The flu virus: tracking its origins. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

ScienceDaily (June 14, 2009) – A new analysis of the current swine-origin H1N1 influenza A virus suggests that transmission to humans occurred several months before recognition of the existing outbreak.

The work, published online in Nature June 10, highlights the need for systematic surveillance of influenza in swine, and provides evidence that new genetic elements in swine can result in the emergence of viruses with pandemic potential in humans.

‘Using computational methods, developed over the last ten years at Oxford, we were able to reconstruct the origins and timescale of this new pandemic,’ said Dr Oliver Pybus of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, an author of the paper. ‘Our results show that this strain has been circulating among pigs, possibly among multiple continents, for many years prior to its  transmission to humans.’

Dr Pybus, along with Andrew Rambaut from the University of Edinburgh and colleagues, used evolutionary analysis to estimate the timescale of the origins and the early development of the epidemic. They believe that it was derived from several viruses circulating in swine, and that the initial transmission to humans occurred several months before recognition of the outbreak.

The team conclude that ‘despite widespread influenza surveillance in humans, the lack of systematic swine surveillance allowed for the undetected persistence and evolution of this potentially pandemic strain for many years.’

The team included researchers from Oxford, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Hong Kong and the University of Arizona.

ScienceDaily.com  –  ‘Vascular surgeons can address peripheral artery disease by dissolving blood-blocking plaque concentrations with a vibrating catheter. Inserting the catheter into the blocked artery allows it to be maneuvered to the location of the clot, where it breaks down the plaque into small pieces that travel safely away, opening up passages large enough to allow blood to pass through freely, or to create space for a stent when required. 

Millions of Americans may be at risk for heart attack or stroke and not even know it. A pain in your leg may be a sign of something much more serious — even fatal. Ivanhoe explains a new way to fight peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Marjo Madden thought her age was catching up with her! “I couldn’t walk any more than 50 feet without sitting down,” Madden recalls.

But it wasn’t age. It was PAD that was slowing her down. “I had a very bad burning sensation in the calves of my legs,” Madden says.

Just as the blood flow in a heart attack patient is cut off by plaque, in PAD, blood flow throughout the body can be cut off. PAD is treated now with a balloon or stent, but for some patients the plaque is too hard, or there’s too much of it. Until now, these patients would face invasive surgery … or worse.

“They have to have something done,” Imran Mohiuddin, M.D., a vascular surgeon at Methodist DeBakey Heart Center in Houston, told Ivanhoe. “Otherwise, they’re at risk of losing that limb. So this is sort of — we call it limb salvage.”

The FDA has just approved a vibrating catheter that gives doctors another tool to help patients who are running out of options. “The catheter works like a miniature jack hammer inside the blood vessel, and it comes up against an inclusion and then it starts vibrating,” Dr. Mohiuddin explains. “Through its vibrations, it’s able to slowly burrow a hole.”

Sensors detect tissue, so even though the vibrating catheter is strong enough to break through plaster, it won’t go through tissue. “It breaks up the particles into very, very microscopic particles, as small as a red blood cell,” Dr. Mohiuddin explains.

Once the catheter is through, doctors will use angioplasty or a stent to keep the artery open. “Often times, we would have to just abandon that case and actually perform a bypass operation,” Dr. Mohiuddin says.

Recovery time is just a day and for patients like Madden, this could be one way to help stop the pain and get moving again! “However much the Lord has given me, I’m going to use it to the fullest,” Madden says.

The vibrating catheter was just approved by the FDA for use in the legs. The next step is to get it approved for other arteries. Doctors in Europe are already using this procedure successfully in the heart.


ABOUT PAD: Peripheral artery disease is a condition that affects about 10 million people in the U.S. It often leads to severe blockage in the arteries, particularly in the lower leg. Such blockages reduce blood flow to the legs and feet, increasing the risk of infection, leg ulcers, gangrene and amputation. Those with PAD are also more at risk for other cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and stroke.

ABOUT STROKES: The brain is made up of living cells that require a constant supply of nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood. Blockage or rupture of the blood vessels supply parts of the brain cause most strokes. A stroke occurs when brain tissue is deprived of blood and brain cells die from the lack of oxygen. Depending on which area of the brain is affected, a stroke can cause vision problems, speech problems, disability, even death.

Traditionally, treatment for stroke-causing diseases involves blood-thinning drugs to prevent clots, but for patients with severe blockage, this may not be sufficient. Some temporary blockages only last minutes or hours, leading to mini-strokes. Mini-strokes are a sign of a serious problem and can lead to a permanent stroke if left untreated.

