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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

A new digital bioprinting machine could one day replicate life across the galaxy, cicada wings could lead to a new generation of supermaterials, and scientists made a Skype call from a cellphone that doesn’t need a battery. Hey, future, are you listening?

 

Print Me Out, Scotty

Top and above: ““I [want] to do something out of this world, to send one of these things to Mars and print fuels, or print part of an atmosphere, or nutrients,” Synthetic Genomics’ Dan Gibson told Technology Review. Images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists working at Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics business in San Diego developed a machine that allowed them to print parts of proteins and viruses from computer code containing digitized genetic information “without any human intervention.” The data could be transmitted “via the Internet or radio wave.”

Why does it matter? Daniel Gibson, who runs the company’s DNA technology, said that the machine, called Digital-to-Biological Converter (DBC), “presents a new paradigm for the manufacturing of biological materials all starting from transmitted DNA sequences.” He continued: “It is easy to imagine numerous high value applications for rapid on-demand production of biological materials in healthcare, such as creating truly personalized therapeutics at a patient’s bedside and rapidly generating custom vaccines to counter an infectious disease outbreak.”

How does it work? The machine contains parts that print and clone double-stranded DNA and components that can convert digital code to “DNA oligonucleotides” — basically DNA or RNA snippets. The technology could have a truly universal appeal. Technology Review reported that the “biological teleporter could even seed life” through the galaxy. Gibson doesn’t seem to object. “I [want] to do something out of this world, to send one of these things to Mars and print fuels, or print part of an atmosphere, or nutrients,” he told the magazine.

 

This Phone Never Runs Out Of Juice

We’ve built what we believe is the first functioning cellphone that consumes almost zero power,” said University of Washington’s Shyam Gollakota. Image credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Washington made Skype calls from a “battery-free” cellphone powered just by light and “ambient radio signals.” The team said it built the phone from “commercial, off-the-shelf” components. “We’ve built what we believe is the first functioning cellphone that consumes almost zero power,” said Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at the university’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering and co-author of the research.

Why does it matter? “The cellphone is the device we depend on most today,” said  Gollakota’s colleague, Joshua Smith. “So if there were one device you’d want to be able to use without batteries, it is the cellphone. The proof of concept we’ve developed is exciting today, and we think it could impact everyday devices in the future.”

How does it work? The team used an antenna to encode the sound vibration from the phone’s microphone or speaker into “the standard analog radio signal emitted by a cellular base station,” according to the university. “This process essentially encodes speech patterns in reflected radio signals in a way that uses almost no power.” The team them toggled between the listening and transmitting modes to receive or make calls. “The proof of concept we’ve developed is exciting today, and we think it could impact everyday devices in the future,” Smith said.

 

Making Their Bones

Jason Caffrey, an engineering alumnus, helped develop 3D-printed models that allow physicians to practice before a surgery. Caption and image credits.: UC San Diego.

What is it? 3D printing is quickly spreading across many industries, including healthcare. Engineers and surgeons at the University of California, San Diego are now using the technology to print out replicas of the patients’ hips and practice on the models before going into surgery.

Why does it matter? The approach shortened the time kids have to spend in surgery for a common pediatric hip disorder by a quarter — by 38 to 45 minutes — and save as much as $2,700 per procedure, the team reported. “I’ve seen how beneficial 3D models are,” according to Vidyadhar Upasani, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Rady Children’s Hospital and UC San Diego and senior author of the paper published in the Journal of Children’s Orthopaedics. “It’s now hard to plan surgeries without them.”

How does it work? They team used “commercially available software to process CT scans of the patients’ pelvis and create a computerized model of bone and growth plate for 3D printing,” according to the university. The 3D models “allowed surgeons to practice and visualize the surgery before they operated in the real world.”

 

Sincerely Flattering Nature

“We are learning as much as we can from the natural design of cicada wings to engineer artificial objects that are useful to humans,” said University of Illinois’ Nenad Miljkovic. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Engineers and entomologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been studying cicada wings to develop new water-repellent materials and “artificial surfaces with de-icing, self-cleaning and anti-fogging” properties.

Why does it matter? Scientist have been taking notes from Mother Nature for a while. Velcro, sharkskin swimsuits and bullet trains — to name a few — are examples of “biomimicry,” or designs that have been inspired by living things. “We are learning as much as we can from the natural design of cicada wings to engineer artificial objects that are useful to humans,” said Nenad Miljkovic, a University of Illinois mechanical science and engineering professor who co-led the new study.

How does it work? The team reported that cicada wings have “a rough nanotexture that creates open spaces around water droplets, allowing surface tension to force the droplets to jump off of the wings.”

 

U Can Touch This

“Now if people want to measure the mechanical properties of cells, they can just watch them,” says MIT’s Ming Guo. Image credit: MIT.

What is it? Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have found that measuring a cell’s “mechanical properties” such as elasticity can reveal cancer, asthma and other disease. They developed a noninvasive method that allows them to “simply observe” a cell, track the “jiggling motions” of its components like the mitochondria that supply it with energy, and determine how stiff it is.

Why does it matter? “There are several diseases, like certain types of cancer and asthma, where stiffness of the cell is known to be linked to the phenotype of the disease,” said Ming Guo, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “This technique really opens a door so that a medical doctor or biologist, if they would like to know the material property of cell in a very quick, noninvasive way, can now do it.”

How does it work? Guo said that “organelles such as mitochondria and lysosomes are constantly jiggling in response to the cell’s temperature.” He and his graduate student, Satish Kumar Gupta, used a microscope to track a cell’s motions over time and entered the results into a formula derived by Albert Einstein that describes certain properties of particles undergoing Brownian motion. The approach “makes it possible to calculate a material’s mechanical properties by observing and measuring the movement of particles in that material,” wrote MIT News. “Now if people want to measure the mechanical properties of cells, they can just watch them,” Guo says.

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