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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
January 12, 2018
"Scientists at Duke University flexed human muscles grown from stem cells for the first time, a thumbnail-sized sensor connected to a smartphone app can track your sun exposure, and another device can sniff out counterfeit homebrew in your expensive drink. Here’s a toast to science.


Bioengineering Is Flexing Muscles

What is it? Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina have bioengineered in a lab “the first functioning human skeletal muscle from induced pluripotent stem cells.”

Why does it matter? The team said the breakthrough could allow researchers to model rare degenerative diseases and develop new regenerative treatments. ""The prospect of studying rare diseases is especially exciting for us,"" said Nenad Bursac, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University. ""When a child's muscles are already withering away from something like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, it would not be ethical to take muscle samples from them and do further damage. But with this technique, we can just take a small sample of non-muscle tissue, like skin or blood, revert the obtained cells to a pluripotent state, and eventually grow an endless amount of functioning muscle fibers to test.""

How does it work? The team first collected human skin and blood cells and reprogrammed them so the reverted to their “primordial state.” From this pluripotent state, the cells can theoretically develop into any tissue. Next, they induced them with a molecule that prompted the cells to start becoming muscle. “It’s taken years of trial and error, making educated guesses and taking baby steps to finally produce functioning human muscle from pluripotent stem cells,” Lingjun Rao, a postdoctoral researcher in Bursac’s lab at Duke.

Top image: A cross section of a muscle fiber grown from induced pluripotent stem cells. The green indicates muscle cells, the blue is cell nuclei, and the red is the surrounding support matrix for the cells. Caption and image credits: Duke University.


The Bright Side of Science

What is it? Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois say they developed the world’s smallest wearable sensor. The sensor, which is “as light as a raindrop and smaller in circumference than an M&M,” fits on a fingernail and measures a person’s exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The team developed it together with the beauty company L’Oreal. They unveiled it this week at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Why does it matter? The team believes the device “provides the most convenient, most accurate way for people to measure sun exposure in a quantitative manner,” according to John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and neurological surgery in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. It could help users monitor and manage their sun exposure and potentially save lives by reducing skin cancer.

How does it work? The device, called UV Sense, is “one of the few sensors that directly measures the most harmful UV rays,” said Rogers. “Further, it simultaneously records body temperature, which is also very important in the context of sun exposure.” The sensor streams the data to a smartphone app, which provides information about the user’s sun exposure “either for that day or over time,” according to the university.


Building Better Solar Panels

“If we want to accelerate the pace of new materials development, it is imperative that we figure out faster and more accurate ways to troubleshoot our early-stage materials and prototype devices,"" says MIT's Tonio Buonassisi. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at MIT developed a fast way to test new materials for solar panels and predict their performance. The research, which was published in the journal Joule, is using physical testing in combination with computer and statistical modeling to “predict the overall performance of the material in real-world operating conditions,” according to MIT News.

Why does it matter? “Historically, the rate of new materials development is slow — typically 10 to 25 years,” Tonio Buonassisi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and senior author of the paper, told MIT News. “If we want to accelerate the pace of new materials development, it is imperative that we figure out faster and more accurate ways to troubleshoot our early-stage materials and prototype devices.”

How does it work? Buonassisi and his colleagues start by measuring the current output from a test device with the new material “under different levels of illumination and different voltages.” Next, they use computer algorithms to zero in on a precise result. His colleague and co-author Rachel Kurchin said the approach was useful given that “lab equipment has gotten more expensive, and computers have gotten cheaper.” The technique “allows you to minimize your use of complicated lab equipment,” she said.


The Ozone Hole’s Healing

What is it? Here’s some good climate news for a change. NASA’s Aura satellite directly observed for the first time that the ozone hole is healing. The data shows that an international ban on ozone-destroying chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in air-conditioners, aerosol sprays and other products reduced ozone depletion by 20 percent, compared with measurements from 2005.

Why does it matter? The stratospheric ozone layer helps protect Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer, damage plants and lead to other harm.

How does it work? When chlorine from CFCs reacts with ozone molecules, it rips them apart and destroys the protective layer. “We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She said that the results give her team “confidence that the decrease in ozone depletion through mid-September” was “due to declining levels of chlorine coming from CFCs.” She added: “We’re not yet seeing a clear decrease in the size of the ozone hole because that’s controlled mainly by temperature after mid-September, which varies a lot from year to year.”

We’ll Drink To That!

A new sensor can sniff out ""the alcoholic content and brand of 14 different liquors, including various scotch whiskies, bourbon, rye, brandy and vodka with greater than 99 percent accuracy,” according to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a portable sensor that can sniff out fake liquors. The team reported in the journal ACS Sensors that they used the device to correctly identify “the alcoholic content and brand of 14 different liquors, including various scotch whiskies, bourbon, rye, brandy and vodka with greater than 99 percent accuracy,” and even “sniffed out booze that had been watered down, even by as little as 1 percent.”

Why does it matter? The team reported that booze adulterated with home-brewed liquors and even antifreeze sickened and killed people in Indonesia, Russia, Poland and elsewhere around the world.

How does it work? The sensor contains 36 dyes that “change color upon exposure to particular components in liquor.” The team reported that “partial oxidation of the liquor vapors improved the sensor's response.”