Airport sniffer dogs safe from


Heathrow Airport

The terrorism alert caused chaos at Heathrow Airport last week. But could new security technology prevent a repeat performance? (Image: Reuters/Toby Melville)

News Analysis No matter how sophisticated airport security technology becomes, it will probably never remove the need for sniffer dogs and bag searches, experts say.

The alleged foiled terrorist plot that affected flights between the UK and US last week has led to calls for newer, smarter security technology.

Devices on the horizon include insect-based sensors, wallpaper that sniffs out explosives as you walk past and smart closed-circuit TV that can pick a suspect out from a crowd or tell if you’ve left a bomb under a seat.

But Martin Cebis, whose company will present its all-in-one chemical sensing and surveillance system at an international military technology conference in the US next week, says would-be terrorists will probably always be one step ahead of technology.

“Ultimately you’re dealing with human ingenuity [and] you’re fighting a moving target and need to be able to adapt,” says Cebis, chief executive officer of Western Australia’s Embedded Technologies.

“I think you’ll still need searching and those kinds of things to occur.”

Cebis is also among a number of speakers who will brief security advisors and researchers in Canberra on the latest developments today.

Chemical sensing

One of the emerging areas of security, particularly in light of the alleged plot to carry liquid explosives onto planes, is in chemical sensing.

Associate Professor Adam McCluskey of the University of Newcastle is an Australian researcher developing chemical sensors based on drug design technology.

The sensors are can be “screen printed” onto fabrics, paper, plastics and even wallpaper.

“It’s basically a synthetic antibody,” he says.

“We’re applying drug design technology to generate polymeric scaffolds that specifically recognise the shape and electronics of the targeted molecule.”

The technique has been used to identify cocaine and heroin and is being developed to pick up chemicals like TNT and triacetone triperoxide, the chemical used in last year’s London Underground bombings.

“Instead of metal detectors we would have a bank of these sensors sucking the vapours off as you walk through,” he says.

He says while sniffer dogs will still be able to go places electronic noses can’t, sensing technology will be better able to detect specific substances.


Dr Michael Borgas, is an atmospheric scientist at CSIRO, which is developing an electronic nose to detect chemicals.

He says the future of airport chemical sensing lies in miniaturised devices.

Researchers at CSIRO are also looking to insects like fruit flies for inspiration.

“If you can understand how insects sense and act upon various volatile chemicals you’d hopefully be able to mimic that with electronic devices,” he says.

“What you want is a hand-held device that can suck in tiny bits of air and detect the molecules that are in that air. In airports you’d just stick it in a [passenger’s] bag.”

Smart surveillance

Cebis says it will take more than high-tech chemical sensors, no matter how sensitive and discriminating they are.

“It’s fine to have sensors all over the place but you’ve got to be able to make intelligent decisions,” he says.

“The research challenge is to make cheap, sensitive, ubiquitous sensors coupled with smart surveillance technology.”

Cebis says closed-circuit TV will eventually be replaced by “smart” digital video technology that uses biometric identification and motion recognition to hone in on specific individuals and behaviour.

“They look at a scene and if there’s no motion they don’t film anything,” he says.

“Or a person may wander into a scene, deposit something and then move away. The fact that something was moving and now isn’t [will be picked up].”

Ting Shan of National ICT Australia (NICTA) will outline advances in face recognition technology at a security technology conference in Canberra next week.

Shan says new face recognition algorithms have been developed by NICTA and University of Queensland that aren’t befuddled by lighting, expression or angle of the face.

“It can synthesise a realistic frontal face image,” he says.

Impact of a new security environment


Borgas says while the events in the UK have highlighted advances in security technology, he doubts they will be implemented overnight.

McCluskey hopes it will give governments an impetus to provide the research and development funds to allow some of the more promising ideas to bear fruit.

“Sometimes it takes an event of this nature to provide a significantly high profile and the government willing to take a chance on the technology,” he says.

