality

Firdaus Latif/CC

Research has shown a significant association between haze events in South-East Asia and mortality rates caused by respiratory illness on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Since 1997, the massive burning of biomass in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia, has affected neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand. The burning of biomass has generated a significant amount of haze that travels overseas, affecting the region’s economy and public health. Haze resulting from forest fires is known to increase the concentration of toxic airborne particles that are smaller than ten microns in size, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Previous studies have found that airborne particles can cause serious respiratory effects. In 1997, South-East Asian haze increased the number of asthma attacks by 10.7% in Malaysia alone. Professor Mazrura Sahani, an environmental epidemiology expert at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, recently conducted a follow-up study on this issue focusing on Klang Valley, the most populated and most affected area on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. She analysed the association between mortality rates from respiratory illness in Klang Valley and 88 days of recorded haze events from 2000 to 2007. Haze events typically last for seven days. Professor Sahani collected respiratory mortality data from Malaysia’s Department of Statistics and obtained environmental data from six continuous air quality monitoring stations in Klang Valley. Her results showed that South-East Asian haze has increased the risk of respiratory mortality in Klang Valley as a result of increased exposure to toxic particles during the haze days. By the sixth day of a haze event, daily mortality rates were higher than normal. According to Professor Sahani, this finding indicates the need for local public health authorities to provide appropriate health advice during haze episodes. The most vulnerable or sensitive groups to air pollution are children, adult females, the elderly, and those with underlying respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. She also stresses the need for international cooperation to reduce biomass burning given the serious public health problems this causes. In 2015, Professor Sahani plans to study other health risks associated with air pollution and haze on the affected community. In addition, she will focus on determining the toxicity of the constituents of haze pollution in Malaysia.

In 2013, a week-long forest

fire in Sumatra’s Riau Province emitted as much greenhouse gases as 50 million cars emit in a year. Toxic particles from haze are the deadliest form of air pollution because of their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing DNA

For further information contact: Professor Mazrura Sahani School of Diagnostic Science and Applied Health Faculty of Health Science, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia E-mail: mazrura@.ukm.edu.my

mutations, heart attacks and premature death.


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ENVIRONMENT

Chensiyuan

Mapping elements like wind flow patterns helps planners build better cities.

Mapping Singapore’s urban heat island phenomenon Researchers in Singapore are developing a microclimatic modelling tool to prevent further deterioration of the country’s urban heat island phenomenon. An urban heat island (UHI) is an urban area that is warmer than the surrounding rural areas due to human economic development. A UHI is also characterised by increased air pollution and decreased relative humidity. In Singapore, where dense urban structures result in the UHI phenomenon, rapid population growth and the expansion of city development are expected to further worsen the quality of urban life. Led by Dr Poh Hee Joo, researchers at the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Institute of High Performance Computing are developing an urban microclimatic modelling tool specifically designed for Singapore’s urban landscapes to help city developers draw up UHI countermeasures. The tool provides mapping data for temperature, wind, solar irradiation and shading. It aims to hinder any further rises in temperature and ambient noise, thus improving the liveability of Singapore. “Our multi-physics urban microclimatic modelling tool is considered a pioneer work in the building and urban physics research field. It has great potential for breakthrough and innovation,” says Dr Poh Hee Joo. Three steps were involved in the development of the microclimatic modelling tool. First, the team used computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a fluid flow analysis and simulation method, to produce an urban wind flow and temperature map. Second, they produced a solar irradiance and shading map with daylight simulation. The team then combined the two maps to obtain more accurate urban microclimatic information.

As a result, the new tool is capable of providing numeric values to Singapore’s urban microclimatic data. It can also produce high resolution and accurate wind and thermal distribution predictions to an actual urban built-up district, using realistic weather conditions. Dr Poh Hee Joo and his colleagues are continuing to develop The urban microclimatic the tool. In 2014, the researchers were awarded government funding modelling tool aims to to enhance energy resilience, environmental sustainability and hinder any further rises in urban systems. In the newly funded project, which will run until October Singapore’s temperature 2017, the team is working closely with Singapore’s Housing and and ambient noise. Development Board and the National University of Singapore, along with other government agencies. “As a next step, we plan to couple outdoor environmental design with indoor thermal comfort analysis, especially for buildings with an opened atrium and passive design,” says Dr Poh Hee Joo. “Ultimately, this can be further developed into a common platform for planning, visualisation and environmental modelling processes.”

For further information contact: Dr Poh Hee Joo Scientist and Capability Group Manager Institute of High Performance Computing Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: pohhj@ihpc.a-star.edu.sg


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Josh/flickr

More than 70% of Nepal’s arable land is on hillsides, where soil fertility is low and rains are variable.

Boosting yields and improving livelihoods on terrace farms An international team of researchers is developing sustainable agriculture kits to enhance crop yields, nutrition and incomes for hillside farmers in Nepal. Nepal’s mountainous topography makes for some of the world’s most challenging farming. More than 70% of arable land is on hillsides, where soil fertility is low and rains are variable. Malnutrition is widespread: nearly half of children under the age of five show signs of stunting. As many Nepalese men migrate to seek higher incomes, the burden of farming in these rugged conditions increasingly falls on women. Sustainable An innovative research collaboration aims to agriculture kits sustainably boost yields and improve livelihoods through intensified terrace agriculture, while easing give farmers the the drudgery for thousands of women farmers. Canada’s University of Guelph, the Nepal-based right tools and NGO Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development, and its grassroots spin-off company information on Anamolbiu are working to scale up the use of sustainable agriculture kits. how to maximise These low cost, locally tested kits combine a tailored seed mix with simple tools and millet yields. instructions. Kits can contain varieties of droughtresistant and soil-nourishing legumes chosen to enhance yields and nutrition. The focus is on crops suitable for planting on terrace edges and along terrace walls. Tools might include simple seed planters, as well as reusable storage bags that protect harvested grain from fungus and insects. Instructional picture books teach farmers how to best use the seeds and tools, including how to breed their own hybrid seeds, conserve water and improve animal feed. Earlier research focused on reviving small millet cropping in rain-fed areas of South Asia. Trials in Nepal identified seed varieties, tools, and planting and growing techniques that are well suited to terrace farming in difficult hillside terrain. These include transplanting finger millet seedlings in rows rather than broadcasting seeds, and intercropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes. One of the world’s oldest known food crops, small millets are highly nutritious, hardy and well adapted to dry

zones with poor soils. Sustainable agriculture kits give farmers – many of whom are illiterate women – the right tools and information on how to maximise yields so they can take advantage of this valuable food source. In the newest phase of research, the project is expanding to include additional highland crops and will be testing a novel public-private partnership model to target 25,000 households with easy access to the kits. Priced at $10 or less, the kits will be sold through existing networks of market-stall vendors. This is a low-cost investment, given that farmers can earn many times that amount from improved crop production. Meanwhile, further innovations are being tested, including GlnLux, a Canadian-engineered microbial biosensor that helps farmers maximise organic nitrogen production from interplanted legume crops. This may help terrace farmers improve soil nutrient management, leading to healthier soils and profits. By working with Nepal’s hillside farmers to intensify agriculture and by tapping into existing networks of small entrepreneurs to reach them, the project aims to produce lessons that could serve other countries where terrace farming is widespread. The initiative is funded by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, a joint program of Canada’s International Development Research Centre and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada.

For further information contact: Manish Raizada University of Guelph, Canada E-mail: raizada@uoguelph.ca Roshan Pudasaini Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development, Nepal E-mail: rpudasaini@libird.org International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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Salinity-stressed plants

might represent potential sources of bio-active [antioxidant] compounds.

Purslane (Portulaca orelacea) is an herb grown in most regions of the world.

Salt-tolerant herb rich in antioxidant compounds Researchers in Malaysia are exploring the link between antioxidant production in the herb purslane and the salinity of the soil where it grows. Their results suggest that salt-stressed purslane may be a potential source of bioactive compounds for commercial use. Epidemiological studies have emphasised the importance of eating foods high in antioxidants to reduce the risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease, two leading causes of death worldwide. Inside the body, antioxidants neutralise free radicals, which can trigger cancer. These compounds are also known to have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. Purslane (Portulaca orelacea) is an herb grown in most regions of the world. It can adapt to various environmental stresses more easily than many other vegetables, which gives it a distinct competitive advantage. One of the reasons for purslane’s adaptability is its defence mechanism against saline soil. Salt stress increases levels of free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can damage DNA and other metabolic products in plant cells. To detoxify ROS, purslane produces antioxidants such as phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids. Intrigued by the nature of this mechanism, Dr Amirul Alam and colleagues at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) investigated the relationship between the concentration of antioxidants contained in purslane and the salinity levels of the soils in which it grew. “Plant materials containing high phenolic and carotenoid compounds are increasingly of interest for

the food industry as they participate in the defence against ROS. Thus salinity-stressed plants might represent potential sources of bio-active [antioxidant] compounds,” says Dr Alam. Dr Alam’s team collected cuttings from 12 samples of purslane in West Peninsular Malaysia. All samples were grown in rice field topsoil for 30 days. Afterwards, the team applied pure water (control) or varying concentrations of salt water to each purslane sample. The biomass of the harvested purslane and its antioxidant levels were then measured. The results showed that most purslane samples had higher levels of antioxidants than those observed in common garden vegetables such as asparagus, cabbages, carrots, celery, cucumbers, leaks, snap beans, Swiss chard and turnips. Consistent increases in antioxidant levels were also observed in four purslane samples following salinity treatments. These increases varied between 14% and 387%. Despite this, the UPM study also found that above a certain salinity level (8.0 deciSiemens per metre), all of the purslane samples experienced significant decreases in biomass production. This finding suggests that salt concentrations should not exceed this threshold for the economic production of the herb. For further information contact: Dr Amirul Alam Department of Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture Universiti Putra Malaysia E-mail: amirul81@gmail.com


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Kamal Vatta/Punjab Agricultural University

Researchers at work in Punjab

Protecting food, energy and livelihoods in Punjab Researchers are working with Punjabi farmers to test innovations that will reduce pressure on overused aquifers. The state of Punjab spearheaded the Green Revolution that has transformed Indian agriculture. Encouraged by price guarantees, expanded irrigation and the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties, Punjabi farmers have shifted toward intensive production of grains. Although it occupies just 1.5% of India’s land mass, Punjab now grows more than half A key the country’s grain, including nearly 20% of its wheat and 12% of its rice. innovation is the However, groundwater levels are falling across 90% of the state, with the decline use of low-cost, accelerating since the 1980s. In the context of climate change, the timing of the rainy season locally produced is increasingly unpredictable. With no solid climate information to guide them, and with soil moisture state policies encouraging energy- and watersensors that let intensive agriculture, farmers are rapidly depleting underground aquifers. rice farmers know Since 2008, Punjab Agricultural University in India and Columbia University in when to irrigate the United States have worked with farmers to address these unsustainable practices. The and seed. latest phase of research – launched in 2012 with funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre – links low-income farmers, corporations, the state development bank and the state agricultural extension program to test innovations that will reduce pressure on overused aquifers. This initiative is helping farmers use meteorological information to plan their water and energy use, while exploring how policy reforms and agricultural value chains might shift production toward more sustainable practices. A key innovation is the use of low-cost, locally

produced soil moisture sensors that let farmers know when to irrigate and seed. In trials, farmers testing sensors averaged water and energy savings of more than 20%. When farmers used the sowing method known as direct seeding of rice rather than transplanting, water savings were as much as 34%, with no decline in yields. Research is now scaling up to include more than 5,000 farmers in five districts of Punjab. Policy reform is also essential. Since farmers have little incentive to change their practices when electricity is provided free to them, they receive a guaranteed price for water-intensive grain crops, and there is no regulation or pricing on groundwater. To explore market incentives that could move farmers away from thirsty crops such as rice, the team is working with industry to test how agricultural value chains can encourage crop diversity. Through cooperative agreements with farmers, the food corporation Field Fresh is contracting for fruits and vegetables, which consume less water than grains. The processing stages also provide work for local women. With research concluding in late 2015, the team is assessing the potential for a prolonged mega drought, as well as the role that changes in irrigation practices, crop diversification and energy pricing could play in mitigating its impacts. Recommendations will be presented to policymakers and the state agricultural extension program. The evidence will help guide a much-needed transformation of water and energy use in Punjab. For further information contact: Rajinder Singh Sidhu Punjab Agricultural University, India E-mail: sidhurajinder@gmail.com International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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Using ozone to protect papaya exports Professor Ali’s team also found that ozone treatment Malaysian researchers are developing an ozone can delay and decrease the incidence of anthracnose, a treatment to protect papaya and other exotic fruits common postharvest disease of papaya, by inhibiting the from diseases and decay during storage and growth of microorganisms on the surface of the fruit. transportation. Ozone is also effective at removing fungicide residues. Postharvest diseases reduce the value and quality of Further study confirmed that ozone has similar antiagricultural products, leading to economic losses for microbial effects on freshly cut fruits growers and producers. This is a major issue and vegetables, which are generally for agricultural countries like Malaysia, which Ozone-treated papaya had more exposed to bacterial exports papaya. Current technologies such as contamination during the cutting synthetic fungicides help minimise these higher antioxidant activity than process. losses, although potential risks to human Professor Ali’s team is health and the ecosystem restrict the use of untreated papaya. currently working in collaboration such chemicals. with healthcare technology supplier Led by Professor Asgar Ali, researchers MedKlinn International to further research on ozone at the Centre of Excellence for Postharvest treatment as a safer alternative for food protection. This Biotechnology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia collaboration will look into the commercialisation of Campus are currently exploring the potential of ozone as ozone treatment with some fruit and vegetable growers a safer alternative to synthetic fungicides. This and exporters. MedKlinn will supply an ozone chamber technology could help maximise profits for producers to these groups as a pilot project while Professor Ali’s while improving the safety and quality of agricultural team will provide technical expertise. This collaboration products for consumers. aims at targeting the fruit and vegetable export “It is saddening that current practices are too companies in Malaysia and recommending the use of dependent on the use of synthetic chemicals – no doubt ozone treatment as a safe alternative to the control of due to their effectiveness. But our health should come postharvest anthracnose. into consideration as well,” says Professor Ali. To test the effects of ozone, the team exposed freshly harvested papaya to gaseous ozone for 96 hours For further information contact: and then stored it at cool temperatures for 14 days. The Professor Asgar Ali results showed that ozone-treated papaya had higher Director, Centre of Excellence for Postharvest Biotechnology antioxidant activity and higher levels of ascorbic acid, The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus beta-carotene and lycopene than untreated papaya. E-mail: Asgar.Ali@nottingham.edu.my

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A sliced papaya with its seeds and leaves


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Main image depositphotos.com - Insert images 123rf.com

Almost 40% of all Malaysian meals are consumed outside the home.

Food barometer measures a population’s eating habits A survey by Taylor’s-Toulouse University Centre (TTUC) is collecting data on the food habits of individuals and how their choices are related to modernisation and other social factors. Results show that almost 40% of all Malaysian meals are consumed outside the home – one of the highest dining out rates worldwide. Malaysia is well known for its diverse cuisine. As a country where many Asian cultures meet, it hosts a growing number of food restaurants. For many years In the meantime, the urbanisation, middle class and service sector of Malaysian society nutritional surveys are increasing rapidly, making more and more have been capturing Malaysians choose to eat in restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. the changes in food According to Professor Dr Jean Pierre Poulain, Chair of Food Studies: Food Cultures consumption but and Health at TTUC, this phenomenon is there was no increasing the risk of Malaysians developing non-communicable diseases such as comprehensive study diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease “because when you cook less, there focusing on the are more parts of your [diet] that you do not socio-cultural control.” “In terms of coping with the rise in determinants of obesity and non-communicable diseases, the restaurant industry is on the front line of the eating habits at the problem as well as the solution,” says national level. Professor Poulain. In 2013, the Chair of Food Studies Mr. Neethiahnanthan Ari Ragavan, launched a unique survey – called the Dean, School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts, Taylor’s University. Malaysian Food Barometer (MFB) – that examines where Malaysians eat their meals, what they eat, and how their choices relate to modernisation and other social factors.

