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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
May 05, 2017
Engineers at MIT built wireless beacons that can track your health, their peers in Pennsylvania used gene editing to shut down the replication of an HIV virus in a living animal for the first time, and scientists in Germany deciphered hominid DNA from just dirt. Make no bones about it — science is making progress.

Take A Walk On The Wi-Fi

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What is it? A team led by MIT engineers found a way to measure a person’s walking speed using wireless signals “with 95 to 99 percent accuracy.” Chen-Yu Hsu, the lead author of the study, said the technology, called WiGait, shows the researchers how walking speed changes over time. “This can provide insight into whether someone should adjust their health regimen, whether that’s doing physical therapy or altering their medications,” Hsu said.

Why does it matter? A number of researchers pointed to walking speed as a possible “better predictor of health issues like cognitive decline, falls, and even certain cardiac or pulmonary diseases,” than other vital signs such as blood pressure, breathing and temperature.

How does it work? The team says that fitness-tracking tools like FitBit only provide a rough estimate of walking speed. WiGait, however, “measures walking speed with a high level of granularity” by “analyzing the surrounding wireless signals and their reflections off a person’s body,” according to MIT News. The News reported the team’s algorithms “can also distinguish walking from other movements, such as cleaning the kitchen or brushing one's teeth.”


Renewables Supplied 85 Percent Of Germany’s Power

 width= The German firm Max Boegl Wind AG is building the first wind farm with an integrated hydropower plant. Image credit: Max Boegl Wind AG.

What is it? Renewable energy supplied 85 percent of Germany’s electricity needs for the first time on Sunday, April 30. At the same time, power supplied by coal-fired power plants was at an all-time minimum.

Why does it matter? Germany, one of the world’s manufacturing and economic dynamos, has an ambitious goal to use renewables for 80 percent of its power needs by 2050 every day. Patrick Graichen of the German consulting group Agora Energiewende told the media company DW that days like April 30 would be "completely normal" by 2030.

How does it work? That Sunday was a breezy day and most of the power came from the country’s prodigious wind and solar farms. They were aided by biomass and hydropower generators. The record “even came along with negative prices for several hours at the electricity exchange,” according to EcoWatch.


Mucus Machine

 width= This is a close-up of mucins, molecules that form the mucus gel. Image credit: MIT.

What is it? A MIT scientist is developing synthetic mucus that could fight superbugs resistant to antibiotics.

Why does it matter? Humans produce a gallon of mucus every day, enough to cover 2,000 square feet of the eyes, lungs, intestines and other external and internal body surfaces and protect them from harmful microbes, according to MIT. "But the mucus does not kill the microbes,” said Katharina Ribbeck, professor of tissue engineering at MIT. “Instead, it tames them."

How does it work? Ribbeck says that synthetic mucus “can help us find new strategies for protecting us from infections, in particular those that relate to an overgrowth of harmful microbes." She and her team started developing synthetic versions of mucin, the molecules that form mucus in the body. “We want to use these engineered polymers to control problematic pathogens inside and outside of the body and to stop the growing threat of antibiotic resistant microbes," she said.


No Bones About This DNA Research

 width= Excavations at the site of El Sidrón, Spain. Image credit: Max Planck Institute/El Sidrón research team.

What is it? Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany successfully recovered from cave dirt DNA from Neanderthals and other “ancient humans.” The sediments they analyzed date from between 14,000 and more than 550,000 years ago.

Why does it matter? The new approach could help archeologists learn more about our ancestors even in places that lack any human remains. “By retrieving hominin DNA from sediments, we can detect the presence of hominin groups at sites and in areas where this cannot be achieved with other methods,” says Max Planck’s Svante Pääbo, a co-author of the study. “This shows that DNA analyses of sediments are a very useful archaeological procedure, which may become routine in the future.”

How does it work? The team first collected sediment samples from archeological sites across parts of Europe and zeroed in on pieces of DNA from mitochondria, organelles that provide cells with energy. They found fragments belonging to “12 different mammalian families that include extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros, the cave bear and the cave hyena.” The next round of analyses focused on human DNA. “Eight sediment samples contained Neandertal mitochondrial DNA from either one or multiple individuals, while one sample contained Denisovan DNA. [The Denisovans are an extinct human subspecies who lived in parts of Russia]. Most of these samples originated from archaeological layers or sites where no Neandertal bones or teeth were previously found,” according to the institute.


CRISPR Edits Out HIV Infection In Mice

 width= Top and above: The team wrote that the study marked “another major step forward in the pursuit of a permanent cure for HIV infection.” Illustration credits: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia and the University of Pittsburgh used the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 to shut down the replication of the HIV-1 virus in live animals and eliminate it from infected cells.

Why does it matter? The team wrote that the study marked “another major step forward in the pursuit of a permanent cure for HIV infection.” They proposed to repeat the study in primates, “a more suitable animal model where HIV infection induces disease,” according to Temple neuroscience professor Kamel Khalili.  “Our eventual goal is a clinical trial in human patients.”