Scientific Discoveries this Week – 11/02/14

California, USA: Researchers at University of California, San Francisco have found new genes that play a role in causing autism. Scientists identified 60 genes with a greater than 90% chance of increasing a child’s autism risk. The researchers say these genes appear to be clustering around three sets of key biological functions: development of synapses in the brain, creation of genetic instructions, and DNA packaging within cells. Dr. Matthew State, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, believes that the most important thing to take away from the studies is a new knowledge base. Instead of focusing on environmental factors, he says these studies are focusing on what happens inside of the brain.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Astronomers at Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope Center in Amsterdam has captured evidence of magnetars (stars that create seismic waves, like earthquakes) having frequent eruptions, called bursts. This will open up potential “for a wealth of new data to help understand how neutron stars are put together”, according to Dr. Anna Watts, an Amsterdam astrophysicist. Watts points out, “Starquakes [magnetars] can release as much energy as magnitude 23 earthquakes on Earth.”

Har ha-Tsofim, Jerusalem: Researchers and scientists at Hebrew University of Jerusalem has made significant breakthrough that represents a stride in the development of DNA-based electrical circuits. The scientists made their DNA-based wires by absorbing four DNA strands onto a mica substrate. They were then able to accurately and reproducibly measure the currents flowing through these molecules, which ranged from 10 pA to over 100 pA. Furthermore, the current travelled distances greater than 100 nm. Lead scientist Dr. Danny Porath says, “This research paves the way for implementing DNA-based programmable circuits for molecular electronics, which could lead to a new generation of computer circuits that can be more sophisticated, cheaper and simpler to make.” There will be significant hurdles that the scientists will need to overcome before a functional circuit can be made from these results. However, this discovery will push the field of molecular electronics in the right direction.

Zurich, Switzerland: A team of physicists at ETH Zurich have designed a small MRI machine that can detect a structure over one million times smaller than structures previously detected: it now can detect a single hydrogen atom. The team replaced the electromagnetic coil with a diamond sensor chip in a fluorescent microscope. The diamonds used had nitrogen-vacancy centers located just a few nanometers below the surface. The MRI machine was able to get an optical readout from those spots, which the team used to determine the location of individual hydrogen atoms, to one angstrom. The team hopes to study x-ray crystallography using this small yet mighty MRI machine.

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