The 5 coolest things on Earth this week

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It’s the little things that make all the difference in this week’s roundup of the most compelling scientific discoveries, where you’ll read about marine microorganisms engineered to have spy capabilities, a solar cell the size of a flea, and a pill that, once swallowed, can be controlled via smartphone.

 

 

Something’s In The Water

Top and above: Spotting submarines could be aided by enlisting genetically modified marine microorganisms, such as those from the genus Marinobacter. Image credit: Getty Images

What is it? The U.S. military is looking at ways to genetically modify aquatic microorganisms to detect enemy submarines in the ocean.

Why does it matter? A famously dark and roomy place, the ocean doesn’t exactly make sub-spotting easy. But the task could be aided by enlisting genetically modified marine microorganisms, such as those from the genus Marinobacter. As to the broader context, this project is “one of many potential military applications for so-called engineered organisms,” writes Defense One tech correspondent Patrick Tucker, an area that also “promises living camouflage that reacts to its surroundings…new drugs and medicines to help deployed forces survive in harsh conditions,” and other wonders. The work, supported by the Naval Research Laboratory, is still nascent: You won’t find yourself scuba-diving alongside engineered spy-bugs anytime soon.

How does it work? The idea is that the microorganisms could be genetically modified to react to a foreign substance, say, exhaust fumes or traces of metal from a sub — basically, anything they wouldn’t normally come into contact with underseas. The reaction “could take the form of electron loss,” Tucker writes. At an event in November, Naval Research Laboratory researcher Sarah Glaven explained further: “In an engineered context, we might take the ability of the microbes to give up electrons, then use [those electrons] to talk to something like an autonomous vehicle.”

 

The Ultimate Power Suit

What is it? A team from Nottingham Trent University in England has found a way to embed tiny solar cells “the size of a flea” into yarn that can be sewn into everyday clothing.

Why does it matter? Wearable solar cells could be used to charge smartphones, smart watches, activity trackers and the like. Project leader Tilak Dias, a professor of knitting at the university’s school of art and design and the founder of the Advanced Textiles Research Group, said, “The electrical power demand for smart e-textiles has always been its Achilles heel, and this technology will allow people to use smart textiles while on the move.”

How does it work? Flea comparisons notwithstanding, the solar cells are so small — 3 millimeters long by 1.5 millimeters wide — that they can be woven into yarn, and subsequently into clothing, without the wearer being any the wiser. They’re basically invisible to the naked eye, and a resinous coating on the cells enables them to go through the wash with the rest of the garment. In the team’s proof-of-concept textile, a 5-centimeter square comprising 200 solar cells generated enough power to charge a mobile phone or a Fitbit. Researchers say a piece of clothing woven from 2,000 cells could power a smartphone.

 

Take The Bluetooth Pill

MIT researchers have designed an ingestible sensor that can lodge in the stomach for a few weeks and communicate wirelessly with an external device. Image and caption courtesy of the researchers/MIT News.

What is it? A team of doctors from MIT, Draper, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have created 3D-printed pills that, once swallowed, can be controlled via smartphone with Bluetooth technology.

Why does it matter? Ingestible capsules that can be controlled once they enter the body have promise as drug-delivery devices. They could release drugs on a time delay, or could help patients at home maintain the strict dosing regimens required to treat conditions such as HIV and malaria. They could also spot symptoms of infection or allergic reaction. “Our system could provide closed-loop monitoring and treatment, whereby a signal can help guide the delivery of a drug or tuning the dose of a drug,” MIT’s Giovanni Traverso said. He is a senior author of the study, which was published this month in Advanced Materials Technology (and which describes the devices as “3D-printed gastric resident electronics”).

How does it work? Building on their own earlier research, the scientists designed a tiny device that fits into a smooth capsule but unfolds into a Y shape once swallowed. One of its “arms” includes four compartments that can hold drugs and could be designed to be opened remotely via Bluetooth. Right now, the device is powered by a small silver-oxide battery, but its creators are exploring alternate ways to get it juiced — including with stomach acid.

 

When A Computer Virus Is Good News

Bacteriophages could help engineers build a better computer memory. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Another MIT collaboration, this time with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, has yielded a way to use a virus to make computers run faster. Not a computer virus, either — an actual virus. Specifically, a bacteriophage.

Why does it matter? Researchers have been searching for computing technology that will reduce memory delays of milliseconds to something even smaller, like nanoseconds. One factor slowing down computing time is storage and transfer delays between fast RAM chips and hard-drive memory. The hunt has been on, therefore, for a “universal-like memory type,” according to the paper in Applied Nano Materials. Enter phase-change memory, whereby data is stored in a material whose state constantly changes between amorphous and crystalline.

How does it work? So far, so good, but: The materials best-suited for phase-change memory tend to separate at the high temperatures used during the manufacturing of computer circuits. This is where the research team staged its intervention. They used the M13 bacteriophage, a popular material in genetic engineering, as a kind of template to construct their tiny devices. (Phages, as they’re known, are viruses that infect bacteria, and scientists love them.) The presence of the virus allowed the construction to be completed at much lower temperatures than normal — and that points the way toward much faster computing power in the future.

 

Better Tissue Regeneration? That’s An Easy Cell

A protein found in stem cell could be a promising new avenue for therapies targeting cancer and tissue regeneration. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A global team of researchers led by scientists at the University of Plymouth in England and Germany’s Technische Universität Dresden have gained new insight into a protein that plays an important role in stem cell function. It could be a promising avenue for therapies targeting cancer and tissue regeneration.

Why does it matter? Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can develop into many different types of cells, and their proper functioning is necessary in bodily processes such as tissue regeneration following an injury. Plymouth’s Bing Hu, one of the project leaders, said, “Stem cells are so important, as in the future, they may be used from laboratories to replace cells and tissues that have been damaged or lost due to disease — so it’s vital to understand how they work.”

How does it work? Hu and his team zeroed in on the importance of a stem cell protein called Prominin-1. The absence or mutation of that particular protein, they found, can affect the functioning of the cell, including its ability to aid in the regeneration of tissue. “The finding has significant impact on stem cell biology and cancer biology,” Hu said. “Prominin-1 can be used as therapeutic target for treating cancer, as well as in tissue regeneration, such as regenerating a new tooth.”

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