Cebis say all the technology in the world will never completely replace the most humble of checks.

“But whether they need to be as intrusive and time consuming as they currently are depends on the technology,” he says.


Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009

Radio waves pick up explosives


New techology is being used to detect explosives, like those in landmines. So fields like this one in the Golan Heights region of Israel may be easier to clear (Image: Reuters/Yonathan Weitzman)

Scientists in Japan are using radio waves rather than x-rays to detect explosives such as TNT in landmines or luggage.


They say their new technique is better than conventional methods of detection and can identify different types of white powder, from flour and salt to drugs and explosives.

The technique can also identify landmines, an improvement from traditional metal detectors that cannot tell bits of metal in the ground from an actual mine.

“Until now it has been very difficult to detect specific explosives such as TNT because they contain atoms of nitrogen that vibrate at very low frequencies,” says Professor Hideo Itozaki at Osaka University, one of the authors of the paper published in the latest issue of the journal Superconductor Science and Technology.


He says the lower this resonant frequency, the harder it is to detect which atoms are present in a molecule. This, in turn, makes it harder to define what the molecule or substance is.

To overcome this, the scientists turned to a technique called nitrogen quadrupole resonance, which uses radio waves to detect atoms of nitrogen in different positions in a molecule.

For example, a nitrogen atom attached to a carbon atom will have a different resonance to one attached to an atom of oxygen.

Because the molecular structure of each explosive is different, the resonant frequency will be different.

The scientists then developed a device to detect these subtle differences in vibrations, a superconducting quantum interference device, or SQUID.

The device, which is only about 1 centimetre across, operates at -196°C, so needs liquid nitrogen to cool it.

“This will not hinder the equipment from being used in places such as airports as liquid nitrogen is becoming much easier to deal with and is already routinely used in hospitals and laboratories,” says Itozaki.

One hitch for now, though, is that the screening time takes “several minutes”, something the team is working to improve.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009


Plants to Detect Land Mines

The United Nations estimates that there are 110,000,000 land mines around the world which kill or maim 2000 people every month, and with highly specialised recovery personnel able to clear only 2 square metres each day the numbers are going up, not down. But GM technology may be able to reverse these horrific statistics. Scientists recently announced that they have developed a genetically modified plant which changes colour in the presence of a land mine.

Show Transcript            arttrans

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009


Beer helps scientists find



An ingredient of beer, brewer’s yeast, can ‘smell’ explosives (Image: iStockphoto)(Source: iStockphoto)

Biotechnologists have genetically engineered brewer’s yeast to glow green in response to an ingredient found in landmines, a new study shows.

The study, published today online in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, shows the yeast can detect, or smell, airborne particles from explosives.

The scientists engineered the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to sense molecules of the chemical DNT, or dinitrotoluene.

DNT is left over after making the explosive TNT, or trinitroluene. And dogs trained to sniff for explosives are believed in fact to be trained to detect DNT.

The scientists spliced a gene found in rats into the yeast’s genome so that the surface of its cells reacted in response to DNT.

To get a visual cue as to whether this ‘nose’ had detected DNT, the scientists also added a gene to turn the yeast a fluorescent green when contact was made.

The authors, led by Associate Professor Danny Dhanasekaran of Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, believe they have found a useful, if so far experimental, type of biosensor.

These gadgets use organisms to detect environmental chemicals, including biological or chemical weapons.

In the past, scientists have shown that organisms such as moths and bees can detect explosives

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009


Chocolate may cure coughs


Go on, have another bite (Image: iStockphoto)

An ingredient in chocolate could be used to stop persistent coughs and lead to more effective medicines, say U.K. researchers.

Their small study found that theobromine, found in cocoa, was nearly a third more effective in stopping persistent coughs than codeine, currently considered the best cough medicine.

The Imperial College London researchers, who published their results online in the FASEB Journal, said the discovery could lead to more effective cough treatments.