The MFB provides data and infographics about Malaysians’ food habits, the food culture of Malaysian society and its relationship with demographic factors such as social status, level of education, ethnicity, gender, age and household size. The survey also explores the correlation between the lifestyle of individuals and their body size (obese, overweight, normal or underweight). So far, the MFB has revealed that more than 38.5% of all Malaysian meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper) are consumed outside the home. According to the survey, this result positively correlates with urbanisation and will likely increase in the coming years. “As this is probably one of the highest rates [of dining out] worldwide, it raises concerns for diet management and higher risks of non-communicable diseases and obesity,” he says. “The Malaysian society thus represents an interesting context to better understand the role of social organisation in eating decisions and consequences for public health.” Professor Poulain is now widening the team’s current collaboration, which currently includes three other universities and the industrial sector, to conduct a second round of the MFB. He plans to increase the survey size – which was originally a nationally representative, 2,000person sample – and compare current eating trends in Malaysia with other food barometer data around the world. For further information contact: Professor Dr Jean Pierre Poulain Chair of Food Studies: Food, Cultures and Health Taylor’s-Toulouse University Centre Taylor’s University, Malaysia E-mail: jean-pierre.poulain@taylors.edu.my


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The technology can

measure hundreds of micro-RNAs (tiny molecules that indicate the presence of tumours) from just a few drops of blood.

Gastric cancer – the second deadliest cancer worldwide – has a particularly high prevalence among Asian populations.

A non-invasive tool for diagnosing cancer Researchers in Singapore have developed an ultrasensitive method to detect micro-RNAs: tiny molecules that can indicate the presence of tumours. They are applying the technology toward a non-invasive screening test for gastric cancer. In 2012, 8.2 million lives were lost to cancer around the world. This number is expected to double by 2030. However, many cancer deaths could be prevented if the disease was detected earlier. To improve cancer detection, researchers in Singapore have developed a new method for diagnosing cancer non-invasively. It involves detecting micro-RNAs (miRNAs): small, non-coding RNA molecules that are important in the regulation of gene expression. Certain abnormalities that can occur in miRNAs have been implicated in various diseases, including cancer. Research has shown that miRNA molecules are incredibly stable in blood, making them an excellent biomarker of disease. In fact, tumour-specific miRNAs have recently been reported. However, these molecules are difficult to detect because they are present at extremely low levels in the blood. Researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Bioprocessing Technology Institute and the National University of Singapore have developed an algorithm and miRNAdetection technology that is much more sensitive than

those currently in use. The technology, which is compatible with existing laboratory instruments, can measure hundreds of miRNAs from a few drops of blood with unparalleled precision, sensitivity and speed. The researchers, who have since spun off MiRXES, a biotechnology startup, are now working with the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium and the A*STAR Diagnostic Development Hub to develop a test that detects gastric cancer before symptoms appear. A clinical study involving thousands of patients is in the planning phases. If successful, it will be the first noninvasive screening test for gastric cancer: the second deadliest cancer worldwide and one with a particularly high prevalence among Asian populations.

For further information contact: Professor Too Heng-Phon Bioprocessing Technology Institute, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Department of Biochemistry, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine National University of Singapore E-mail: bchtoohp@nus.edu.sg Dr Lihan Zhou Co-founder and CTO, MiRXES E-mail: lihan_zhou@mirxes.com


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3D printer generates realistic model of a cancerous tumour An international scientific team has successfully created a three-dimensional model of a cancerous tumour using a 3D printer. Their model could ultimately help discover new drugs and cast new light on how tumours develop, grow and spread. Presented in the IOP Publishing journal Biofabrication, the realistic 3D model consists of a scaffold of fibrous proteins coated in cervical cancer cells. A 10mm by 10mm grid structure – made from gelatin, alginate and fibrin – recreates the fibrous proteins that The three-dimensional tumour model consists of a make up the scaffold of fibrous proteins coated in cervical cancer cells. extracellular matrix of a tumour. The grid structure is coated in Hela cells: a unique, “immortal” cell line that was originally derived from a cervical cancer patient in 1951. The most effective way of studying tumours is in a clinical trial. However, ethical and safety limitations make it difficult for such studies to be carried out on a wide scale. To overcome this, two-dimensional models – consisting of a single layer of cells – have been created to mimic the physiological environment of tumours and test anti-cancer drugs in a realistic way. With the advent of 3D printing, it is now possible to provide a more realistic representation of the environment surrounding a tumour. The researchers

demonstrated this by comparing results from their 3D model with results from a 2D model. After testing if the cells remained viable, or alive, after printing, the researchers examined how the cells proliferated, how they expressed a specific set of proteins that help tumours spread, and how resistant the cells were to anti-cancer drugs. They found that 90% of the cancer cells remained viable after the printing process. In addition, the 3D model shared more similarities with a tumour than 2D models including a higher proliferation rate, higher protein expression and higher resistance to anti-cancer drugs. “We have provided a scalable and versatile 3D cancer model that shows a greater resemblance to natural cancer than 2D cultured cancer cells,” says the lead author, Professor Wei Sun of Tsinghua University in China and Drexel University in the United States. The researchers are now trying to understand both cell-cell and cell-substrate communication and immune responses for their printed tumour-like models. “With further understanding of these 3D models, we plan to use them to study the development, invasion, metastasis and treatment of cancer using specific cancer cells from patients,” says Professor Sun. “We can also use these models to test the efficacy and safety of new cancer treatment therapies and cancer drugs.” For further information contact: Professor Wei Sun Tsinghua University, China Drexel University, Philadelphia, United States E-mail: weisun@mail.tsinghua.edu.cn, or sunwei@drexel.edu

Diagnostic gamma camera to help locate breast cancer lesions

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A prototype camera, which uses gamma ray detection to pinpoint breast cancer lesions in three dimensions, promises to extend the useful life of two-dimensional nuclear imaging devices in developing countries. Designed by Dr M. Iqbal Saripan of the Universiti Putra Malaysia, the 3D camera uses a wire-mesh collimator: a novel gamma ray-focusing device that he invented. Compared with X-rays, gamma rays yield more useful images because they penetrate bone as well as soft tissue. Older nuclear imaging devices already in use had a high initial cost, but the progression of medical technology makes their two-dimensional images obsolete. Adding Dr Saripan’s single-photon emission

computed tomography (SPECT) camera, which is about the size of a large suitcase, to these room-sized machines would extend their service lives for far less cost than replacing them outright. Dr Saripan’s team is currently preparing the SPECT camera for field testing. For further information contact: Dr M. Iqbal Saripan Department of Computer and Communication Systems Engineering Faculty of Engineering, Universiti Putra Malaysia E-mail: iqbal@upm.edu.my


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Researchers in Malaysia have analysed the genomes of people with a rare genetic disorder to better understand their predisposition to cancer across generations. Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS) is one of the most variable forms of so-called “familial cancers”, in which cancers occur in families more often than one would expect by chance. The development of cancer at an early age in multiple family members may indicate the presence of a gene mutation that increases the risk of cancer. Patients from families with LFS often carry a germ line mutation: a genetic change in the reproductive cells that becomes incorporated into the DNA of every cell in the body of offspring. One germ line mutation of particular interest occurs in a tumour suppressor gene called TP53, the so-called “guardian of the genome”. Normally, this gene repairs DNA and controls a cell’s growth and division. A mutation in this gene impairs these functions. Previous studies on LFS have suggested that affected patients develop cancer more rapidly in successive generations, a phenomenon called “genetic anticipation”. To learn more about the genetic basis of LFS and how it occurs across generations, researchers analysed

Porem

Understanding cancer onset cancer patterns in a large database of LFS relatives and performed whole genome sequencing on 13 people with a family history of LFS across two generations. Professor Hany Ariffin and colleagues from the University of Malaya’s Cancer Research Institute conducted the study in collaboration with researchers in France and the United States. Using human data and mouse models, the researchers proposed a novel hypothesis, called genetic regression, to explain their findings: germ line TP53 mutation carriers who develop cancer at a late age may have an inherent genetic resistance to early cancer onset. Following from this work, Professor Ariffin and her collaborators will investigate the genetic evolution of primary and secondary cancers in patients with LFS.

For further information contact: Professor Hany Ariffin Department of Paediatrics University of Malaya, Malaysia E-mail: hany@um.edu.my

Female immune response could hold key to new cancer therapies An understanding of natural immune suppression mechanisms in the female reproductive tract could lead to new ways to combat cancer. Just after menstruation, the immune response of the female genital tract is “up and running” to stave off sexually transmitted infections. A few days after ovulation, however, the immune response is modulated by a transient increase in a group of immunosuppressive enzymes. This helps make the uterus more hospitable to potential implantation by a semi-foreign embryo. These enzymes inhibit T cells, which are responsible for targeting and destroying cells infected with foreign microorganisms. Interestingly enough, these same enzymes also increase in tumours, inhibiting the body’s natural immune response. Researchers at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) are studying the female genital tract’s natural ability to modulate the immunological milieu during different phases of the menstrual cycle. Their research could ultimately lead to the design of drugs that target immune suppression in tumours. Such drugs could prove helpful to patients who have a low tolerance to chemotherapy or require combinatorial treatment regimen. “Over the course of 2015, our research will be focused on gathering sufficient evidence to show that an immune suppression mechanism operating in the female genital tract to support conception also operates in tumour micro-environments,” says Dr Joyce Ibana, an associate professor at UPD’s Institute of Biology. “Our goal is to demonstrate this phenomenon in vitro.”

Female genital tract

Tumour microenvironment

For further information contact: Dr Joyce Ibana Associate Professor, Institute of Biology University of Philippines Diliman E-mail: jaibana@upd.edu.ph


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Mechanobiology provides insight into disease and healing processes Researchers in Singapore are gaining further insight into how the mechanical environment of cells drives fundamental cellular processes such as motility, growth and survival. These processes are integral to many clinical challenges, from cancer prognosis to wound healing and skin repair. Cells are constantly exposed to mechanical stimuli such as compressive or elastic forces, or the push or pull between neighbouring cells. How a cell responds to these forces is determined by the presence of molecular mechanoreceptors and mechanotransducers. These include stretchable proteins located at the cell membrane as well as a dynamic network of contractile filaments, known as the cytoskeleton. Since mechanical signals are integrated into biochemical signalling pathways, mechanotransduction mechanisms influence basic cellular processes, right down to nuclear dynamics and gene transcription. With these principles in mind, researchers from the Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) at the National University of Singapore are exploring the interplay between cell mechanics and biochemical pathways. They hope to gain insight into its contribution to physiological functions and disease progression.

“How cells are shaped, how they move, how their growth is controlled, and how they form larger tissues are fundamental questions that are biomechanical.” Professor Michael Sheetz, Director, Mechanobiology Institute, National University of Singapore

Controlling cell proliferation In one study led by Professor Jay Groves, MBI researchers examined the regulation of “Ras” (a protein involved in cell proliferation) at a level never before achieved. Using an innovative device developed at MBI called the MembraneChipTM, the team visualised for the first time the activity of individual SOS proteins, which are key regulators of Ras. The team found that when SOS proteins adopt a rare but highly active conformation or shape, a single SOS molecule could activate thousands of Ras molecules. This finding could have important implications given that the Ras protein plays a key role in cancer progression. In another study, led by Professor Low Boon Chuan, MBI researchers discovered that an interaction between Ras and a second protein called Rho, which is involved in cytoskeleton regulation, can slow the growth of certain Ras-induced liver cancers in zebrafish. Specifically, they found that the concurrent expression of two particular forms of these proteins can slow tumour growth and increase survival rates. Since the tumours they studied closely resembled the most common type of human liver cancer, this finding may lead to new therapies to help suppress the spread of this disease. `

Dr Larisa Bulavina

Harnessing cell motility Another area of interest to MBI researchers is cell motility (the movement of cells), which is essential for wound healing and skin repair. Here, cytoskeletal dynamics generate the forces required to initiate and maintain cell movement. Cell-to-cell adhesions allow these forces to be transferred between cells and enable cells to move together in a process known as collective cell migration. By growing cells on tiny pillars and controlled substrates, MBI researchers can simulate wound healing and measure the forces the cells generate. In one study, a team headed by Professor Chwee Teck Lim and Professor Benoit Ladoux observed the formation of epithelial cell bridges, which were supported almost entirely by adhesive forces between individual cells. In a second study, Professor Ladoux and his colleagues identified a novel mechanism involved in wound healing, whereby contractile protein filaments made by individual cells join together and compress the material under the wound to help speed up the repair process. Next steps MBI researchers are continuing to explore the role of mechanical stimuli and physical forces on cellular processes such as motility, cell invasion, differentiation and cytoskeleton dynamics. The institute’s major focuses include how mechanical signals influence nuclear dynamics and gene expression, how mechanical signals translate into biochemical signals, and the dynamics of cell adhesion.

For further information contact: Dr Steven Wolf Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore National University of Singapore E-mail: stevew@mechanobio.info, mbisjw@nus.edu.sg

Did you know? Developed in the laboratory of Professor Jay Groves, the MembraneChipTM is a micro-fabricated array of wells, each of which contains a membrane consisting of two lipid layers. This device allows scientists to visualise and measure interactions between single membrane-bound molecules.


Powerful. Automated. Affordable. Bench-top cell imaging and analysis for a wide range of applications.

www.cytation3.com

www.biotek.com


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Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM), Nagoya University

Scientists have, for

the first time, identified a receptor deep inside the brains of quail that directly detects light..

The presence of a female quail

causes the testosterone levels in a male to rapidly decrease.


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Quail breeding discoveries shed light on human sexuality Japanese researchers are studying quail to understand the underlying mechanisms involved in their breeding behaviours. At Nagoya University and the National Institute of Basic Biology, researchers have found a brain receptor that helps to initiate quail breeding. Meanwhile, researchers at Waseda and Kitasato universities are exploring the neurochemical link between male aggressiveness and the presence of females. The Japanese quail is commonly used to study socio-sexual behaviours and their underlying mechanisms. Quail undergo rapid and robust sexual changes during their short breeding season, which happens in response to seasonal changes. Sexually mature male quail are also known to fight with intense aggressiveness, yet this aggression seems to decrease in the presence of female quail. Deep brain photoreceptor At Nagoya University’s Institute of Transformative Biomolecules (ITbM) and the National Institute of Basic Biology (NIBB), scientists have, for the first time, identified a receptor deep inside the brains of quail that directly detects light. This receptor plays an important role in regulating breeding activity according to changes in the seasons. It has long been known that vertebrates, with the exception of mammals, can detect light deep inside their brains, independent of their eyes. More than 100 years ago, scientists trained blinded fish to come to the surface for food in response to light. Later research showed that the gonads of blinded ducks grew in response to their exposure to longer days. But despite many years of research, the true nature of the key receptor involved in this process remained a mystery until now. Studies reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 revealed the existence of a light-detecting receptor protein called Opsin-5 that was produced by nerve cells deep inside the brains of quail. There was no direct evidence, however, to show that these nerve cells were directly detecting light. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers at ITbM and NIBB used special microelectrodes on brain slices to investigate the response of these nerve cells to light. They found that the cells were activated when exposed to light. When the researchers inhibited neurotransmitters (chemicals released by nerve fibres that transmit nerve impulses from one cell to another), the nerve cells still responded to light, suggesting they were detecting light directly. In a separate experiment, when Opsin-5 was inhibited in adult quail, the hormone that triggers spring breeding in birds was also inhibited. Opsin-5 also exists in humans. The researchers believe their work will contribute to understanding how mammals regulate their biological clocks. It may also lead to improvements in animal breeding and provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of eyes and photoreceptors. Building on this work, ITbM researchers are now applying the institute’s cutting-edge expertise in organic synthesis and catalysis to develop “transformative bio-

molecules” that significantly improve animal production and human health. Quail love and the neurochemistry of male aggressiveness Meanwhile, at Waseda and Kitasato universities, scientists are studying the neurochemical pathways involved in translating social signals into physiological reproductive changes. In 2000, researchers at Waseda University identified for the first time a new hormone, called gonadotropininhibitory hormone (GnIH), located in the brains of quail that inhibits reproduction. This hormone has also been identified in mammals. The researchers found that nerves related to this hormone also projected to areas of the brain related to aggressive and sexual behaviours. This led them to further explore how the hormone was linked to aggression in male quail. In one study, published in Nature Communications, the researchers injected the hormone into a male’s brain. They found that this increased the activity of an enzyme called aromatase that converts the male hormone androgen into the female hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen levels in the brain thus greatly increased. Also, when they injected high concentrations of oestrogen into a male’s brain, its aggressive behaviour greatly decreased. In a separate study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers analysed how the presence of female quail modifies both the reproductive hormones in a sexually active male, and the synthesis and release of neurochemicals in its brain. They found that when a male quail sees a female quail, this causes a rapid increase in the release of GnIH, resulting in the suppression of pituitary gonadotropins that stimulate the secretion of testosterone. The female’s presence thus rapidly decreases testosterone levels in the male quail. This is exceptional within most vertebrate species in which increases in testosterone levels usually follow interaction with a female. In 2015, the researchers plan to explore how the presence of female quail modifies neurosteroid levels in the male brain, and investigate why the presence of a female decreases aggression and plasma testosterone levels. Ultimately, they say, future work involving the study of socio-sexual behaviours in humans could lead to new ways to regulate aggressiveness. For further information contact: Dr Takashi Yoshimura (Brain photoreceptor) Institute of Transformative Bio-molecules World Premier International Research Center Initiative Nagoya University, Japan E-mail: takashiy@agr.nagoya-u.ac.jp Dr Kazuyoshi Tsutsui (Love and aggression hormone) Laboratory of Integrative Brain Sciences Department of Biology Waseda University, Japan E-mail: k-tsutsui@waseda.jp


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Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

KAIST’s protein detection platform can be used with paper substrates.

