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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things on Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
November 03, 2017
Breaking news about smartphone screens, programmable virus-like particles that doctors could one day use to fight disease, and clothes with memory — if this week's roundup of discoveries is any indication, science is clearly in fashion.

No Chip on Their Shoulder

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What is it? Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a smart fabric that can store passcodes and visual information. A person wearing gloves with the material can control a smartphone with gestures — Minority Report-style.

Why does it matter? “This is a completely electronic-free design, which means you can iron the smart fabric or put it in the washer and dryer,” said Shyam Gollakota, associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering and the senior author of the paper describing the material. “You can think of the fabric as a hard disk — you’re actually doing this data storage on the clothes you’re wearing.”

How does it work? The team rubbed a magnet against a piece of fabric woven with off-the-shelf conductive thread. This aligned the poles in the thread, “which can correspond to the 1s and 0s in digital data,” according to the university. The approach allowed them to store data as well as “visual information like letters or numbers” in the material. They were able to decode the information with a magnetometer embedded in a phone. “We are using something that already exists on a smartphone and uses almost no power, so the cost of reading this type of data is negligible,” Gollakota said. The team also created smart gloves that allowed them to control their smartphones with gestures. “With this system, we can easily interact with smart devices without having to constantly take it out of our pockets,” said Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the school and the study’s lead author.


Breaking News

 width= Brittle mobile phone screens might soon be a thing of the past. Image credit: University of Sussex.

What is it? A crack team of researchers at the University of Sussex found a way to make smartphone touchscreens that are less brittle than ones currently used.

Why does it matter? Digital Trends reported that half of the world’s smartphone users have had a cracked screen at least once, and as many as a fifth of U.S. owners had a cracked screen at the same time in 2015. The university said that the approach was also cheaper and more environmentally friendly than existing methods of making glass screens for smartphones, which use an oxide of indium, a rare and “ecologically damaging metal.”

How does it work? The team combined a sheet of the wonder material graphene, made from a single layer of carbon atoms, with silver nanowires. “We float the graphene particles on the surface of water, then pick them up with a rubber stamp, a bit like a potato stamp, and lay it on top of the silver nanowire film in whatever pattern we like,” said University of Sussex professor Alan Dalton. “It would be relatively simple to combine silver nanowires and graphene in this way on a large scale using spraying machines and patterned rollers,” Dalton said. “This means that brittle mobile phone screens might soon be a thing of the past.”


Viral Coding

 width= Top and above: An illustration of the bacteriophage virus that infects and replicates within a bacterium. Image and caption credits: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the Universities of Leeds and York have created an artificial “code” from RNA molecules that allows them to control how viruses assemble themselves and “create virus-like particles.” The instructions, which researchers say are “even better than those found in nature,” could lead to new ways to treat cancer or prime the immune system to fight infections.

Why does it matter? The approach could allow scientists to create “something that looks like a virus” and use it to “trick” the immune system and prime it to “act immediately if it were to encounter a real infection,” according to Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist and professor at the University of York. They also could use it to build “Trojan horses” carrying therapeutic cargo. “Such particles have a wide range of potential applications, including in the production of synthetic vaccines and systems to deliver genes to specific cells,” said Peter Stockley, a biological chemist and professor at the University of Leeds.

How does it work? The team first cracked the “hidden code” many simple viruses use to produce the proteins they need as building blocks during self-assembly. Next, they used RNA molecules to write their own assembly instructions for new viral proteins and made artificial “virus-like” particles.


True Blue

 width= Photonic textile could be used as a wearable phototherapy device for newborns suffering from jaundice. Image credit: EMPA.

What is it? Scientists at the Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Switzerland (EMPA) designed “illuminated pajamas” to help treat babies suffering from neonatal jaundice, one of the most common ailments affecting newborns.

Why does it matter? Some 60 percent of babies born at term and 80 percent born prematurely develop jaundice in the first week of life, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. Nurses typically remove the babies’ clothes, place them in incubators and illuminate them with blue light. This “phototherapy” helps eliminate the buildup up bilirubin in the blood, which can make the baby’s skin and eyes appear yellow. Pajamas made from illuminating fabric allow mothers to hold the babies in their arms during treatment. The team wrote that its “photonic textile could be then used as a wearable phototherapy device, allowing continuous treatment at home, in the presence of the mother or caregiver.”

How does it work? The team wove flexible optical fibers with a diameter of 160 microns, somewhat larger than a human hair, into a satin material. The blue light comes from battery-powered LEDs. “The photonic textiles woven in this manner can be made into a romper or a sleeping bag so the little patient is clothed, and can be held and fed,” EMPA wrote in a blog post.


Cells From Gels

 width= The ability to produce neural stem cells en masse could lead to “therapies to repair spinal cord injuries, counteract traumatic brain injury or cure some of the most severe degenerative disorders of the nervous system, like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.” Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at Stanford University developed a special gel that allowed them to grow large quantities of neural stem cells. These cells can develop into neurons and other cells that form the central nervous systems.

Why does it matter? In theory, stem cells could be coaxed to form any tissue of the body. But they’ve been fiendishly difficult to multiply and mature. Stanford News reported that the ability to produce neural stem cells en masse could lead to “therapies to repair spinal cord injuries, counteract traumatic brain injury or cure some of the most severe degenerative disorders of the nervous system, like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.”

How does it work? The team focused on finding “better materials in which to grow stem cells,” said Sarah Heilshorn, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. They developed “polymer-based gels that that allow them to grow the cells in three dimensions instead of two,” reducing the need for lab space 100 times, and lowering the need for nutrients as well as energy. The gels also allow the stem cells to change the shape of the gels and “maintain physical contact with one another to preserve critical communication channels between cells,” according to the university. “There’s this convergence of biological knowledge and engineering principles in stem cell research that has me hopeful we might finally actually solve some big problems,” Heilshorn told the Stanford News.