Author Archive

An Artifical Leaf

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). November 16, 2019. 

Researchers from the Department of Chemistry announced a few weeks ago in Nature Materials the development of a new method of syngas production, paving the way for greener production practices.

Syngas is a crucial intermediate in the production of complex hydrocarbons, with applications extending to pharmaceuticals and fertilisers. The conventional reforming of methane to syngas is highly energy intensive and not always very efficient. Photoelectrochemical (PEC) production of syngas, a mixture of CO and H2, is an attractive green method of enabling a cyclical carbon economy. Current attempts, however, have been hindered by the high overpotential, low selectivity and cost of their catalysts.

The new method, proposed by Virgil Andrei, Bertrand Reuillard and Erwin Reisner, makes use of cobalt (II) meso-tetrakis(4-methoxyphenyl)porphyrin (CoMTPP), a molecular catalyst avoiding the sustainability question by using cobalt, a commonly available earth metal. CoMTPP is immobilised onto carbon nanotube (CNT) sheets (buckypaper), and the combination is employed in electrodes, perovskite-based photocathodes and perovskite-BiVO4 PEC tandem devices.

The result is tuneable syngas production through a tandem PEC device that reduces CO2 to CO through coupling to the oxidation of water to O2. Light intensity as low as 0.1sun still permits reduction, so that syngas could be produced during all day regardless of weather conditions, potentially answering the questions of economics and reliability that might hinder the development of this technology into a dominant source of hydrocarbon product.

Their paper:
Andrei, V., Reuillard, B. & Reisner, E. Bias-free solar syngas production by integrating a molecular cobalt catalyst with perovskite–BiVO4 tandems. Nat. Mater. 19, 189–194 (2020).

Retrotransposon-induced Tomato Evolution

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). September 21, 2019.

Cambridge researchers have shown that genetic elements activated by drought can induce positive changes in major crops: a potential method for future crop improvement and a valuable tool against world hunger.

The paper published in PLOS Genetics last week focusses on the transposon family Rider in tomatoes, the world’s most grown fruit.

Transposons play a large part in plant genomes and are a major source of genetic instability, threatening deleterious mutations, to the extent that they are often silenced by epigenetic mechanisms. These usually involve hypermethylation at cytosine residues, association with nucleosomes containing methylated histones and targeting by small interfering RNAs that guide RNA-dependent DNA methylation. Interference with these mechanisms can result in transposon activation, giving potential for genetic and epigenetic variation, especially when one finds itself near a gene. Rider is consequently responsible for many beneficial traits of agronomical interest in tomatoes, including fruit shape and plant architecture.

Transposons can also be activated by environmental stresses. Described examples include a cold-responsive transposon family in citrus and heat-responsive retrotransposons in rice. Once activated, transposons represent significant sources of genetic and epigenetic variation, such as the jointless pedicel Rider-induced phenotype selected for during tomato breeding, which reduces fruit dropping and eases mechanical harvesting.

The researchers showed that an increase in Rider expression, and an increase in extra-chromosomal DNA, can be caused by dehydration stress; this mechanism relies on the signalling pathway of the phytohormone abscisic acid. Evidence that RNA-dependent DNA methylation controls Rider activity through small-interfering RNAs and DNA methylation may point towards a possible explanation for the influence of drought on Rider, and a cross-species examination revealed Rider-like elements in major crop plants such as rapeseed, beetroot and quinoa.

Overall, their findings suggest that Rider is a drought-induced retrotransposon family found in many important modern crops that may have contributed to phenotypic changes as a result of past drought periods. They postulate that Rider could be deliberately activated to generate further variation for crop improvement, highlighting the potential of transposon-directed mutagenesis for the future of agriculture.

Authors: Matthias Benoit, Hajk-Georg Drost, Marco Catoni and Jerzy Paszkowski from the Sainsbury Laboratory. Quentin Guoil, Sara Lopez-Gomolion and David Baulcombe from the Department of Plant Sciences.

Their paper:
Benoit M, Drost H-G, Catoni M, Gouil Q, Lopez-Gomollon S, Baulcombe D, et al. (2019) Environmental and epigenetic regulation of Rider retrotransposons in tomato. PLoS Genet 15(9): e1008370.

Novel Solid-State Alternative to Commerical Cooling

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). October 16, 2019.

Material science researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently reported in Nature the development of a new design of electrocaloric (EC) cooling devices (which can change in temperature when an electric field is applied) which works over a wider and more usable temperature range and a larger effect than previous proposals.

