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Software That Sniffs Out Stolen Property


A stolen power saw has led to a promising new approach to solving property crimes. In mid-1999, Vancouver police found a Skil circular saw in a pawnshop. Scratched on the blade was a driver's license number, which led cops to the original owner: Duane Nickull, co-founder of startup XML Global Technologies.

Nickull and CEO Peter Shandro were shocked, however, to hear of the police's low-tech methods for investigating thefts. Second-hand stores and pawnshops in Vancouver send in 400,000 routine reports each year on the items they purchase. The reports are on paper, so finding matches with goods that have been reported stolen is a time-consuming task and is only undertaken for high-profile crimes.

Working with the Vancouver police, XML Global developed a better approach. It's a system called Xtract that uses XML, a fast-proliferating Internet language. Second-hand stores enter descriptions of each item they buy into a police database over a secure Internet connection. Then the software can instantly scan the entries for details that match descriptions of stolen property--a process that used to take weeks with paper records.

Xtract is already paying off. In December, police used it to nab a jewelry thief and recover $12,000 worth of gems. "We would never have been able to do that before," says Sergeant Doug Fisher, head of the city's property crime unit. The city is paying a subscription fee of $74,000 per year for the system. And XML Global is negotiating with other police departments in Canada as well as the U.S. Proteins are notorious shape-shifters, curling and uncurling like serpents as they go about their work in and around living cells. The changes in shape are important because they affect the way proteins function. Viola Vogel and colleagues at the University of Washington have now devised a way to dye proteins to determine their shapes on and around living cells.The dyes are made up of tiny molecules that are excited with a beam of light and can then swap energy with one another if they are close together. Some of the molecules are donors and others acceptors. When an excited donor transfers energy to an acceptor, the acceptor emits red light, but if the donor cannot transfer energy to an acceptor, it gives off green light. When the protein is tightly folded, many donors are close to acceptors and energy passes between them, producing a red glow. When the protein is stretched out, donors and acceptors are far apart, so the dye glows green. The image above shows a protein called fibronectin, which helps hold cells together. The green highlights from the dye show that the molecule is stretched out. Vogel says this is the first technique to reveal protein shapes in cultures of living cells. Someday, the human brain might be programmed almost like software. Researchers at the University of Texas are working on a method of sending signals directly to specific brain cells. Once perfected, the technology could control all kinds of brain activity--triggering neurons to release dopamine, say, in patients suffering from Parkinson's disease.

The process uses tiny cadmium-sulfide-based semiconductor particles paired with miniature proteins, or peptides, that have molecular "keys" on their surfaces. The particles are so small--a mere 0.0000045 millimeters in diameter--that they could wander through the brain until each peptide key finds its matching lock on a neuron.

Currently, the team makes the lock-and-key connection in lab cultures, then communicates with the brain cells via pulses of light. Next, leader Christine Schmidt, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, wants to catalog neuron responses to signals. As for real-world applications, they're a decade in the future. -- Soon you may be able to clean plastic lenses of eyeglasses and cameras with steel wool--and make nary a scratch. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics & Precision Engineering has developed a lens coating that's almost as hard as diamond, yet cheaper than existing scratch-resistant coatings. It's composed of alternating layers of a special polymer and thin films of titanium and tantalum oxide.

-- Beware of noisy toys for Christmas. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn. warns that some toys produce sounds so loud they can cause permanent hearing loss in youngsters, especially when kids hold a noisemaker near their ears. Be particularly leery of toys with sirens and horns, the group advises, but some clickety-clack cranks and even squeaks from squeezable toys may harm hearing as well.

-- Myrrh, one of the gifts presented to Jesus by the Three Wise Men, may contain a potent anticancer agent. Researchers at Rutgers University say the compound, which may inhibit a protein involved in tumor growth, is particularly effective against breast and prostate cancers. While myrrh capsules and teas are already found in health-food stores, it will take at least five years to develop and test a commercial drug.


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