Plant protein could be used in blood

Sugar beet

Scientists are working to see if haemoglobin from sugar beet can be accepted by human tissue
A protein found in sugar beet could be used as a blood substitute to help tackle the shortage of blood, researchers in Sweden suggest.

Haemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen in blood and the team say plant and human versions are very similar.

They are looking at whether they can repackage the plant protein in a way that can be accepted by human tissue.

Scientists said this could be in three years. One UK expert said the study was “exciting” but a “long-term prospect”.

Blood transfusions can help many people in emergency situations who have lost a lot of blood and also those needing long-term treatments, such as for cancer and blood diseases.

Work by scientists at Lund University built upon an earlier studypublished in the journal Plant & Cell Physiology that found haemoglobin had an important role in plant development.

Sugar beet is grown commercially for sugar production.

Red blood cells
Prof Bulow at Lund University in Sweden said he wanted to find a solution to the blood shortage.

Nelida Leiva at Lund University, who led the study, said the plant haemoglobin shared 50-60% similarity with the kind found in human blood but was more robust.

She said her work raised two possibilities – potentially adapting plant haemoglobin for use in humans and looking at using plants as a way of producing human haemoglobin.

Prof Leif Bulow at Lund University, who also worked on the study, said: “There is an enormous shortage of blood. We have to find some alternatives.”

‘Good, rigorous science’

The plant haemoglobin behaved similarly to a version found in the human brain and had a similar structure, he said.

The next step would be to develop the haemoglobin to see if it could be accepted by guinea pig and then human tissue, which could happen in three years.

Prof Denis Murphy, head of genomics and computational biology at the University of South Wales, told the BBC: “The study is good, rigorous science and describes an exciting finding.

“Although we have known for several decades that plants produce haemoglobin-like proteins, this study shows they are more common and are involved in more physiological processes that we thought before.”

But he said the idea of using the plant protein to substitute for human haemoglobin was speculative and would be a long-term prospect.

Jawbone wristband targets sleep data


Jawbone Up3
The Up3 features metal-covered sensors that rest against the skin

Jawbone has a new wristband that uses a relatively unusual technique to provide feedback about sleep patterns.

The Up3 measures the wearer’s heart rate via metal-covered sensors that protrude from its underside to press against the skin.

This contrasts with the approach of rivals that combine infrared and visible-light LEDs with photosensors, which are more battery-intensive.

However, it faces further competition from more feature-laden smartwatches.

The Up3 wristband uses a technique called bioimpedance to track its owner’s pulse. This involves passing an imperceptible electrical current through the body to measure its resistance to the effect.

The process is already used by several specialist medical devices to measure heart rate, body fat, fluid levels and other body composition readings, and has featured in a few consumer devices such as Fitbit’s Aria weight scales.

However, Jawbone is pioneering its use in a mass-market wristband. It follows the firm’s takeover of Bodymedia, a Pennsylvania-based company that had been carrying out research into the technology.

“Because bioimpedance requires significantly less power compared to optical sensors for the same level of accuracy, we can deliver a smaller form factor and longer battery life,” said Jawbone of the innovation.

Up3 app
The Up3 will take heart rate readings when the owner wakes up to track changes

Initially, the sensors will be able to accurately measure the Up3 owner’s heart rate only while they are resting and just after they wake up, but the company intends to extend their use with a software update to other times of the day.

One feature that will be offered at launch is the ability to continuously record a user’s pulse when they are asleep, to show when they shifted between the REM (rapid eye movement) stage – when their heart rate should be fairly irregular – and deep sleep, when the rate should be more steady.

Jawbone believes this will provide more accurate readings than other devices that rely on accelerometer sensors to deduce changes via body movements.

To make use of the data, Jawbone is also providing software to measure the user’s response to suggestions – including late-night showers and cooling the bedroom – to determine which best help the wearer get a better night’s rest.

SmartCoachJawbone’s SmartCoach software will help Up3 owners make sense of their sleep data

“There are a lot of people out there who feel they don’t get enough sleep or feel they are stressed and want to monitor their levels from a healthy lifestyle standpoint,” said Tim Shepherd, a wearable tech specialist at the market research firm Canalys.