“While persistent coughing is not necessarily harmful it can have a major impact on quality of life, and this discovery could be a huge step forward in treating this problem,” said Professor Peter Barnes of Imperial College and Royal Brompton Hospital.

Ten healthy volunteers were given theobromine, codeine or a dummy pill during the trial.

Neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew who received which pill.

The researchers then measured levels of capsaicin, which is used in research to cause coughing and as an indicator for how well the medicines are suppressing coughs.

The team found when the volunteers were given theobromine, the concentration of capsaicin needed to produce a cough was around a third higher than in the placebo group.

When they were given codeine they needed only marginally higher levels of capsaicin to cause a cough compared with the placebo.

The researchers said that theobromine worked by suppressing vagus nerve activity, which is responsible for causing coughing.

They also found that unlike some standard cough treatments, theobromine caused no adverse effects on the cardiovascular or central nervous systems, such as drowsiness.

Dry coughs

The type of cough medicine someone takes depends on the type of cough they have.

Productive coughs, or coughs associated with phlegm, are treated with expectorants, drugs that help the body expel mucus from the respiratory tract.

But dry coughs are treated with antitussives, medicines that suppress the body’s urge to cough. And it is the antitussive class of cough medicines that the U.K. researchers looked at.

Antitussives can work centrally, via the brain, or peripherally, via the respiratory tract.

Codeine is one of the antitussives that acts centrally. But the researchers think that theobromine acts on the peripheral nervous system.

Theobromine is also a stimulant and belongs to the same class of molecule as caffeine.

While their chemical structures are similar, they have very different effects on the body. Theobromine is a mild, lasting stimulant that improves your mood while caffeine is stronger and acts very quickly to increase alertness.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009


TV may cure chocolate cravings


A flickering TV image may interfere with chocolate cravings, early research says (Image: iStockphoto)

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Chocoholics might conquer their cravings by watching a flickering, untuned television for a few seconds, Australian research suggests.

Dr Eva Kemps and colleagues from Flinders University in Adelaide, publish their findings on the effect of random, flickering patterns on chocolate cravings in the February issue of the journal Eating Behaviors.

Cravings are triggered when people conjure up vivid mental images of a desired food or activity, Kemps says.

And these latest findings back the theory that looking at randomly flickering images interferes with the production of these vivid mental images. This would reduce their clarity, and so reduce the intensity of the cravings, she says.

While preliminary, Kemps says these findings may be “very comforting” and offer hope for people struggling with binge eating or obesity triggered by chocolate craving.

Another advantage, she says, is that watching a flickering image is more passive than high-energy distractions often recommended, like running.

“It is a tool people can use themselves … and not another one of those hard things [people with cravings] feel they have to do to deal with their eating problems,” she says.

Dreaming of chocolate


The researchers asked 48 female undergraduates to visualise images of chocolate cake, chocolate bars, chocolate pudding, chocolate ice cream, chocolate drinks, chocolate mousse or chocolate brownies.

Meanwhile, they were asked to look at a blank computer screen, or at a computer screen with randomly flickering black and white dots, for eight seconds.

Everyone in the study had a decrease in cravings when looking at the flickering images compared to when they looked at the blank computer screen.

But the reduction in chocolate cravings was more marked in people who admitted they craved chocolate compared with those who said they merely liked chocolate.

The researchers were surprised to find that listening to irrelevant speech in a foreign language reduced chocolate cravings too, but by not as much as the randomly flickering images.

Kemps believes the technique, which scientists know is useful for post-traumatic stress disorder and cigarette cravings, will ultimately help people conquer cravings in all types of addictions.

“But it’s probably not going to be all the treatment you are going to need,” she says.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009

Chocolate may deepen depression


Chocolate may give you short-term pleasure if you crave it. But it’s not an antidepressant, as many people think (Image: iStockphoto)

Chocoholics can happily eat chocolate for pleasure, but for those who are stressed and clinically depressed, the high is short-lived and chocolate may even deepen the downer, a review shows.

