Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.

First Przewalski's horse born via artificial insemination

What it is: For the first time in the world a rare and endangered subspecies of the wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse, was born via artificial insemination at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The Przewalski’s horse is the last remaining breed of wild (undomesticated) horse. They used to be abundant in the Mongolian region, but by the 1960s they became extinct from the wild. Recently, they were reintroduced in the wild and their numbers have gradually been increasing thanks to conservation efforts.

Today there are about 250 of these horses in the wild and about 1,500 in captivity. For almost seven years, scientists were trying to artificially inseminate a mare named Anne. Artificial insemination (AI) involves introducing semen into the female’s reproductive organ to induce pregnancy. They finally succeeded on July 27th when Anne gave birth to a foal.

Why it matters: Przewalski’s horse numbers right now in the wild are still very low. So inbreeding (mating of close relatives) is a definite possibility. Inbreeding results in a population that is has a higher risk of genetic disorders. To prevent this conservationists used to have to transport horses from different populations just for mating, a very tedious process. Now that AI is possible, this is an easier and healthier way to increase Przewalski’s horse population.

Computer scientists develop ‘mathematical jigsaw puzzles’ to encrypt software

What it is: Researchers claim that they have developed a system that can be used to encrypt software, without allowing anybody to reverse-engineer (decipher how it works) it.

The problem with security software, or software that is used to encrypt data, has always been that it becomes useless the moment somebody figures out how it works.

Crackers and hackers largely doing this by reverse-engineering a particular piece of software—they do this by pulling one piece after one piece out of the software and eventually figuring out how the whole software is put together.

Coders who write security software largely try to make their software impervious to reverse-engineering by obfuscating the code. They try to mess up the software code so badly that it becomes impossible for the hackers to disassemble and rebuild the code from bottom up.

Researchers at UCLA now claim that they have come out with a new obfuscation mechanism called a ‘multi-linear jigsaw puzzle’ that literally transforms the encryption software into a puzzle. Through this mechanism, any attempt to find out how and why the software works will be thwarted with only a nonsensical jumble of numbers.

In addition to this, the software works in such a way that encrypted messages are now replaced with encrypted functions—for instance, a single message could be sent out to a group of people in such a way that each receiver would obtain different information. This helps in keeping hackers out of the loop.

Why it matters: If this mechanism is able to make its way into commercial usage, it can offer good protection against intellectual property theft. More importantly, it can also be used to hide vulnerabilities in particular software.

Squeezed light mutes quantum noise

What it is: Researchers have developed a method to squeeze beams of light.

Light is an important entity in physics. Its particles, called photons, are the fastest-travelling in the universe, and their energy can be modulated to make a variety of measurements.

Powerful microscopes bounce photons or electrons off surfaces to reveal textures fractions of nanometres across depending on how focused the beams of particles are. Unfortunately, achieving this amount of focus is difficult. In a beam of light, some or many of the photons may behave in a way researchers find hard to control, leading to imperfections in the measurements.

Now, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, have a new technique to focus such beams better: they ‘squeeze’ the light.

Specifically, they’ve built a device looking like a zipper. It has two ‘arms’, which are membranes between which photons are bounced. The gap between the membranes is determined by the photons’ energy.

As it is reduced or increased, photons with undesirable amounts of energy can be squeezed out, resulting in a ‘purer’ beam.

Why it matters: While these ‘zippers’ can manage a filtering of only 5-32 per cent, more strongly filtered beams can be used to measure extremely small things in nature – such as the movements of atoms in substances or gravitational ripples in the space-time continuum.

Metabolix grows bioplastics in switchgrass

What it is: A company called Metabolix has devised a new way to manufacture its product -- plastic -- by growing grass.

Scientists have managed to turn a type of grass called switchgrass into tiny plastic factories in the lab. They did this by engineering the plants to contain three bacterial genes that are responsible for the production of a compound called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB).

The plants grow to produce not just fibres of glucose but also PHB. The amount of PHB produced as of now is still quite less (2 per cent of body weight) but scientists have strategies at hand to increase this to about 10 per cent.

The kind of bioplastic Metabolix produces can be used for credit cards or containers of consumer products.

Why it matters: The main reason the eco-friendly bioplastic industry has not picked up is because it has always been expensive to make. This technique is different because: one, it uses switchgrass which is a perennial crop with high biomass and not of particular value to our food supply anyway; and two, it's cheaper to make than other techniques. Once scientists succeed in enhancing their rate of production, bioplastics may start giving fossil fuel plastics serious competition.

Lab researchers achieve record pressure for solid iron

What it is: Metallic iron has been compressed to a higher pressure than before.

Using a unique technique, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA, have managed to compress iron to a whopping 5.6 million atmospheres (5.6-million times the pressure at Earth’s surface.

The technique, called multi-shock compression (MCS), applies multiple shocks one after another to compress the iron. If a single big shock had been applied, the iron would’ve heated up quickly and melted.

The success of MCS in helping attain this state isn’t the only development. The researchers found that when iron is compressed in a few billionths of a second, its strength increases.

Why it matters: Iron is abundant not only in Earth – crust, mantle and core – but also in space, in the bodies of stars and in other planets. Even naturally, when such bodies are formed in space, iron undergoes extreme heating and high pressures. Being able to study them in Earth-bound labs helps us understand what roles iron plays in such formative processes.

Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj and Anuj Srivas


Why It MattersAugust 21, 2013

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