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Billionaire Investor Peter Thiel Backs New Venture Aimed at Producing 3-D Printed Meat

 Peter Thiel's New 3-D Printing Challenge: Meat FotoosVanRobin via Wikimedia

Billionaire Peter Thiel would like to introduce you to the other, other white meat. The investor’s philanthropic Thiel Foundation’s Breakout Labs is offering up a six-figure grant (between $250,00 and $350,000, though representatives wouldn’t say exactly) to a Missouri-based startup called Modern Meadow that is flipping 3-D bio-printing technology originally aimed at the regenerative medicine market into a means to produce 3-D printed meat.

We've seen stuff kind of like this before. The larger idea here is to use cultured cell media to create a meat substitute that will satisfy the natural human desire for animal protein minus the environmental (and ethical) impacts of industrial scale farming. And by using 3-D printing technology, Modern Meadow might even be able to make it look like the real thing, though we’re somewhat skeptical even the best-looking faux fillet is going to stand up to the real deal.

It’s also going to be expensive, though Thiel and Modern Meadow hope that by developing a mature technology that can scale they will be able to bring costs somewhat in line with average meat prices. They’ve got a ways to go. Last time we visited the butcher meat was selling in bulk and by the ounce. CNET reports that Modern Meadow’s short-term goal is to create a single small sliver of its meat substitute less than one inch long.

By Clay Dillow
From popsci

Designing Tiny Molecules That Glow in Water to Shed Light On Biological Processes

Previous studies have used water-soluble particles to bring organic molecules into water. What is novel about this system is the use of a photoswitching mechanism in combination with these particles.

This image shows live cells incubated with the polymer nanoparticles. The green color is the fluorescence coming from the molecules trapped within the nanoparticles

The findings published online by Chemistry-A European Journal, describe the creation of a fluorescent photoswitchable system that is more efficient than current technologies, says Francisco Raymo, professor of chemistry at the UM College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of this study.

"Finding a way to switch fluorescence inside cells is one of the main challenges in the development of fluorescent probes for bioimaging applications," Raymo says. "Our fluorescent switches can be operated in water efficiently, offering the opportunity to image biological samples with resolution at the nanometer level."

Fluorescent molecules are not water soluble; therefore Raymo and his team created their system by embedding fluorescent molecules in synthetic water-soluble nanoparticles called polymers that serve as transport vehicles into living cells. Once inside the cell, the fluorescence of the molecules trapped within the nanoparticles can be turned on and off under optical control.

"The polymers can preserve the properties of the fluorescent molecules and at the same time assist the transfer of the molecules into water," Raymo says. "It's a bit like having a fish in a bowl, so the fish can carry on with its activities in the bowl and the whole bowl can be transferred into a different environment."

The new system is faster and more stable than current methods. The fluorescent molecules glow when exposed simultaneously to ultraviolet and visible light and revert back to their original non-luminous state in less than 10 microseconds after the ultraviolet light is removed.

By using engineered synthetic molecules, the new system is able to overcome the natural wear down process that organic molecules are subject to when exposed to ultraviolet light.

"The system can be switched back and forth between the fluorescent and non-fluorescent states for hundreds of cycles, without sign of degradation," Raymo says.

The surface of the system can be customize to help it attach to specific molecules of interests, thus allowing researchers to visualize structures and activity within cells, in real time, with a resolution that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

Raymo and his team will continue improving the properties of the molecules for future biomedical applications. The study is titled "Fast Fluorescence Switching within Hydrophilic Supramolecular Assemblies" Co-authors are Janet Cusido, Mutlu Battal, Erhan Deniz and Ibrahim Yildiz,Ph.D., students in the Department of Chemistry at UM; and Salvatore Sortino, associate professor of chemistry in the Department of Drug Sciences, University of Catania, Italy. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

First Direct Observations of Quantum Effects in an Optomechanical System

Scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, using a unique optical trapping system that provides ensembles of ultracold atoms, have recorded the first direct observations of distinctly quantum optical effects -- amplification and squeezing -- in an optomechanical system. Their findings point the way toward low-power quantum optical devices and enhanced detection of gravitational waves among other possibilities.