WHAT CAUSES HEART ATTACKS? Heart attack is the leading cause of death in North and South America and in Europe. It is usually the result of prolonged hardening and narrowing of the arteries that direct blood into the heart. When blood vessels are healthy, oxygen-rich blood flows easily to all the muscles and organs of the body. But if they become clogged by the buildup of fatty deposits on vessel walls, blood can be cut off, killing heart muscle cells. This is called coronary heart disease, and it can lead to heart attacks or strokes.


The world’s top agency for animal health said that climate change is widening viral disease among farm animals, expanding the spread of some microbes that are also a known risk to humans 

Climate change is widening viral disease among farm animals, expanding the spread of some microbes that are also a known risk to humans, the world’s top agency for animal health said on Monday

Physorg.com, June 15, 2009  —  The World Animal Health Organization — known as OIE, an acronym of its name in French — said a survey of 126 of its member-states found 71 percent were “extremely concerned” about the expected impact of climate change on animal disease.

Fifty-eight percent said they had already identified at least one disease that was new to their territory or had returned to their territory, and that they associated with climate change.

The three most mentioned diseases were bluetongue, spread among sheep by biting midges; Rift Valley fever, a livestock disease that can also be picked up by people handling infected meat; and West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquito from infected birds to both animals and humans.

“More and more countries are indicating that climate change has been responsible for at least one emerging or re-emerging disease occurring on their territory,” OIE Director General Bernard Vallat said in a statement.

“This is a reality we cannot ignore and we must help veterinary services throughout the world to equip themselves with systems that comply with international standards of good governance so as to deal with this problem.”

In 2007, the UN’s Nobel-winning experts, the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a landmark report that warned changing weather patterns could widen the habitat of disease-bearing insects.

This would have repercussions for human health, in such areas as malaria and dengue fever, the IPCC said.

The study was issued on Monday on the second day of a six-day general assembly of the OIE.

The Paris-based agency, with 174 member countries and territories, is a clearing house of scientific information on livestock and sets down guidelines for sanitary safety and welfare in farm animals.


Trapped more than three kilometers under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years, a dormant bacterium — Herminiimonas glaciei — has been coaxed back to life by researchers. (Credit: Image courtesy of Society for General Microbiology) 

ScienceDaily (June 15, 2009) – A novel bacterium — trapped more than three kilometres under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years — may hold clues as to what life forms might exist on other planets.

Dr Jennifer Loveland-Curtze and a team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University report finding the novel microbe, which they have called Herminiimonas glaciei, in the current issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. The team showed great patience in coaxing the dormant microbe back to life; first incubating their samples at 2˚C for seven months and then at 5˚C for a further four and a half months, after which colonies of very small purple-brown bacteria were seen.

H. glaciei is small even by bacterial standards – it is 10 to 50 times smaller than E. coli. Its small size probably helped it to survive in the liquid veins among ice crystals and the thin liquid film on their surfaces. Small cell size is considered to be advantageous for more efficient nutrient uptake, protection against predators and occupation of micro-niches and it has been shown that ultramicrobacteria are dominant in many soil and marine environments.

Most life on our planet has always consisted of microorganisms, so it is reasonable to consider that this might be true on other planets as well. Studying microorganisms living under extreme conditions on Earth may provide insight into what sorts of life forms could survive elsewhere in the solar system.

“These extremely cold environments are the best analogues of possible extraterrestrial habitats”, said Dr Loveland-Curtze, “The exceptionally low temperatures can preserve cells and nucleic acids for even millions of years. H. glaciei is one of just a handful of officially described ultra-small species and the only one so far from the Greenland ice sheet; studying these bacteria can provide insights into how cells can survive and even grow under extremely harsh conditions, such as temperatures down to -56˚C, little oxygen, low nutrients, high pressure and limited space.”

H. glaciei isn’t a pathogen and is not harmful to humans”, Dr Loveland-Curtze added, “but it can pass through a 0.2 micron filter, which is the filter pore size commonly used in sterilization of fluids in laboratories and hospitals. If there are other ultra-small bacteria that are pathogens, then they could be present in solutions presumed to be sterile. In a clear solution very tiny cells might grow but not create the density sufficient to make the solution cloudy.”


Journal reference:

  • 1. Loveland-Curtze et al. Herminiimonas glaciei sp. nov., a novel ultramicrobacterium from 3042 m deep Greenland glacial ice. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, 2009; 59 (6): 1272 DOI: 10.1099/ijs.0.001685-0


Sunsphere: Filled with turbines, wigs.

PopSci.com, June 15, 2009, by Dan Smith  —  A small kibbutz in Israel has installed the world’s first solar-hybrid power plant to fulfill all their energy needs. Composed of 30 solar reflectors and one kooky-looking “flower” tower, the plant can switch to gas-powered turbines after dark to keep the system producing power 24-hours a day. The best part is that the plant takes up a relatively small amount of space for its output and can power remote areas that are not connected to larger grids.

