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On These Disks, Storage Isn't Only Skin Deep

Developments to Watch


PEER DOWN INTO THE NEW CD-like disk developed at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and you can see Bugs Bunny up to his usual antics. What's so special about that? The disk doesn't spin steadily. Instead, the cartoon's successive frames are pulled from stacks of microscopic images extending deep inside the disk. Because these new optical disks store information in 100 or more layers, not just on the surface, they already hold up to 1 terabyte of data. That's 1 trillion characters, or 1,000 times as much as ordinary CDs.

The main secrets behind this three-dimensional trick are new dyes, for which the university is seeking patents, and a high-powered, pulsed infrared laser. Jayant B. Bhawalkar, an assistant professor at Buffalo's Photonics Research Laboratory, says the dyes respond only to the powerful infrared light. And because the beam is tightly focused at a precise distance, writing information on a specific layer--or retrieving it--is done by moving the laser up or down.

Although the laser's read/write head is similar to those in CD recorders, the pulsed laser is "currently very expensive," according to Bhawalkar. So don't look for consumer 3-D CDs anytime soon. Buffalo intends to license the technology after it receives a patent on the dyes. Because of the laser's cost, initial applications will probably be for archival storage of data and pictures at companies and libraries.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


IN GENE THERAPY'S EARLY DAYS, SCIENTISTS ENVISIONED curing such inherited diseases as cystic fibrosis by infusing patients with new copies of missing or defective genes. While that hasn't worked so far, gene therapy could pay off as a way to prod the body into making proteins such as insulin. Proteins can't be taken in pill form because they rapidly break down in the digestive tract. But if the gene for a protein were inserted into an individual's DNA, it could turn the cells into tiny drug factories. The problem is there has been no way to control how much drug such gene-spliced cells churn out.

Now, scientists at Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., believe they have found a switch to turn implanted genes on and off. If it works, people could gulp a pill that turns on the implanted genes just long enough to provide the right dose of medication.

In a paper published in the September issue of Nature Medicine, Ariad researchers report that they injected mice with human cells containing the growth hormone gene. The cells also contained two halves of a so-called transcription factor, which the cells need to make the growth hormone. Next, the mice were given an oral medication--not a protein--to unite the factor's two halves. The cells began producing the hormone in proportion to the amount of medication the mice were given. Further work is needed before this approach can be tested in humans, but Ariad is already looking for partners.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


THE DREAM OF A STAR WARS missile defense is still alive--only now it should be dubbed Sky Wars. High on the Air Force's wish list is a modified Boeing 747 outfitted with lasers capable of taking out battlefield missiles being launched 200 miles away. In November, the Air Force plans to award a $1.1 billion contract for the weapons system.

Two teams are competing for the job. One has Rockwell International working with Hughes Aircraft, E-Systems, and Rocketdyne. The other is a partnership of Boeing, TRW, and Lockheed Martin. Because an airplane can't generate enough electricity to provide the needed laser punch, both teams will harness a chemical reaction: Hydrogen peroxide and chlorine gas are mixed to produce "excited" oxygen molecules. When these molecules are combined with iodine, they drop out of the excited state, unleashing huge amounts of light energy.

The potential of chemical lasers to serve as defensive shields was shown early this year. TRW Inc. blew two short-range rockets out of the sky with an older chemical-laser system on the ground at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

Tim Cook's Reboot
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