 Berkeley Lab researchers directly observed quantum optical effects -- amplification and ponderomotive squeezing -- in an optomechanical system. Here the yellow/red regions show amplification, the blue regions show squeezing. On the left is the data, on the right is the theoretical prediction in the absence of noise.

"We've shown for the first time that the quantum fluctuations in a light field are responsible for driving the motions of objects much larger than an electron and could in principle drive the motion of really large objects," says Daniel Brooks, a scientist with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley's Physics Department.

Brooks, a member of Dan Stamper-Kurn's research group, is the corresponding author of a paper in the journal Nature describing this research. The paper is titled "Nonclassical light generated by quantum-noise-driven cavity optomechanics." Co-authors were Thierry Botter, Sydney Schreppler, Thomas Purdy, Nathan Brahms and Stamper-Kurn.

Light will build-up inside of an optical cavity at specific resonant frequencies, similar to how a held-down guitar string only vibrates to produce specific tones. Positioning a mechanical resonator inside the cavity changes the resonance frequency for light passing through, much as sliding one's fingers up and down a guitar string changes its vibrational tones. Meanwhile, as light passes through the optical cavity, it acts like a tiny tractor beam, pushing and pulling on the mechanical resonator.

If an optical cavity is of ultrahigh quality and the mechanical resonator element within is atomic-sized and chilled to nearly absolute zero, the resulting cavity optomechanical system can be used to detect even the slightest mechanical motion. Likewise, even the tiniest fluctuations in the light/vacuum can cause the atoms to wiggle. Changes to the light can provide control over that atomic motion. This not only opens the door to fundamental studies of quantum mechanics that could tell us more about the "classical" world we humans inhabit, but also to quantum information processing, ultrasensitive force sensors, and other technologies that might seem like science fiction today.

"There have been proposals to use optomechanical devices as transducers, for example coupling motion to both microwaves and optical frequency light, where one could convert photons from one frequency range to the other," Brooks says. "There have also been proposals for slowing or storing light in the mechanical degrees of freedom, the equivalent of electromagnetically induced transparency or EIT, where a photon is stored within the internal degrees of freedom."

Already cavity optomechanics has led to applications such as the cooling of objects to their motional ground state, and detections of force and motion on the attometer scale. However, in studying interactions between light and mechanical motion, it has been a major challenge to distinguish those effects that are distinctly quantum from those that are classical -- a distinction critical to the future exploitation of optomechanics.

Brooks, Stamper-Kurn and their colleagues were able to meet the challenge with their microfabricated atom-chip system which provides a magnetic trap for capturing a gas made up of thousands of ultracold atoms. This ensemble of ultracold atoms is then transferred into an optical cavity (Fabry-Pferot) where it is trapped in a one-dimensional optical lattice formed by near-infrared (850 nanometer wavelength) light that resonates with the cavity. A second beam of light is used for the pump/probe.

"Integrating trapped ensembles of ultracold atoms and high-finesse cavities with an atom chip allowed us to study and control the classical and quantum interactions between photons and the internal/external degrees of freedom of the atom ensemble," Brooks says. "In contrast to typical solid-state mechanical systems, our optically levitated ensemble of ultracold atoms is isolated from its environment, causing its motion to be driven predominantly by quantum radiation-pressure fluctuations."

The Berkeley research team first applied classical light modulation to a low-powered pump/probe beam (36 picoWatts) entering their optical cavity to demonstrate that their system behaves as a high-gain parametric optomechanical amplifier. They then extinguished the classical drive and mapped the response to the fluctuations of the vacuum. This enabled them to observe light being squeezed by its interaction with the vibrating ensemble and the atomic motion driven by the light's quantum fluctuations. Amplification and this squeezing interaction, which is called "ponderomotive force," have been long-sought goals of optomechanics research.

"Parametric amplification typically requires a lot of power in the optical pump but the small mass of our ensemble required very few photons to turn the interactions on/off," Brooks says. "The ponderomotive squeezing we saw, while narrow in frequency, was a natural consequence of having radiation-pressure shot noise dominate in our system."