The findings, which will be published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, fly in the face of the myth that chocolate is an antidepressant.

The analysis, which is the most comprehensive literature review on how chocolate affects mood, shows that the motivation behind eating chocolate determines which neurotransmitters are activated, and hence your mood.

The review’s Australian authors, from the Black Dog Institute at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, identified two groups of chocolate eaters based on motivation.

They identified the cravers, who eat chocolate as an indulgent pleasure, and the emotional eaters, who use chocolate in a bid to alleviate depression.

Professor Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute and lead author, says cravers see chocolate like a good glass of wine, and anticipating and eating the treat releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters.

“Chocolate craving as an indulgent pleasure seems to stimulate the dopamine system in the brain, and provides an enjoyable experience,” he says.

“But the emotional eaters, people who eat chocolate to relieve boredom, stress or clinical depression, are looking for an opioid effect to improve their mood.”

For them, at best chocolate only provides temporary relief, he says. But this is quickly followed by a return to or a worsening of their earlier negative state.

Consuming sweet foods is thought to release the neurotransmitter beta-endorphin in the hypothalamus, which is said to have an opiate effect on the body.

But why the chocolate high is so transient and insufficient to sustain mood in those who eat it for emotional reasons remains unknown.

Busting the myth

The theory that chocolate acts as an antidepressant comes from the common belief that a serotonin deficiency causes chocolate cravings, but the review found no support for this hypothesis.

“It is true that chocolate acts on the same neurological system as serotonin. But you’d have to eat a truck load of chocolate before you have had the equivalent of one antidepressant tablet,” Parker says.

“Our review rejects any possibility that chocolate desired as a way of relieving stress or when feeling down has any antidepressant benefit.”

Stimulants such as caffeine, theobromine, tyramine and phenylethylamine, are also present in concentrations too low to have any significant psychoactive effect, the review says.

For more information about depression, including fact sheets, support and referrals, see the websites for beyondblue, Australia’s national depression initiative, and depressioNet.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009

Chocolate beer 3000 years old

mmm, chocolate

People were enjoying chocolate 3000 years ago, but in the form of alcoholic brews or beers drunk at births and weddings (Source: iStockphoto)

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People in Central America were drinking beverages made from cacao before 1000 BC, hundreds of years earlier than once thought, a new study shows.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit.

These beverages were around 500 years earlier than the frothy chocolate-flavored drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

But in brewing this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks, the paper says.

“In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste,” says John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.

“It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink.”

The cacao bean played an important role in Mesoamerican civilisation, the native civilisation in parts of Mexico and Central America prior to the Spanish exploration and conquest of the 16th century.

The bean was a form of currency in Aztec society, and the frothed chocolate drink made from fermented beans or seeds was central to social and ritual life throughout Mesoamerica.

In the 16th century, invading Europeans acquired a taste for the beverage and brought it back to Europe, which led to the rise of the modern chocolate industry.

An elite drink

The archaeological evidence recovered by Henderson and colleagues from a site in Puerto Escondido in modern-day Honduras suggests that the beer that probably preceded the chocolate beverage was popular among wealthy people at least as early as 1100 BC.

Chemical analysis of residues found on fragments of pottery vessels recovered from the site tested positive for theobromine, a compound found in cacao trees that were limited to Central America.

The vessels were found in the “fancier, bigger houses” in the village of Puerto Escondido in the Ulua Valley in northern Honduras, says Henderson.

He suggests the elite members of society would have drunk the beverage to mark special occasions such as births and marriages.

Ancient yeast reborn in modern


beer closeup

The beer has been made using a yeast that has a unique metabolism (Source: iStockphoto)

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A tiny colony of yeast trapped inside a Lebanese weevil covered in ancient Burmese amber for up to 45 million years, has been brought back to life in barrels of beer.

