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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

June 17, 2017
Space flight triggered amazing changes to a bunch of flatworms. Mosquitoes that carry life-threatening diseases may have met their match in a fungus engineered to sting like a scorpion. And a new drone can scoot around the world as well as any roach can. Nature has nothing on these creatures!

Out-Of-This-World-Worm Grows Two Heads

 width= An amputated flatworm fragment sent to space regenerated into a double-headed worm, a rare spontaneous occurrence of double-headedness. Credit: Junji Morokuma, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University.

What is it? A recent space experiment is leaving at least one flatworm scratching its heads — both of them. Planarian flatworms are often used in tissue-regeneration studies because they have the amazing ability to regrow amputated parts, even resprouting their heads after they’ve been severed. But researchers were stunned when one piece of an amputated worm that was sent up to the International Space Station (ISS) regrew two heads, one on each side of its body.

Why does it matter? Scientists led by a Tufts University team say the double-headed worm formation is exceedingly rare — it’s the first they’ve seen over years of study that has involved more than 15,000 worms. Even more interesting, when the two heads were cut off from the worm after it was back on Earth, the segment again grew two heads, showing that whatever change happened during exposure to space and microgravity had become permanent. This work could help scientists better understand how space travel may affect humans and other animals. It also could open doors in regenerative science and bioengineering.

How does it work? The double-headed creature was one of a set of Dugesia japonica flatworms and flatworm body segments launched to the ISS in 2015 for five weeks. Others remained on Earth to serve as controls. Researchers reported their findings on how changing gravitational and geomagnetic fields impacted the animals in the journal Regeneration. “During regeneration, development, and cancer suppression, body patterning is subject to the influence of physical forces, such as electric fields, magnetic fields, electromagnetic fields, and other biophysical factors,” said co-author and biologist Michael Levin. “We want to learn more about how these forces affect anatomy, behavior and microbiology.”


Flip & Slide Drone Comfortable Flying Sideways, Upside Down

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What is it? Engineering and industrial design students in Switzerland have created a drone that can move like no other. Within just nine months, the team of 11 students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Zurich University of the Arts developed a hexicopter with six rotors that can rotate 360 degrees.

Why does it matter? Called the VOLIRO, the small drone can orient itself and hover in any position, meaning it can hug vertical walls, stably invert or fly sideways, hold a diagonal pose or move through any orientation that might be useful in, say, inspecting infrastructure or moving through crowded urban areas.

How does it work? The individually tunable rotors give the VOLIRO 12 degrees of freedom in space so that the drone can fly in any configuration necessary. To attain stable flight, the drone uses cameras, computer vision and management software to deftly balance complex thrust vectors. The team intends to drive the VOLIRO using nothing more than intuitive hand gestures. The students decided to tackle this engineering problem in the last year of their bachelor’s degree studies. “Instead of just having theoretical lectures we have the opportunity to design a complete system from scratch,” they wrote on their team website.


Sandcastles Lead To New 3D-Printing Technique

 width= A new technique published in Advanced Materials shows the process of 3-D printing silicone rubber. Image courtesy of S. Roh et al./North Carolina State University

What is it? Like sand molded into sandcastles, wet and dry silicone particles have been shown to form complex, soft structures in a new 3D-printing method. North Carolina State University researchers have developed the process to build flexible silicone rubber products from a pasty ink that combines solid and liquid silicone with a bit of water.

Why does it matter? Several industries are looking for ways to produce soft 3D-printed parts. Biomedical researchers think custom-printed silicone bandages or bioscaffolding could be applied or even directly printed onto a patient. They also see applications in the burgeoning field of soft robotics.

How does it work? As reported in the journal Advanced Materials, the ink used in the process contains silicone microbeads suspended in uncured liquid silicone. This mixture is dispersed in water to create a paste. As it cures in either air or water, the liquid silicone forms bridges between the microbeads, creating elastic filaments that maintain the part’s structure and flexibility. “Our method uses an extremely simple extrudable material that can be placed in a 3-D printer to directly prototype porous, flexible structures – even under water,” said chemical and biomolecular engineer Orlin Velev, a study co-author. “The trick is that both the beads and the liquid that binds them are silicone, and thus make a very cohesive, stretchable and bendable material after shaping and curing.”


Killer Mushrooms! Engineered Fungus Kills Malaria Mosquitoes

 width= This composite image shows a dead female Anopheles gambiae mosquito covered in the mosquito-killing fungus Metarhizium pingshaense, which has been engineered to produce spider and scorpion toxins. The fungus is also engineered to express a green fluorescent protein for easy identification of the toxin-producing fungal structures. Credit: Brian Lovett.

What is it? A fungus that specifically targets mosquitoes has been genetically modified to produce potent spider and scorpion toxins that kill the insects. Researchers at the University of Maryland tweaked the fungus Metarhizium pingshaense, which is harmless to people, to make it much deadlier to the pests.

Why does it matter? With further research, the modified fungus could become a powerful biological control against two of the most prolific carriers of the malaria parasite and other infectious agents, the mosquito species Anopheles gambiae and Aedes aegypti. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, malaria infects around 200 million annually. Globally, it kills 500,000 every year.

How does it work? The team announced in the journal Scientific Reports that their recombinant fungus successfully expressed neurotoxic arthropod venom, which quickly killed test mosquitoes when spores germinated on the insect and penetrated their exoskeletons. “Our most potent fungal strains, engineered to express multiple toxins, are able to kill mosquitoes with a single spore,” said entomology graduate student Brian Lovett, a coauthor of the paper. The fungus suppressed mosquito-based disease transmission by 90 percent in just five days.


Largest Ever Virtual Universe Simulation Created

 width= A section of the virtual universe, a billion light years across, showing how dark matter is distributed in space, with dark matter halos the yellow clumps, interconnected by dark filaments. Cosmic void, shown as the white areas, are the lowest density regions in the Universe. Credit: Joachim Stadel, University of Zurich.

What is it? University of Zurich astrophysicists used a supercomputer to virtually simulate the formation of our universe. Their work, which took three years to complete, could help a future space science mission predict where to look to better understand the dark matter and energy that makes up so much of the universe.

Why does it matter? "The nature of dark energy remains one of the main unsolved puzzles in modern science," says study co-author Romain Teyssier. The simulation was needed to calibrate a European satellite called Euclid, which will launch in 2020 to observe the universe’s dark matter and energy. The satellite will use the virtual catalog to optimize how it observes the real universe, eventually developing a map that dives back in time 10 billion years.

How does it work? The team developed a new type of code called PKDGRAV3 that optimized the memory and processors of modern supercomputers. They used the Swiss National Computing Center’s "Piz Daint" supercomputer, which ran their code for 80 hours. In that time, the machine generated 2 trillion virtual particles that represented dark matter. From this starting material, the computer precisely extracted 25 billion virtual galaxies at least a tenth the size of the Milky Way.