3D printed human organs

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (05/23/15)

3D printing replacing animal testing

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed miniature hearts and livers designed to mimic the operation of their full-sized equivalents, reports NewScientist. Human skin cells are repurposed to create heart cells, clustered into a cell culture, and then manipulated by a 3D printer to give them their designated organ shape. Coming in at a diameter of 0.25 millimetres, these tiny organs have a life-sized workload ahead of them. In the future a complete system of organs could be produced and used as a more efficient means for testing new drugs. The tiny organs could also be used to explore how certain chemicals and viruses affect our bodies. Currently such tests are conducted with animals, a process that many object to, and which may produce results that aren’t relevant to humans.

IBM’s Watson targets cancer

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (06/11/15)

Customized cancer care, courtesy of IBM Watson.

The search for cancer cures may have found a resourceful ally in IBM’s Watson, reports Gizmodo. Doctors can now upload the DNA of a particular tumor and Watson takes it from there. By searching its vast memory, Watson hones in on what may be causing the tumor to grow and what would be the best remedy to neutralize it. The amount of medical knowledge Watson is drawing from is huge. Combine that with its impressive computing power and the intelligent encyclopedia is able to help doctors identify a treatment strategy. A large amount of clinical cancer trials have been inserted into Watson’s memory and aid in the search for the best cure. Watson’s prescriptions are a good start in the direction of personalized medicine. And while it’s not a cure for cancer, it aims to increase the success of treatment for cancer patients in an entirely new way.

Fuel from water

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (01/04/15)

Turning H2O and CO2 into hydrocarbons

Sure, it sounds like wizardry, but a machine developed by the German cleantech company Sunfire implements a process that is pure science. Water is first turned into steam, where the oxygen and hydrogen are split into solid oxide electrolyser cells. Next the hydrogen is utilized to lower CO2 to carbon monoxide where the Fischer-Tropsch process is introduced in order to combine the hydrogen and carbon monoxide into hydrocarbons, the basis for petroleum fuels. The entire process, while costly, boasts 70 percent energy efficiency and produces one barrel of fuel per day, according to Gizmodo. Producing a ton of fuel also recycles 3.2 tons of CO2. In order to meet the United States’ demand for fuel (an average of 18 million barrels used per day) this machine has a long way to go. However Sunfire claims this initial rig as a model for transition to the industrial scale, and thus a first step in separating ourselves from the use of fossil fuels.

Trillion frames per second

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (06/15/15)

A camera faster than any other.

If you were thinking that shark week was the pinnacle of slow motion photography, until recently you may have been right. However, as The Optical Society reports, a high-speed camera that captures images at one trillion frames per second has been developed by researchers at the University of Tokyo.

STAMP, or Sequentially Timed All-optical Mapping Photography, not only processes images a thousand times faster than typical high-speed cameras, but it’s also able to record waves of atoms traveling at approximately one sixth the speed of light. STAMP hits the object to be imaged with a super short pulse of light that is split into a hail of different colored flashes. Fired at the object rapidly, each of these flashes is then analyzed to piece together a moving image. The camera succeeds where other high-speed cameras fail by cutting out the electrical and mechanical components that hinder speed in favor of a device made up of only the fastest optical components.

In the future, STAMP could lead to visualizing laser ignition of fusion and the phase transition of materials, among any number of other ultrafast events.

Solar Sail’s first flight

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (05/20/15)

An alternative to rocket propelled spacecraft

The first solar sail launches today, as reported by Gizmodo. Solar sailing is a method of space transport that uses nothing other than energy from the sun. A set of four large, mirrored Mylar sails will utilize the energy and momentum of photons traveling as packets of light as a continuous source of acceleration. Acceleration would be painfully slow, but in 100 days, a sail could reach 10,000 miles per hour. LightSail’s influence might make space travel a more affordable and practical way of exploring the stars. It costs a fraction of what typical space missions spend and — thanks to its solar powered nature — requires no fuel.

Slaughterhouse Yarn

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (08/25/15)

Soft and cozy yarn made from leftover animal parts

Human beings have a long track record of finding uses for most or all of the inedible parts of animals we kill for food, so it may be surprising to learn that today’s slaughterhouses toss out millions of tons of waste per year. Researchers at the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich have responded in perhaps the most unexpected way possible. As Gizmodo reports, they spin yarn from the bones and tendons of slaughtered livestock and can now create enough yarn to make a mitten in a matter of hours. The process involves making gelatin from leftover animal parts and then heating and stretching it into very long fibers of gelatin yarn. Currently there are certain limitations to the procedure (the gelatin is water soluble, so some climate conditions could actually take the clothes off your back), but the hope is that the gelatin yarn could help alleviate our unsustainable demand for fabrics. Here’s to wearing our leftovers on our sleeves!

Puppetbot

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (09/01/15)

Control its movement, feel what it feels.

A functional, agile, and autonomous humanoid robot is not one so easily made. So far we’ve seen our best efforts topple over repeatedly when tasked with merely walking. However, as researchers at MIT have proven, a robot that acts as a puppet to a human controller is much closer to fruition than its independent counterparts. Gizmodo reports that HERMES’ human puppeteer wears an intricate control suit and a pair of LCD telepresence goggles so it sees everything the robot does, allowing the robot to go places humans can’t (i.e. a nuclear reactor post meltdown). The really mind blowing feature of this suit is that it employs a certain force feedback that allows the controller to feel what is being exerted on the robot to better allow it to keep its balance. Right now, this human controlled robot is perhaps decades ahead of its fully autonomous peers — and has the added benefit that our control over it hinders its ability to rise up and take over the world.

