CAPTION Vaccine purification currently requires expensive nanofilters; the sticky outer layers of viruses like porcine parovirus (PPV) can be used to make viruses clump and easier to remove. CREDIT Sarah Bird, Michigan Tech

A person doesn't have to get sick to catch a virus. Researchers hope to catch viruses for detection and vaccinations by understanding their sticky outer layers. 

The complex structures making the surface of a virus are small weaves of proteins that make a big impact on how a virus interacts with cells and its environment. A slight change in protein sequence makes this surface slightly water-repelling, or hydrophobic, causing it to stick to other hydrophobic surfaces. A new paper, published recently in Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces, details surface hydrophobicity in porcine parovirus (PPV). 

Caryn Heldt, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University, is the paper's lead author. Currently, she is on sabbatical in St. Louis working with Pfizer to better understand how surface hydrophobicity could be used to improve vaccination production. 

"Vaccine purification is all about surface interactions; if the components break apart, then they cannot be used as a therapeutic," Heldt says, adding that sensing and removing viruses also depend on surface interactions. "This may also help biologists understand a virus' interactions with a cell."

The main finding in this paper is that Heldt and her team compared experimental methods with supercomputational methods to measure the surface chemistry. 

Because virus hydrophobicity is relatively new and difficult to measure, Heldt's team focused on using hydrophobicity models as a comparison. They compared the expected hydrophobicity measurements based on the main protein from the virus, the non-enveloped PPV, to well-studied model proteins that span a range of repelling or attracting water. Then they analyzed the samples using two kinds of chromatography--the analysis of chemical mixtures--along with fluorescent dyes that illuminate sticky, hydrophobic patches on the proteins. 

The key is that the measurements focus on what's easy to reach. These locations are part of what's called a crystal structure's solvent accessible surface area. Narrowing down the observed area in an experiment helped the team measure hydrophobicity. 

"The entire virus capsid is too large of a complex to do these calculations," Heldt says, explaining the capsid is an outside shell made of 60 copies of similar proteins--VP1, VP2, VP3--and her team tested the exposed parts of VP2, which is the most abundant. "It was interesting that we were still able to correlate our solvent exposed surface area calculations with the experimental results because we were only using this one protein."

The strong correlation between the supercomputational and experimental results indicates that PPV--and likely other viruses--have a measurable hydrophobicity. Once the measurements are better understood, then Heldt and other researchers can better catch viruses. Doing so can improve detecting viruses, concentrating them and purifying vaccines.

 

The Government of Canada is funding a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy for research and talent that will cement Canada's position as a world leader in AI. The $125 million strategy will attract and retain top academic talent in Canada, increase the number of post-graduate trainees and researchers studying artificial intelligence, and promote collaboration between Canada's main centres of expertise in Montreal, Toronto-Waterloo and Edmonton. The program will be administered through CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The new program was announced in the federal budget released on Wednesday.

"The Canadian government clearly recognizes the importance of artificial intelligence as a platform technology that cuts across many areas of innovation today," says Dr. Alan Bernstein, President and CEO of CIFAR. "This investment in deep AI builds on Canada's strength as a pioneer in AI research and will provide a strong foundation for Canada to build on its global leadership in this important and exciting field."

Artificial intelligence is a burgeoning area of research with implications for everything from better medical diagnoses to self-driving cars. The market for artificial intelligence-related products is predicted to reach $47 billion in 2020, and the field has attracted significant investment from Google, Facebook, Baidu and other major technology players.

Canada's global lead in AI is due in large part to the early support by CIFAR of a group of researchers from around the world, led by Geoff Hinton at the University of Toronto, for over a decade. Notable Canadian researchers include Hinton; Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal; and Richard Sutton of the University of Alberta. CIFAR's program in Learning in Machine and Brains is now co-directed by Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun (New York University and director of AI Research at Facebook).

Researchers in the CIFAR program made fundamental advances in artificial intelligence that helped launch the current excitement in the field. The deep AI techniques they developed make computers better at seeing patterns and making accurate predictions based on those patterns, using so-called artificial neural networks, in a way analogous to how we think humans learn.

The investment will build on those advances, and create the critical mass of talent necessary for the spectrum of Canadian businesses to succeed in this new market. 

"I want to thank the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Canada's Minister of Science, and the Canadian government for having the vision to launch this important program," Bernstein said. "The government has laid the foundation for a sustainable effort that will pay off scientifically and economically for Canada far into the future."

"Canada's scientific success in deep AI is an example of how investments in fundamental research can result in enormous potential for innovation," he said. "Deep AI is a platform technology that cuts across virtually all sectors of the economy, with the potential to improve people's lives. It will help build a stronger and more innovative economy, create high value jobs, improve transportation and lead to better and more efficient health care and social services. This announcement keeps Canada in the forefront of the technology, and gives us a chance to steer its direction and take full advantage of its benefits."

The budget also renews and enhances funding for CIFAR with $35 million over the next five years. The money will go towards CIFAR's mission of enabling transformative knowledge by catalyzing global networks of the world's pre-eminent researchers. 

