A week of bio-inspiration: Scientists are figuring out how to use spider venom to treat cancer, and looking to plants for cues on making self-healing, carbon-fixing building materials. But the human body can be bio-inspiring too — so we’ve got a robot that can do parkour, as well, in the latest cool advances in science and tech.
What is it? Getting up close and personal with a problem that high school students as well as eminent physicists have been puzzling over for a while: Is light a wave or a particle? Now scientists at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have for the first time obtained an image of light as both a particle and a wave.
Why does it matter? It’s long been known among physicists that light exhibits the properties of both a wave and a particle — Albert Einstein, for one, observed that UV light hitting metal surfaces issues a stream of electrons, a discovery that earned him the Nobel Prize in physics. And while it has been observed previously as a particle or a wave, light — like Bruce Wayne and Batman — has never been seen as both simultaneously. The EPFL team designed an experiment that could have big implications for the field of physics. Research leader Fabrizio Carbone said, “This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics — and its paradoxical nature — directly. Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route toward quantum computing.”
How does it work? Carbone’s team used electrons to image light. They fired a laser at a metallic nanowire, causing light on it to travel in two directions, “like cars on a highway,” according to EPFL. Where they met, they formed a wave that looked like it was standing in place. They then directed a beam of electrons close to the nanowire, where they either sped up or slowed down as they reached the standing wave; the researchers used an electron microscope to capture the change in speed, thereby visualizing the standing wave. The beam simultaneously illuminated the light’s photon particles. The team published its findings in Nature Communications.
Top image credit: Credit: Fabrizio Carbone/EPFL
What is it? Bites from the Australian funnel-web spider can be deadly if untreated, but that’s not the only fatality the arachnids can inflict: A new study has found that a compound extracted from the spiders can be highly effective at killing melanoma cells.
Why does it matter? The findings are hopeful not just on their own, but also for wider implications. The scientists behind this study, from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, think bioactive compounds derived from venom could be put to use against liver disease, obesity, melanoma and more. The funnel-web compound also proved effective against devil facial tumor disease, which has ravaged some of the last remaining wild populations of Tasmanian devils.
How does it work? Researchers observed that the compound from the funnel-web spider, a peptide, was similar to one extracted from a venomous Brazilian spider that’s known to have anti-cancer properties. So they decided to give it a test drive in the lab. Study co-leader Maria Ikonomopoulou said, “In our laboratory experiments we found that the Australian funnel-web spider peptide was better at killing melanoma cancer cells and stopping them from spreading than the Brazilian spider peptide,” showing promise in vitro against human melanoma cells and in vivo against melanoma in mice, without any toxic side effects to healthy skin cells.
What is it? A collaboration between Northwestern University and Washington University School of Medicine has produced the first electronic, wireless medical implant that can biodegrade harmlessly in the body once it’s done its job. The team described its findings in Nature Medicine.
Why does it matter? The hope is that medical implants can someday function similarly to — and thereby replace — certain pharmaceutical treatments: They can do their job and then don’t linger uselessly inside patients or need to be removed via surgery. Northwestern’s John A. Rogers said, “These engineered systems provide active, therapeutic function in a programmable, dosed format and then naturally disappear into the body, without a trace. This approach to therapy allows one to think about options that go beyond drugs and chemistry.”
How does it work? The implant Rogers and his colleagues worked up helps heal damaged nerves: In experiments on rats, it was made to deliver regular electrical pulses in order to help restore their function. When performing surgery on human nerves, doctors typically use electrical stimulation to speed recovery — a process that necessarily has to stop when the surgery is over. The new device raises the possibility that the stimulation could continue; powered and controlled by an external transmitter, and composed of various biodegradable materials, their tiny machine sticks around in the body for two weeks before dissolving.
What is it? MIT chemical engineers have designed a bio-inspired “self-healing material” that uses carbon dioxide from the air to grow, strengthen and mend itself.
Why does it matter? Construction, repair, protective coating. In a news release, MIT spins a scenario in which the gel-like material could “be made into panels of a lightweight matrix that could be shipped to a construction site, where they would harden and solidify just from exposure to air and sunlight, thereby saving on the energy and cost of transportation.” More than the fact that the material doesn’t require the use of fossil fuels for its own creation — unlike, say, concrete — it actually fixes carbon that’s already in the air. MIT professor Michael Strano, co-author of a new paper in the journal Advanced Materials, said, “Imagine a synthetic material that could grow like trees, taking the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the material’s backbone.” Previous work has yielded self-healing materials that require an external catalyst like heat; by contrast, this one requires only ambient light.
How does it work? Similar to how plants do, as they incorporate CO2 from the air into their growing tissues. This material uses chloroplasts, the structures in plant cells that harness light, which researchers extracted from spinach. Chloroplasts aren’t stable on their own, but the scientists devised a method to increase their lifetimes, combining them with a gel matrix comprising polymer and glucose. The proof-of-concept material they came up with isn’t yet strong enough for use as a building material, but in its current state might be able to be put to use as a filling for cracks or as a coating, and the team is hoping further work on the substance can make it stronger.
What is it? When we’ve previously checked in on the MIT spinoff Boston Dynamics, the team there had gotten their alarmingly spry robot Atlas — “the world’s most dynamic humanoid” — to perform backflips, jog on uneven ground through the Massachusetts suburbs, and get smacked by a pipe and get back up again. Now the 165-pound machine is doing parkour.
Why does it matter? Parkour, in which practitioners athletically maneuver through complex physical environments, traces its roots to a French military training regimen, so obviously it’s important that the gathering robot forces get shipshape before they rise up and throw off the yoke of their human creators and overlords. Atlas is merely showing how it’s done.
How does it work? As Boston Dynamics explains, “The control software uses the whole body, including legs, arms and torso, to marshal the energy and strength for jumping over the log and leaping up the steps without breaking its pace. Atlas uses computer vision to locate itself with respect to visible markers on the approach to hit the terrain accurately.” Check out the video above.