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Science news digest – 7th October 2013

In the science news this week: shape-shifting metals could revolutionise electronics; company that creates ‘digital babies’ set to launch later this year; traffic fumes confuse honeybees; and finally… new robot can gallop unaided at 25km/h.

Shape-shifting metals discovered

A new metal crystal that has the ability to change its atomic arrangement has been discovered by scientists at the University of Minnesota.

The paper published in Nature, reveals that this crystal, known as a “martensite”, is a prototype for a new family of smart materials, which have the ability to switch between two different arrangements of its atoms seamlessly.

The martensite metal is made of an alloyed mixture of nickel and titanium, and could be used in a number of different ways, from space vehicles to electronics, reported the BBC news website.

The smart material has the ability to “remember” its original form and return to it even after being bent out of shape.

These “shape memory” metals have already been used in different ways, such as spectacle frames or in surgical frameworks for healing bones, but often start to degrade after repeated shape changes, caused by a build-up of stresses.

This new alloy, however, can change back and forth almost indefinitely with little internal damage, opening up a whole new host of applications for martensites.

The aim is to now apply the lessons learnt from this new metal to the development of ceramic solids that can also change their shape back and forth.

"The real advance is to make the transformations reversible that could be applied in many situations" explains Professor Richard James, one of the authors of the study.

"You could make devices that convert heat to electricity directly. They could use the waste heat from computers and cell phones to recharge the battery and make them more efficient."


Company to offer ‘digital baby’ screen for sperm donors

A service that can digitally create thousands of “virtual babies” by merging together the DNA of prospective parents to check for potential genetic disorders will launch this December in the US, reports the BBC.

The company, Genepeeks, will initially focus on donor sperm, simulating before pregnancy how the genetic sequence of a woman might combine with those from different male donors.

The donors that produce more “virtual children” with a higher risk of genetic disorders will be filtered out by the service, leaving those who are “better genetic matches”.

"We are just in the business right now of giving prospective mothers, who are using donor sperm to conceive, a filtered catalogue of donors based on their own underlying genetic profile," Genepeeks co-founder Anne Morriss told BBC News.

"We are filtering out the donor matches with an elevated risk of rare recessive paediatric conditions."

Morriss is partly motivated by her own experience of having a child via a sperm donor who she happened to share the gene with for an inherited disorder called MCADD (medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase defiency).

MCADD prevents someone from converting fats to sugar, which can be fatal if not diagnosed early. Fortunately, for Morriss and her son, the condition was picked up in newborn screening tests.

"My son has a pretty normal life," Morriss told the BBC, "but about 30% of children with rare genetic diseases don't make it past the age of five."

Morriss's business partner, Professor Lee Silver, a geneticist and expert on bioethics at Princeton University, New Jersey, told BBC News: "We get the DNA sequence from two prospective parents. We simulate the process of reproduction, forming virtual sperm and virtual eggs. We put them together to form a hypothetical child genome.

"Then we can look at that hypothetical genome and – with all the tools of modern genetics – determine the risk that the genome will result in a child with disease. We're looking directly for disease and not carrier status. For each pair of people that we're going to analyse, we make 10,000 hypothetical children."


Traffic fumes dampen honeybees’ sense of smell

Traffic fumes render the scent of flowers almost unrecognisable to honeybees, according to a paper published in the journal, Scientific Reports.

This could have a serious impact on the bees’ ability to find food. The scientists found that reactive pollutants in diesel destroyed some of the chemicals that make up the scent of oilseed flowers, which made them smell different to the bees.

"Honeybees have a sensitive sense of smell and an exceptional ability to learn and memorise new odours," said Tracey Newman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southampton told the Guardian. "The [effect of diesel fumes on flower scent] could have serious detrimental effects on the number of honeybee colonies and pollination activity."

The study tested the bees’ ability to recognise the aroma of oilseed rape flowers in the laboratory. They were trained to associate the smell with food, showing a 98-99% success rate of recognising the aroma. However, when the scent was mixed with diesel levels similar to those found at roadsides the bees recognised the smell just 30% of the time.

“Honeybees are very, very selective on what they home in on – they want the best pollen and nectar yield. They do not go randomly from flower to flower," said Newman.

A field trial has also been conducted and the data is now being analysed.


And finally…

Boston Dynamics reveal new robot that can run at 25km/h

A robot, dubbed WildCat, has been created by the robotics developers, Boston Dynamics, that can run unaided at 25.7 km/h, reported Wired.

Last year, Boston Dynamics revealed they had built a robot that could run almost twice as fast as WildCat – clocking an impressive 45.5km/h – but the aptly named “Cheetah” had its limitations. It ran on a treadmill, with no wind drag and was powered by an off-board supply, which it didn’t have to carry.

This latest robot has been shown freely running across a car park with no off-board power supply. You can watch the video on their YouTube page.

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