"We're grateful for this enlightened support from the federal government," Bernstein says. "This government understands the importance of investing in fundamental research, and they understand that CIFAR's unique model of bringing together the world's best minds to address some of the most important and most interesting questions of our time benefits both Canada and the world."

Some Google Street View cars have been specially equipped with methane analyzers to detect methane lakes from natural gas lines.

A set of Google Street View mapping cars, specially equipped with cutting-edge methane analyzers, are allowing Colorado State University researchers to "see" invisible methane leaks from natural gas lines beneath our streets.

The technical and computational challenges of measuring methane, and the complex methodologies used to collect, analyze and publicize the data, are detailed in a new paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology March 22.

The groundbreaking project is led by Joe von Fischer, CSU associate professor in biology, in partnership with the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Google Earth Outreach. von Fischer's CSU co-authors include researchers from statistics (Dan Cooley), atmospheric science (Russ Schumacher), and soil and crop sciences (Jay Ham), as well as experts from University of Northern Colorado and the nonprofit science collective Conservation Science Partners.

Data from the project are helping utilities, regulators and advocacy groups reduce wasteful and environmentally damaging leaks faster and more cost effectively.

Besides being the main ingredient in natural gas, methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Growing awareness of this climate risk has spurred new interest in finding and fixing low-level leaks throughout the natural gas supply chain, including local utility systems, where many low-level leaks can persist for many years. That need has spawned a new kind of science.

"This is a huge challenge that almost nobody had been thinking about. Now we're finding out just how widespread these leaks are," von Fischer said. "The faster you fix them, the bigger the environmental benefits are. But utilities and regulators didn't have the data to focus their efforts. That's where we come in. Our goal is to make it faster, cheaper and easier to find and measure methane leaks from natural gas lines to help accelerate crucial repairs."

For the Google project, von Fischer and colleagues were especially eager to identify and quantify methane leaks from the nation's urban areas, where natural gas distribution pipelines lie several feet below the ground. Their EDF Google Street View project is a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive inventory of methane leak sources within cities. The goal is to shine a powerful light on this previously invisible, hard-to-define problem.

A chief motivation of the project is to help utility companies and governments prioritize leak repairs based on the magnitude of emissions. The researchers calculate that fixing the largest 8 percent of leaks would cut pipeline methane emissions by 30 percent. The New Jersey utility company PSE&G has approved almost $1 billion worth of upgrades directed in part by the CSU researchers' data.

The baseline technology that's allowed the project to bloom is an infrared laser methane analyzer. These mobile instruments, which didn't even exist a decade ago, can identify plumes of methane gas in real time, without the need for a gas chromatography analysis in the lab.

"The air contains gases that make it look foggy in the infrared spectrum," von Fischer explained. "The laser can scan through colors of infrared light and 'see' how much methane is present."

At the core of the effort is a set of algorithms and protocols that provide accurate accounting of methane leaks, including the size of the plumes.

Before they took their technology into Street View cars, the researchers first ran preliminary tests with research vehicles driven around campus and on the tarmac at the Christman air field. This included controlled releases of methane in both open and urban environments.

The project has involved designing optimal routes for the Google drivers, while keeping the drivers' interaction with the equipment passive and simple. The researchers have also developed methods for screening out false positive readings ­- for example, how to tell the difference between a true methane leak, and a wayward reading from a landfill or nearby power facility.

For von Fischer, a classically trained ecosystem ecologist, the project has stretched him as a scientist and has catalyzed interactions with a dizzying array of disciplines. "I regularly talk with lawyers, industry people, statisticians, computer scientists, atmospheric physicists, Google....this is just a part of my life now," he said.

At present, there are four Google Street View cars in various cities carrying the CSU methane analyzers, as von Fischer and colleagues' work continues. The drivers are instructed to drive all the roads in a predetermined area to capture leak data that the CSU researchers download, analyze, and upload to a public website hosted by EDF.

To deal with the enormous streams of data the project produces - about 2,000 data points per minute - CSU computer science researcher Sangmi Pallickara is creating a cloud-based platform to manage, store and present the data.

So far, the CSU methane analyzers have provided leak maps of Boston; Burlington, Vermont; Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Mesa, Arizona; Pittsburgh; Staten Island, New York; and Syracuse, New York.

Among other things, they've reported that, on average, Boston, Staten Island and Syracuse - cities with old, corrosion-prone distribution lines - had leaks that released 25 times more methane per kilometer of road (2 liters of methane per minute per kilometer) than Burlington and Indianapolis (0.08 liters of methane per minute per kilometer).

CAPTION This is a conceptual animation depicting a satellite using lasers to relay data from Mars to Earth.

NASA is developing a trailblazing, long-term technology demonstration of what could become the high-speed internet of the sky.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will help NASA understand the best ways to operate laser communications systems. They could enable much higher data rates for connections between spacecraft and Earth, such as scientific data downlink and astronaut communications.

"LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA's vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which leads the LCRD project. "This technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications, and we are excited to partner with the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate's Space Communications and Navigation program office, MIT Lincoln Labs and the U.S. Air Force on this effort."

Laser communications, also known as optical communications, encodes data onto a beam of light, which is then transmitted between spacecraft and eventually to Earth terminals. This technology offers data rates that are 10 to 100 times better than current radio-frequency (RF) communications systems. Just as important, laser communication systems can be much smaller than radio systems, allowing the spacecraft communication systems to have lower size, weight and power requirements. Such capability will become critically important as humans embark on long journeys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

"LCRD is designed to operate for many years and will allow NASA to learn how to optimally use this disruptive new technology," said Don Cornwell, director of the Advanced Communication and Navigation division of the Space Communications and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters, which leads the development of the instrument. "We are also designing a laser terminal for the International Space Station that will use LCRD to relay data from the station to the ground at gigabit-per-second data rates. We plan to fly this new terminal in 2021, and once tested, we hope that many other Earth-orbiting NASA missions will also fly copies of it to relay their data through LCRD to the ground."

The mission builds upon the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), a very successful pathfinder mission that flew aboard the Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer in 2013. While LLCD was first to demonstrate high-data-rate laser communications beyond low-Earth orbit, LCRD will demonstrate the technology's operational longevity and reliability. The mission will also test LCRD's capabilities within many different environmental conditions and operational scenarios.

"We've learned a lot over the years about radio-frequency communications and how it works to make the most of the technology," Dave Israel, LCRD's principal investigator, said about the current communications system. "With LCRD, we'll have the opportunity to put laser communications through its paces to test the performance over different weather conditions and times of day to get that experience."

LCRD is designed to function between two and five years. Two ground terminals equipped with laser modems located in Table Mountain, California, and in Hawaii will demonstrate communications capability to and from LCRD, which will be located in an orbit that matches Earth's rotation, called a geosynchronous orbit, between the two stations.

The LCRD payload consists of two identical optical terminals connected by a component called a space switching unit, which acts as a data router. The space switching unit is also connected to a radio-frequency downlink.

The modems translate digital data into laser or radio-frequency signals and back again. Once they convert the data to laser light, the optical module will beam the data to Earth. To do so, the module must be perfectly pointed to receive and transmit the data. The controller electronics (CE) module commands actuators to help point and steady the telescope despite any movement or vibration on the spacecraft.

LCRD recently successfully passed a key decision point review and has moved on to the integration and test stage of development, during which engineers will ensure each component will behave as intended after the instrument launches. Launch is scheduled to occur in summer 2019.

The LCRD team is led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

LCRD is a project within NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate's Technology Demonstration Mission, which performs system level demonstrations of cross-cutting technologies and capabilities and bridges the gap between scientific and engineering challenges and the technological innovations needed to overcome them, enabling robust new space missions like LCRD.

 

Entrance of the Missouri Innovation Center

Mediacom Business has announced an agreement to provide a dedicated fiber connection with Gigabit internet speeds to the Missouri Innovation Center (MIC), a flagship, non-profit, incubator organization focused on leveraging research and innovation produced in conjunction with the University of Missouri, for the economic benefit of the region and the state.

Dan Templin, Senior Vice President of Mediacom Business, said the agreement with the MIC is due in part to a company-wide initiative called Project Open Road, a significant capital expenditure to proactively connect more businesses to their network and provide the level of broadband capacity that is critical for commercial and research facilities like the MIC.

“The Missouri Innovation Center is currently sharing a University of Missouri fiber feed with other university users, limiting bandwidth to incubator residents who are in need of higher capacity to power their business applications,” Mr. Templin said.“Mediacom Business’ Gigabit+ Fiber Solutions will provide the 1-Gig internet speeds to power next-level technology like precision agriculture, live augmented reality and other cloud-based services. Our network will deliver the dedicated, fast and private connection to the public internet that is critical for incubator residents.”

One example, according to Bill Turpin, President and CEO of the MIC, involves an incubator startup called StoryUP, a positive media platform that utilizes virtual reality technology to immerse users in stories and experiences that can produce specific brainwave patterns.

Mr. Turpin said StoryUP has been creating compelling VR videos for customers all around the globe. StoryUp is also exploring ways for their platform to relieve baseline symptoms of anxiety in hospitals, veteran’s homes, and chemotherapy clinics. “StoryUP presently offloads as much as a terabyte of raw video data to a separate drive each week, so the dedicated Mediacom Business connection of 1 Gigabit internet speeds will satisfy their data transfer requirements, making them much more productive.”

Stacey Button, Director of Economic Development for the City of Columbia, Missouri, and President of Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI), said the partnership between Mediacom Business and the Missouri Innovation Center will help entrepreneurs translate their new business ideas into high-growth businesses. “Mediacom Business has the high-capacity broadband tools that the MIC needs to help businesses grow and be successful, all for the benefit of this region and the state.”

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