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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things on Earth This Week

Rebecca Oliver DiGenova
July 12, 2023

Rethinking paralysis, outsmarting extinction, and decoding Earth’s 19-hour day. This week’s coolest things demand your attention.


Joint Venture

Robotic and natural hands touching


What is it? Researchers at Osaka University have developed a new kind of flexible walking robot that can navigate its surroundings with simple, efficient controls.

Why does it matter? Agile, multilegged robots that can traverse rough outdoor terrain could one day take the place of humans on dangerous missions. But they are relatively fragile, with joints that often succumb to wear and tear, and their precise navigation requires massive computing power. Potential applications include “search and rescue, working in hazardous environments or exploration on other planets,” says Mau Adachi, an author of the team’s study, which was published in Soft Robotics.

How does it work? Mechanical and bioengineers designed the 12-legged robot with six segments coupled by adjustable screws. Motors loosen the screws as the robot walks, making its joints more flexible. The resulting motion created “pitchfork bifurcation,” a type of dynamic instability where straight-line movement becomes unsteady and the robot takes a curved path to stay upright.


Long Stretch of Short Days

The sun and moon over a lake


What is it? If you think there aren’t enough hours in the day, good thing you weren’t living billions of years ago. Geophysicists have found evidence that Earth’s days were only 19 hours long for a billion years of the planet’s history.

Why does it matter? Most models of Earth’s rotation assume that day length has grown consistently longer over time. But researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences say it leveled off about 2 billion years ago, at 19 hours, and picked up again more recently because of changes in solar and lunar tides.

How does it work? Sun tides push Earth’s rotation forward, while moon tides pull it back; both affect the length of the planet’s rotation. Uwe Kirscher and Ross Mitchell believe these two forces eventually equalized, creating what’s called tidal resonance and beginning the period of 19-hour constant day length on Earth. (Mitchell notes that this interval between 2 billion and 1 billion years ago is commonly referred to as the “boring” billion.) The study was published in Nature Geoscience.


Thinking Ahead

Credit: IEEE Spectrum


What is it? Swiss neuroscientists are helping a paralyzed man walk using a brain-spine interface (BSI) that turns thought into movement.

Why does it matter? While researchers have made some progress in treating spinal cord injury and paralysis, scientists have yet to restore natural, voluntary walking motion in a paralyzed person. Gert-Jan Oskam, the man at the center of the Swiss study, says the new BSI feels much more intuitive than earlier versions. “The stimulation before was controlling me, and now I’m controlling the stimulation,” Oskam says. He can now walk more than 600 feet per day and stand for three minutes unaided.

How does it work? Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne implanted electrodes on the surface of Oskam’s brain and measured the activity when he summoned  specific leg movements, such as flexing an ankle or rotating a hip, The New York Times reported. The team trained an algorithm as a “thought decoder” to interpret his intended movements and signal a separate set of electrodes on the spine, which triggered the associated motion. The results of the study were published in Nature Neuroscience.


Peptide Rally

Fruit fly on fruit


What is it? Scientists at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) discovered a promising antibiotic produced naturally by fruit flies. 

Why does it matter? Researchers hope the findings could aid new drug development to combat the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. 

How does it work? The peptide antibiotic, known as drosocin, protects the insect from infections by binding to ribosomes in bacteria and halting their protein production. Drosocin targets ribosomes at the end of the gene, a mechanism shared with only one other peptide antibiotic, which UIC scientists found in honeybees in 2017. “Drosocin and its active mutants made inside the bacteria forced bacterial cells to self-destruct,” says Alexander Mankin, the UIC professor who led the research and authored the team’s study, published in Nature Chemical Biology.


Double or Nothing

DNA illustration


What is it? Geneticists found that some ancient fish may have defied extinction by duplicating their entire genome at an opportune time.

Why does it matter? Scientists have a basic understanding of whole-genome duplication (WGD), wherein a species doubles its genetic material to gain an evolutionary advantage. New findings from Trinity College Dublin suggest it may have been much more prevalent than previously thought and reinforce the theory that WGD was a crucial tool for survival.

How does it work? Researchers studying the evolutionary history of sturgeons and paddlefish found evidence of various gene duplications derived from a common ancestor. They dated the whole-genome duplication to 250 million years ago, just prior to Earth’s last extinction event. Professor Aoife McLysaght, who co-led the research, says, “We believe the same thing might have happened in many other species’ lineages, and that is important given the possibility that it generated genomic conditions that helped the species survive mass extinctions.” The team published a paper on its findings in Nature Communications.