The 1982-Knoxville-World’s-Fair-like-sunsphere is the key to how the system works. The 30 efficient heliostats track the sun throughout the day and bounce the sun’s rays directly at the tower. Inside the tower a solar receiver converts the focused rays into solar thermal energy that powers a mini-turbine. Whenever there is cloud cover or the sun sets, the turbine can be run off biodiesel, natural gas, or bio gas, making the hybrid side of the turbine still quite green.

The first plant in Israel will flip the switch on June 24, powering 70 homes. The company that created the technology, Aora, hopes to expand to other off-the-grid towns in the future. Combined with smaller nuclear reactors, these two technologies could help power the developing world.


Aora Makes The Desert Bloom With Sunshine Flower Power

PopSci.com, Rising up, like a mirage in the middle of the desert outside Eilat, is a giant yellow tulip in whose heart lies a massive crystal. Surrounding it: a field of mirrors that slowly move back and forth, following the sun.

Hallucinatory though it may sound, this is no mirage. The tulip is actually a solar tower with an aperture that directs sunlight into a solar receiver that drives a high-powered turbine, and the 30 tracking mirrors below are called heliostats.

It’s an ambitious project initiated by Israeli company AORA to construct the world’s first solar-thermal powered gas turbine station. The plant, with its distinctive 30-meter high tulip-shaped tower, is now nearing completion at Kibbutz Samar in Israel’s southern Arava region.

AORA, of Israeli EDIG group, is a developer of applied ultra-high temperature concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. The breakthrough of CSP is that it can power a 100kW gas micro-turbine; other solar technologies currently available can only power much larger steam turbines. AORA says it is the worlds’ first company to commercialize the use of a solarized gas turbine engine.

The government recently showed support when Minister of National Infrastructures, Binyamin Ben Eliezer signed AORA’s license provide solar electricity to the national grid – the first such license to be granted by Israel to solar-thermal technology.

Being able to run the equivalent of a jet engine on solar power, means the system is efficient at far smaller power blocks, Yuval Susskind, COO of AORA, explains to ISRAEL21c. This enables smaller scale projects that require less land and shorter towers (30m vs. 70-120m and more), and which are easier to build, finance and operate.

“Israel has all the climate conditions, but we don’t have huge available tracts of land. AORA is the first to bring the size of a solar field down to something like a soccer pitch or a baseball diamond,” says Susskind.

Business looks bright – abroad

The installation at Samar will be the model for many more to come, says Haim Fried, CEO of AORA, and will include the framework for selling power to the national grid over a long-term period.

The company expects to begin power generation any day. Once it begins generating power, Fried says, the Samar unit will provide 100kW electric power to the grid, as well as 170kW thermal power – enough to supply 50 households at an average of 2kW per household. “That’s the average use in Israel. The US is a bit more,” he explains.

Fried notes that selling power to the local grid close to the customer base is more efficient because there is no need to step up and down voltage, as is done when transmitting power from a central power station. By generating locally, the power is fed in low voltages, via the local distribution grid, for standard domestic use in the home. It also relieves the load on the high voltage distribution grid.

Location is key, he adds because AORA’s installations require direct radiation. “The set up cost is the same in the Arava or Tel Aviv but for the same investment I get more direct sunshine at Samar, so I’ll get more power out of it.”

The company’s business plan has two profit centers: in Israel it will sell power to the national grid through partnerships. Outside Israel, the company will set up joint ventures with local partners to build solar power stations and sell clean energy to the grid.

Costs haven’t been finalized yet, but Fried says installations will be competitively priced and estimates that AORA will become profitable after selling 20 units.

“We’re also probably going to do a joint venture in Spain,” he adds. “We want to do more in Israel but there’s a problem with the feed-in tariffs, which are too low. In Spain, they pay 29.9 eurocents, which is much more favorable. If Israel doesn’t change the rates then we’ll have to do more business outside.”

Sunny technology

The AORA system is hybrid, meaning it can run on solar, as well as almost any alternative fuel, including biogas, biodiesel and natural gas. Being located in an agricultural community such as Samar, Susskind points out, means ready access to unlimited amounts of biogas, courtesy of the kibbutz cowshed. “So it can run on sunshine during the day, biogas at night and be operational 24 hours a day,” he says.

The system is also modular and scalable; more base units – each comprising a tulip tower and 30 heliostats on a half-acre of property – can be added as demand grows.

Modularity enables each unit to be located independently with no need for one large, flat, contiguous expanse of land. Strung together, the units can form a utility-scale power plant. Being modular also means greater reliability, the company states, as servicing a single base unit does not require a complete shutdown.

The key components of AORA’s Power Conversion Unit (PCU) are the micro-turbine and the solar receiver, whose technology resulted from collaboration with the Weizmann Institute and Rotem Industries.

