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The 5 Coolest Things on Earth This Week

August 12, 2022

Low-energy deliveries, cheap carbon capture, and mouse embryos without the mouse. This week’s coolest things are all about efficiency.


Synthetic Embryos

synthetic embryos
Researchers developed synthetic mouse embryos that, between day 1 (top left) and day 8 (bottom right) of growing, formed a beating heart, an emerging blood circulation, a brain, a neural tube, and an intestinal tract. Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science


What is it? Scientists in Israel created mouse embryos in the lab — without eggs, sperm, or a uterus.

Why does it matter? Watching an embryo develop from start to finish could help scientists learn how embryonic stem cells differentiate into distinct types of tissues and organs, said Jacob Hanna, an embryonic stem cell biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and senior author of a study in Cell. That may prove useful for modeling birth and implantation defects in human embryos, he said.

How does it work? Hanna’s team genetically programmed mouse stem cells to become the placenta and some to become a yolk sac — both necessary for nourishing and supporting an embryo. Then they put the cells into a bioreactor. Some of the cells clumped together and formed embryos and extra-embryonic structures. They lasted for 8.5 days in the artificial womb — about half a mouse’s typical gestation period — and developed brains, intestines, and beating hearts.


Carbon Catcher

melamine CCUS 2
Carbon dioxide (depicted in red and white at left) is the main greenhouse gas warming Earth and is emitted in large quantities in the flue gases from industrial and power plants. A new method for removing CO2 from these flue gases involves piping the emissions through a porous material based on the chemical melamine (center). DETA, a chemical bound inside the porous melamine, grabs CO2 and removes it from the gas, with nitrogen vented to the atmosphere. Credit (top and above): Haiyan Mao and Jeffrey Reimer/UC Berkeley


What is it? Chemical engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, devised a low-cost plastic mesh for capturing carbon emissions. 

Why does it matter? Carbon capture and storage is an important technology in the quest to achieve net-zero emissions, but existing technologies are expensive and energy-consuming. The UC Berkeley team came up with a system made primarily of melamine, a low-cost alternative that could suck carbon dioxide from factory smokestacks or car exhaust pipes and doesn’t require high-temperature (and therefore high-energy) reactions. (GE Gas Power is working to integrate carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) in existing natural-gas-fired power plants.)

How does it work? Melamine is a cheap material used in Formica and plastic dishware. Off-the-shelf melamine powder costs just $40 per ton. By mixing it with formaldehyde and cyanuric acid (a chemical sometimes added to chlorinated swimming pools), the researchers created a porous network that quickly and efficiently adsorbs carbon dioxide. (Adsorption is when a gas sticks to a solid surface.) The material can grab onto passing carbon in a matter of minutes and release it at temperatures below the boiling point of water. “We hope we can design a future attachment for capturing car exhaust gas, or maybe an attachment to a building or even a coating on the surface of furniture,” said Haiyan Mao, first author of a study in Science Advances.


Gut Reaction

E. coli
Scientists genetically engineered E. coli collected from mice gut microbiomes and showed that they have the potential to treat diabetes. Credit: Thom Leach

What is it? University of California, San Diego, scientists reversed symptoms of diabetes in mice by genetically modifying E. coli in their intestinal tracts.

Why does it matter? Given the wide-ranging roles of the gut in human health, the microbiome (the billions of microscopic organisms that live in and on our bodies) is an increasingly promising target for disease treatment. Since lab-created gut bacteria don’t thrive in living animals, the UCSD team modified bacteria harvested from animals. “This technology is something that can potentially open up the application of the microbiome therapy to influence so many different chronic and genetic diseases,” said Amir Zarrinpar, corresponding author of a Cell study.

How does it work? Zarrinpar’s team isolated E. coli cells from mice and engineered them to express a gene that produces a bile salt that can affect metabolism. The scientists reintroduced the engineered bacteria to the animals through feeding tubes, and the E. coli successfully colonized in the gut. The study found the bacteria improved insulin function in healthy mice and mice with Type 2 diabetes.


Drone Drops

drone emissions
GHG emissions per kilometer from a drone package delivery with a 0.5-kilogram payload and 2-km one-way delivery distance (4-km round trip), according to the subregion’s non-baseload electricity grid carbon intensity. Credit: Patterns 


What is it? Carnegie Mellon researchers found that delivering items with drones instead of trucks can cut energy use by 94% and emissions by 84%.

Why does it matter? Transportation of goods — particularly by diesel trucks — is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The widespread adoption of small drones to drop individual packages at people’s homes could make a big difference and “reshape transportation energy,” the researchers wrote in Patterns.

How does it work? The research team calculated the energy used by small quadcopters carrying parcels of various sizes at a range of speeds and distances. They then calculated the associated emissions, based on the electricity used to charge their batteries —for instance, whether from coal or renewable sources. Compared with diesel trucks and vans, and even electric trucks and vans, the drones used less energy and produced lower emissions. (Only cargo e-bikes were more efficient.)


Model Cells

brain cells
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

What is it? Neuroscientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center created the most detailed and realistic computer model of brain cells.

Why does it matter? The model could help scientists answer questions about neurological dysfunction that are extremely hard to pinpoint in laboratory tests. “Imagine that you wanted to investigate how 50 different genes affect a cell’s biological processes,” said lead investigator Costas Anastassiou. “You would need to create a separate experiment to ‘knock out’ each gene and see what happens. With our computational models, we will be able to change the recipes of these gene markers for as many genes as we like and predict what will happen.”

How does it work? The research team combined two data sets for mouse brain cells. One included genetic details for tens of thousands of cells in the animals’ visual cortex. The other contained electrical responses and physical attributes of another 230 from the same region. The team used AI to combine the two into bio-realistic models of 9,200 neurons — both how they look and how they fire. The research was published in Cell Reports.