Biomedical sensors for disease detection made simple Researchers in Korea have succeeded in making a new protein detection platform using low-cost plastic and paper substrates. Their work could help reduce the cost and improve the accuracy of infectious disease diagnosis. Healthcare researchers are increasingly focused on the early detection and prevention of illnesses. Early and accurate diagnosis is vital, especially for people in developing One challenge countries where infectious diseases are the leading cause of death. One way to achieve for biomedical sensors early detection is by developing simple biomedical sensors. is to ensure a device One challenge, however, is to ensure that biomedical sensors are environmentally is environmentally stable, disposable and cost-effective. Current stable, disposable and biosensors are made of glass or very expensive gold substrates that make it cost-effective. difficult to broaden their use and mobility in diagnostic and research areas. Tackling the issue of expensive substrates, a research team at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a new protein detection platform that can be used with paper substrates. Not only is a paper substrate incredibly flexible and simple to handle, it is also 1,000 times less costly than the traditional glass substrate and 100 times less expensive than plastic substrates. Unlike previous biochip sensors, which required complicated surface treatment methods to bind their target

molecules, the new protein detection platform works via a simple, one-step process, which takes single molecules (monomers) and introduces them to an oxidant-coated substrate in vapour form. Called “initiated chemical vapour deposition” (iCVD), this process can cover surfaces without damaging substrates and can successfully immobilise proteins (such as fluorescent proteins or antibody fragments) that may indicate the presence, for example, of pathogens. Unlike previous methods, the iCVD process does not require solvents and therefore is much better at binding to different surfaces without degrading them. So far, the KAIST team has successfully used the iCVD process not only on traditional substrates like glass, but also on flexible and low-cost alternatives such as paper and polyethylene films. The researchers hope this new technology will provide a cost-efficient platform to reduce the manufacturing costs of protein biochips. Further research will continue in 2015, they say, to improve the performance and operation of the paper-based biochip.

For further information contact: Professor Ki Jun Jeong and Professor Sung Gap Im Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Daejeon, Korea E-mail: kjjeong@kaist.ac.kr and: sgim@kaist.ac.kr


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One of the biggest hurdles was to

differentiate people infected with tuberculosis from those who have received the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine.

For further information contact: Mohamad Amran Mohd Salleh Institute of Advanced Technology Universiti Putra Malaysia E-mail: asalleh@upm.edu.my

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Researchers in Malaysia and Iran have developed a simple diagnostic test to quickly and reliably detect tuberculosis in humans. Tuberculosis (TB) represents a growing worldwide healthcare burden. Second only to HIV in terms of its global impact, TB infected 8.5 million people and caused 1.4 million deaths in 2011. If these statistics are to improve, early detection is critical. Led by Taha Roodbar Shojaei and Mohamad Amran Mohd Salleh of Universiti Putra Malaysia, the international research team set out to develop a sensitive new system that could quickly and reliably detect TB in humans. One of their biggest hurdles was to differentiate people infected with tuberculosis from those who have received the bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine for tuberculosis. Using modified quantum dots, gold nanoparticles and single strand DNAs, the team developed a layered biosensor that not only detects TB in patients’ sputum but also differentiates positive results from samples of vaccinated people. Using the new sensor, the team has conducted preliminary tests on 50 clinical samples from patients in Tehran who were suspected of having TB. While current TB diagnostic tests based on the polymerase chain reaction technique for isolating DNA have an approximately 80% success rate for both sensitivity (the ability to correctly identify the disease) and specificity (the ability to rule out other conditions such as BCG vaccination), the new method was rated between 86.6% and 94.2% accurate. The researchers believe they have developed a simple, rapid, sensitive and specific detection method with an affordable cost. Their biosensor requires small amounts of sputum and could therefore be an appropriate detection technique where limited sample volumes are available. In 2015, the team plans to further enhance its biosensor system with carbon nanoparticles instead of gold. If time permits, the team will develop a working device and interface to simplify the detection of TB, perhaps with a smartphone app.

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Testing for tuberculosis

The true burden of tuberculosis Prisons are common settings for tuberculosis (TB) outbreaks, yet screening and prevention services can be extremely limited. As the spread of drug-resistant TB increases, understanding and monitoring levels of the disease among vulnerable populations can minimise the delay of much-needed treatment. Malaysia has witnessed decades of good TB control. However, a recent increase in new cases among the general population has fuelled concerns that this trend is linked, in part, to high rates of TB in crowded settings, including prisons. Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman and Dr Haider AlDarraji from the University of Malaya’s Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS sampled and surveyed prisoners from Malaysia’s largest prison. Their work was published in the journal BMC Public Health. Over a six month period, the researchers asked all HIV-infected – as well as a comparative group of HIVuninfected – prisoners at Kajang prison to participate in tuberculin skin test surveys that included questions about previous incarcerations, history of TB disease and previous illicit drug use. Overall, they found that 88.8% of all prisoners had been exposed to TB, which represents the first empiric data in this population. The team has also found similar rates among prisoners in Pengkalan Chepa prison in Kelantan State, confirming a high rate of TB exposure among the incarcerated population of Malaysia. When infected prisoners are released back into society, they may spread the disease among their community and the general population, which may be one of the factors responsible for increasing rates of TB. According to the researchers, the high prevalence of TB in these samples suggests that evidence-based TB control programs urgently need to be implemented in Malaysian prisons. Such programs could have a positive impact on the overall rates of TB, not only among prisoners but also in the general population at large. For further information contact: Dr Haider Al-Darraji Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS University of Malaya, Malaysia E-mail: haider.ceria@um.edu.my


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MFG b. 30 – 39 years old

MFG c. 40 – 49 years old

MFG d. 50 – 59 years old

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysi

MFG a. 20 – 29 years old

In this series of images, neural activity in the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) region decreases with age – possibly due to an age-related reorganisation of brain function. (Note: white spots indicate the highest intensity of brain activation while red spots mark the lowest intensity.)

Changing activity in the ageing brain age groups. All age groups used the same areas of the Normal ageing affects our ability to carry out complex brain to perform the task, but the pattern of activation cognitive tasks. But exactly how our brain functions differed. As participants aged, activity decreased in two change during this process is largely unknown. Now, frontal areas of the brain (the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and researchers in Malaysia have demonstrated that ageing middle frontal gyrus (MFG)) that are involved in complex changes the activity patterns in specific brain regions cognition. Conversely, activity increased with age in two involved in memory and cognition. other areas of the brain (the cerebellum and precuneus) Led by Hanani Abdul Manan of the Universiti that form strong connections with those Kebangsaan Malaysia, the study focused on frontal regions. brain regions that are used to carry out two Performance declined The reasons for the different patterns of complex cognitive processes: visual mental brain activity are unclear, but the decline in imagery, which allows us to form images in with increasing age and this task performance with age suggests that our mind; and working memory, the ability to the lower activity in frontal regions of the temporarily hold was accompanied by brain impairs cognitive performance, while information at the the higher activity in the other regions front of our minds. differences in brain activity might represent compensatory The researchers mechanisms. tested these between the age groups. The researchers say their future cognitive functions research will be geared toward evaluating the effects of as well as the brain activity that various cognitive tasks on an ageing brain. In particular, underlies them in 54 Malaysian their focus will be on tasks that involve working memory men aged 20 to 65. The processing and on understanding how this processing is participants were divided into four influenced by experimental manipulations. The team hopes age categories and asked to its research will lead to a better understanding of how the perform a backward repeating task. They first heard five brain works and how ageing affects normal brain functions. familiar words and were then asked to visualise and rearrange those words in their mind before repeating them aloud in reverse order. Their performance was assessed by For further information contact: the accuracy of repetition. Brain activity was measured Hanani Abdul Manan during the task using functional magnetic resonance School of Diagnostic and Applied Health Sciences imaging. Faculty of Health Sciences The researchers found that participants’ performance Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia E-mail: hnani81@gmail.com declined with increasing age and this decline was accompanied by differences in brain activity between the

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


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123rf.com

Protein mimic shows promise as tissue engineering glue

Cell adhesion is crucial

for the development of

Researchers have demonstrated the potential of a “synthetic protein mimic” to promote the adhesion of brain cells in a laboratory setting. This feat could help overcome a major challenge in nerve tissue engineering. To study brain metabolism, scientists typically isolate brain cells from an organism and then culture them in the laboratory. It can be challenging, however, to provide brain cell cultures with the necessary adhesion promoters to facilitate the attachment, spreading, growth and development of these cells. Improving cell adhesion to biomaterials is also a major challenge in nerve tissue engineering. Cell adhesion is crucial for the development of implanted neural prostheses, such as cochlear implants, as well as blood glucose and other implanted biosensors. One approach for promoting nerve cell adhesion in laboratory settings is to coat the surfaces of negatively charged cell membranes with positively charged synthetic proteins. However, most synthetic proteins are toxic to living cells and need to be washed off before cell suspensions are spread onto a new plate. They are also unsuitable for applications used inside a living organism. Within the central nervous system, proteins such as collagen and laminin promote the regeneration, differentiation, adhesion and migration of nerve fibres. Both proteins contain a specific sequence of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that can mediate the adhesion of many cell types, including nerve cells. AGMA1 is a synthetic protein mimic that is biocompatible, water soluble, positively charged, and contains an amino acid sequence similar to that found in collagen and laminin. Non-toxic to living cells, AGMA1 hydrogels have been tested successfully as tubular scaffolds for the regeneration of sciatic nerves in rats. What’s more, AGMA1 is much easier to prepare on a large scale using relatively low-cost materials and thus is less expensive to make. Reporting in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials, University of Milan scientists tested the potential of AGMA1 to promote the adhesion, proliferation and differentiation of primary brain cells cultured directly from animal brains. When different primary cell types from rat brains were cultured on AGMA1, the novel protein’s performance was comparable to that of conventional substrates made from commonly used synthetic proteins. The research team is currently investigating whether AGMA1 can be used as a non-toxic carrier of nucleic acids as well as its ability to deliver proteins to cells. Future plans include the study of AGMA1 hydrogels as scaffolds for various bioengineering applications.

cochlear implants, as well as blood glucose and other implanted biosensors.

For further information contact: Dr Paolo Ferruti Department of Chemistry University of Milan, Italy E-mail: paolo.ferruti@unimi.it


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In Malaysia, 1,096 cases of illegal infant abandonment were recorded from 1999 to 2011.

Uncovering the scope of infanticide and infant abandonment in Malaysia Researchers have published the first systematic data on infanticide and illegal infant abandonment in Malaysia, which could ultimately aid in the development of preventive measures. Infanticide refers to the non-accidental death of infants from one day to one year in age. Infant abandonment, on the other hand, has no universal definition. In Malaysia, recent perceived increases in infant abandonment incidents have prompted authorities to impose stricter punishments. They have also started implementing “baby hatches”, provided by private and non-governmental organisations, where a parent can anonymously leave a baby [see sidebar]. A lack of official data, however, impedes the development of proper preventive and management strategies. Led by Dr Salmi Razali, researchers in Malaysia and Australia set out to gather the first systematic data on infanticide and illegal infant abandonment in Malaysia. Their aim is to determine the prevalence of such incidents, estimate annual rates, and describe the characteristics of both victims and suspected perpetrators. “My hope is that my research creates awareness of the importance of a proper surveillance system so that we can gather enough valid information to make

accurate conclusions on this issue,” says Dr Razali. The team initially collected data from police records, birth registrations and international sources, which were used to compare data between countries. The researchers then tabulated the annual cases of illegal infant abandonment, abandoned infants found dead, as well as the characteristics of victims and suspected individuals. The team calculated the estimated rates of infanticide and infant abandonment using the same calculation methods as the United Nations to obtain infant mortality rates. Only the inferred rate was determined for infanticide, because the original data did not distinguish between miscarriages, abortions and potential infanticides. The results showed that 1,096 cases of illegal infant abandonment were recorded from 1999 to 2011 in Malaysia. In the most recent five-year period, the estimated rate of infanticide ranged from 4.82 to 9.11 per 100,000 live births – lower than the rates recorded in India, China and Tanzania [see sidebar]. The researchers also found that Malaysia’s estimated infanticide rates were positively correlated with the Gender Inequality Index, suggesting that gender inequality might contribute to the phenomena of infanticide and abandonment. The team speculates that


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Did you know? Non-governmental organisations in Malaysia run various programs to prevent infanticide and infant abandonment, including “baby hatches”, where a parent may leave a baby anonymously for care and protection. Another program, called School of Hope, provides special schools for pregnant teenagers to continue their education as well as receive counselling and skills training in a privacy-protected environment.

Did you know?

the lower the socio-economic and political status of women within Malaysian society – reflected in a lack of financial and social security, low political participation, and limited access to and use of contraception – the more at-risk women may be for unwanted pregnancies, which are one of the recognised risks of infanticide. To date, however, no studies have been conducted to support this hypothesis. In other results, it appeared that more boys than girls were victims, and the adult suspects were predominantly female Malays, who were usually mothers of the victim. However, Dr Razali and colleagues noted that a substantial amount of data was missing from original sources, making it impossible to draw conclusive results. “Unless enough information is available, we cannot calculate accurate infanticide and infant abandonment rates. More research is therefore warranted,” she stresses. While improving gender equality might reduce the rates of infanticide and illegal infant abandonment in Malaysia, strengthening the surveillance system as well as data methods for collecting, recording and reporting these incidents will hugely benefit future research, the researchers conclude. Dr Razali is currently conducting interviews with women who have been convicted of committing infanticide, in order to provide a wider perspective on the topic and help improve the understanding of infanticide and related issues in Malaysia.

Tanzania (27.7) China (15.5) India (12.3) Malaysia (4.82 to 9.11) UK (4.3 to 6.3) USA (2.1 to 6.9) New Zealand (4.5) Australia (2.7) Finland (0.8) 30

25

20

15

10

5

0

Infanticide rates per 100,000 live births by country.

For further information contact: Dr Salmi Razali Discipline of Psychological and Behavioural Medicine, Faculty of Medicine Universiti Teknologi MARA E-mail: drsalmi@salam.uitm.edu.my The Jean Hailes Research Unit, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Monash University, Australia E-mail: salmi.razali@monash.edu

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On average, 84 cases of illegal infant abandonment were documented annually in Malaysia from 1999 to 2011, according to a Child Abuse and Neglect paper by Dr Salmi Razali and colleagues. Malaysia has lower inferred infanticide rates than India, China and Tanzania, which recorded 12.3, 15.5 and 27.7 deaths per 100,000 live births respectively, but higher rates than Finland (0.8 per 100,000 live births), Australia (2.7), New Zealand (4.5), the United States (2.1-6.9) and the United Kingdom (4.3-6.3).


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Nguyen Thi Thanh Ha/PHAD

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One-way text

messages provide vital health information prompts, while two-way messages solicit responses to identify high-risk cases.

In mountainous regions of Vietnam, ethnic minority women lack essential knowledge on reproductive health, pregnancy and natal care due to their isolation and other barriers.