Open-source hand prosthetics

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/07/15)

Attention prosthetics enthusiasts!

This prosthetic arm is controlled via smartphone, is powered by camera batteries, and looks like it was plucked from the pages of a science fiction novel. That’s not even close to the end of the list of truly awesome features that accompany the artificial limb built by the Japanese company exii.

As reported by Gizmodo, the prosthetic, dubbed HACKberry, boasts a ductile wrist and finger system that makes it possible to perform actions like picking up objects, flipping through the pages of a magazine, and even tying shoelaces. More, you say? On top of all of these technological feats (and the relatively low cost of the arm), HACKberry’s source code and blueprints are freely available to the public. Yes, you heard correctly: With the hope of jump-starting innovation with complete transparency, HACKberry would like to enlist the aid of any and all prosthetic enthusiasts in order to better the lives of those who have lost an arm. What are you waiting for?

Neural Lace

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/12/15)

Make your brain better

Forget brain food and start thinking brain mesh. A group of researchers specializing in nanotechnology have developed a prototype of what in science fiction novels is described as neural lace, or a perfect combination of mechanical and neurological circuitry, reports Gizmodo.

These “mesh electronics” are so small that they syringe injectable, and have already been successfully tested on mice where the device was readily accepted and integrated into their neurological systems. In the future, applications may include recording brain activity, administering therapeutics for degenerative brain diseases, increasing brain function, and perhaps even one day creating a human internet of sorts.

Nanoneedles

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (05/18/15)

Coaxing organs to repair themselves

Using microscopic “nanoneedles”, a global team of researchers was recently able to help mice propagate new blood vessels within their bodies. As reported by io9, this technique could potentially be applied to humans to aid organ and nerve repair.

Nucleic acids, the foundation of all living organisms, will transmit genetic information and rebuild lost function when introduced into a cell. Researchers at Imperial College London and the Houston Methodist Research Institute pack nucleic acids into the highly porous, minuscule needles, which they use to pierce an existing cell membrane (without causing damage to the cell) and deliver the material needed for reconstruction. While the research is still in the animal testing phase, the restoration of human tissues and organs is the eventual aim of these researchers — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The needles could aid organ transplants as they ease into their new surroundings, as well as help flexible bandages to more effectively treat wounds.

Welcome back, Large Hadron Collider

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/02/15)

Your subatomic vacation is over

After two years of upgrades, the folks at CERN Control Center have brought the Large Hadron Collider, or the world’s largest particle accelerator, back online. As reported by Gizmodo, the LHC is up and running (as of June 3, 2015) and now smashing subatomic particles together at twice its former capability (that’s approximately a billion pairs of protons per second, in case you were wondering). The LHC’s mission is one of exploration. With its new abilities, researchers may be able to find the answers to questions surrounding dark matter, particle physics, even the most imperceptible foundations of the universe. As physics models expand and change, we may find ourselves face to face with a new and reality-altering theory of everything.

First Artificial Leg with Feeling

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/13/15)

May spell the end for phantom pains

Prosthetics have been the answer to replacing the lost function an amputee experiences for many years; however, feeling in a lost limb is something that couldn’t be recovered until recently.

Gizmodo reports that researchers have for the first time equipped a patient with a “sensory enhanced” prosthetic leg that reproduces the sense of touch. A group of researchers at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria accomplished this feat by moving nerve endings to the area where the prosthesis connects to the body, connecting those nerve endings to stimulation sources in the prosthetic leg, and connecting six sensors on the sole of the prosthetic foot to those sources. Now, when used, the prosthetic foot sends stimulation via the sensors to the nerve endings and in turn the patient’s brain, giving feeling to the artificial leg. Aiming to return the patient to a sense of normalcy in everyday life, this new technology also can ensure amputees avoid falling more easily as well as help to end phantom pains in a lost limb.

CRISPR

Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/28/15)

Edit genomes with unprecedented precision

With a name like CRISPR, a vision of a futuristic toaster may come to mind, but its actual purpose couldn’t be any stranger. In short, CRISPR is a new genome editing tool that comes from a naturally occurring defense mechanism most commonly associated with the bacteria that causes strep throat.

As Gizmodo reports, in Streptococcus pyogenes the CRISPR acts as a kind of shield around the bacteria, keeping a memory bank composed of harmful virus genetics. As it is filled with virus DNA, CRISPR recognizes the harmful intruders and signals a CRISPR associated protein (or Cas) to cut through the virus. As you can imagine, this ability to precisely cut through DNA has enabled scientists to alter genomes as they never could before. And while they’re still far from being a viable human genome editing tool, there have still been a number of lab-based achievements. Monkeys with targeted mutations, successful defending against HIV infection in human cells, drastic improvements to the method by which we alter mice for biomedical research, and the realization that this editing tool can be used on any organism on the planet — all make CRISPR an exciting prospect.

In the future, CRISPR could prove to be the answer for a myriad of genetic diseases as well as major player in ecology and conservation. At the same time as it is helping some rid themselves of a genetic disorder, CRISPR could potentially be used to help eradicate mosquitoes spreading malaria and halt the march of invasive plant species. CRISPR, and the more exact genome editing that it enables, could herald a bright future for the world and all of its creatures.