Emeritus Professor Raul Cano of the California Polytechnic State University, originally extracted the yeast a decade ago, along with more than 2000 different kinds of microscopic creatures.

Today, Cano uses the reactivated yeast to brew barrels of pale ale and German wheat beer.

“You can always buy brewing yeast, and your product will be based on the brewmaster’s recipes,” says Cano. “Our yeast has a double angle: We have yeast no one else has and our own beer recipes.”

The beer received good reviews at the Russian River Beer Festival and from other reviewers. The Oakland Tribune beer critic, William Brand, said the beer has “a weird spiciness at the finish,” and The Washington Post said the beer was “smooth and spicy.”

Part of that taste comes from the yeast’s unique metabolism. “The ancient yeast is restricted to a narrow band of carbohydrates, unlike more modern yeasts, which can consume just about any kind of sugar,” says Cano.

Eventually the yeast will likely evolve the ability to eat other sugars, which could change the taste of the beer. Cano plans to keep a batch of the original yeast to keep the beer true to form.

If this has a ring of deja vu, it could be because Cano’s amber-drilling technique is the same one popularised in the movie Jurassic Park, where scientists extracted ancient dinosaur DNA from the bellies of blood-sucking insects trapped in fossilised tree sap.

Cano’s original goal was to find ancient microscopic creatures that might have some kind of medical value, particularly pharmaceutical drugs.

Going to sleep

While that particular avenue of research didn’t yield significant results, the larger question of how microscopic creatures survived for millions of years could help scientists understand certain diseases, says Professor Charles Greenblatt, a scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who studies ancient bacteria.

“We’ve got cases of guys who contracted [tuberculosis] during World War II and lived with it for 60, 70 years,” says Greenblatt. “Then suddenly they get another disease, the TB wakes up from its dormancy and kills them.”

Inducing dormancy could be a new way to fight disease and infection, says Greenblatt.

Instead of outright killing infectious creatures, doctors could instead put them to sleep. The infection would still be present in the patient’s body, but it wouldn’t hurt the patient.

Neither Cano nor Greenblatt can say what the upper limit for hibernating yeast or bacteria is – it could be hundreds of million years.

But while other scientists work on that, Cano plans to spend his time tossing back a few cold ones, and hoping others will too.

“We think that people will drink one beer out of curiosity,” says Cano. “But if the beer doesn’t taste good, no one will drink a second.”

Sourced and produced by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009

Marine organisms found in

ancient amber

diatom in amber

The researchers believe the discovery will deepen our understanding of these now extinct species (Source: Laboratoire géosciences Rennes)

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Scientists have discovered a menagerie of perfectly intact marine microorganisms trapped in tree resin at least 100 million years ago, according to a new study.

The unexpected find in the Charente region of southwestern France pushes back by at least 20 million years the period when a type of single-cell algae called diatoms are known to have appeared on earth, say the study’s authors.

The study, carried out by the National History Museum in Paris and the National Centre for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

But the finding creates a mystery: how did sea creatures wind up trapped in a glob of resinated amber that oozes out of trees?

The most likely scenario, the scientists conclude, is that the forest producing the amber was very near the coast, and that the tiny organisms, which also included primitive plankton, were either carried inland by strong winds or flood waters during a storm.

“This discovery will deepen our understanding of these lost marine species as well as providing precious data about the coastal environment of western France during the Cretaceous Period,” which spanned from 145 to 65 million years ago, say researchers.

It also challenges certain theories about the evolution of these organisms, and vindicates the research of molecular geneticists, says study co-author and National History Museum scientist Jean-Paul Saint Martin.

Using “molecular clocks,” biochemists move backward in time to figure out at what point in the evolutionary process certain plant and animal species split off into different branches.

“We had no record of these microorganisms over a period of 20 million years. These fossils have filled that void in the most extraordinary manner,” Saint Martin says.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th May 2009