Building maternal e-health in Vietnam Researchers are harnessing mobile phone technology to provide ethnic minority women in Vietnam with crucial information about pregnancy, birth and infant care. Vietnam has made impressive strides in recent years in improving the health of mothers and children and in reducing deaths linked to pregnancy and childbirth. But in remote regions, maternal mortality rates are almost four times higher among ethnic minority groups. Census data shows that minority groups have larger families, higher infant and child mortality rates, and a lower life expectancy than the Kinh majority. In mountainous regions, ethnic minority women lack essential knowledge on reproductive health, pregnancy and natal care due to their isolation and other barriers. To address these gaps, a research team led by Vietnam’s Institute of Population, Health and Development (PHAD) is harnessing the power of low cost and widespread mobile phone technology. An electronic maternal health platform, called mMOM, links health system users and providers by using mobile phones to connect with Thái Nguyên province’s health management information system (HMIS). With funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the initiative is being tested in eight communes of the province’s Dinh Hoa district in north-east Vietnam, where ethnic minority groups make up more than one-quarter of the population. The initiative, co-managed by the provincial health department, will ultimately strengthen both staff capacity and the quality of data that decision-makers can use in health system planning. The project is part of a global IDRC-funded initiative called SEARCH that is examining how to integrate e-health technologies into health systems in developing countries to improve delivery of care.

Using the existing provincial HMIS, women of reproductive age were identified in the target areas. So far, the pilot initiative is connecting 340 women, including newlyweds, pregnant women and new mothers. Health staff from provincial and commune levels are being trained and supported in maternal and child health care, as well as the new maternal e-health system. The project has established a Maternal and Child Health Information Centre to provide women with crucial information about pregnancy, prenatal care, birth and infant care. Participants have been linked by mobile phone to commune health staff. Based on their profile, women receive appropriate and timely text messages. One-way messages provide vital health information prompts, while two-way messages solicit responses to identify high-risk cases. For example, new mothers are reminded that their babies can be immunised for free at their local health centre and pregnant women are prompted to take iron supplements. Responses to periodic queries can alert healthcare workers when urgent interventions are needed. Minority women are thus gaining knowledge and trust in reproductive health services available to them. At the same time, mMom is building a more accurate picture of the needs and demographics of health system users. Over the next two years, researchers aim to shed light on the factors that limit health system use and undermine the health of mothers and children. Lessons from mMom will inform efforts to scale up maternal e-health efforts across Vietnam and beyond, helping mothers in remote regions access quality care and vital information to raise healthy families. For further information contact: Liem Nguyen Institute of Population, Health and Development, Vietnam E-mail: liem@phad.org International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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Waseda Universiy

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This research was

motivated by my desire to shorten the response time for emergency prenatal care in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

World’s first demonstration of the ultrasonic diagnostic robot in January 2014.

A diagnostic robot for remote prenatal ultrasound exams A Japanese researcher is developing a robot that can conduct prenatal ultrasound exams on pregnant women in remote locations. Although previously considered, the medical examination of pregnant women from a remote location had never been attempted due to safety concerns, such as those relating to the weight of the diagnostic equipment. To address this, Professor Hiroyasu Iwata of Waseda University has designed a structure that supports the weight of the machine, thus reducing the potential burden on a patient's body. “This research was motivated by my desire to shorten the response time for emergency prenatal care in the Tokyo metropolitan area,” says Dr Iwata. "Eventually, I want to use this technology for at-home and remote area medical examinations." “Our central challenge is to prove its applicability to a real pregnant woman whose stomach is growing larger and larger,” he adds. Last November, in an experiment involving two expecting mothers, “we confirmed the robot's ability to follow the shape of their abdomens and obtain ultrasound echo images. The head, hands and feet of each foetus were clearly visible, which increases our motivation to make this technology a practical reality.” Dr Iwata says the next step is to have a practicing physician conduct a trial on the robotic device in an obstetrics clinic and obtain feedback from patients over a one to two month period.

In November 2014, the robot successfully obtained ultrasound echo images for this expecting mother.

For further information contact: Dr Hiroyasu Iwata Department of Modern Mechanical Engineering Faculty of Science and Engineering Waseda University, Japan E-mail: jubi@waseda.jp


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Indian scientists team up against deadly viruses The Indian government is spending $100 million to create a network of 160 virology labs. Scientists hope this will allow them to better chart unknown and emerging pathogens in the subcontinent. In the balmy days of winter in southern India, before the hot season sets in, young, energetic ticks infected with viruses are more likely to spread diseases to forest animals. Monkey fever, or Kyasanur forest disease, recurs regularly in winter in the southern jungles. When bonnet macaques and black-faced langurs start succumbing to the haemorrhagic fever, it’s only a matter of time before people living in the forest fringes become infected and start dying too. Virologists can stop the spread of a Kyasanur disease outbreak by vaccinating people in nearby villages. But other pathogens are harder to combat. Each year, tens of thousands of Indians die from unexplained fever illnesses, says Govindakarnavar Arunkumar, director of the Manipal Centre for Virus Research in Karnataka state. To come to grips with unknown and emerging pathogens, the Indian government has embarked on a five-year, $100 million programme to create a national network of 160 virology laboratories. Ten region-level labs will each get a biosafety level three laboratory for handling particularly dangerous pathogens. “India is home to an array of viral pathogens,” says Ken Earhart, who until September 2014 served as India country director for the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among India’s emerging killer viruses are Chandipura virus, which is transmitted by sandflies; Nipah virus, which is spread by bats; and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, which is tick-borne. While the network focuses on viruses, it will also serve as a sentinel for other types of emerging pathogens. For example, in 2014, virologists in the nascent network helped chart especially severe and widespread outbreaks of scrub typhus, caused by a rickettsia-like bacterium. The impetus for the virology

For further information contact: Govindakarnavar Arunkumar Director, Manipal Centre for Virus Research Karnataka, India E-mail: arun.kumar@manipal.edu

Dhruvaraj S/Flickr


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Vectors of India’s killer viruses

The sandfly The sandfly tranmits the Chandipura virus, which was named after the area where it was discovered in 1965. Raul654/Wikimedia

Fruit bats Fruit bats are the natural host of the Nipah virus, which was identified during an outbreak in Malaysia in 1998. Adam Cuerden

CDC/ Frank Collins

network is some lucky near misses for India’s frail public health system. Two illnesses caused by coronaviruses with high fatality rates – SARS, which emerged in China in 2003; and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome or MERS, which has been reported in 22 nations since 2012 – have not been reported in India. The deadly H5N1 bird flu strain flares occasionally in India but has not spread to people there. Similarly, the H7N9 strain, which emerged in China in 2013 and which the World Health Organization calls an “unusually dangerous virus for humans”, has not jumped to India. All these pathogens have been shots across the bow that awoke India to the need for a more robust surveillance system. Ramping up capability will also give scientists a deeper understanding of pathogens they are used to dealing with, like Kyasanur forest disease. “We really do not know the extent of its spread or the disease burden,” says Arunkumar. That’s in part because several other diseases, including dengue and leptospirosis, can masquerade as Kyasanur. The new network, he says, should allow for more systematic studies on Kyasanur forest disease. The new virology network will be overseen by the National Institute of Virology in Pune, near the western coast of India, and the National Centre for Disease Control in Delhi. A couple of dozen labs are already up and running.

Each year

thousands of Indians die from unexplained fever illnesses.

Monkey fever recurs in winter months, when bonnet macaques (pictured) and black faced langurs get ill. It is only a matter of time before people get infected too. Virologists stop the spread of the disease by vaccinating people in nearby villages.

Ticks The Hyalomma tick can spread the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever. It was first identified by Russian scientists in 1944.


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Traditional therapies for treating periodontitis have drawbacks.

Ozone antiseptic shows potential for treating severe gum infections A powerful new antiseptic agent, called ozone nanobubble water, holds promise for the treatment of periodontitis, or severe gum infections, according to research published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials. The study, by Professor Shinichi Arakawa and colleagues, evaluated the bactericidal activities of ozone nano-bubble water – also known as NBW3 – against the two main bacterial Antibiotic agents that cause periodontitis. It also assessed NBW3’s toxicity to human oral treatments for tissue cells. Their results showed that NBW3 can periodontitis have kill periodontal pathogens within 30 seconds of exposure, yet has only a minor several significant impact on the viability of oral tissue cells after 24 hours of exposure. drawbacks, including Based on their in vitro results, the the selectivity of researchers conclude that NBW3 could become a valuable tool for treating antimicrobial action, periodontitis. However, since in vitro models cannot be directly compared to possible development real-life clinical situations in which oral antiseptics are diluted with saliva, the of resistant bacteria, authors recommend further research to determine the extent to which NBW3's and risk for adverse potency may be reduced by the saliva of dental patients. host reactions. Periodontitis is an inflammation of the oral tissues that surround and support our teeth. It is caused by bacteria residing in “biofilms” or dental plaque. The traditional first step of periodontal treatment involves mechanical debridement (i.e. scraping away the dental plaque and dental calculus). Various antiseptics

and antibiotics have been used to supplement mechanical debridement. But antibiotic therapies have several significant drawbacks, such as the selectivity of antimicrobial action, possible development of resistant bacteria, and risk for adverse host reactions. For these reasons, the topical use of a low-cost, broad-spectrum antiseptic agent with low potential for adverse reactions is preferable. One possible alternative is ozone, which has strong antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses, and does not induce microbial resistance. Aqueous ozone is highly biocompatible with oral tissue cells. However, ozonated water must be used within the first five to ten minutes after production to assure its potency. To address this obstacle, co-author Masayoshi Takahashi and his colleague Kaneo Chiba developed a patented procedure to produce ozone nano-bubble water. NBW3 retains its oxidation ability for more than six months if protected from exposure to ultraviolet rays. Its high stability allows for the bottling and use of NBW3 as a disinfectant solution. Next on the team’s agenda is to study the potential of NBW3 to prevent adverse health effects during periodontal treatment. For further information contact: Shinichi Arakawa Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Japan E-mail: s-arakawa.ltoh@tmd.ac.jp Masayoshi Takahashi National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan E-mail: m.take@aist.go.jp


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Life-prolonging protein could inhibit ageing diseases Researchers have found a molecule that plays a key link between dietary restriction and longevity in mammals. This discovery may lead to the development of new therapies to inhibit age-related diseases. Studies have shown that moderate dietary restriction can increase the lifespan of many organisms, including mammals, while inhibiting age-related diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. A team of researchers from Japan and Korea set out to understand how this happens. They discovered that a protein, called neuropeptide Y (NPY), which transmits nerve impulses in the brain and autonomic nervous system, is an essential link between dietary restriction and longevity in mice. The researchers found that dietary restriction did not increase the lifespan of mice devoid of NPY to the same degree that it did in wild mice that had this protein. Dietary restriction also did not have the same protective effect against tumour formation and stress that it did in wild mice. On the other hand, other adaptive processes that are activated during dietary restriction, such as changes in energy metabolism, were not affected by the absence of neuropeptide Y.

What’s more, other researchers have found that an over-expression of the NPY gene increased the lifespan of rats that were not exposed to dietary restriction. The Japan-Korea team’s research, published in Scientific Reports, suggests that activating certain organs or tissues – such as the liver, heart, other muscles and blood vessels – with NPY could play a role in preventing age-related disorders, including cancer and Alzheimer’s. The researchers are currently engaged in joint exploratory research with pharmaceutical and food companies to develop substances that increase the expression of NPY as a deterrent to age-related diseases.

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Neuropeptide Y molecule. This neurotransmitter peptide plays an important role in food intake.

For further information contact: Dr Takuya Chiba Biomedical Gerontology Laboratory Faculty of Human Sciences and Institute of Applied Brain Sciences, Waseda University, Japan E-mail: takuya@waseda.jp


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The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Unlike X-rays, the Scolioscan is radiation-free and enables safer screening whenever needed.

A radiation-free method for diagnosing scoliosis healthcare workers to detect scoliosis at an early stage Researchers in Hong Kong have developed new or avoid unnecessary treatments for patients with stable technology that enables safer and more frequent spinal angles. It also allows close follow-up monitoring screenings for scoliosis. on the progress of spinal bracing or other treatments. Scoliosis is a medical condition that is defined as a “This technology can reduce the economic and three-dimensional spine deformity with curvature of psychological burdens for patients and their families,” more than ten degrees in the coronal plane (a vertical says Professor Zheng. plane that divides the body into its front and back Professor Zheng and his colleagues are currently halves). For young teenagers, the condition – known as exploring the Scolioscan’s potential. The team aims to adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) – can progress to a examine the spine’s structural development during large curvature that is six times greater than that in childhood and establish baseline data on the prevalence people above 16 years of age, as their bodies are still in of scoliosis at different age groups, while improving the the process of developing and hence are more technology’s functionality. For example, they hope to vulnerable to curvature. make the measurement process quicker, Although regular screening can help more automatic and more accurate as well as prevent scoliosis from worsening, the add angle measurements along the sagittal most common diagnostic method uses XThis technology plane (a vertical plane that divides the body rays. Due to the health risks posed by radiation exposure – including an can reduce the economic into its right and left halves). Another goal is to verify the results increased incidence of lung and breast produced by Scolioscan assessments. “The cancers – regular screening cannot be and psychological current verification standard is based on the conducted too frequently, particularly in burdens for patients Cobb’s angle method [used to measure spinal young patients. Previous studies indicate deformity] but it does not always represent the that X-ray images for AIS patients may be and their families. true value of spinal curvature,” notes taken every 3-12 months for 3-5 years. Professor Zheng. Led by Professor Yongping Zheng, “The values of spinal curvature researchers at The Hong Kong produced by Cobb’s angle can vary by up to seven Polytechnic University have developed “Scolioscan”, a degrees. Therefore, further research is needed to find a radiation-free technology that can accurately assess better way to verify the angles measured by the scoliosis in three dimensions. Scolioscan, or ultimately establish its own standard,” he The Scolioscan can assess a patient’s spine in the concludes. standing posture and generate coronal images of spinal curvature, which can then be measured to determine the severity of the scoliosis. The technology captures the For further information contact: spine’s 3D profile using identified bony landmarks to Professor Yongping Zheng measure spinal rotation and deformity along different Interdisciplinary Division of Biomedical Engineering planes. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Unlike X-rays, the Scolioscan is radiation-free and E-mail: yongping.zheng@polyu.edu.hk enables safer screening whenever needed, allowing


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PEOPLE

Hermin Indah Wahyuni

Indonesia’s media

is dominated by the

voice of private owners and their business and political interests.

Indonesia’s national public broadcasters have been weakened due to a lack of support, poor infrastructure and the absence of legal regulation.

Making the public heard across the Indonesian archipelago A researcher is examining how to transform Indonesia’s broadcasting system in order to better communicate stories and issues that have a public interest. Since the resignation of Soeharto in 1998, the government’s control over Indonesia’s media has ended and the country has become open to a free press. Ironically, rather than seeking to represent the public’s views and their right to know, Indonesia’s media is now dominated by the voice of private owners and their own business and political interests. The last presidential election in 2014 showed just how dominant the private sector was in Indonesia’s media, particularly in television and radio. People were confused about the country’s political situation because the owners of two large television companies lent their support to a particular presidential candidate. On some TV channels, people were informed that one candidate won the quick count survey. But on other channels, they were told that another candidate won. To improve this situation, Dr Hermin Indah Wahyuni, of Gadjah Mada University, is investigating how to transform the country’s broadcasting system in order to better communicate stories and issues that have a public interest. Her research, titled “Transformation of the Indonesian Broadcasting System for Strengthening Public Interest in the Digital Age”, is identifying some of the things that need to be done in order to revive public media in Indonesia.

Based on 2013 data obtained by the Australian firm Roy Morgan Single Source, Indonesia’s broadcasting system reaches around 99% of the public. “[This] shows that broadcasting is very strategic [for democracy],” says Dr Wahyuni. She adds that Indonesia’s national public TV (TVRI) and radio (RRI) have been very weak because of a lack of support from the government and the public itself, poor infrastructure, and the absence of legal regulation. “Among all those challenges, legal regulation is the most important one to tackle,” stresses Dr Wahyuni. Currently, public TV and radio 123rf.com in Indonesia are administered under two ministries: the Ministry of Communication and Information and the Ministry of Finance. Despite this, they have not received enough financial support to improve their infrastructure, says Dr Wahyuni. She recommends the government enact a law that regulates the position and financial resource of public media so it can be operated free from the state and the market.