Since squeezing light improves the sensitivity of gravitational wave detectors, the ponderomotive squeezing effects observed by Brooks, Stamper-Kern and their colleagues could play a role in future detectors. The idea behind gravitational wave detection is that a ripple in the local curvature of spacetime caused by a passing gravitational wave will modify the resonant frequency of an optical cavity which, in turn, will alter the cavity's optical signal.

"Currently, squeezing light over a wide range of frequencies is desirable as scientists search for the first detection of a gravitational wave," Brooks explains. "Ponderomotive squeezing, should be valuable later when specific signals want to be studied in detail by improving the signal-to-noise ratio in the specific frequency range of interest."

The results of this study differ significantly from standard linear model predictions. This suggests that a nonlinear optomechanical theory is required to account for the Berkeley team's observations that optomechanical interactions generate non-classical light. Stamper-Kern's research group is now considering further experiments involving two ensembles of ultracold atoms inside the optical cavity.
"The squeezing signal we observe is quite small when we detect the suppression of quantum fluctuations outside the cavity, yet the suppression of these fluctuations should be very large inside the cavity," Brooks says. "With a two ensemble configuration, one ensemble would be responsible for the optomechanical interaction to squeeze the radiation-pressure fluctuations and the second ensemble would be studied to measure the squeezing inside the cavity."

This research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

From sciencedaily

Gene Control, Delivered Directly to the Brain

A biotech company called Alnylam announced today that a small clinical trial for a genetic therapy based on RNA interference, or RNAi, suggests that the technique can have a powerful effect on its target gene. The therapeutic effect lasted for over a month with just one dose. The company is also working with a medical device maker, Medtronic, on a way to deliver RNAi treatment directly to the brain, in order to treat the degenerative brain disease Huntington's.

 RNA Rx: An Alynlam chemist prepares RNA molecules.

The patients in the trial have a genetic disorder that originates in the liver and leads to the buildup of protein deposits in many organs. Alnylam, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, says its RNAi therapeutic, given at its highest dose, reduces the amount of the faulty protein that spurs the disease by almost 94 percent.

The positive results add weight to the notion that RNAi therapeutics could eventually help patients with a range of genetic diseases. RNAi therapy involves researchers producing snippets of RNA, a close relative of DNA, that match a portion of a gene of interest. When administered, this so-called small interfering RNA (siRNA) causes the destruction of that gene's products before it can be turned into a protein. The specificity of RNAi for targeting particular genes has attracted a lot of interest from people who want to use it as a clinical treatment (see "Prescription RNA").

"Today's platforms target the protein that causes the disease and bind to that protein. We stop the protein from being made in the first place," says Barry Greene, president and chief operating officer of Alnylam.

But a recurring challenge for the therapeutic RNAi field is how to deliver the siRNAs to the right place in the body. On their own, the small molecules do not survive long in the bloodstream, so simply injecting a patient with a solution of unprotected siRNAs is not effective. "The key technical hurdle is getting the siRNA [inside] the right cells," says Greene.

For several of its projects, Alnylam uses nanoparticles to protect and deliver its siRNAs, which can then be delivered by injection. But for genetic diseases that originate in the brain, the body's own defenses, namely the blood-brain barrier, complicate delivery further. To circumvent the blood-brain barrier, which prevents most molecules from leaving the bloodstream and entering the brain, Alnylam has looked to a different delivery mechanism: direct dosing of unpackaged siRNAs.

Medtronic, a Minneapolis company that designs and manufactures medical devices, has devised a way to allow this. Together, the companies have developed a treatment that combines Alnylam's RNAi therapeutic with Medtronic's drug delivery technology to treat Huntington's.

Huntington's, for which there is no cure, is caused by the loss of neurons due to a toxic protein made by a tainted gene. The idea behind the new treatment is to stop at least some of that protein's production so that it cannot damage the brain. 

