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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
March 02, 2022

Exploring brain waves at the end of life, making organic and printable neurons, and engineering a microbe to convert waste gas to chemicals. This week’s coolest things show big discoveries come in small packages.


Sci-Fi Awards

A look at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration BREEZE. Video credit: NASA. Top image credit: Getty Images.


What is it? NASA awarded $5.1 million in funding to 17 futuristic space technology projects.

Why does it matter? We don’t yet have the capabilities to colonize Mars or deeply probe Venus and the moons of Saturn. The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is putting the emphasis on yet. “NASA’s mission to explore the universe requires new technologies and new ways of doing things,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Studying these creative ideas is the first step to turn science fiction into science fact.”

How does it work? Here are some projects that received funding: a spacecraft that can better protect crew from radiation on long-distance missions, a probe to collect cloud samples from Venus’s atmosphere, and tiny robots that could crawl into underground caves on Mars or swim the oceans of Saturn’s moons. The Pi project from UC Santa Barbara aims to develop a quickly deployable planetary defense system to pulverize dangerous asteroids heading toward Earth.


Physical Attraction

micromagnet brain neurosciences


What is it? University College London researchers developed a method for controlling brain cells with an external magnet.

Why does it matter? Two recent technologies — optogenetics and chemogenetics — allow scientists to manipulate brain cells called astrocytes for the study and treatment of neurological processes and disorders including stroke, epilepsy, pain and neurodegenerative diseases. But they are invasive and involve the introduction of foreign genes. The new method, called magnetomechanical stimulation, described in Advanced Science, doesn’t require device implantation or genetic modification.

How does it work? The researchers injected microscopic magnetic particles into the brainstems of rats, where astrocytes, touch-sensitive star-shaped brain cells, help control blood pressure. The particles were coated with an antibody that binds to astrocytes. When the team put a specially designed electromagnet over the rats’ heads, blood pressure rose, showing they had successfully attracted the cell-bound micro-magnets and activated the neurons. “The ability to control brain astrocytes using a magnetic field gives the researchers a new tool to study the function of these cells in health and disease that may be important for future development of novel and effective treatments for some common neurological disorders, such as epilepsy and stroke,” said Alexander Gourine, coauthor of the study.


New Neurons

Artificial organic neurons


What is it? Researchers at Sweden’s Linköping University developed a printable, artificial organic neuron and used it to make a living Venus flytrap snap shut.

Why does it matter? Advances in prosthetics, wearable medical devices and other brain-machine interfaces will require the ability to link an artificial device to the human body. But traditional silicon-based parts under study aren’t particularly compatible. The organic neurons, or brain cells, developed by the researchers appear to integrate better and use far less power than similar innovations. The hope is to be able to use the technology to treat neurological diseases or create intelligent soft robots. “We’ve developed ion-based neurons, similar to our own, that can be connected to biological systems,” said Chi-Yuan Yang, coauthor of a new study in Nature Communications.

How does it work? In prior research, the team designed organic electrochemical circuits that function like plant and animal neurons, firing in response to specific changes in ion concentration. Thousands of the tiny transistors can be printed on a sheet of thin plastic substrate to create artificial neural circuits. When the researchers connected one of their printed neurons to a living Venus flytrap, a small charge of less than 0.6 volts induced the plant to close. “We chose the Venus flytrap so we could clearly show how we can steer the biological system with the artificial organic system and get them to communicate in the same language,” said Simone Fabiano, associate professor and principal investigator in organic nanoelectronics at Linköping’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics.


Waste Not

engineered bacteria


What is it? Scientists at LanzaTech, in Skokie, Illinois, engineered a microbe that converts waste gas from steel plants into industrial chemicals.

Why does it matter? The innovation not only has the potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but obviates the need for fossil fuels in the production of industrial chemicals. The technique could be applied to many different bacteria and sources of emissions, such as gases from landfills and agriculture.

How does it work? Bacterial fermentation is common in the production of cheese, yogurt and alcohol. But for commodity chemicals, fossil fuels have proven cheaper and easier. The researchers used genetic engineering to create a strain of the bacterium Clostridium autoethanogenum that efficiently converts waste gases produced by steel mills into acetone and isopropanol (a combined $10 billion market). What’s more, the bacteria fix carbon in the process, paving the way for “environmentally sustainable, carbon-negative manufacturing of chemicals,” the authors wrote in Nature Biotechnology.


In A Flash

brain MFRI


What is it? An international team of doctors and scientists may have stumbled upon brain-wave evidence of the experience of life flashing before one’s eyes.

Why does it matter? The study, published in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience, is the first to capture brain activity in the moments just before and after death.

How does it work? The discovery was an accident. Doctors in Estonia were charting neural activity in a patient with epilepsy when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Reviewing the electroencephalogram data for the 30 seconds before and after his heart stopped, the researchers saw several types of brain-wave activity associated with dreaming, meditation, memory and flashbacks. “Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences,” said Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville and one of the study authors.