For further information contact: Dr Phil Hermin Indah Wahyuni Communication Department Faculty of Social and Political Sciences Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia E-mail: herminkilo12@gmail.com


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Detecting indigenous linguistic knowledge Researchers in Malaysia have identified an important source of linguistic knowledge for minority languages by converting an original printed dictionary into an electronic, machine-readable form. Dictionaries for minority languages such as Penan – a language spoken by an indigenous group in Sarawak, Malaysia – often lack linguistic knowledge such as functional words (words that express grammatical relationships), collocations (sets of words that often appear together) and morphology (word structure). Led by Dr Bali Ranaivo-Malançon, researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak have discovered a way of extracting linguistic knowledge about the Penan language by converting a printed dictionary into an electronic “machine-readable” dictionary (MRD) and analysing it with language processing tools. After creating a PDF version of a printed EnglishPenan dictionary, the researchers used an optical character recognition tool to convert the PDF file into an

MRD. The team then applied “corpus processing” software to analyse the dictionary contents – creating the first list of functional words in the Penan language and identifying their collocations, some of which were previously unknown. The team also generated morphological information, including prefixes and suffixes, from the MRD using another software program called Linguistica. In the future, the team hopes to convert all existing Sarawak printed dictionaries with the agreement of the authors, says Dr Ranaivo-Malançon.

For further information contact: Associate Professor Bali Ranaivo-Malançon Faculty of Computer Science and Information Technology Universiti Malaysia Sarawak E-mail: mbranaivo@fit.unimas.my

Universiti Teknologi MARA

The Iban alphabet was invented in 1947.

Reviving the Iban alphabet Programme. (TULIS means “writing” in Iban.) “The ultimate A Malaysian indigenous group has revived its alphabet purpose of the course is to help revive the otherwise from the brink of extinction, thanks to specially designed disappearing Iban alphabet,” he explains. computer fonts. Dr Philip is now re-alphabetising three Iban folktales, The Iban is the largest indigenous group in Malaysia which are currently written in Latin, using the with a population of more than one million, Iban alphabet as part of an effort to transcribe most of whom live in the state of Sarawak, The researchers aim as many Iban language materials as possible. Malaysia. The Iban language is fairly He is also building an Iban alphabet dictionary common. It is the only indigenous language to help preserve the Iban for use as a reference for the Iban spelling that is officially taught in Sarawak schools system. and is spoken not only among the Iban but alphabet in digital form in “Most Iban, [whether] old or young, are also between the Iban and other ethnic by now aware that the Iban language has its groups. However, it was not a written the modern world. own alphabet that can be used to accurately language until Dunging anak Gunggu translate the Iban’s spoken language into a invented the first Iban alphabet in 1947. written language,” Dr Philip says. In 2010, extending Dunging’s work, Dr Bromeley Philip of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Sarawak developed computer fonts for the Iban alphabet, called LaserIban. His aim is to help preserve the Iban For further information contact: Dr Bromeley Philip alphabet in digital form in the modern world. The Associate Professor, Academy of Language Studies LaserIban is available for Windows and Macintosh Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Sarawak computers and is completely cross-platform compatible. E-mail: bromeley@sarawak.uitm.edu.my Using the LaserIban, Dr Philip has launched a course called the “Training unto LaserIban System”, or TULIS,


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C/N N/G, flickr

In Chennai, India, researchers found data on the number and location of public toilets to be unreliable. Without good data, sanitation investments were not reaching vulnerable communities.

Strengthening governance through open data A research network is exploring how open data can help address specific challenges and bring about positive change in developing countries. Governments hold a wealth of highly valuable data, including birth and death registries, financial records, public infrastructure inventories and much more. A growing open data movement has pushed for wider digital access to public data to increase government transparency, efficiency and accountability. It has also spurred business innovation in sectors such as public transport, infrastructure and health. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute pegged the potential global economic value of open data at $3 trillion. However, little hard evidence exists to suggest how open data strategies can benefit vulnerable groups. A research network funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre is helping to fill this gap. Led by the World Wide Web Foundation, the Open Data Research Network is exploring the emerging impacts of open data in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Using case studies from 14 countries, including India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines, researchers are examining how open data can help address specific challenges. In Chennai, India, for example, researchers found that existing municipal data on the urban poor – on informal settlements, water and sanitation access, and public health – is unreliable. Without data on the number and location of public toilets, for instance, public sanitation investments were not reaching vulnerable communities. Working with researchers, local officials significantly improved their procurement processes by creating and connecting different open databases. Another case study in India focused on the extractive energy sector, where a lack of publicly available data has hindered regulatory enforcement in the production of

coal, oil and natural gas. The study mapped the landscape of India’s energy sector. It identified barriers to accessing data and proposed ways in which more open data could help in many areas, from discouraging corruption to enforcing rules for environmental health and safety. In the Philippines, researchers have looked at how business, media, civil society Using case studies and other groups benefit from a national policy introduced in 2011 that requires local from 14 countries, governments to disclose financial and researchers are procurement-related information on their websites. The project has identified where examining how open local governments can be more accountable: for example, by making data can help address citizens aware of online public data sources and how they can make use of them. specific challenges. Through the Open Data Research Network, 17 research teams across three continents are fine-tuning and standardising data collection methods to assess whether and how open data is bringing about change in developing countries. A July 2014 report highlights how developing countries can more fully benefit from and build on their existing policy and practice to develop open data strategies tailored to local contexts.

For further information contact: Tim Davies Open Data Research Network E-mail: tim.davies@webfoundation.org International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


PEOPLE

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SANEM

About 85% of garment workers in Bangladesh are migrants from rural areas.

Building new skills for better jobs in Bangladesh Research teams are examining Bangladesh’s rural-tourban transformation in order to help the country move beyond low-skill jobs toward a high-skill economy. Bangladesh has been a job creation success story in recent years as a booming garment industry provides work for large numbers of rural migrants, especially women. The country is second only to China as the world’s largest apparel exporter, with its ready-made garment sector employing four million people and accounting for almost 80% of export The research earnings. will address a However, as Bangladesh increasingly shifts to non-farm employment, a new pressing concern in generation faces challenges finding good jobs in this country of more than 165 million Bangladesh and people. While changes in the employment landscape have brought many benefits, most elsewhere in South Bangladeshis still work in low-skill jobs in the informal sector. In addition, deadly fires and Asia: how to move building collapses have highlighted the uneven working conditions and weak enforcement of beyond low-skill labour laws in the country’s 5,000 garment factories. jobs and up the Led by the South Asian Network on manufacturing Economic Modeling (SANEM), research teams are examining Bangladesh’s rural-to-urban ladder to a hightransformation from multiple angles. Their findings will inform policies aimed at skill economy. improving young rural Bangladeshis’ chances of securing decent jobs and reaping the benefits of the global economy. The research, funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, will also address a pressing concern in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia: how to move beyond low-skill jobs and up the manufacturing ladder to a high-skill economy.

About 85% of garment workers in Bangladesh are migrants from rural areas, where non-farm opportunities may be in short supply. A factory job offers women more autonomy outside of the home and an alternative to early marriage. However, women in some of the poorest parts of the country face barriers to participation in the garment sector. Obstacles include distance, social constraints, lack of information about job opportunities, and absence of support networks in the cities. As part of this project, researchers are evaluating an innovative training and job placement program in northern Bangladesh to determine which interventions work best for rural residents hoping to secure factory jobs. The program, launched four years ago in Gaibandha District by local NGO Gana Unnayan Kendra, involves one month of skills training and a stipend. This is followed by an internship at a selected garment factory, usually in Dhaka, along with mentoring and help finding a good job. To date, more than 90% of trainees completing the program have found work. A randomized control trial involving 1,600 participants will help determine why some trainees drop out of the program, and which elements – the stipend, training or mentoring – contribute most to a successful outcome. The study is expected to provide insights relevant to other developing countries interested in connecting residents of poor regions to good job opportunities. For further information contact: Selim Raihan South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, Bangladesh E-mail: selim.raihan@econdu.ac.bd International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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Charles Darwin University

Manganese mining and field training in West Timor. Researchers Dr Bronwyn Myers and Rohan Fisher (end image).

Assessing the impacts of small-scale mining in eastern Indonesia Australian researchers are working with Indonesian government agencies and universities to assess the impacts of artisanal and small-scale mining in eastern Indonesia. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is typically done by unlicensed practitioners who have limited access to modern mining technology. Even though Indonesia is considered a middle-income country, ASM is still practiced across the archipelago. Villagers consider it a good way to generate cash income in the short term, however many of them do not realize its potential impacts on their health and environment. A team of scientists from Charles Darwin University and the Australian National University are now conducting research to monitor the impacts of manganese and gold mining in East Nusa Tenggara (a large group of islands in south-eastern Indonesia) and in South-East Sulawesi (located just to the north of East Nusa Tenggara) respectively. The project involves training local government officials to assess the social and environmental impacts of ASM in their region. In 2014, workshops were run – in collaboration with local universities – on the collection and analysis of ASM field data. In addition, a field trip was organised to Banten in western Java where a local NGO, Community Green Gold Mining, is implementing innovative solutions to reduce the impacts from mining. In the future, trained officials will collect data from mining sites and then use their local knowledge to develop solutions for their own region.

From an environmental perspective, it is known that ASM can lead to heavy metal contamination in rivers and coastal ecosystems, toxic health effects in miners who process gold and manganese ores, increased soil erosion In the future, trained and sedimentation, and reduced officials will collect data agricultural production. During this project, which will run until June 2016, from mining sites and then Indonesian officials will be trained to use geographical information systems use their local knowledge to map mining sites and measure contamination in local waterways. to develop solutions for From a social perspective, ASM gives poor people direct access to the their own region. mineral wealth of their land, providing diversified livelihoods and improving community resilience. However, ASM can also cause social upheaval, thereby increasing the chance of negative behaviours such as gambling, illegal alcohol sales or prostitution. To help minimise any negative impacts and maximise the benefits, Indonesian officials are expected to analyse the correlation of cash income generated from ASM activities with social problems.

For further information contact: Mr Rohan Fisher Charles Darwin University, Australia E-mail: rohan.fisher@cdu.edu.au Project website: http://asm4d.wordpress.com


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Malaysia is the third highest tourism destination in Asia, following China and Thailand, in terms of the number of international tourist arrivals in 2013. In South-East Asia, the top five tourist destinations are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The importance of community involvement for sustainable tourism Someone who knows well the consequences of not Researchers in South-East Asia are studying how tourism consulting with local communities is Dr Edieser Dela Santa policy and local community involvement impact the from the University of the Philippines Diliman. He tourism industry. investigated more than three-decades-worth of ecotourism In 2010, the government of Malaysia launched its policy implementation in Pamilacan, an island in the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), aiming to middle of the Bohol Sea in central Philippines. Pamilacan turn the country into a high-income economy by 2020. is known for its rich marine environment. A top-down Eleven industry sectors were prioritised under the ETP, approach was taken by the government to implement including tourism. conservation policies on the island in order to benefit local Meanwhile, the Philippines launched the Philippine tourism. However, local communities were not involved in Tourism Act in 2009 to restructure and boost tourism. this process and the new policies negatively affected their Among other provisions, the act increased the budget of livelihoods that depended on marine mammal the Department of Tourism; restructured and manta ray hunting. Later, Dr Dela Santa the office and agencies attached to it; In the past, tourism also analysed the process behind the institutionalised public-private government’s implementation of the Philippine partnerships; rationalised tourism areas, strategies have been Tourism Act of 2009, focusing on the dynamics zones and spots; and granted generous among organisations involved in setting up fiscal incentives to investors. developed based on the tourism enterprise zones across the country. Researchers in Malaysia and the In 2015, Dr Dela Santa plans to expand Philippines are looking into the impacts of needs of tourists. his studies on tourism policy into Japan and tourism policies and how they affect local conduct a policy network analysis of postcommunities. disaster tourism governance. He will be analysing the In Malaysia, researchers from Universiti Malaysia rejuvenation of tourism in earthquake-affected areas in Sarawak (UNIMAS) and Taylor’s University surveyed 350 Tohoku, Japan. “The project is envisioned to shed light on international tourists at Kuala Lumpur International Airport important theoretical issues on post-disaster network to assess their perception of Malaysia’s tourism industry in governance as well as provide practical lessons for light of the country’s ETP. They found that shopping, countries, such as the Philippines, which are recovering business, family holidays, historical heritage, local culture from devastating natural disasters,” he says. and cuisine were among the top reasons of travel to the country. On the other hand, only a relatively small percentage of tourists were visiting Malaysia for sports For further information contact: activities, events, spas and entertainment, leading the Dr Lo May Chiun researchers to recommend further development in these Faculty of Economics and Business areas. Universiti Malaysia Sarawak In the past, tourism strategies have been developed E-mail: mclo@feb.unimas.my based on the needs of tourists. UNIMAS researchers Mr Chin Chee-Hua, Ms Shaista Falak believe that local communities should be consulted as the and Ms Fong Sook Fun tourism industry depends on local support. Therefore, in Institute of Social Informatics and Technological 2015 the researchers plan to interview members of local Innovations communities to explore the strengths and weaknesses of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak current strategies for rural destinations in Malaysia. E-mail: cch.febunimas@hotmail.my In a previous survey of 80 families living in Annah Rais Falak.Shaista@gmail.com Longhouse, a large communal village house, the elsiefong25@gmail.com researchers found that community members believed Dr Edieser Dela Santa cultural attractions and natural resources significantly Asian Institute of Tourism contributed to the competitiveness of rural tourism. The University of the Philippines Diliman researchers will also investigate tourism’s impact on the E-mail: eddelasanta@upd.edu.ph local community and how relationships developed by communities with tourists create sustainable rural tourism.

Li Tsin Soon/Flickr

Did you know?


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Researchers studying how gender roles contribute to different types of violence in Pakistani cities aim to identify solutions and share them widely. Pakistan has a vigorous civil society, with the strength and courage of its citizens exemplified by individuals such as the young Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. But since its tumultuous birth in 1947, Pakistan has endured successive waves of violence. In 2013, Karachi’s deadliest year on record, violence claimed 2,700 lives and up to 40% of businesses fled the city to escape extortion rackets. A clear diagnosis of the roots of this violence is essential to achieving stability. Beyond the headline-grabbing attacks, Pakistan’s people suffer violence in many forms. Poverty is widespread, with more than half the population living on less than $2 a day. Communal conflicts have been fuelled by shifts in the country’s ethnic and religious balance in the last half-century. Women suffer discrimination under rigid gender roles that both sexes struggle to live up to in conditions of poverty. The country’s population is also young, with more than two-thirds under the age of 30. While much attention has focused on young men as the agents and victims of violence in urban Pakistan, less is known about the experiences of young women. To address this gap, a research team led by the Karachi-based Institute of Business Administration is looking at how gender roles contribute to different types of violence in Pakistani cities. They are assessing whether solutions may lie in highlighting how these roles can entrap men and women, and improving access to livelihood opportunities, education and services such as water and sanitation. Focusing on youth in working-class areas of Karachi and the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the team first mapped the main types of violence occurring in each neighbourhood and tracked coverage in the media. They followed up by documenting the perceptions and daily realities associated with the violence, and how young men and women experience it. A central question is how frustrated gender expectations may fuel the violence. In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, researchers found that both men and women associate masculinity with providing for the family, upholding morals and traditions, and making decisions. Combined with a belief that violence is a justifiable means of maintaining authority, these expectations can be a trigger for men who suffer financially or feel undermined. Understanding these preconceptions is a first step to identifying solutions. Research suggests, for example, that women’s economic status is a significant predictor of abuse. Being able to work and study outside the home can change women’s acceptance of domestic violence as “normal” and help them build protective social networks. Jointly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the UK’s Department for International Development, the researchers aim to deepen understanding of how social connections and urban design can address community violence, and to share their findings widely.

Muzaffar Bukhari/flickr

Defusing violence and vulnerability in Pakistan

PEOPLE

In Rawalpindi and

Islamabad, both men and women associate masculinity with providing for the family,

upholding morals and traditions, and making decisions.

Bullet shell found during a community cleanup in Islamabad.

