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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Samantha Shaddock
December 23, 2017
A Ukrainian startup is 3D-printing tiny homes, Israeli researchers helped paralyzed rats walk again and engineers in Japan built a robot that rolls — or rather crawls — with the punches. We find all this progress deeply moving, don’t you?

Robot Carpenters

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What is it? A Ukrainian startup says it can build an off-the-grid tiny smart home in just 8 hours with the aid of 3D-printing robots.

Why does it matter? Tiny houses are relatively affordable, mobile and eco-friendly. But building them still involves a lot of time of labor. Using robots to shoulder some of the grunt work speeds up the process and cuts down on costly man-hours.

How does it work? The company, PassivDom, says it uses industrial 3D-printing robots to build the home’s walls, roof and floor out of such materials as carbon fiber, fiberglass and polyurethane. The result is a house frame six times as strong as steel, the company claims. After the basic structure is complete, humans add a door, furniture, appliances, solar panels, a water-capture system and a “smart” thermostat, and finish out the electrical and plumbing work. The smallest model is 421 square feet and starts at $64,000. Those who want more space and have a bigger budget could choose the 775-square-foot “gadget house,” which costs between $97,000 and $147,000.


The Rats Are On The Move

 width= Within three weeks, 42 percent of the rats that received this treatment could support weight on their hind limbs, and 75 percent responded to sensory stimuli, according to the researchers. Illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University say they’ve restored paralyzed rats’ ability to walk by implanting human stem cells into their spinal cords.

Why does it matter? Roughly 17,000 new spinal cord injury cases are reported each year in the U.S., according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Such injuries frequently result in irreversible sensory or motor impairment of the limbs, including paraplegia and quadriplegia, that can carry severe health, economic and social consequences.

How does it work? The researchers embedded human stem cells that had been induced to support neural growth onto biodegradable scaffolds that they then implanted at the site of the rats’ spinal cord injuries. “Tissue engineered (TE) scaffolds provide a 3D environment in which cells can attach, grow and differentiate, maintain cell distribution, and provide graft protection following transplantation,” the team wrote in its study, which appears in Frontiers in Neuroscience. The procedure created a conduit for impulses to travel between the brain and body. Within three weeks, 42 percent of the rats that received this treatment could support weight on their hind limbs, and 75 percent responded to sensory stimuli. “Although there is still some way to go before it can be applied in humans, this research gives hope,” lead researcher Dr. Shulamit Levenberg told The Times of Israel.


Twinkle, Twinkle, Brittle Star

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Top image credit: The Pentabot robot developed by Tohoku and Hokkaido universities in Japan. Image credit: Tohoku University.

What is it? Engineers at Tohoku and Hokkaido universities in Japan have created a robot inspired by a relative of the starfish that can self-amputate appendages that are damaged in the line of duty.

Why does it matter? Robots that work in disaster sites and other hazardous environments are prone to damage that can slow down or entirely derail their mission.

How does it work? The brittle fish (Ophiarachna incrassata) lacks a central nervous system and has five functionally interchangeable arms whose radial configuration enables the creature to move in any direction. It can also self-amputate an appendage to escape from a predator, while its remaining limbs keep on trucking toward its destination. This inspired the researchers to equip a similarly shaped robot with arm sensors that communicate with one another. If one arm stops moving, the others recalibrate to maintain their direction. “Such a design is expected to enable robots to adapt to physical damage in real time and is applicable to unforeseen circumstances such as disaster scenarios,” the team wrote in a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


Mellow Yellow

 width= "The amber lenses used in the insomnia study block out a substantial portion of blue light but do not result in an overall dimming of the light levels reaching the eye," the Columbia researchers reported. "Orange lenses (not tested) may be more effective for improving sleep because they block out blue light almost completely and reduce the intensity, or brightness, of light." Caption credit: Columbia University. Image credit: Ari Shechter.

What is it? Scientists at Columbia University Medical Center say they’ve found a way to counteract the sleep-leaching effects of light-emitting devices like smartphones and tablets.

Why does it matter? People are sleeping less — and using their mobile devices more. Doctors blame sleep deprivation for a number of health problems, including obesity, hypertension and metabolic disorders such as diabetes. The blue light in mobile devices and computer displays suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. The light also increases alertness — not something you want at 11 p.m. while you’re “winding down” by scrolling through Facebook and GE Reports.

How does it work? Columbia researchers figured that physically blocking blue light would enable their subjects to watch celebrity dachshund videos to their hearts’ content before bed without inducing insomnia. They rigged up amber-tinted glasses that shut out the blue light and had their subjects wear them for two hours before lights-out for a week. The subjects reported sleeping an additional 30 minutes on the nights they wore the glasses as opposed to frames with clear lenses.

“Blue light does not only come from our phones. It is emitted from televisions, computers, and importantly, from many light bulbs and other LED light sources that are increasingly used in our homes because they are energy-efficient and cost-effective," said Ari Shechter, lead author on the team’s study. "The glasses approach allows us to filter out blue-wavelength light from all these sources, which might be particularly useful for individuals with sleep difficulties."


Woman Can Smell Parkinson’s

 width= A Scottish woman named Joy Milne told doctors she was able to smell Parkinson’s after she detected a change in her husband’s scent six years before he learned he had the disease. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at Manchester University credit a woman who can smell Parkinson’s disease for helping them pinpoint 10 molecules involved in the neurodegenerative disorder.

Why does it matter? Approximately 60,000 Americans receive a Parkinson’s diagnosis each year and more than 10 million are living with the disease worldwide, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Currently there is no definitive test for the disorder, which causes tremors and impairs movement, balance and cognitive function. Prompt diagnosis could lead to faster treatment, which in many cases can dramatically improve symptoms.

How does it work? A Scottish woman named Joy Milne told doctors she was able to smell Parkinson’s after she detected a change in her husband’s scent six years before he learned he had the disease. Subsequent tests on other patients — including one who hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Parkinson’s — proved her ability. Researchers at Manchester University then performed tests to isolate the molecules that caused the musky odor Milne reported. So far they’ve found 10 Parkinson’s-specific molecules and hope to use their findings to develop new diagnostic tests. "It is very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson's,” Manchester University chemistry professor Perdita Barran told the BBC. “It wouldn't have happened without Joy.”