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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
March 03, 2016
This week’s discoveries include a 3D-printed version of “frozen smoke” that could lead to invisibility cloaks, a mummy with a colon cancer gene mutation suggesting that colorectal cancer may not be solely a product of the modern lifestyle and fungus that may be the very first ancestor of all life on land.

A 3D-Printed Invisibility Cloak?

Aerogel The world's lightest material won't dent a cotton ball. Image credit: State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and Kansas State University

Scientists from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and Kansas State University have 3D-printed objects from the world’s lightest material, graphene aerogel. Aerogels, also called frozen smoke, are highly porous materials where the liquid has been replaced with a gas. Graphene is a thin film of carbon just a single atom wide. Graphene aerogel is “so light that a large block of it wouldn’t make a dent on a tiny ball of cotton,” Quartz reported. “The minimal density of aerogels allows for a number of possible applications, researchers have found, ranging from soaking up oil spills to ‘invisibility’ cloaks.” 3D-printing the material could speed up prototyping and manufacturing and lead to new engineering applications.

Scientists Use Laser to Open the Blood-Brain Barrier and Fight a Deadly Cancer

BrainDSI_Sag_highres Brain illustration. Image credit: GE Global Research

Neurosurgeons at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis used a laser to open the protective blood-brain barrier in 14 patients and then delivered chemotherapy drugs through the breach to attack a deadly cancer. The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from harmful substances — but also helpful drugs. “The laser treatment kept the blood-brain barrier open for four to six weeks, providing us with a therapeutic window of opportunity to deliver chemotherapy drugs to the patients,” Eric C. Leuthardt, MD, Washington University professor of neurosurgery and a co-author of the study, said in a news release. “This is crucial because most chemotherapy drugs can’t get past the protective barrier, greatly limiting treatment options for patients with brain tumors.”

Mummy of a Hungarian Monk Sheds Light on the Origins of Colon Cancer

CROP_269_P030_pS6_p4EBP1 Top image: The mummy of the monk with the cancer mutation was one 265 found in a secret crypt during renovation of a Dominican church in Vac, Hungary, in 1994. Image credit: Tel Aviv University Above: An image of early stage colon cancer taken with GE's cancer mapping technology, which can display dozens of disease markers in a single tissue sample. It's not clear whether the Tel Aviv University team used this technology. Image credit: GE Global Research

Scientists from Tel Aviv University found a gene mutation associated with colon cancer in an 18th-century mummy of a Dominican monk recovered from a Hungarian crypt. The team wanted to know whether colon cancer was “a lethal product of modernity? Or is this an open-and-shut case of DNA gone awry?”

The discovery suggests that colorectal cancer may not be solely a product of the modern lifestyle, they say. "Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation,"said Ella Sklan, one of the authors of the study. "This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era. But we've found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions."

Antibodies From Ebola, Zika Survivors Could Lead to Speedy Treatment

Zika Virus Zika virus. Image credit: Getty Images

Scientists from Scripps Research Institute studying the blood of an Ebola survivor have discovered a new group of more than 300 powerful antibodies that “could guide the development of a vaccine or therapeutic against Ebola.” The team reported that the approach could apply to other emerging diseases such as the Zika virus (above). "With other outbreaks, we could take blood samples from the first wave of survivors and potentially produce a therapeutic rapidly," said Zachary Bornholdt, one of the researchers, who is now working as associate director of antibody discovery at Mapp Biopharmaceutical. "That's the long-term goal."

Something Rotten in Sweden Gave Rise to Land-Based Life on Earth

fossil-fungi Filaments of Tortotubus. Credit: Martin R. Smith

Researchers at Cambridge University say they have identified “the earliest type of organism living on land”: a fungus called Tortotubus that lived 440 million years ago. They found its fossilized remains in Sweden and Scotland. The fungus “likely kick-started the process of rot and soil formation, which encouraged later growth and diversification of life on land,” the team reported.