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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M. Oliver
July 27, 2021

A magnet “as thin as a single atom,” ultrasound-powered drug delivery and a protein that helps classify cancer. This week’s coolest things have some serious work to do.

2D Or Not 2D


cobalt doped magnet

What is it? Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley created an ultrathin magnet that could be used at room temperature for computing devices and quantum physics tools.

Why does it matter? State-of-the-art 2D magnets have potential in high-tech applications like data centers and quantum computing. But they work only at low temperatures, which limits commercial use. “Our 2D magnet is not only the first that operates at room temperature or higher, but it is also the first magnet to reach the true 2D limit: It’s as thin as a single atom!” said Jie Yao, a Berkeley Lab scientist and senior author of the group’s study, published in Nature Communications.

How does it work? Researchers created the magnet from a solution of graphene oxide, zinc and cobalt. A few hours in the oven cemented a unique structure: a zinc-oxide layer just one atom thick, with a sprinkle of cobalt atoms between graphene layers. Then they burned away the graphene, leaving the superthin zinc-oxide “doped” with cobalt. “Our atomically thin magnet offers an optimal platform for probing the quantum world,” Yao said. “It opens up every single atom for examination, which may reveal how quantum physics governs … the interactions between them.” Now that’s dope.

Bring On The Borgs


color coded borgs in soil samples

What is it? Scientists discovered “Borg” DNA —extrachromosomal elements that self-assimilate with genes from other organisms.

Why does it matter? Borgs share genes and genetic proteins with methanotrophs, organisms that oxidize methane. Because methanotrophs reduce the amount of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — in the atmosphere, researchers believe they may hold clues that could help humans fight climate change.

How does it work? The team sequenced DNA from samples of California wetland soil and identified fragments that “could not be classified easily as any type of known genetic element,” said Jillian Banfield, senior author of the team’s paper, which is in preprint and has not yet been peer-reviewed. Researchers collected examples of 19 distinct borgs for continued study. Banfield hopes they will reveal “new mechanisms for processes that as yet, we don’t even know exist.”


Cancer’s ‘Common Denominator’


DNA mRNA Getty Images


What is it? Researchers at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto discovered that a single unique protein can help classify every type of cancer — and predict its behavior.

Why does it matter? Scientists say the protein, called Yes-associated protein, or YAP, helps determine which cancers are sensitive or resistant to drug therapies and which are likely to spread. “Not only is YAP either off or on, but it has opposite pro- or anti-cancer effects in either context,” said Rod Bremner, a senior scientist at a Sinai Health research lab. “Thus, YAPon cancers need YAP to grow and survive. In contrast, YAPoff cancers stop growing when we switch on YAP.”

How does it work? Studying cancer cells’ “adhesive behavior,” the team showed that “YAP is the master regulator of a cell’s buoyancy,” Sinai Health said. Growing cancer cells in lab dishes, they found that all the floating cells were YAPoff, while those that stuck to the bottom were YAPon. Joel Pearson, co-lead author of the team’s research, published in the journal Cancer Cell, said, “Since cancers jump states to evade therapy, having ways to treat either the YAPoff and YAPon state could become a general approach to stop this cancer from switching types to resist drug treatments.”

Right Side Of The Tract


Suono Bio ultrasound drug delivery

What is it? Scientists at MIT spinout Suono Bio are using ultrasound technology to more effectively deliver drugs in the gastrointestinal tract.

Why does it matter? The GI tract is so long and diverse, doctors can have a tough time getting drugs to the right places in the right doses. As a result, treatments can be invasive or take hours. Suono Bio’s first clinical program targets ulcerative colitis (UC), an inflammatory bowel disease that, together with Crohn’s, affects an estimated 3 million Americans. Suono Bio co-founder and CTO Carl Schoellhammer says the UC drug candidate “is the proof of concept where we could potentially solve a very pressing clinical problem and do a lot of good for a lot of patients.”

How does it work? The team combined ultrasound waves with raw biologic drugs in liquid form. The ultrasound passing through the liquid created tiny, imploding bubbles that pushed the drugs into the intestinal wall like tiny jets. “The breadth of molecules that can be delivered is extremely unusual for a drug delivery technology, so that’s really exciting,” said professor Giovanni Traverso, another Suono Bio co-founder. Because the delivery platform was designed to work all along the GI tract, researchers hope it will one day treat many diseases, including cancers, more precisely and effectively.

Science Goes Bananas


disease resistant bananas

What is it? Scientists in Kenya used CRISPR gene editing to create a bacteria-resistant banana that could help protect farming economies.

Why does it matter? Because commercially grown banana trees are propagated by cutting, they’re technically all clones — which makes them highly susceptible to disease. Some varieties have been pushed to near extinction in the past. Now a bacteria called BXW is ravaging bananas in Africa, putting the continent’s food supply — and millions of families’ livelihoods — at risk.

How does it work? A team at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to modify a banana’s genetic code by snipping short sequences in strands of DNA. The scientists edited banana DNA to turn down a gene called downy mildew resistance 6 (DMR6), which suppresses bananas’ immune response and makes them susceptible to BXW. Leena Tripathy, senior author of the team’s study, published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, said the experiment resulted in “enhanced resistance to a critical disease, BXW, and did not show any detrimental effect on plant growth.”