Nature

The microscope makers

A small community of scientists has taken a do-it-yourself approach to microscopy: when the right tool for the job doesn’t exist, make it.

While pursuing a bioengineering PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Wesley Legant ran into a frustrating roadblock: he had ideas, but the equipment to carry them out didn’t yet exist.

With an interest in cell mechanics and motility, Legant was developing tools to measure the forces that cells exert on their environment. He embedded fluorescent beads in the material surrounding a growing mammalian cell so that as the cell moved, it would deform the material, moving the beads. By measuring how much the beads moved, Legant could calculate the forces exerted by the cell. Still, he had difficulty getting accurate data. “The tools were successful, but I was quickly coming up against limitations in available microscopes,” he says. Read more in Nature.

Nature Outlook: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating disease with poorly understood causes and no known cure. But research is slowly beginning to bring hope to those affected. This Outlook discusses topics such as: how genetic and epidemiological research are beginning to reveal the secrets of ALS; new drugs and other treatments that are finally becoming available; and the lessons that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge offers for funding disease research. Read more in this Nature Outlook I edited.

Cybersecurity for the travelling scientist

Virtual private networks, tracking apps and ‘burner’ laptops: how to protect sensitive data when you take your research on the road.

Mark Gerstein has had his fair share of scares when it comes to losing track of his electronic devices — and, along with them, access to his private information and research data.

“I’m very security conscious, but also a bit of an absent-minded professor,” says Gerstein, a bioinformatician at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Read more in Nature.

Kinetica Dynamics: Skyscraper stabilizer

Kinetica Dynamics may be a young start-up, but its approach to stabilizing tall buildings is based on a well-established idea.“It’s a reinvigoration of an old vibration damping technology,” says Michael Montgomery, an engineer and the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

The technology, a polymer that diminishes vibration and shock, is bonded tightly to the structure of buildings and was first used in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center to prevent motion sickness caused by the upper parts of the towers moving in the wind. The polymer, which was created by the US technology company 3M, was installed between the steel frames throughout the towers to dissipate vibrations. Read more in Nature.

SSIMWave: Seeing the screen

“We want to become synonymous with good user experience for video,” says Abdul Rehman, co-founder and chief executive of SSIMWave. The start-up, which was spun out of the University of Waterloo in Canada in 2013, wants to improve how people watch videos online.

The company’s technology is based on a family of algorithms developed by Zhou Wang, a computer engineer at Waterloo and Rehman’s PhD supervisor. The structural similarity, or SSIM, algorithms can predict how someone will perceive the technical quality of a video, and thus help to ensure that viewers have the best possible experience. Read more in Nature.

The big cull

Can New Zealand pull off an audacious plan to get rid of all invasive predators by 2050?

Razza the rat nearly ended James Russell’s scientific career. Twelve years ago, as an ecology graduate student, Russell was releasing radio-collared rats on to small islands off the coast of New Zealand to study how the creatures take hold and become invasive. Despite his sworn assurances that released animals would be well monitored and quickly removed, one rat, Razza, evaded capture and swam to a nearby island.

For 18 weeks, Russell hunted the animal. Frustrated and embarrassed, he fretted about how the disaster would affect his PhD. “I felt rather morose about the prospects for my dissertation,” he says. Read more in Nature.

Outlook: Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a devastating disease that induces the body’s own immune system to eat away at the central nervous system, slowly robbing patients of their physical mobility. It is also mysterious. Despite years of research, the cause remains elusive, and treatments are few and far between. But new research to find the causes and provide innovative treatments means that progress, although still slow, is beginning to speed up. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

Nature Outlook: Kidney cancer

Kidney cancer has long flown under the radar despite being one of the top-ten cancer killers worldwide. It lacks the research spotlight and public awareness of other cancers that can help to drive new discoveries. It remains hard to detect, difficult to treat and poorly understood. But that is starting to change as researchers dig into the mysteries surrounding the disease. Read more in this Nature Outlook that I edited.

Trump’s border-wall pledge threatens delicate desert ecosystems

Ecologists fear plan to seal off the United States from Mexico would put wildlife at risk.

With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talking about walling off the United States from Mexico, ecologists fear for the future of the delicate and surprisingly diverse ecosystems that span Mexico’s border with the southwestern United States.

“The southwestern US and northwestern Mexico share their weather, rivers and wildlife,” says Sergio Avila-Villegas, a conservation scientist from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. “The infrastructure on the border cuts through all that and divides a shared landscape in two.” Read more in Nature.

‘Ransomware’ cyberattack highlights vulnerability of universities

Staff at Canadian university given little guidance on how to mitigate future problems.

The first Patrick Feng knew about a cyberattack on his university was when one of his colleagues told him that her computer had been infected by hackers and rendered unusable.

Feng, who studies technology and sustainability policy at the University of Calgary in Canada, immediately checked the Dropbox folder that he was sharing with that colleague — and found that it, too, had been compromised.

“The hackers had created encrypted copies of all my Dropbox files and deleted the originals,” he says. “And there was a ransom note demanding bitcoin to unlock them.” Read more in Nature.