For further information contact: Nausheen Anwar Institute of Business Administration, Pakistan E-mail: nha3383@gmail.com International Development Research Centre, Canada E-mail: info@idrc.ca


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TECHNOLOGY

Used cigarette butts offer energy storage solution

123rf .com

Once fabricated, the carbon-based material was attached to an electrode and tested in a three-electrode system to see how well the material could adsorb electrolyte ions (charge) and then release them (discharge). The material stored more electrical energy than commercially available carbon, graphene and carbon nanotubes. “Our carbon-based material has the potential for use as an electrode material in lithium ion batteries, a catalyst-supporting material in fuel cells, and pollutant adsorbents,” says Professor Yi. “We hope our inventions will ultimately help reduce the environmental burden of cigarette butts while lowering the manufacturing cost of high quality carbon materials.”

Using cigarette butts to combat dengue In addition to their energy storing potential, cigarette butts may one day be used to control dengue, one of the world’s most important mosquito-borne viral diseases. Noting that cigarette butts are “impregnated with thousands of chemical compounds, many of which are highly toxic and none of which has [a] history of resistance in mosquitoes,” a research team in Malaysia, Japan and Thailand examined their potential for controlling mosquitoes that harbour the dengue virus. Reporting its findings in the journal Acta Tropica, the team found that female mosquitoes actually prefer laying eggs in an environment that contains cigarette butts over a butt-free environment. What’s more, the researchers observed that exposure to cigarette-butt waste has “detrimental effects on the [fertility] and longevity of [mosquito] offspring.” wikipedia

Scientists in South Korea have developed a new way to store energy that also offers a solution to a growing environmental problem. Reporting their findings in the IOP Publishing journal Nanotechnology, the research team successfully converted used cigarette butts into a high performing material that could be integrated into computers, handheld devices, electric vehicles and wind turbines to store energy. According to the study, this material outperforms commercially available carbon, graphene and carbon nanotubes. It may someday be used to coat the electrodes of supercapacitors: electrochemical components that can store extremely large amounts of electrical energy. “Our study has shown that used cigarette filters can be transformed into a high performing carbon-based material using a simple one step process, which simultaneously offers a green solution for meeting the energy demands of society,” says co-author Professor Jongheop Yi of Seoul National University. “Numerous countries are developing strict regulations to avoid the trillions of toxic and non-biodegradable used cigarette filters that are disposed of into the environment each year. Our method is just one way of achieving this,” adds Professor Yi. Carbon is the most common material found in supercapacitors due to its low cost, high surface area, high electrical conductivity and long term stability. Scientists around the world are working to improve the characteristics of supercapacitors – such as their energy density, power density and cycle stability – while trying to reduce production costs. In their study, Professor Yi and his colleagues demonstrated that the cellulose acetate fibres found in most cigarette filters could be transformed into a carbon-based material using a simple, one-step burning technique called pyrolysis. The resulting material contained a number of tiny pores, increasing its performance as a supercapacitive material. “A high performing supercapacitor material should have a large surface area, which can be achieved by incorporating a large number of small pores into the material,” says Professor Yi. “A combination of different pore sizes ensures that the material has high power densities, which is an essential property in a supercapacitor.”

For further information contact: Professor Jongheop Yi Seoul National University E-mail: jyi@snu.ac.kr


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TECHNOLOGY

123rf .com

Recharging in private An electronic payment system developed in Singapore will protect the privacy of customers recharging their electric vehicles. Most electric vehicles need to be recharged every 100 to 150 kilometres, with each recharge potentially exposing information related to a customer’s payment and location. Now, researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) have designed a new system that can allow quick and easy money transfers at electric vehicle charging stations without jeopardizing customer privacy. “Cybersecurity is an important factor for payment systems, but it is often ignored by users or administrators until the system is being attacked,” says researcher Joseph Liu. The recharging of electric vehicles presents unique challenges for privacy, not least because some cars with solar panels can sell electricity back to the grid, meaning payments flow in both directions. Without tight security, payment companies or hackers could monitor where and when cars are charged, gaining insight into people’s lifestyles that could be exploited for spam marketing. “Some popular electronic payment systems, like credit cards, do not provide any privacy, while other systems, like prepaid cash cards, may not be suitable for

large payments, or are not insured against card loss,” says Liu. “Cash is anonymous, but requires expensive machines to keep cash stores secure from thieves.” The new system developed by Liu and co-workers is based on an in-car unit that resembles a smartphone or tablet and allows two-way anonymous payments for recharging. Users can instantly shut down their accounts and retrieve unused credit. Also, if their car is stolen, they can revoke the location privacy to help police trace the car. In the event of a dispute between a user and a supplier, either party can submit the claims to an independent judging authority for investigation. The researchers tested their system by simulating three different types of attack: a hacker trying to track the transactions of an honest user, a user trying to underpay for services, and a supplier trying to slander an honest user. The system proved robust against all three attacks. The team has implemented a prototype of its secure charging system and is now seeking an opportunity to deploy the tamper-proof in-car units in electric vehicles. For further information contact: Dr Zhou Jianying Head of Infocomm Security Department Institute for Infocomm Research Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: jyzhou@i2r.a-star.edu.sg

GREEN COMPUTING SYSTEMS R&D CENTER Waseda University, Tokyo

Super computer Automobile | Smartphone | Robotics Solar powered cloud servers | Medical systems

www.kikou.waseda.ac.jp/gcs/en/ Sponsored by Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan


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TECHNOLOGY

Ali Mohammed Emad Eldin Hussein

Research at QU

Qatar University – advancing high-quality research Qatar University (QU) has signalled a clear commitment to high-quality research that addresses national needs and advances scientific knowledge. Accordingly, an ambitious research roadmap was launched in 2014 to outline a clear and specific set of research priorities that reflect the unique responsibility and commitment of the organisation to support research that is responsive to national priorities and major challenges facing the State of Qatar. With a boom in research and the highest growth rate in research in the region, QU is well-placed as a leading partner in contributing to Qatar’s aspirations toward a knowledge-based economy, as well as its development strategies. This has also positioned the university as the fastest-growing in the Middle East for research. QU research is fuelled by a considerable budget that serves to provide optimum resources, facilities and equipment for the wide-range of its research activities conducted by faculty, students, researchers and collaborators within its eight colleges and research centers. QU has also led in achieving research funding from the National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) under the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) over the past few years. In the 7th cycle, QU researchers won 62 awarded proposals out of 389 submissions, which translate to about 38.3% of the total awarded proposals – the highest among awarded institutes. Since 2012, QU has continued to develop a vibrant research culture that is reflected in its many graduate programs, accredited laboratory facilities, and a teaching and learning environment that places research at the core. The organisation established a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art research complex and is home to 14 research centers, which include the Gulf Studies Center, Center for Entrepreneurship, Center for Sustainable Development and the most recent Biomedical Research Center.

Additionally, the university boasts a unique marine research vessel, RV Janan. The vessel launched a new era of research at QU and provides invaluable opportunities for students of the biological, environmental and marine sciences to conduct environmental studies and research in the waters of Qatar and the Gulf region. QU’s many collaborative research activities have strengthened its partnership with leading organisations in Qatar, in the region and beyond, resulting in more than 480 current research projects with institutions in over 140 countries. One of the university’s key research initiatives – Qatar Biofuel Project, the only one of its kind in the region – involves a collaboration with Qatar Airways and Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). The project aims to find solutions for affordable, sustainable biofuels – specifically for use by the airline industry. Additionally, QU is in the process of establishing a research center for microalgae, which will include a bank of microalgae strains that have been isolated from Qatar’s environment. With a newly-established College of Medicine, the organisation is contributing to the country’s medical and clinical research priorities, in partnership with leading national health providers such as Hamad Medical Corporation, Supreme Council of Health, Sidra and others, toward the goals expressed in the National Health Strategy. QU also benefits from a number of signed agreements and MOUs for professorial Chairs that engender research opportunities, graduate training and internships. For further information contact: Judith Bennett Henry Senior Editor (English) External Relations Department Qatar University Email: jbennetthenry@qu.edu.qa


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TECHNOLOGY

Engineering a multipurpose, environmentally friendly dam Researchers in the Philippines are using green engineering to develop a low-cost dam that aims to prevent flooding, generate electricity, and help end food and water shortages. Designed by a team from the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), the “Gaia dam” could control or prevent flooding from torrential rains on farms, along rivers and in coastal areas by minimising and re-routing the flow of water through storm runoff pathways. Its main structural frame consists of gabion cages: wire mesh baskets filled with sturdy columns of recycled concrete cylinders or rocks, which provide stability against the hydrostatic forces pushing through the dam. Like a miniature hydroelectric power plant, the Gaia dam could divert water into the powerhouse where turbines are installed, yet do so less expensively than the concrete dams that are usually used for this purpose. In addition, the dam is designed to release proprietary proteins and enzymes when water passes through its specialised core. Its proteins are designed to help crops absorb soil nutrients and minerals, while its enzymes would gradually dissolve the exoskeletons of insects and other pests that attack the crops, thereby acting as natural fertilizers and pesticides. Thus the Gaia dam has the potential to help in the production of organic crops. The UPD research team is now exploring the possibility of creating a spin-off company to produce the Gaia dam and is seeking partners to license its technology. Meanwhile, the team plans to further develop the technology and build prototypes for Filipino farms.

The Gaia dam has the potential

to help in the production of organic crops with its special proteins and enzymes that are released when water passes through its core.

For further information contact: Kent Renier M. Carandang and Rhey Joseph S. Daway Institute of Civil Engineering University of the Philippines Diliman E-mail: km.carandang@yahoo.com rjsdaway@yahoo.com

The dam’s frame consists of gabion cages: wire mesh baskets filled with sturdy columns of recycled concrete cylinders or rocks.


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Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a software platform designed to manage and control devices for “Internet of Things” (IoT) systems. The platform can be tailored for everything from city management sensors and devices to controlling home appliances. The Internet of Things (IoT) is an emerging technology in which smart devices are interconnected and communicate via the Internet. A limitless range of devices could be incorporated into the IoT, from refrigerators and TVs to cars and solar panels. However, there is currently no universal system for managing these devices and the data that is transferred between them. “Many vendors focus on device manufacturing and provide good technologies for wireless connectivity between devices,” explains Dr Billy Chan, senior manager of the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI). “But many existing systems lack an IoT management platform.” There is also no standard platform to leverage the development of IoT applications, which means that designers need to start from scratch with each new application. This is time consuming and costly. ASTRI has developed the “IoT Management and Application Platform” (IMAP), which allows the connection of a local network of devices to the Internet, and provides remote management of devices and data through a simple and customisable web-based graphical user interface. The system supports several technological standards for communication between devices, web interfaces and network architecture. This means it can be used on different platforms to support a diversity of devices and the development of IoT applications.

Other Smart City applications: Based on the Solar Street Light Management application, the ASTRI team can further develop an “Environmental Monitoring and City Management” application. The environmental monitoring system features different devices and sensors for deployment on street light poles, including air quality monitors that measure pollutant levels, sound sensors to detect noise levels, and temperature and humidity sensors. If the system senses that the weather is dry, the temperature is high and the air quality is poor, it can send commands to turn on roadside sprinklers to irrigate plants and trees, lower the temperature and improve the air quality. The “Renewable Energy Device Management” system was designed and developed to remotely monitor and control solar power stations that provide green energy for city-operated facilities and devices, such as river/canal toll machines, bridge monitoring devices, bus stops, display boards, road signs and cameras.

Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute

Managing the “Internet of Things”

TECHNOLOGY

Demonstration of a solar street light management system

To demonstrate IMAP’s capabilities, ASTRI has developed several “Smart City” applications. These include “Solar Street Light Management”, a system designed to provide real-time monitoring and remote control of more than 3,000 street lights in target to reduce maintenance costs. This system has been implemented in partnership with two companies in Wuhan, China, and field trials have been successful. It is now being deployed on a larger scale, with a target for city-scale deployment in the next few years. Other Smart City applications include “Environment Monitoring and City Management” and “Renewable Energy Device Management” (see box). Dr Chan says that the flexibility of the system means IMAP offers solutions on a smaller scale too. “IMAP can also support smart home applications to provide status monitoring, remote control, data collection and notifications for home appliances and devices,” he explains.

For further information contact: Dr Billy Chan Senior Manager Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute E-mail: spchan@astri.org


TECHNOLOGY

New Wi-Fi antenna enhances wireless coverage Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia have succeeded in using ionised gas in a common fluorescent light tube as an antenna for a Wi-Fi Internet router. Wi-Fi routers are essentially two-way radios that connect digital devices to the Internet. But in many buildings, providing complete coverage is a challenge. Radio “dead spots” can occur in areas where solid walls or appliances block a router’s signal entirely, or degrade it to become so weak that a portable Wi-Fi device, such as a tablet or phone, cannot connect reliably. When electricity flows through the argon-mercury vapour in a fluorescent tube, it forms an ionised gas or plasma. Plasma has conducting properties comparable to a common metal radio antenna. This allows an attached router to send and receive radio signals through the light tube on the standard 2.4-gigahertz Wi-Fi frequency in exactly the same way it does through a regular antenna. The router’s radio waves can ionise the gas in the tube, so it acts as an antenna whether the light is on or off. According to the research team, the plasma found in a standard 62-centimetre light tube is highly conductive and signal measurements on a test device show that it’s strong and stable. Thus plasma compares favourably with standard metal Wi-Fi antennas for transmitting and receiving. The prototype antenna consists of a fluorescent tube that connects to the router through a tuned wire coil in a sleeve slipped over one end. The coil passes the router’s radio signal through the glass of the fluorescent tube and into the plasma.

The prototype antenna consists of a fluorescent tube that connects to the router through a tuned wire coil in a sleeve slipped over one end.

For further information contact: Dr Mohd Tarmizi Ali Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Communication Engineering Studies Faculty of Electrical Engineering Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia E-mail: mizi732002@salam.uitm.edu.my

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The team says that multiple antennas could be connected to a single router through a building’s electrical wiring using existing Wi-Fi standards. This would create a separate antenna in every room where there is a dedicated fluorescent light fixture and provide low cost building-wide wireless Internet coverage. Further studies by the team may include adding more fluorescent tubes in various configurations to investigate the capability and performance of multiple plasma antenna arrays. One possible application could involve installing this technology in outdoor billboard lights. Each plasma antenna array would then be integrated with a Wi-Fi router to provide large-scale, system-wide wireless communication.


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Radio-over-fibre brings broadband to remote areas Malaysian researchers have developed and lab-tested a simple yet high speed radio-over-fibre transmission system that promises cost effective broadband Internet service for rural areas in developing nations. Led by Dr Amin Malek Mohammadi, a team at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) is now negotiating with industry players to roll out a scaled-up trial.

TECHNOLOGY

The UNMC technology uses a new type of optical encoding, which can simultaneously convert and transmit multiple radio frequencies to optical signals, including mobile phone, 3G and Wi-Fi. It can transmit these signals on a single optical fibre link between five and 50 kilometres long, and convert them back to radio signals for users equipped with appropriate radioenabled Internet devices at the other end. In addition to handling multiple frequencies, the coding algorithm converts each user’s data stream into a unique optical feed that re-converts back to the appropriate radio frequency at the receiving end. In essence, the clever coding, called a mapping multiplexing technique, can “see” extra space on a fibre-optic cable. This enables the transmission of more bits per symbol compared with older, more limited binary coding, which can send only one bit per symbol. Mapping multiplexing thus allows more operators and users to efficiently share the optical fibre’s bandwidth without noticing slowdowns. The exact numbers of potential users depend on individual bandwidth use and other variables. The UNMC system also uses a novel embroidered radio antenna, sewn onto thin, flexible fabric or plastic patches that are less than half the size of a normal business card. The antenna design can be varied to improve performance, and many users in a single facility, each wearing their own patch, can use the antennas to connect their devices individually to a central 3G or Wi-Fi enabled modem. The researchers say their antennas have potential uses in medical and military applications, in environmental monitoring and for tracking miners. The team’s long term plans include further development of the mapping multiplexing technique, as well as research on advanced modulation and signal processing. The ultimate goal, say the researchers, is to send more information through optical fibres.

For further information contact: Dr Amin Malek Mohammadi and Dr Belle Ooi Faculty of Engineering The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus E-mails: Amin.Malek@nottingham.edu.my, Belle.Ooi@nottingham.edu.my

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Dr Amin Malek sets up a horn-shaped antenna to conduct measurements in an anechoic chamber.