The new designs make use of multi-layer capacitors (MLCs) made of an assembly of films of the well-known EC material PST. Their highly-ordered PST was able to ‘access large EC effects’ while representing a potential macroscopic option. Recorded temperature changes peaked at 5.5°C near room temperature, and showed changes of 3°C over temperatures ranging from 21°C – 197°C. Compared to current macroscopic cooling devices – ones that make use of magnetocaloric (MC, which change in temperature when a magnetic field is applied) cooling using bulky, permanent magnets and gadolinium (Gd – a lanthanide metal) – these data fare well, suggesting that EC cooling using MLCs of highly ordered PST could provide a cost-effective alternative to current MC designs.

This has exciting implications for cooling consumer electronics and solar cells and can be used to reduce below room temperature using doped PST. Furthermore, the new design could lead to alternatives to current methods of air conditioning, which are relatively energy-intensive.

Their paper:
Nair, B., Usui, T., Crossley, S. et al. Large electrocaloric effects in oxide multilayer capacitors over a wide temperature range. Nature 575, 468–472 (2019).

Predicting Organic Syntheses

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). September 10, 2019.

Although we may be somewhat late to the party, we would like to extend our congratulations to Dr Alpha Lee, one of last year’s speakers, and his co-researchers, which included Dr Phillipe Schwaller, at the Cavendish Laboratory with Dr Alpha Lee, and Dr Christopher A. Hunterford and PhD student Peter Bolgar at the Department of Chemistry, for their two remarkable papers reporting on the development of a new model which predicts, with over 90% accuracy, the outcomes of various organic synthesis reactions, the sort that might be involved in medicinal drug discovery. Importantly, this novel model does away with handcrafted rules, which means that the team’s method can be scaled up to cope with the ever-increasing volume of reported organic reactions without significant manhour investment. Furthermore, their method can accurately predict subtle and selective chemical transformations, such as those regarding chemoselectivity and regioselectivity, as well as estimate its own uncertainty.

Their papers:
Lee, A. A.; Yang, Q., Sresht, V.; Bolgar, P., Hou, X.; Klug-McLeod, J. L.; Butler, C. R.. Molecular Transformer Unifies Reaction Prediction and Retrosynthesis across Pharma Chemical Space. Chem. Commun.. 2019, 55, 12152-12155.
Schwaller, P.; Laino, T.; Gaudin, T.; Bolgar, P.; Hunter, C. A.; Bekas, C.; Lee, A. A.. Molecular Transformer: A Model for Uncertainty-Calibrated Chemical Reaction Prediction. ACS Central Science. 2019, 5(9), 1572-1583

Nausea-free AR

Krishna Amin (St Catharine’s). September 29, 2019.

Cambridge researchers at the Centre for Photonic Devices and Sensors and their colleagues from Huawei Technologies Duesseldorf GmbH have developed a new AR headset that eliminates nausea during use and improves image quality and the field of view, with implications for numerous industries.

Accommodation-free displays, also known as Maxwellian displays, keep the displayed image sharp regardless of the viewer’s focal distance. However, they typically suffer from a small eye-box and limited effective field of view (FOV) which requires careful alignment before a viewer can see the image. Their paper presents a high-quality accommodation-free head mounted display (aHMD) based on pixel beam scanning for direct image forming on the retina, using narrow, collimated pixel beams. It has an enlarged eye-box and FOV for easy viewing by replicating the viewing points with an array of beam splitters.

A prototype aHMD built using this concept shows high definition, low colour aberration 3D augmented reality (AR) images with a FOV of 36∘, a marked improvement on holographic displays, with poor image quality and a limited FOV of 4.9 degrees. The advantage of the proposed design over other head mounted display (HMD) architectures is that the high image quality is unaffected by changes in eye accommodation, and the approach to enlarge the eye-box is scalable. Most importantly, such an aHMD can deliver realistic three-dimensional (3D) viewing perception without vergence-accommodation conflict (VAC), which causes nausea, dizziness, eyestrain and inaccurate depth perception. Viewing the accommodation-free 3D images with the aHMD presented in this work was comfortable for viewers and did not cause the VAC symptoms commonly associated with conventional stereoscopic 3D or HMD displays, even for all-day use. Furthermore, the aHMD put forward in their paper delivers all the above improvements in a relatively compact system – previous solutions had resulted in impractically bulky optics. This new development in the world of AR has promising implications in almost every conceivable field, including education, sports and the military.

Their paper:
Pawan K. Shrestha, Matt J. Pryn, Jia Jia, et al., “Accommodation-Free Head Mounted Display with Comfortable 3D Perception and an Enlarged Eye-box,” Research, vol. 2019, Article ID 9273723, 9 pages, 2019.

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