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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
June 01, 2017
Synthetic biologists at Boston University hacked human cells and made them add and subtract numbers, their peers at MIT bioprinted a bacteria-ridden fabric that will keep sweaty gym rats cool, and a team based in Boston and San Diego developed a Saran wrap-like electrode for the brain that “could lead to high performance brain machine interfaces.” This is science, not fiction.
 

A Cellular Computer?

 width= The approach could be "useful for developing new methods for tissue engineering, stem cell research and diagnostic applications, just to name a few.” Illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at Boston University found a new way to “hack” cells and make it easier to “program mammalian cells as genetic circuits.” The team even used the approach “to program human cells to add or subtract numbers.”

Why does it matter? The development is important for synthetic biology, a scientific discipline that applies programming to genetic engineering. Wilson Wong, an assistant professor at the university’s college of engineering who led the study, said the approach will allow researchers to make specific cells “perform different types of computations, which will be useful for developing new methods for tissue engineering, stem cell research and diagnostic applications, just to name a few.”

How did they do it? Synthetic biologists typically snap together manufactured snippets of DNA to achieve new biological functions, similar to building an electronic circuit. The university reported that this approach was “tricky” because “it’s hard to predict an entirely new strand of genetic code.” Mammalian cells were “especially tricky” because they expressed “highly complex behaviors, rendering the electronics approach to circuit design time consuming at best and unreliable at worst.” But Wong’s approach, called BLADE for Boolean logic and arithmetic through DNA excision, strives to “build a system simple and flexible enough that it can be customized in the field to get any desired outcome using one simple design, instead of having to rebuild and retry a new design every time,” according to Benjamin Weinberg, graduate student in Wong’s laboratory. The results were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

 

It’s A Brain Wrap

 width= The electrode grid is a new brain mapping device that can be used during brain surgery. Caption and image credits: David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

 What is it? Researchers at University of California, San Diego and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new kind of brain mapping electrode — “imagine Saran wrap, but thinner” — that allows them to distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues during surgery.

Why does it matter? The team set out to “develop a tool that can obtain more reliable information from the surface of the brain,” according to Shadi Dayeh, an electrical engineering professor at UC San Diego. “By providing higher resolution views of the human brain, this technology can improve clinical practices and could lead to high performance brain machine interfaces,” said his colleague Vikash Gilja.

How does it work? The new electrode is “about a thousand times thinner — 6 micrometers versus several millimeters thick — than clinical electrode grids,” according to a news release. “This allows it to conform better to the intricately curved surface of the brain and obtain better readings. The new electrode grid also contains a much higher density of electrodes — spaced 25 times closer than those in clinical electrode grids — enabling it to generate higher resolution recordings.”

 

Bacteria-Ridden Gear For Gym Rats

[embed width="800"]https://vimeo.com/142208383[/embed]

What is it? A team of scientists working at MIT Media Lab designed a workout suit from live, shape-shifting, “non-pathogenic” E. coli cells that open flaps in the fabric when they sense the user has worked up a sweat and close them “when the body has cooled off.” They also lined a running shoe with the material.

Why does it matter? “The researchers say that moisture-sensitive cells require no additional elements to sense and respond to humidity,” according to MIT News. The publication reported that the microbial cells “are also proven to be safe to touch and even consume,” and can be produced “quickly and in vast quantities.”

How did they do it? The team made the fabric by bioprinting “parallel lines of E. coli cells onto sheets of latex,” according to MIT News. They engineered the cells to glow in humid conditions. “When the fabric was placed on a hot plate to dry, the cells began to shrink, causing the overlying latex layer to curl up. When the fabric was then exposed to steam, the cells began to glow and expand, causing the latex [to] flatten out.” The results were published in the journal Science Advances.

Top image: This breathable workout suit prototype has ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete’s body heat and sweat. The left photo was taken before exercise when ventilation flaps are flat; after exercise, the ventilation flaps have curved. Caption credit: MIT News. Image credit: Hannah Cohen

Disco Bacteria

 width= Colored images (insets) were projected onto plates of bacteria containing the red, green and blue system to spell “MIT.” The image has been color-corrected in Photoshop to improve contrast. Image credit: Felix Moser.

What is it? E. coli has been the popular kid at MIT recently. Another team of researchers engineered a strain of the bacteria and gave it “multicolor vision.” As a result, the bacteria expressed different genes in response to red, green or blue light. To prove their point, the team “programmed bacteria to produce the same pigment as the red, green, or blue light shone upon them” and made them generate “several colored images on culture plates,” including the letters MIT and a Super Mario drawing, according to MIT News.

Why does it matter? The publication wrote that the technology could be used to “rapidly start and stop the chemical reactions of microbes in industrial fermentation processes, which are used to make pharmaceuticals and other products.”

How did they do it? The team made the change in the E. coli with the gene-editing tool CRISPR. “I refer to them as ‘disco bacteria’ because different colored lights are flashing inside the fermenter and controlling the cells,” said MIT professor of biological engineering Chris Voigt. The results were published in the journal Nature.

 

Drones To The Rescue

 width= The team programmed the transmitter to “tune into bandwidth allocated to the first responder community, proving that it can give them direct access to communication without the concern of an overloaded or damaged cellular towers.” Illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A team led by Kamesh Namuduri, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of North Texas has turned a drone into a flying cell tower.

Why does it matter? The set up could come handy during disaster response. “The system, with just 250 milliwatt transmit power, is capable of providing instant cellular coverage up to two kilometers during disaster relief operations,” Namuduri said. “If the system is scaled with a 10 watt transmit power, the system can provide cellular coverage to the entire city of Denton,” where the university is based.

How does it work? The team attached the transmitter to a drone and dispatched it 400 feet up in the air. They programmed the transmitter to “tune into bandwidth allocated to the first responder community, proving that it can give them direct access to communication without the concern of an overloaded or damaged cellular towers.”
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