The patented receiver uses the sun’s energy to heat air to a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius and direct this energy into the turbine. The turbine then converts this tremendous thermal energy into electric power.

The solar receiver and some other key components are proprietary technologies and will always be manufactured in Israel, says Fried. However, other components, such as the tower and heliostats, are made of simple materials and can be manufactured wherever a base unit is to be set up according to AORA’s specifications.

The company unveiled the Samar project in February, at the annual Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference. “The response was very positive – which is a great compliment because of the high professional level there,” says Fried.

“Greentech has to look good”

AORA’s tulip is painted bright sunny yellow. Susskind says this was because the dusty red of the Arava hills overpowered the gold color. “One reason for selecting Samar was its proximity to the highway. I want every kid to see this tower when they’re heading for a family vacation in Eilat,” he says.

The company hired architect Haim Dotan to design the tower. “We didn’t think we could afford it but we met with him, and told him about our vision: that there would be many towers like this all over the world. He was so excited about the project that he said he would do it in any case. He said it would make the desert bloom – that’s why it’s in the shape of a flower. He loves the desert and wants it to be beautiful.”

AORA also has a vision of setting up a roadside attraction for tourists: an alternative energy education center that will showcase not just the company’s own technology, but other cleantech being developed and tested in the region as well. The company has already been in talks with the regional council, which is interested in the project.

After the Samar facility is completed, AORA plans to expand into larger scale power generating plants of 5MW and more. “By late 2009, we plan on setting up our first international installations in strategic markets,” says Fried.

These include the Mediterranean, southern Europe, Australia, California, Arizona and the US Sun Belt states. At a later stage, the company aims to enter the African market. “We view China – where we already successfully constructed and operated a pilot unit – Africa and other remote regions as the true market for the AORA system,” says Fried.

This article is reprinted with permission from ISRAEL21c – www.israel21c.org.

Such wireless transfer of energy was first demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in 1893

Nokia’s Research centre in Helsinki. Photograph: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/AFP/Getty Images

Prototype harvests radiowaves from TV, radio and other mobiles

Guardian.co.uk, June 15, 2009, by Duncan Graham-Rowe  —  Standby mode is often accused of being the scourge of the planet, insidiously draining resources while offering little benefit other than a small red light and extra convenience for couch potatoes. But now Nokia reckons a mobile phone that is always left in standby mode could be just what the environment needs.

A new prototype charging system from the company is able to power itself on nothing more than ambient radiowaves – the weak TV, radio and mobile phone signals that permanently surround us. The power harvested is small but it is almost enough to power a mobile in standby mode indefinitely without ever needing to plug it into the mains, (recharge it) according to Markku Rouvala, one of the researchers who developed the device at the Nokia Research Centre in Cambridge, UK.

This may sound too good to be true but Oyster cards used by London commuters perform a similar trick, powering themselves from radiowaves emitted by the reader devices as they are swiped. And similarly old crystal radio sets and more recently modern radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, increasingly used in shipping and as antitheft devices, are powered purely by radiowaves.

The difference with Nokia’s prototype is that instead of harvesting tiny amounts of power (a few microwatts) from dedicated transmitters, Nokia claims it is able to scavenge relatively large amounts of power – around a thousand times as much – from signals coming from miles away. Individually the energy available in each of these signals is miniscule. But by harvesting radiowaves across a wide range of frequencies it all adds up, said Rouvala.

Such wireless transfer of energy was first demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in 1893, who was so taken with the idea he attempted to build an intercontinental transmission tower to send power wirelessly across the Atlantic. Nokia’s device is somewhat less ambitious and is made possible thanks to a wide-band antenna and two very simple circuits. The antenna and the receiver circuit are designed to pick up a wide range of frequencies – from 500 megahertz to 10 gigahertz – and convert the electromagnetic waves into an electrical current, while the second circuit is designed to feed this current to the battery to recharge it.

The trick here is to ensure that these circuits use less power than is being received, said Rouvala. So far they have been able to harvest up to 5 milliwatts. Their short-term goal is to get in excess of 20 milliwatts, enough power to keep a phone in standby mode indefinitely without having to recharge it. But this would not be enough to actually use the phone to make or receive a call, he says. So ultimately the hope is to be able to get as much as 50 milliwatts which would be sufficient to slowly recharge the battery.

Steve Beeby, an expert in harvesting ambient energy at the University of Southampton, said it would be a remarkable achievement. . “Radio frequency power falls off exponentially with distance,” he says. Earlier this year researchers at Intel and the University of Washington, in Seattle, showed that they could power a small sensor using a TV signal 4.1 kilometers away.

Wireless charging is not intended as a sole energy source, but rather to be used in conjunction with other energy harvesting technologies, such as handset casings embedded with solar cell materials. According to Technology Review magazine, the phone could be on the market in three to five years.