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The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Scanning electron microscope images of Nu-Torque yarn and conventional yarn

Enhancing the productivity of yarn makers Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a new yarn manufacturing technology that can increase productivity with less energy consumption. China is the world’s largest yarn manufacturer and owns 120 million spindles, accounting for more than half of the world's supply. Yarns are made by bonding a set of single strands of fibre together by twisting them. The more they are twisted, the stronger the yarn. However, a high-twist yarn increases “residual torque” – unwanted curls that decrease productivity and therefore increase production costs. Led by Professor Xiaoming Tao, China is the researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic world's largest yarn University have developed a new yarn manufacturing technology, named Numanufacturer and owns TorqueTM, that can spin low-twist yet highstrength singles yarns with low residual 120 million spindles, torque. “With acceptable quality and more than half of the efficiency, our method can reduce yarn twist by 20-40% compared to the world's supply. conventional method – being the lowest among all ring spinning methods,” says Professor Tao. To develop the technology, Professor Tao and her colleagues first created a new, unique structure for singles yarns by modifying the existing ring spinning machine. Secondly, the team invented a series of spinning devices for raw yarn materials ranging from coarse to fine counts and cotton to wool fibres. The researchers then developed a new method to accurately control the yarn's residual torque on the ring spinning machine. Their Nu-TorqueTM technology is capable of manufacturing improved yarns with a unique structure while reducing energy consumption by 3.77 million kilowatts per 10,000 tons of yarn. “If half of the spindles in China installed a low twist device, 2.5 billion KWh of electricity would be saved,” Professor Tao adds. Unlike normal yarns, the team's yarn does not require any finishing process such as singeing, smoothing or flattening, thus saving even more energy. The technology is also environmentally friendly, as no

steam, water or chemicals are needed during the spinning process. Furthermore, a modification unit, which produces yarns with a unique structure, can be installed on existing ring spinning machines, making it readily available for use. Nu-TorqueTM is currently used by 19 companies including Luthai Textile Co Ltd, a leading manufacturer of yarn-dyed fabrics headquartered in China. Moreover, the technology is listed among China’s national plan to enhance the core competence of the country’s textile industries. Professor Tao says that the next plan is to make commercialised products using the technology. “A wide variety of products have been developed with unique features and high added-value such as cotton sweaters, T-shirts, jeans, flannel clothing and towels. “Besides that, we will continuously focus on the improvement of this technology,” she adds. “For example, our technology can be applied to produce finer yarns and a variety of staple materials.”

For further information contact: Professor Xiaoming Tao Institute of Textile and Clothing The Hong Kong Polytechnic University E-mail: xiao-ming.tao@polyu.edu.hk


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Integrating lasers into silicon chips Researchers in Singapore have developed new technology for integrating lasers with other optical components on silicon. Their work will make it easier to mass-produce lasers on chips and incorporate them into optoelectronic systems, as well as improve their performance. Semiconductor laser diodes are made from semiconductor materials (such as the III-V group of chemical elements in the Periodic Table) whose properties differ from the silicon that is used to make many electronic chips. The applications of these lasers range from electronic devices such as CD players and laser printers to fibre optic communication, sensors and magnetic data storage. Currently, most laser diodes are manufactured independently of silicon-based optical components, before being integrated into optoelectronic systems that combine light with electronics. However, the separate manufacturing process increases the cost of production and packaging, while the imperfect coupling of laser diodes with other devices means that more power is required and performance is not optimal. Since 2007, scientists at the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Data Storage Institute have been developing technology to overcome these problems, based on a “III-V-on-silicon� platform that allows III-V semiconductors and silicon to be combined in a single chip. The integration of semiconductor laser diodes with other optical and optoelectronic components effectively streamlines the manufacturing process,

enabling more effective optical connections between chip components or between the chip and external devices, and improving the performance of the final product. In 2011, the research team produced its first laseron-silicon device with a single frequency. By 2014, the team had successfully produced a second-generation onchip laser with continuous wave output at room temperature, which has a structure that enables higher device efficiency and efficient light coupling between the III-V semiconductor materials and silicon. The A*STAR technology can be used to replace conventional laser diodes in many applications, including high-density heat-assisted magnetic recording on computer hard drives. The researchers now plan to

Agency for Science, Technology and Research

An on-chip laser is desired for various integrated functional photonic systems.

optimise the device manufacturing process and produce a more generic platform that will enable the technology to be used in a variety of industrial applications, such as optical interconnect technology, microwave communications and biomedical optoelectronic instruments. They also aim to reduce the power consumption and produce ultra-compact micro/nanolasers for use in future high-performance computing.

DSI’s on-chip heterogeneous III-V/Si laser provides efficient light confinement for lasing and ultra-compact optical for light coupling.

For further information contact: Qian Wang Data Storage Institute Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: wang_qian@dsi.a-star.edu.sg


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Cable tester setting a new international standard

Laser technology advances microchip production 123rf.com

A*STAR’s process for

cutting silicon wafers creates no debris, cuts 10 to 20 times faster than currently used techniques, and increases productivity.

” Silicon wafer during production

A new process for cutting silicon wafers could streamline the production of smaller and more powerful microchips for electronic devices." Electronic chips are built on small pieces of silicon that are cut from silicon sheets, called wafers, in a process known as dicing. Currently, dicing is performed by mechanical sawing or laser cutting, but these approaches can cause problems. Sawing can cause thin wafers to break

or layers of silicon to separate. The heat generated by laser cutting can leave micro cracks in the silicon and produces molten debris. Coolants or protective coatings are then required, adding to the production cost. A team of researchers at the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology has developed a new technique that uses laser-induced thermal cracking technology. The silicon expands as a near-infrared laser heats it, then contracts as it cools, leading to stress that causes the silicon to break along the laser line. The result is a crackfree silicon chip with a smooth surface finish. The process creates no debris, cuts 10 to 20 times faster than currently used techniques, and increases productivity because more silicon pieces can be cut from one wafer. Together with the fact that the near-infrared laser is energy-efficient and consumes little power, these improvements over sawing and laser cutting result in a dramatic improvement in efficiency. According to the research team, the new dicing technology will advance the production of microchips for electronic devices. It will enable the production of chips that are thinner and capable of supporting higher processing speeds, making for smaller and more powerful devices.

For further information contact: Dr Wang Zhongke Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: zkwang@simtech.a-star.edu.sg

Agency for Science, Technology and Research

manufacturer, Psiber Data Pte Ltd, to develop the new Researchers in Singapore have developed mathematical algorithms, which form a set of reliability standards that models for verifying the service quality of a twisted-pair NMC, Psiber and other industrial partners have submitted copper cable. Their algorithms are enhancing the for approval to the Telecommunications Industry performance of a new network analyser device. Better Association. The goal is to achieve industry wide tests for cable function and accuracy will ultimately acceptance. If the algorithms are approved and improve end user confidence in the standards of implemented, they will become the network operators. international industry standard. A new portable device for testing the The scientists say their quality of network cables is in the process algorithms give cable makers a of setting a new world standard in the reliable way to test how well their field. cables perform under real-world It comes about because operators of conditions. This will ultimately broadband computer networks that improve customer confidence in the employ twisted-pair cables are pushing standards of network operators. the technology’s limits to the extent that The new software algorithms, if cable quality becomes a factor. A new portable device for testing the quality of network cables could set a new world standard adopted industry wide, would make The new device, developed in tandem in the field. tests conducted with all devices with new mathematical models, allows more accurate, repeatable and comparable. cable installers to test and confirm the function and accuracy of any copper cable in the field. The device comprises matching handheld readouts into which both For further information contact: ends of a manufactured network cable are plugged to Dr Meng Yusong verify that the cable can support reliable data National Metrology Centre connections. Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Scientists at the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Singapore Technology and Research) National Metrology Centre E-mail: meng_yusong@nmc.a-star.edu.sg (NMC) in Singapore partnered with the device


TECHNOLOGY

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Constructing complex molecules with atomic precision

Dr. E.G.Gordeev, Ananikov Laboratory, Moscow

For further information contact: Professor Valentine Ananikov Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry Russian Academy of Sciences E-mail: val@ioc.ac.ru

Researchers in Russia have developed a waste-free and cost-effective approach for preparing complex organic molecules and revealing the physical nature of the processes that control the direction of chemical transformations. Increasing demand from high technology sectors for better approaches to industrial production is prompting the emergence of a new generation of chemical synthesis methods. “Until recently, it was not possible to construct complex organic molecules by manipulating individual atoms,” says Professor Valentine Ananikov, laboratory head of the Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “But the development of new lab equipment and state-of-the-art organic synthesis methods are facilitating a new direction in chemistry: the preparation of organic molecules, biologically active compounds, pharmaceutical substances and smart materials with atomic precision.” Traditional methods for the preparation of organic molecules require complicated technologies, the use of expensive catalysts and the application of toxic reagents. Now, scientists from 14 different laboratories representing leading research centres in Russia are combining their expertise to develop safer and more costefficient procedures for chemical production. Their strategy includes the replacement of expensive catalysts (such as palladium, platinum and rhodium) with easier to obtain and cheaper analogues (e.g. nickel, copper and manganese). The new approach also avoids the use of toxic reagents and the production of wastes by applying alternative procedures based on sustainable protocols. Described in Russian Chemical Reviews, the team’s approach involves preparing a target molecule by connecting molecular fragments to each other with atomic precision and carrying out all chemical modifications with complete selectivity. So far, Professor Ananikov and his colleagues have applied the new approach to synthesise some 300 individual molecules – ranging from flame retardants and ligands for catalysis to biologically active compounds and pharmaceutical building blocks. Among its achievements, the multidisciplinary team has shed new light on the factors responsible for the formation of chemical bonds between particular atoms or molecular fragments, while completely controlling the selectivity of these reactions. What’s more, in depth studies carried out in the 14 laboratories have resulted in efficient protocols for improving the performance of chemical transformations. They have also contributed to the development of a new generation of industrial procedures. According to the Russian team, the new approach could also be used in connection with many established procedures for preparing organic molecules such as cross-coupling reactions, fluorination reactions, catalytic hydrogenations and oxidations, among others. The researchers are now focused on implementing atomic precision chemical reactions on an industrial scale and fostering international collaborations.


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TECHNOLOGY

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Our dream is to provide

a do-it-yourself method – one that can be applied by anyone, anywhere to make and assess millions of organic molecules, without using dangerous reagents.

Researchers found that they can make large mixtures of biologically active compounds from a few chemical ingredients in just a few hours. They made 6,000 peptides from just 23 building blocks and identified a novel molecule that blocks a key enzyme used by the hepatitis C virus (schematic above).

Future antibiotic-making kits for amateurs? Researchers in Switzerland and Japan have developed a rapid, simple and safe method for generating large libraries of novel organic molecules in a fraction of the time required for traditional organic synthesis. Led by Professor Jeffrey Bode of the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University in Japan, the research team is now applying its “synthetic fermentation” strategy to make molecular kits that can be used simply and safely to discover novel antibiotics. Microorganisms can synthesise mixtures of complex organic molecules, such as antibiotics, from simple organic building blocks by fermentation. Inspired by this approach, Professor Bode and his colleagues found that they could make large mixtures of biologically active compounds from a few chemical ingredients in just a few hours, rather than the months it would normally take trained chemists. To do so, the team applied a powerful bond-making reaction, called KAHA (alphaketoacid-hydroxylamine) ligation, which enables the rapid formation of “amide” chemical bonds, found in peptides and proteins. The KAHA ligation uses special types of organic molecules to form new bonds without the usual need for toxic chemical reagents. Using synthetic fermentation, the researchers have shown that about 6,000 novel peptides can be made from only 23 building blocks. What’s more, they have demonstrated the practicality of this approach by

identifying a novel molecule that blocks a key enzyme used by the hepatitis C virus. “Our dream is to provide a do-it-yourself method one that can be applied by anyone, anywhere to make and assess millions of organic molecules, without using dangerous reagents,” says Professor Bode. “For example, we envision that synthetic fermentation could be used by farmers to generate and identify new antibacterial or anti-fungal molecules to treat plant diseases.” By combining a handful of molecules in a variety of ways, a farmer could identify a novel combination that treats plant infections. He adds that the next step is to determine the most efficient way to screen the thousands or even millions of chemical compounds that can be generated using synthetic fermentation.

For further information contact: Professor Jeffrey Bode Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules World Premier International Research Center Initiative Nagoya University, Japan E-mail: bode@itbm.nagoya-u.ac.jp ETH-Zurich Laboratory of Organic Chemistry, Switzerland E-mail: bode@org.chem.ethz.ch


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TECHNOLOGY

Agency for Science, Technology and Research / Nanyang Technological University

The specialty fibre research team assessing optical fibres used to create the fibre labs

A lab in a fibre detects the binding of two molecules in solution. The ability Researchers in Singapore have developed fibre-based to detect such biological interactions in small volumes of “optofluidic” sensors for measuring the properties of tiny fluid could be important for life science research and amounts of fluid. The innovation increases the sensitivity medical diagnosis. of measurements and makes it less expensive for Their latest work improves on the previous technology, researchers and clinicians to study the properties of in which fluid was added to channels that run along the fluids. fibre. In the new approach, the researchers add The technology uses a photonic crystal fibre fluid to a transverse microchannel that is (PCF) – an optical fibre in which air channels The new design drilled through the PCF and crosses its core. surround a central core along which light This maximises the interaction between the passes. These air channels allow the integration is highly sensitive to light and the fluid. of elements that provide the fibre with additional The new design is highly sensitive to properties. Such elements often include changes in the changes in the refraction of light. In addition, it microelectronics and semiconductors. Now, a is easier to clean fluid from the new transverse collaborative group of researchers from refraction of light. channel than from channels that run along the Nanyang Technology University (NTU) and the fibre, making it easier to reuse the device. A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) The researchers now aim to improve the technology Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) has focused on further by incorporating optical antennae, which will developing microfluidic devices in which the air channels further increase its sensitivity to changes in light. are filled with fluid. Fluid properties can be measured by analysing the extent to which light changes direction – or refracts – when For further information contact: it passes through the fluid. By filling the channels in PCFs Professor Perry Shum with fluid, scientists can use the light in the fibre to School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering measure the properties of this fluid. PCF channels are so Nanyang Technology University, Singapore small that just trillionths of a millilitre are needed. E-mail: epshum@ntu.edu.sg 2 The NTU and I R team previously used this approach to develop a temperature sensor. The researchers filled one Dr Dora Hu channel with a rod-like liquid crystal, which changes its Institute for Infocomm Research Agency for Science, Technology and Research, properties when heated. The resulting changes in the Singapore refraction of light passing through it can be measured to E-mail: jjhu@i2r.a-star.edu.sg determine the temperature. They have also developed a biological sensor that


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TECHNOLOGY

Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM), Nagoya University

Carbon nanotubes grown in combustion flames An international research team’s theoretical simulation of the synthesis of single-walled carbon nanotubes has revealed important details of the mechanisms at play. This could lead to better ways to control the production of carbon nanotubes. The synthesis of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), with a view to their industrial-scale production, is attracting heavy scientific interest. Their unique chemical properties promise a wide variety of groundbreaking uses in acoustic, biomedical, electronic, environmental, optical and structural technologies. Led by Professor Stephan Irle of the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University, a team of researchers in Japan, the United States and China conducted computer simulations that show similar molecular mechanisms at work in the growth of carbon nanotubes and the combustion of hydrocarbons to form soot. This discovery challenges a previously accepted view that metal carbides are needed to create nanotubes, through a process called chemical vapour deposition. The team’s own models suggest that alternative chemical processes such as hydrogen-abstraction/acetylene addition – a mechanism often observed in combustion processes – could also be used to grow carbon nanotubes. “This finding is very intriguing in the sense that these processes were long considered to proceed by completely different mechanisms,” says Professor Irle. In 2014, the team reported the first growth simulations of single-walled carbon nanotube synthesis, using acetylene as a feedstock. Their simulation model used acetylene due to the relatively low temperatures needed to catalyse chemical vapour deposition, and because even small amounts speed up reactions significantly. According to the researchers, their modelling suggests that acetylene’s potential role needs further study, as does the currently accepted model for carbon nanotube production. Since publishing their results, the researchers have started modelling the synthesis of graphene – a one atomthick layer of pure carbon – using nickel and copper with a methane catalyst. They hope to publicly release the new simulation model – based on a direct version of a kinetic Monte Carlo simulation where reaction channels are predicted automatically on the fly as the growth process proceeds – in 2015.

