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Txch This Week: Drone Internet Providers and Dissolving Batteries

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by Norman Rozenberg

This week on Txchnologist, we looked at innovation offering perspectives from the cosmic scale all the way down to strands of DNA. First, NASA unveiled a 360-degree view of the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. The interactive 20-gigapixel map is the result of 10 years of telescope imaging and work.

Next, looked at an interesting entrant into the ranks of digital currencies—this one looking to stoke investmentment in solar energy production. The project, inspired by BitCoin, pays one SolarCoin for every megawatt-hour of electricity your solar panels produce.

Researchers in Germany have created a material that is less dense than water and stronger than steel. The polymer and alumina structure was inspired by wood, bone and honeycombs.

A breakthrough in cancer research could be around the corner thanks to more than 239,000 computers from around the world that are working together. The virtual supercomputer has uncovered the folding steps that activate a protein key to disease progression. Meanwhile, researchers are working on stimulating parts of the brain with electricity to boost learning and brain activity.

Scientists have sequenced Loblolly Pine DNA, making it the largest genome decoded and analyzed to date. A research team from 12 institutions banded together and used cutting-edge techniques to read and assemble the DNA code.

Now we’re bringing you the news and trends we’ve been following this week in the world of science, technology and innovation.

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Citizen Scientists See Space as New Frontier

by Rebecca Ruiz

Space has never been accessible to the average hobbyist. It was instead the realm of elite astronauts and billionaires.

Edward Wright is on a mission to change that. As the project manager for Citizens in Space, an initiative of the nonprofit United States Rocket Academy, Wright is looking to recruit both amateur scientists and astronauts to participate in a commercial space industry that is rapidly taking shape.

Citizens in Space has made an appealing offer to aspiring space explorers: The project has purchased 10 flights on the XCOR Lynx, a commercial suborbital spacecraft, and will send that many amateur astronauts to the great beyond along with 100 small experiments or payloads.

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Camphor Tree Helps Bacteria Make Biofuel Chemically Identical to Petroleum

by Michael Keller

Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.

The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.

The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.

“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure.  We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”

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