A lunar “ark” could help preserve life on Earth, a warp-drive theory eyes space travel at speeds exceeding the speed of light without violating Einstein’s equations and AI-aided holograms could revolutionize gaming and medical imaging. This week’s coolest things are far out, and maybe not so far off.
What is it? A scientist at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln is working on a flu vaccine that could protect against 13 swine flu strains.
Why does it matter? Influenza vaccines are created from epitopes, small bits of viral proteins that trigger the immune system. But any single epitope works only on a few, closely related strains. Outlined in the journal Nature Communications by associate professor Eric Weaver, this new vaccine is a cocktail of three epitopes. Trials in mice and pigs produced “the best data I’ve ever seen in the [research] literature,” Weaver says, and may someday help lead to an era of more broadly effective flu vaccines for humans.
How does it work? Weaver’s research looked at two epitopes, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, which were behind the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. These proteins attach to cells’ surfaces and enable the virus to spread. The team used a computational program called Epigraph to “[analyze] data on every available mutational variant of hemagglutinin, which it then used to predict which collection of epitopes would grant immunity against the broadest, most diverse range of strains,” the university says. Weaver says success in mice and pig models “gives us confidence that when the concept is applied to human influenza virus, we’ll see the same translation from preclinical studies to clinical studies in humans.”
What is it? Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo developed a 3D printing technology that can print human tissues and organs up to 50 times faster than conventional 3D printing.
Why does it matter? “The method is particularly suitable for printing cells with embedded blood vessel networks, a nascent technology expected to be a central part of the production of 3D-printed human tissue and organs,” the university says in a news release. The researchers hope it could one day help relieve overburdened organ transplant lists and potentially save lives.
How does it work? The study, co-authored by Ruogang Zhao, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and fellow professor Chi Zhou, PhD, and published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, “centers on a 3D printing method called stereolithography and jelly-like materials known as hydrogels,” the university says. “Our method allows for the rapid printing of centimeter-sized hydrogel models,” Zhou says. “It signiﬁcantly reduces part deformation and cellular injuries caused by the prolonged exposure to the environmental stresses you commonly see in conventional 3D printing methods.”
What is it? A University of Arizona research team proposes an underground “lunar ark” to preserve cryogenically frozen samples from 6.7 million Earth-dwelling plant and animal species.
Why does it matter? "Earth is naturally a volatile environment," says professor Jekan Thanga in a news release. Thanga and his team of students say that a network of hollow lava tunnels beneath the moon’s surface is a much safer, controlled environment to store a complete catalog of Earthly life. They call their research, recently presented at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, a "modern global insurance policy."
How does it work? More than 3 billion years ago, lava streamed through underground rock, forming hollow tubes both on Earth and on the moon. The moon’s lava tubes measure about 100 meters in diameter, maintain a steady temperature of minus 25 degrees Celsius and provide natural protection from solar radiation and micrometeorites — all of which make them a great storage place for precious samples. Thanga estimates the lunar ark could be stocked with as few as 250 round trips in a rocket. But it’s more than the storage potential that excites researchers. Álvaro Díaz-Flores Caminero, a doctoral student leading the thermal analysis, says: "What amazes me about projects like this is that they make me feel like we are getting closer to becoming a space civilization.”
What is it? A Göttingen University astrophysicist designed a theoretical warp drive that uses conventional energy sources to travel faster than light.
Why does it matter? A trip to Mars may be in our sights, but science is far from figuring out how humans could survive there. The nearest “Earth-like planet,” Alpha Centauri, would take 50,000 years to reach with current rocket technologies. But if humans can one day surpass the speed of light — the ultimate speed limit prescribed by Einstein’s theory of relativity — a one-way trip would take just four years, creating an otherworldly new real estate market.
How does it work? Previous theories were based on negative-energy bubbles, which the university says “would require exotic forms of matter” that may not even exist. But scientist Erik Lentz discovered space-time bubble configurations that have been overlooked. “These bubbles took the form of solitons, compact waves that travel at a constant velocity without losing their shape”— in this case, “propagating through space-time itself.” Lentz was able to configure some solitons without negative energy densities — and without violating Einstein’s theory of relativity. Lentz [KT(C1] says this work, published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, has moved faster-than-light travel “one step away from theoretical research in fundamental physics and closer to engineering.”
What is it? MIT researchers are using deep learning to produce holographic images on consumer laptops and smartphones in real time.
Why does it matter? The technology, called “tensor holography,” could help holograms jump from credit cards to fields like virtual reality, 3D printing and medical imaging.
How does it work? The team first produced typical holograms with existing, computer-based methods, which are modeled after the human eye. Then, MIT says, researchers “built a custom database of 4,000 pairs of computer-generated images” and used the resulting data to train a deep-learning model that adjusted its algorithms accordingly. The result? More realistic holograms in milliseconds. Study co-author Wojciech Matusik says: “It’s a considerable leap that could completely change people’s attitudes toward holography. We feel like neural networks were born for this task.”