Did you know? Carbon nanotubes are nanocylinders consisting of one atom-thick sheets of carbon (or graphene). They are currently used as additives to strengthen various structural materials, and may also be used for energy storage as well as in the next generation of nanoelectronics and biomedical devices. CNTs are often synthesised via chemical vapour deposition, in which hydrocarbon vapour is deposited on metal catalysts under a flow of non-reactive gas at high temperatures. However, quality control is a challenge since this method usually results in the production of CNTs with variable diameters and different sidewall structures.

For further information contact: Professor Stephan Irle Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules World Premier International Research Center Initiative Nagoya University, Japan E-mail: sirle@chem.nagoya-u.ac.jp


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Manipulating cell membranes using nanotubes Japanese researchers have developed a targeted method for opening up cell membranes in order to deliver drugs to, or manipulate the genes of, individual cells. The method, as reported in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials, involves irradiating a thin film of carbon nanotubes using a near-infrared (NIR) laser. The Did you know? nanotubes act as an One femtosecond equals 10-15 seconds or one effective quadrillionth of a second. A nanosecond equals 10-9 photon seconds or one million femtoseconds. absorber as well as a stimulus generator for adjacent cells. In cell engineering and tissue biology research, scientists often use pulsed lasers to stimulate cells and enable gene transfection (the introduction of genetic material), gene regulation or drug injection. The irradiation of biological cells using pulsed lasers causes their membranes to puncture, which significantly accelerates gene transfection or the targeted delivery of drugs. Among the wide range of photon energies, the near-infrared region is less harmful for biological cells, which absorb very little energy in these wavelengths. The most successful NIR lasers are femtosecond lasers due to their fine spatial resolution with no thermal or mechanical damage to surrounding materials.

However, femtosecond laser instruments are expensive, bulky and require a highly sophisticated optical arrangement, so the research team opted for a more economical nanosecond laser. In the study, Naotoshi Nakashima and colleagues at Kyushu University prepared a dish coated with single-walled carbon nanotubes, which strongly absorb radiation in the NIR region, as an antenna for a nanosecond pulse laser. The dish was also seeded with living cells. Depending on the energy of the laser, the researchers found that the cell membranes were either reversibly or irreversibly disturbed. When a laser pulse exceeded 17.5 microJoules (uJ), the membranes were destroyed and the cells died. However, at lower energies of about 15 uJ per pulse, the membranes opened and the cells remained alive. This suggests that an inexpensive laser source could be used to prepare a single cell target for selective gene transfection, drug injection or regulation of gene expression, the authors conclude.

For further information contact: Naotoshi Nakashima Department of Applied Chemistry Graduate School of Engineering Kyushu University, Japan E-mail: nakashima-tcm@mail.cstm.kyushu-u.ac.jp

Using carbon nanotubes to improve bio-oil refining New catalyst structures based on multi-walled carbon nanotubes are set to make the refining of commodity chemicals and fuels from bio-oil more competitive. Bio-oil is obtained by pyrolysis, which involves heating biomass (from sources such as corn cobs, grain bran or sawdust) to high temperatures in an oxygen-free or oxygen-limited environment. Pyrolysis is a proven method, but it creates a lot of burnt waste by-products called char or coke, as well as a complex brew of other undesirable impurities including acids, sugars and water. These by-products lower the heating value of bio-oil, reduce its stability over time, thicken it and/or turn it acidic – all bad in a transportation fuel. Such contaminants can also quickly ruin expensive metal-refining catalysts such as platinum, making the cost-effective production of commercially pure products a challenge. One solution is to add a prior, lower-temperature, pressurised-hydrogen refining stage called hydroprocessing. This method helps remove reactive impurities to stabilise raw bio-oil, while extending the life of metal catalysts, but it brings its own issues. Some hydroprocessing catalysts require sulphur to work, which then contaminates the end product. However, scientists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore have lab-tested several methods to remove part of the oxygen and stabilise bio-oil during the hydroprocessing stage.

The new process involves adding hydrogen in the presence of catalysts supported on a multi-walled carbon nanotube substructure with a very large surface area. The catalyst substructures that they developed need only a thinly dispersed catalyst metal coating to produce good results more efficiently. Besides being relatively inexpensive, these substructures are stable and longlasting when exposed to the heat and moisture from hydroprocessing. The scientists plan to build on their existing research by making new catalyst substructures for other types of biomass conversion. They say such catalysts promise to improve the cost-effectiveness of future bio-refineries. A single refinery could apply several types of catalyst at different stages of the refining process to extract multiple commodity chemicals and fuels from its biomass. Thus, refinery operators could extract more product and profit from a given amount of raw feedstock, with less waste left over to dispose of. For further information contact: Dr Chang Jie Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore E-mail: chang_jie@ices.a-star.edu.sg


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TECHNOLOGY

Hailed by some as the “next industrial revolution”, nanotechnology is likely to have far reaching impacts on every aspect of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the medicines we take. Researchers in Malaysia are asking whether existing legal and regulatory frameworks in South-East Asia are robust enough to consider the safety issues surrounding the technology. The International Labour Organization has predicted that by 2020, 20% of all consumer and industrial products will use nanotechnology. “Nano” means “dwarf” in Greek. One nanometre is one billionth of a metre or one millionth of a millimetre. If you had 80,000 nano-sized particles in a row, they would still only be the diameter of a human hair. This is a world so small that it cannot be seen through a light microscope. However, the properties that make nanotechnology so promising – the ability to manipulate matter at atomic and molecular levels – have also raised health and safety concerns given the incredibly fast research developments in this field. Various countries have developed online programs, such as the European Community’s “Nanopinion”, to educate their citizens about nanotechnology as well as review regulations surrounding nanotechnology research. Legal researcher Mohammad Ershadul Karim at the University of Malaya is looking into the legalities of nanotechnology research in Asia. Karim has found that there are significant challenges to developing a proper legal framework as our understanding of the exact dangers of nanoparticles on human health and the environment is limited. For example, in laboratory testing, there is evidence to suggest that carbon nanotubes can damage lung tissue and cause scarring, but the ultimate and exact long term dangers of these nanomaterials on human health and the environment are yet to be confirmed. As a result, some governments are already imposing restrictions. Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has banned the use of nanoenhanced dirt-resistant floor sprays. Although legislation exists on chemicals, pesticides, food and water in most South-East Asian countries, there is no specific and comprehensive regulation on nanotechnology so far. On the positive side, Singapore is leading the way in terms of research publications and patents. Meanwhile, Thailand has set up a Nanosafety Information Center and introduced a “nano-mark” system for paint, textile and household products to provide safety information for consumers.

Most South-East Asian countries now have general policies on nanotechnology at the national level. For example, in 2009 the Philippines launched a 10-year strategy to create a viable nanotechnology industry. However, in a paper published in the journal Technological Forecasting & Social Change, Karim argues that the adequacy of the region’s nano-safety laws will require continued assessment as research develops. While Karim’s research is ongoing, he anticipates that Malaysia, as a country that inherited its legal system from English common law, would do well to have a regulatory framework in line with other common law countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Did you know? Examples of nanotechnology abound in nature. For example, geckos can hang upside down on the ceiling thanks to millions of tiny hairs, which allow the lizards to support 200 times their own weight. At the nanoscale, properties change – including thermal, mechanical, magnetic and electronic. Forces of attraction between surfaces can appear to be weak on a larger scale but are strong at the nanoscale. One reason for this is the surface area to volume ratio, which is very large in nanoparticles. By manipulating materials at the nanoscale, scientists could make products that are stronger, more durable, lighter and “smarter” – i.e. capable of modification based on changing environmental conditions. Today nanotechnology is found in everything from tennis rackets and clothing to sunscreen and DVD players.

For further information contact: Mohammad Ershadul Karim Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, Malaysia E-mail: ershadulkarim@gmail.com Professor Abu Bakar bin Munir Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, Malaysia E-mail: abmunir@um.edu.my

Although legislation exists on chemicals, pesticides, food and

water in most South-East Asian countries, there is no specific and comprehensive regulation on nanotechnology so far.

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Too small to see: how safe is nanotechnology research in South-East Asia?


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By capturing 360 degree

views of the moon, the CPS provided an indispensable record of the geographic features surrounding the landing site.

Perched on top of the lander, the camera pointing system monitored the lunar rover as it descended onto the moon’s surface to commence exploration.

Mapping lunar landscapes in panorama A rugged camera technology developed by researchers in Hong Kong and China successfully captured 360o panoramic views of the moon during China’s first lunar landing in 2013. The “camera pointing system” (CPS) is a sophisticated tool capable of controlling a camera’s movement with precision as well as protecting the camera under extreme conditions. The CPS was developed by a joint team led by Professor Kai-leung Yung of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the China Academy of Space Technology, for Phase 2 of China’s Lunar Exploration Programme. With the CPS aboard, the Chang’e 3 lander successfully touched down on the moon on December 14, 2013. Perched on top of the lander, the CPS monitored the lunar rover, called Yutu, as it descended onto the moon’s surface to commence exploration and snapped panoramic images around its host machine. Each image was constructed by transforming and seamlessly stitching together a range of highresolution colour two-dimensional images of equal focal length that were continuously taken by the CPS. According to Professor Yung, by capturing 360o views of the moon, the CPS provided an indispensable record of the geographic features surrounding the landing site as well as a full view of Yutu’s motion on the lunar surface. The high

precision movement of the camera pointing system also allowed the construction of a detailed model of the lunar surface – useful for planning Yutu’s movement. The CPS will be deployed again for Chang’e 4, another lunar mission similar to Chang’e 3, which is scheduled for launch in 2017/18. The CPS measures 85cm x 27cm x 16cm and weighs 2.8kg. It is capable of moving 120 degrees in a vertical direction and rotating 340 degrees horizontally. Its design incorporates several innovative technologies that allow it to operate under the extreme environmental conditions of the moon, including an ultra-high vacuum, harsh temperatures, a gravity one-sixth of the Earth’s, cosmic radiation, and tremendous shocks and vibrations. For example, its novel dynamic structure is highly rigid and lightweight, and it features an enhanced damper device that protects the system against the impact and vibrations of launch and landing.

For further information contact: Professor Kai-leung Yung Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering The Hong Kong Polytechnic University E-mail: kl.yung@polyu.edu.hk

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


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TECHNOLOGY

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

This technology shows promise

for use in biomedical devices, “biomimetic” robots that mimic movements occurring in nature, and flexible soft electronics.

Schematic of the ionic polymer-graphene composite (IPGC) actuator or “motor”. When an electric field is applied, the redistribution of ions causes the structure to bend.

Artificial muscles get graphene boost Researchers in South Korea have developed an electrode consisting of a single-atom-thick layer of carbon to help make more durable artificial muscles. Ionic polymer metal composites (IPMCs), often referred to as artificial muscles, are electro-active polymer actuators that change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field. IPMCs have been extensively investigated for their potential use in robotics inspired by nature, such as underwater vehicles propelled by fish-like fins, and in rehabilitation devices for people with disabilities. An IPMC “motor”, or actuator, is formed from a molecular membrane stretched between two metal electrodes. When an electric field is applied to the actuator, the resulting migration and redistribution of ions in the membrane causes the structure to bend. IPMC actuators are known for their low power consumption, as well as their ability to bend under low voltage and to mimic movements that occur naturally in the environment. They have a major disadvantage, however. Cracks can form on the metal electrodes after a period of exposure to air and electric currents. This can lead to the leakage of ions through the electrodes, resulting in reduced performance. Improving the durability of IPMC actuators is a major challenge in the field of artificial muscles. Researchers are investigating ways to develop a flexible, cost-effective, highly conductive and crack-free electrode that can be used to construct a durable polymer actuator. In a paper published in ACS Nano, researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology report the development of a thin-film electrode based on a novel ionic polymer-graphene composite (IPGC). Graphene

is a single-atom-thick layer of carbon with exceptional mechanical, electrical and thermal properties. The new electrodes have a smooth outer surface that repels water and doesn’t have apparent cracks, which makes them nearly impermeable to liquids. They also have a rough inner surface, which facilitates the migration of ions within the membrane to stimulate bending. The new IPGC actuator demonstrates exceptional durability without apparent degradation, even under very high input voltage. It shows promise for use in biomedical devices, “biomimetic” robots that mimic movements occurring in nature, and flexible soft electronics. The researchers acknowledge that there are still many challenges and more research is needed to realise the full potential of the graphene-based electrodes and their subsequent commercialisation. In 2015, they plan to further enhance the bending performance of the actuators, their ability to store energy and their power. They also plan to develop a biomimetic robot that can walk and jump on water like a water strider. They will do this by constructing floatable IPGC actuators with a reliable bending performance that can continue for a period of six hours without any apparent change in durability.

For further information contact: Professor Il-Kwon Oh School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Graduate School of Ocean Systems Engineering Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology E-mail: ikoh@kaist.ac.kr


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Daejeon

Daejeon - The Heart of Korea Located in the centre of Korea and with a history that dates back to the Stone Age, Daejeon Metropolitan City has, in recent decades, established itself as an Asian hub for science and technology. Daejeon lies one hour away from the capital Seoul by high-speed train, is a short 30-minute drive from Cheongju International Airport, and joins two major expressways and railway lines in the country. As such, it is often called Korea’s Middle City, offering a convenient transportation network with access to every region in the country. The city’s climate is mild, with four seasons. Temperatures range from -1 C in January to 25.6 C in August. The climate is influenced by the monsoon, with 50-60% of the city’s annual rainfall occurring in the summer and 5-10% in the winter. Daejeon’s 1.5 million residents are often noted for their friendliness and generosity. Designated as the country’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) city, Daejeon strives to become the most hospitable community in Korea. It is also the country’s second administrative capital after Seoul, housing many central government agencies. The city’s flower is the white magnolia, which stands for friendship. Its bird is the Korean magpie, which brings close friends and good news if it sings in the morning. And the greenness and constancy of the city’s pine trees are said to parallel the spirit of oldpeople-of-virtue in Daejeon. For further information contact: Mr Joseph Park Daejeon International Marketing Enterprise 480, Daedeok-daero, Yuseong-gu, 305-733 Daejeon, Korea Tel: +82-42-869-5305 Email: joseph@dime.or.kr Website: http://dime.or.kr/ Images 2 and 3 for Science City section were provided by Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

Science City Dubbed with descriptions such as “Asia’s Silicon Valley” and “high-tech technopolis”, Daejeon has a worldrenowned reputation as a city of science and technology. Over 250 research institutes, universities and high-tech companies are located in specialised zones within the city. Fifteen per cent of Korea’s national R&D investment is directed towards the Daeduk Research & Development Area that lies within the city.

Global Convention City Daejeon has hosted thousands of international events in recent years. These include the 1993 Daejeon World Exposition, the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the 2009 International Astronautical Congress and the 2012 World Chef Conference. In 2008, the city launched the Daejeon Convention Center, which is home to 20 meeting rooms, a grand ballroom, two exhibition halls and a guesthouse.

Culture and Nature Daejeon is surrounded by several mountains. Gyeryongsan National Park straddles the city’s border to the west and three streams flow through the city, eventually joining the Geum River. Daejeon is home to the Expo Science Park, the National Science Museum, the Daejeon Zoo, the Daejeon Culture and Art Center, the GyejokSanseong Fortress, a prehistoric museum and two Confucian academies. It is also a provincial centre for the television, newspaper and publishing industries.

Administration Daejeon is home to many central government agencies, as well as the headquarters of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. With the infrastructure already in place, the plan to develop a multifunctional Administrative City (MAC) that combines Daejeon, Cheonan and Cheongju will establish Daejeon as the focal point of the future “Era of Central Dominance” of Korea.


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Daejeon

Science City

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology • Samsung Industrial Technology Research Institute National Fusion Research Institute • Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology • Institute for Basic Science

Global Convention City

1993 World Exposition • 2009 International Astronautical Congress • 2010 IAEA Fusion Energy Conference • 2012 World Chef Conference • 2015 International Apicultural Congress OECD Ministerial Meeting of Science and Technology 2015

Culture and Nature

Wuam Historic Site Park • Daejeon Culture and Arts Centre • Dongchungan Hall Ppuri Park • GyejokSanseong Fortress

Administration

National Government Complex • Korean Intellectual Property and Patent Offices Cultural Heritage Administration • Army, Navy and Airforce Headquarters


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