“We are seeing a surge in interest in people getting data on their lifestyles, but the important thing is to offer not just data but a means of analysing it, graphing it and telling you what it means, and vendors still need to have to prove they can be relevant.”

The Up3 costs £150, is waterproof up to depths of 10m (33ft), and promises up to seven days’ battery life between charges.

Unlike some rivals, however, it lacks a display and relies on a connected smartphone, tablet or PC to provide feedback, beyond a few LEDs that signal the mode it is in.

Crowded market

Fitbit Aria and Fitbit SurgeFitbit’s Aria scales use bioimpedance sensors, but its new Surge fitness tracker has an optical heart-rate sensor

Jawbone is already the world’s second best-selling fitness band manufacturer, behind only Fitbit, according to Canalys.

But the market is becoming more crowded, with Microsoft the latest of the major tech firms to unveil a device of its own.

Its Band features 10 different kinds of sensors, including an optical heart rate component that is capable of being used during activities.

Intel is also putting its Basis Peak fitness and sleep tracker on sale this month, which promises to automatically detect users’ sleeping cycles.

And Fitbit has released new devices of its own ahead of Christmas shopping season, including the Surge, which integrates a GPS part to track the wearer’s location, allowing it to offer more accurate data about their runs.

The sector also faces increased competition from smartwatches, which are capable of running a wider range of apps.

Apple Watch and Microsoft Band
The Apple Watch and Microsoft Band both use optical heart rate sensors

Motorola, LG and Samsung are among those with new Android Wear devices, while Apple has promised to launch its Watch next year.

“There are going to be consumers who will purchase a smartwatch and will therefore not need to buy a separate device to activity track,” said Mr Shepherd.

“But there is still plenty of growth potential for dedicated devices that are priced aggressively.

“And almost invariably you have to take a smartwatch off to charge at night.

“An activity-tracking device is more capable of offering sleep-tracking data because of its longer battery life, plus it’s smaller and lighter and therefore more comfortable to wear through the night.”

Planet formation captured in photo


protoplanetary disc
A protoplanetary disc has formed around the young star HL Tau
The clearest ever image of planets forming around an infant star has been taken by the Alma radio telescope.

In a vast disc of dust and gas, dark rings are clearly visible: gaps in the cloud, swept clear by brand new planets in orbit.

The sun-like star at the centre, HL Tau, is less than a million years old and is 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

The image was made possible by Alma’s new high-resolution capabilities.

Because the process of planet formation takes place in the midst of such a huge dust cloud, it can’t be observed using visible light.

Alma, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, has snapped the impressive new image using much longer wavelengths, which it detects by comparing the signal from multiple antennas up to 15km apart.

To test out its latest high-resolution capability, only in operation since September, Alma scientists pointed the antennas at HL Tau. They found themselves looking at a “protoplanetary disc” in more detail than ever before.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” said Dr Aprajita Verma, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford.

“This shows how exciting Alma is going to be – it’s going to be an incredible instrument.”

artist's impression of a protoplanetary disc
The image matches predictions from computer simulations and illustrations like this one

Prof Tim de Zeeuw is director general of the European Southern Observatory, one of several organisations involved in Alma. He said: “Most of what we know about planet formation today is based on theory. Images with this level of detail have up to now been relegated to computer simulations or artist’s impressions.”

Dr Verma agreed that the image was a significant new piece of evidence – particularly because the star HL Tau is very young.

“I think the big result is that you might have expected just a smooth disc,” she told the BBC.

“But you’re really seeing multiple rings – and where it’s darker, that’s where you’ve cleared the material already in the disc.”

The whole process is happening faster than we would have predicted from existing data, Dr Verma explained.

“It means that things are coagulating. It’s really a planetary system, that you’re seeing at a very early time.

“These rings will form planets, asteroids, comets… And eventually as the star evolves, this will cool and settle and there will be more clearing and more individual objects, just like we see in our solar system.”


The antennas that make up Alma are separated by up to 15km, high in Chile’s Atacama Desert