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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
November 29, 2018
Tiny brainlike organs grown in the lab sent out electrical waves similar to those of premature babies, and an American machine claims the title of world’s fastest supercomputer. Whether human, humanoid or fully machine, brains are growing by leaps and bounds in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries. Plus: Supermaterials are stronger than ever, and a new advance offers hope for effective Ebola protection.

Brain Gain: Lab-Grown Gray Matter Makes Waves

 width= Top and above: Lab-grown "mini-brains" could help researchers unlock clues in conditions such as seizure disorders and autism. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? “Mini brains” grown in a dish by scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have spontaneously generated brain waves not unlike those seen in premature babies.

Why does it matter? Brain “organoids” created in vitro could aid scientists seeking to study the development of the human brain because obtaining actual fetal tissue samples is, for obvious reasons, a bit difficult. Though the project is still in early stages, it suggests one avenue toward a better understanding of brain-development disorders like epilepsy or autism. As reported in Nature, the finding also raises interesting ethical questions “about whether organoids could develop consciousness,” though clearly it’ll be a while until they can balance a checkbook.

How does it work? Under the direction of UCSD neuroscientist Alysson Muotri, researchers grew hundreds of organoids from human stem cells in culture. They monitored the tiny brains for electric activity and were surprised to find them, six months in, firing at a higher level than previously grown brain organoids. While mature brains produce electrical activity in predictable patterns, scientists found that the organoids’ rhythms more closely resembled those of babies born between 25 and 39 weeks after conception, when the brain is still developing. The team presented its work at the recent Society of Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

DNA-Encoded Hope For Victims Of Deadly Ebola Virus

As yet, no treatment or vaccine exists for the deadly ebola virus. Image credit: Getty Images.What is it? Scientists at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute have led to the development of bespoke antibodies that might offer effective long-term protection against Zaire Ebola virus, the deadliest of the five Ebola strains that have been identified.

Why does it matter? As Wistar reports, the Zaire Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa from 2014 to 2016 was “the most severe reported to date,” with more than 28,000 cases and almost 12,000 deaths, and an ongoing outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed more than 200 people since August. No licensed vaccine or treatment yet exists.

How does it work? Hope comes in the form of DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies, or DMAbs. Antibodies are proteins that attach themselves to a foreign cell and signal the immune system to attack it, and one promising avenue for researchers has been the development of monoclonal antibodies isolated from Ebola survivors. This has proved costly and requires high doses, though. The Wistar innovation was to combine that work on monoclonal antibodies with “the revolutionary properties of synthetic DNA technology,” said lead researcher David B. Weiner, in order to speed the process along. In a press release, Wistar explained: “Weiner's lab designed and enhanced optimized DMAbs that, when injected locally, provide the genetic blueprint for the body to make functional and protective Ebola virus-specific antibodies, circumventing multiple steps in the antibody development and manufacturing process.”

Epoxy On Both Your Houses!

 width= Graphene, the material that's got science geeks glued to their seats, just made made waves again — this time in an epoxy. Images credit: Rouzbeh Shahsavari Group/Rice University.

What is it? The return of everyone’s favorite uber-material, graphene — now making an appearance in a next-gen epoxy for electronics.

Why does it matter? Epoxy is an insulator that, in industrial and electronic applications, is often a component of adhesives, coatings and the like. Where an extra boost of conductivity is needed, as in electromagnetic shielding, the epoxy is often cut with metal or carbon filler — which does indeed increase conductivity, but at the cost of making the material both heavier and weaker. At Rice University, though, scientists found a way to combine epoxy with graphene foam in a manner that’s strong and conductive without being significantly heavier. It could have applications in everything from tennis rackets to space ships.

How does it work? Extracted from graphite — the stuff in pencils — graphene comprises carbon atoms linked in a honeycomb pattern, and it’s famously the strongest material on earth. Using alchemy — OK, actually, just chemistry; but it’s complicated — the Rice scientists created a graphene foam that they could form into a kind of three-dimensional scaffolding, which they then infused with epoxy. The resultant structure is 1,700 times stronger than pure epoxy. Chemist and project leader James Tour explained, “The graphene foam is a single piece of few-layer graphene. Therefore, in reality, the entire foam is one large molecule. When the epoxy infiltrates the foam and then hardens, any bending in the epoxy in one place will stress the monolith at many other locations due to the embedded graphene scaffolding. This ultimately stiffens the entire structure.” Tour et al reported their results in ACS Nano.

Strong As Steel! Stops A Speeding Bullet! It’s Superwood!

What is it? And if that graphene-and-epoxy combo won’t do the job, the builders of tomorrow could turn to a “superwood” created earlier this year by engineers at the University of Maryland. They found a way to take regular wood and make it 10 times stronger than it was previously — stronger, too, than titanium alloys.

Why does it matter? The wood is strong enough that, as a building material, it could compete with steel, or be used as a less expensive alternative to carbon fiber. The method the Maryland team devised also raises the possibility of strengthening softer, more environmentally friendly woods like pine and balsa — which grow faster — and sparing slow-growing hardwoods like teak. Liangbing Hu, the team’s leader, said, “This kind of wood could be used in cars, airplanes, buildings — any application where steel is used.” Hu and his team published their results in the journal Nature.

How does it work? Via a two-step process: First the team removed the wood’s lignin, a rigid polymer that strengthens the walls of cells in wood and bark (and also lends trees their brown color). Then, heating the wood to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, they compressed it, causing its cellulose fibers to become densely packed and crushing defects like holes and knots. Describing the project, the University of Maryland reports, “The scientists found that the wood’s fibers are pressed together so tightly that they can form strong hydrogen bonds, like a crowd of people who can’t budge — who are also holding hands. The compression makes the wood five times thinner than its original size.” Naturally the scientists then tested the material by shooting a bullet through it — unlike with regular wood, the superwood stopped the bullet halfway through.

Think Of All The Browser Tabs You Could Keep Open On The World’s Fastest Computer

 width= GE is using supercomputers to advance jet engines and other technology. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Governments around the world have been in a kind of electronic arms race to develop the computer with the most processing power — and currently the U.S. can claim the title with not just one but both of the world’s quickest-thinking machines.

Why does it matter? Computers with stunning powers of calculation, The Verge reports, can do important work in helping humanity “forecast climate change, looking into a cure for cancer, and research nuclear fusion.” GE, for example, is using supercomputers to advance jet engines and other technology. The recent world’s-fastest judgment came from TOP500, a listing of supercomputers updated twice yearly. The highest honors this time around went to a computer called Summit, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and one called Sierra, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; they edged out contenders from China, Japan and Switzerland.

How does it work? TOP500 measures supercomputer performance by petaflops per second, each petaflop being equivalent to one quintillion math operations. (A quintillion is a billion billion — a 1 followed by 18 zeroes.) Summit, which debuted on the list in June with 122.3 petaflops, increased its showing to 143.5, while Sierra reached 94.6 petaflops. Summit is powered with 2.4 million processor cores to Sierra’s 1.6 million.