Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility takes one big step towards reality

30th Mar 2013 | 12:00

Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility takes one big step towards reality

Shhh, they'll still hear you even if they can't see you

This week, science holds the answer to Minority Report­-style profiling, showing us that you really can tell if someone is going to commit a crime, but whether that's a good or a bad thing, we don't know.

Science has also developed cancer-battering super T cells, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting, malicious leukemia, while it's also shown us that evolution is nowhere near perfect.

Meanwhile, we've also seen that, yes, we really could produce fuel from thin, carbon-dioxide-rich air, and help out climate change in the process. What's more the holy grail of physics, the invisibility cloak, has taken one big, natural step towards reality. All in another exciting Week in Science.

Not quite Minority Report but close -- Sounding like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, researchers have found a link between activity in a particular region of the brain and the likelihood criminals will reoffend. A study of 96 male inmates just before their release from prison using fMRI showed that those prisoners who displayed little activity in a region of their brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which deals with executive functions such as decision-making, and motor control, were 2.6 times more likely to be rearrested, and 4.3 times more likely to be involved in nonviolent crimes. The study marks some of the first steps into correlating brain function to real-world outcomes, and although it needs much further research and development to mitigate a myriad of other factors, could result in something akin to brain-scan profiling, which is either a scary thought or a useful tool, depending on how you look at it. [Nature]

Super-hard weeds have one killer gene -- When you're dealing with weeds in your garden, the most effective way to deal with them is just to yank them out of the ground, but when you're dealing with weeds on an industrial scale, weed killer is the only answer. The problem is, weeds are hardy little blighters, and now we know why some are so tough to eradicate from our fields.

A new gene, called AmGSTF1, has been identified as a master gene that makes plants resistant to herbicides. The gene produces a protein called glutathione transferase, which creates a load of protective antioxidants that neutralise a myriad of toxins including weed killers. Now that we've identified the troublesome gene in super-weeds, there's hope that a safe-for-use chemical could be derived from a toxic drug which has been found to neutralise glutathione transferase and make the hardly pests weak to herbicides again. The days of super-weeds like ryegrass and black-grass could be numbered. [New Scientist]

Are dandelions weeds? [Image credit: pahudson from Flickr]

Genetically engineered super-T-cells seek and destroy cancer -- One of the things that makes cancer so difficult to treat is that it's essentially your own cells going crazy. Normally your own immune system is great at keeping unruly cells in check, but when things go wrong, cancer forms. A new therapy aims to upgrade your own immune cells and send them into the fight.

A small clinical trial using genetically modified T cells from patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has shown that the cells, reintroduced into the body, can force an aggressive cancer into retreat. The T cells are engineered to express a receptor for another type of immune cell, a B cell, which tricks the T cells into recognising the cancer. One side effect is that the modified T cells also kill healthy B cells, however patients can live without B cells and have them replaced at a later stage. After this success against such a rapidly growing and aggressive cancer, the next step will be to roll out the treatment on a slightly larger clinical trial scale, which means it'll be a little way off from widespread use for the time being. However, this kind of self-cell engineering could become common practice in the near future, should the results continue to look as promising. [Science Translational Medicine]

Isolation really can kill you -- Everyone knows that loneliness causes all sorts of troubles for your health -- we are inherently social animals. But now new research has shown that, in fact, isolation, whether you feel lonely or not, increases your risk of illness and early death when you make it to over 50. The statistical link was made through analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Ageing in England, which monitors heath, well-being and longevity across a whole swath of the population. The study showed a correlation between social isolation and higher mortality. Of course, many other factors come into play here, but it shows that isolation really is bad for your health, whether you think you're lonely or not. [PNAS]

Is loneliness an enemy? [Image credit: leslieblissphoto]

Harry Potter's Cloak of Invisibility takes one massive step forward -- An invisibility cloak has been one of physics' greatest of holy grails, but research into a new combination of natural materials has just made it take one giant leap towards non-fiction. Using a super-thin, multilayer dielectric coating made, not of metamaterials, but of so-called natural materials, scientists from Michigan have broken the record books. Their new cloak allows substantially more light, with reduced distortion and shadows, to flow around an object, essentially making it invisible. The interesting development here is that most previous cloaking efforts were centred around metamaterials, manmade substances with properties not found in nature. With any luck, James Bond's invisible car might leap from the fictional screen into reality soon. [Applied Physics Letters]

Generating fuel from thin carbon-dioxide-packed air --It could be argued that climate change is running riot right now, what with the increasingly extreme and bizarre weather we're seeing, so anything that could help is a major breakthrough. Now scientists have discovered a way to create useful chemicals and biofuel directly from the carbon dioxide at the heart of global climate change. Researchers have managed to genetically modify a bacterium, called Pyrococcus furiosus, to consume carbon dioxide and produce useful chemicals. Currently the team has managed to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common chemical used to produce acrylic, but further modification should mean we can produce biofuels to power our cars and feed our ever-increasing energy consumption. Previous biofuel efforts relied on plants and photosynthesis, producing sugars that could then be fermented into fuels. By using the bacteria we can skip out the middleman and produce chemicals directly, essentially creating fuel out of thin air, and extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process. [PNAS]

Super-smart mice created with hybrid human-mouse brains -- Human brain cells can make mice smarter, according to new research into human neurological disorders. Results from a recent study, which transplanted human brain cells, specially glial cells, into newborn mice, indicate the rodents were significantly smarter once they reached adulthood compared to untouched mice. They learned tested skills faster, and were able to identify paths quicker. The findings, a by-product of a project to develop new models of human neurological diseases, point to glial cells, and their complex evolution in the human brain, as one of the differentiating factors between human and animal neurological capacity. Glial cells were once thought to be passive elements in the human brain, however these results add to a growing notion that they are far from simple support cells, and play a crucial role in the development of our complex brain systems. [Stem Cell]

Smart mice have arrived. [Image credit: braydawg]

Evolution certainly isn't perfect, just look at the ear -- If you thought that evolution produced the perfect system, think again. Yes, the best end result for the situation normally wins out, but getting there is a system of trial and error, meaning it's often not what an engineer would do if you set out to design something from scratch, or as some like to describe it, intelligent designs. A new study into the development of the inner ear has shown that it's far from a perfect creation, which ends up producing a system filled with substandard, infection-prone tissue.

Essentially what researchers have found is that as a mouse ear develops within an embryo, the middle ear, the bit that transfers sound waves into neuronal impulses, forms from a pouch of tissue. That pouch ruptures at one end, which lets different kinds of tissue enter and integrate into the growing ear. This infiltration of tissue, which comes from the neural crest, is responsible for the formation of the three tiny bones within the inner ear. That's all well and good, but the problem is the neural crest tissue isn't good at forming protective barrier linings, which results in a bald patch, devoid of the protective cilia that sweep away debris and infectious material, making it prone to infection. Of course, without the infiltration of the neural crest tissue, our ears wouldn't be anywhere near as sensitive to sound, so it's quite a good trade off, but it illustrates that evolution is by no means perfect. [Science]

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