Science: In Brief

Gavin Kenny

Science Editor

Human genome sequencing for under $1000

For the first time ever the cost of sequencing an individual’s entire genome is set to drop below $1000 (¤735). Last week San Diego-based Illumina claimed to have broken the ‘sound barrier’ of human genomics with its new HiSeq X Ten Sequencing System. The new instrument will have the ability to list the entire hereditary information of five humans per day – six times faster than its predecessor. Since the ‘$1000 genome’ catchphrase was coined over a decade ago, the race has been on to hit this milestone. In 2003 the biologist and entrepreneur Dr Craig Venter – one of the first to sequence the human genome – offered $500,000 (¤368,000) through his foundation to the creators of the first machine capable of this. In 2006 this was rolled into the new Archon X Prize which upped this offer to $10m (¤7,350,000). Unfortunately for Illumina, the competition was cancelled on August 22, 2013 as it had been “outpaced by innovation” i.e. it was no longer incentivising the technological changes Venter and the board had intended. But with three initial customers already lined up for the $1m-a-pop (¤735,000) sequencer (only sold in sets of 10 or more) Illumina won’t mind.

Coffee may boost long-term memory

A study published this month in Nature Neuroscience concluded that caffeine enhances consolidation of long-term memories. Although it has long been recognised that the caffeine in coffee is a stimulant that promotes alertness, its effects on long-term memory have never before been studied in detail. Participants in the study were shown pictures of rubber ducks, saxophones, and other objects before being given either 200mg of caffeine (a ‘tall’ coffee at Starbucks contains about 260mg) or a placebo. 24 hours later, when shown images slightly altered from those they saw the day before, the group that had received the caffeine performed significantly better at recognising these alterations. If you are planning to aid your memory consolidation with post-study coffees in the run up to this summer’s exams, it is worth noting that Daniel Borota and his colleagues also found that caffeine did not actually have any effect on memory retrieval – so it may be better to skip that cup of joe on the way to the exam hall.

V formation of flying birds ‘solved’

We have all, at one point or another, found ourselves staring up at the sky, eyes trained on a flock of migrating birds flying in V formation and marvelled at this curiosity of nature. This month, research published in Nature claims to have unlocked the secrets behind the phenomenon. Fighter pilots have long known of the advantages of tucking in behind a jet in front, but this study of rare northern bald ibises has outlined exactly how birds take advantage of their neighbour’s flap. As air squeezes around the outside of a bird’s wing it creates a vortex and causes air to move upwards. The following bird then keeps the tip of its wing in this area of upward-moving air – or upwash. Birds sense what their companion in front is doing and position themselves perfectly, keeping their flap slightly out of phase so it remains in the upwash. Chief investigator, Dr Steven Portugal believes that this research has the potential to help those in the booming unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, industry plan efficient flight formations and save fuel.