The treatment would use a device made by Medtronic that is already implanted in more than 250,000 patients to treat chronic pain and spasticity. The device features a catheter connected to a drug pump that's surgically implanted into the abdomen. The pump pushes drugs through the device and into the fluid around the spinal cord. In the case of the Huntington's RNAi work, the system is adapted to deliver liquids directly into the brain tissue.

"To create pressure, it actively pumps the drug into the brain, and that pressure really moves the drug into the brain and further away than the drugs would otherwise go based on diffusion," says Lothar Krinke, vice president and manager of Medtronic's deep brain stimulation projects.

In a study published earlier this year, the researchers showed that the device can distribute the siRNA to around six cubic centimeters of brain tissue in a rhesus monkey. The results of the study suggest the treatment was safe over 28 days of infusion and showed that the protein product of the Huntington's-type gene in the monkeys was nearly halved, says Krinke.

Medtronic is currently leading the effort to push the device-drug treatment into the clinic. Although the company will not say when it anticipates initiating clinical trials, the work has been funded by CHDI, a nonprofit foundation focused on developing cures for Huntington's.

By Susan Young 
From Technology Review

Augmented Reality, Wrapped Around Your Finger

Normally, we point at things to specify, or to emphasize, what we're talking about. But a project from several MIT researchers aims to make pointing a way to learn more about the world around you—with a special ring on your index finger and a smartphone in your pocket.

Point taken: The EyeRing captures an image and sends it to a smartphone for processing.

Called EyeRing, the finger-worn device allows you to point at an object, take a photo, and hear feedback about what it is you just focused on. The project is the brainchild of Pattie Maes, a professor in MIT's Media Lab who studies interfaces that let us interact with digital information in novel, intuitive ways. Initially conceived as a potential aid for the visually impaired, the EyeRing could also work as a navigation or translation aid, or help children learn to read, say the researchers involved. The group is interested in eventually turning it into a commercial product.

As smartphones become increasingly common, the use of augmented reality—the blending of digital content with the real world—has also risen, mainly in the form of apps that harness the phone's camera and sensors and use its screen as a window to a more data-rich world (see "Augmented Reality Is Finally Getting Real").

The EyeRing takes this a step further by offering aural feedback via a wearable device. And while it's still just a research project, some experts believe wearable electronics will eventually become common—an idea Google recently put in the spotlight by confirming it's working on glasses that can show the wearer maps, messages, and more (see "You Will Want Google Goggles").

The EyeRing, which is currently printed with plastic using a 3-D printer, includes a tiny camera, a processor, and Bluetooth connectivity. To use it, you double-click a little button on its side and speak a command to determine the ring's function (it can currently be set to identify currency, text, prices on price tags, and colors). Point at whatever you'd like more information about—a shirt on a store rack, for instance—and click the button to snap a photo. The picture is sent via Bluetooth to your smartphone, where an app uses computer-vision algorithms to process the image and then announce out loud what it sees ("green," for example, denoting the color of the shirt). The results are also shown on the smartphone's screen.

"Not having to get your phone out of your pocket or purse and open it is a big advantage, we think," Maes says.

So far, the researchers have gotten EyeRing working with a smartphone running Google's Android software and with a Mac computer, says Roy Shilkrot, a graduate student in the Fluid Interfaces Group within MIT's Media Lab who is working on the device with Maes. An iPhone app is also in the works. The group has performed tests of the EyeRing with visually impaired people.

Aapo Markkanen, an analyst with ABI Research, thinks finger-worn devices like the EyeRing could be useful, but he notes that any wearable device will face some of same issues that have hampered smartphones: limited processing power and battery life. And wearable technology faces the additional hurdle of needing to be comfortable enough for people to want to use it for extended periods of time. Markkanen expects it will be several years before this is the case.

Maes agrees that processing power and battery life are concerns, but thinks that in a few years, turning EyeRing into a commercial device will be "very doable."

Shilkrot believes it could eventually be sold for under $100—perhaps as cheaply as $50. Still, he says, it would take several more iterations of the project before it could be useful to people. "We want to keep working on this and make it better," he says. "Right now, we're in the stage where we're trying to prove it's a viable solution."

By Rachel Metz