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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
December 16, 2019
"Vast amounts of data could be stored in DNA embedded in 3D-printed objects, construction of the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood is underway in southern Mexico, and materials scientists found a way to strengthen titanium alloys that are used to 3D-print metal. This week’s coolest things on earth — now in new dimensions!

Pulling A Rabbit Out Of A DNA Molecule

What is it? Last week, researchers were storing freaky gels in dog-shaped receptacles; this week they’re storing data in ... just about anything. A team of Swiss and Israeli researchers announced a new storage method that uses DNA as the medium. The DNA is encapsulated in minuscule glass beads that can be 3D-printed into everyday objects, including “shirt buttons, water bottles or even the lenses of glasses.”

Why does it matter? DNA has drawn interest for its capacity to store tremendous amounts of data: A single gram can hold 215,000 terabytes. Encapsulating DNA molecules into 3D-printed objects would be an efficient way to hide information — who’d suspect a pair of glasses? The storage format can also be changed or replicated, said Israeli computer scientist Yaniv Erlich, who collaborated with researchers from ETH Zurich: “All other known forms of storage have a fixed geometry: A hard drive has to look like a hard drive, a CD like a CD. You can’t change the form without losing information. DNA is currently the only data storage medium that can also exist as a liquid, which allows us to insert it into objects of any shape.”

How does it work? To demonstrate what that looks like, researchers 3D-printed a small plastic bunny that contained DNA-encoded instructions for 3D-printing a small plastic bunny — similar to how DNA in a biological rabbit would contain instructions for producing rabbit offspring. They then extracted the DNA from the first rabbit and used the instructions encoded in it to print a new rabbit — and so on, until they had a “great-great-great-grandchild” of the original object. They described the concept, which they call “DNA of things,” in Nature Biotechnology.


A Very Very Very Fine House

What is it? In southern Mexico, 3D printing is being used for another intriguing project on a much bigger scale: In the state of Tabasco, the nonprofit New Story has begun work on the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood.

Why does it matter? New Story’s mission is to end global homelessness, and already the organization has used traditional means to build more than 2,500 homes for people living in extreme poverty. It recently partnered with the Texas 3D-printing firm ICON to build homes with a 33-foot 3D printer, which can complete construction on a 500-square-foot house in just 24 hours. As New Story notes on its website, more than 1 billion people around the world lack safe shelter and 3D-printing could make a dent in that by creating affordable homes quickly. In Tabasco, which is in an earthquake zone, the need for seismically stable buildings is especially acute.

How does it work? The first challenge of a 33-foot printer was getting it through customs, a process that took three months, according to Fast Company. Once in place, the machine works by extruding layers of a concrete mixture to build floors and walls, with software monitoring the weather and adjusting the mixture according to the humidity. The finished products have two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room, and in Tabasco will go to families whose median income is $76.50 a month. New Story co-founder Alexandria Lafci said, “For a majority of the families, this is the first time ever that they will have indoor restrooms and plumbing and sanitation.”


The Answer Is Clear

If regular skyscraper windows could be replaced with solar glass, buildings without a lot of roof coverage could still generate electricity for themselves. Above and top image credits: Getty Images. 

What is it? Solar windows — windows that also function as solar panels — have great potential in the renewable energy field, but there’s a problem: How do you make stable and efficient solar cells that also are completely see-through? Researchers from South Korea might have come up with a solution.

Why does it matter? Whether they’re on the roof or on the ground, today’s solar panels take up a lot of space, explained Kwanyong Seo, a professor of chemical engineering at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, and one of the authors of a new paper published in Joule: “But the roof ratio is getting smaller and smaller compared to the window area.” Solar windows would be an excellent way to provide power to, for example, skyscrapers, whose window coverage vastly outnumbers their roof size.

How does it work? The researchers started with solar cells made with crystalline silicon, which are “known to exhibit high efficiency and long-term stability compared with other cells.” They’re also known to be opaque, but the team figured out a way around the opacity factor by punching tiny holes, each the size of a human hair, into the crystalline silicon wafers. The holes are so small they’re invisible to the naked eye and they also render the cells “neutral-colored.”


Stronger Together

This block was 3D-printed from a titanium-copper alloy developed by Australian researchers. Image credit: RMIT University.

What is it? Adding a little copper can strengthen titanium alloys used in 3D printing, according to Australian scientists, making such materials attractive in fields such as healthcare and aerospace.

Why does it matter? Titanium alloys are already in use in a variety of industries, but objects 3D-printed with the materials are prone to cracking or distortion as they cool. The discovery that copper helps allay this problem could lead to the development of alloys that use other metals, according to researchers, who described the titanium-copper alloy in Nature. “In general, it opens up the possibility of developing a new range of titanium-based alloys specifically developed for 3D printing with exceptional properties,” said Mark Gibson, senior principal research scientist for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

How does it work? As many existing titanium alloys cool, they form column-shaped crystals prone to cracking — a problem not seen in the titanium-copper alloy, explained Mark Easton of Australia’s RMIT University: “Of particular note was its fully equiaxed grain structure: this means the crystal grains had grown equally in all directions to form a strong bond, instead of in columns, which can lead to weak points liable to cracking. Alloys with this microstructure can withstand much higher forces and will be much less likely to have defects, such as cracking or distortion, during manufacture.”


Gut Feelings

In this photo, microbiota bacteria show up in red, while the intestinal mucous — the barrier keeping those bacteria in the digestive tract — is in green. Image credit: Benoît Chassaing.

What is it? Scientists at Paris’ Institut Cochin developed a vaccine that modifies the gut microbiota and could be used to treat chronic diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

Why does it matter? Imbalances in the microbiome have been linked to chronic inflammatory bowel diseases as well as diabetes and obesity. In this study, researchers focused on flagellin, a protein that’s expressed when levels of gut bacteria are excessively high. The flagellin helps the bacteria penetrate a sterile barrier between the digestive tract and the rest of the body, leading to inflammation; a vaccine targeting the flagellin was successfully tested in mice. Benoît Chassaing, an author of a new paper in Nature Communications, said, “This vaccine strategy can be envisaged in humans, because such abnormalities of the microbiota have been observed in patients with inflammatory and metabolic diseases.”

How does it work? The researchers administered flagellin to mice to spark the production of anti-flagellin antibodies, then induced intestinal inflammation to see what happened. The antibodies helped protect against inflammation. Excess flagellin has also been linked to obesity, so the study also examined what would happen to mice fed a high-fat diet: Unvaccinated subjects became obese and their vaccinated counterparts didn’t.