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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
March 07, 2022

Genetic control switches, infinitely recyclable plastics and an electric flying car. This week’s coolest things deliver on futuristic promises.


Energy Mix

Merkur offshore wind

What is it? Ocean and energy researchers in the UK found that offshore wind farms can help improve the health of warming seas.

Why does it matter? As demand for clean power increases, floating wind farms are being explored for deeper waters. In some of these regions, the foundations of the turbines may have additional effects that could help mitigate climate change.

How does it work? In so-called seasonally stratified seas, the water is mixed during winter but separates into layers in the spring. A warm, nutrient-rich upper layer of water encourages the growth of marine life, including microalgae that form the base of the food chain and support larger animals in the ecosystem. As nutrients are depleted, tides churn up nutrients from the colder waters below, while carrying down much-needed oxygen. Climate warming is causing this stratification to occur earlier in the year, putting it out of sync with the rest of the ecosystem and disrupting the normal nutrient cycle. Meanwhile, warmer seas hold less oxygen. In an unpublished study, the researchers demonstrated how the right placement of turbines induces artificial turbulence that helps reestablish the exchange between cold and warm water. “The wake from foundations at least doubles the natural turbulent mixing within the region of an offshore wind farm,” the authors wrote in The Conversation.


Designed, Sealed, Delivered

genes Getty

What is it? Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine developed a new method for controlling gene activity without genetic modification.

Why does it matter? “The beauty of this approach” is that researchers will be able to understand the role individual genes play in normal cell growth, aging and such diseases as cancer, said Shiri Levy, a postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of a new study in Cell Reports.

How does it work? Rather than modify actual genes in a strand of DNA, the process works to “awaken” dormant genes by turning off epigenetic — or over-the-gene — markers that act like on/off switches. Using artificial intelligence, the scientists designed a protein called PRC2 that interferes with another protein in cells that silences genes. Then they delivered the blocking protein to specific genes that had been shut off by PRC2, using a process related to the gene-modification method CRISPR. Unlike in typical CRIPSR experiments, the delivery mechanism didn’t cut into the DNA itself, but rather “dropped off” the protein at its intended site. “With these two advances, AI-designed proteins and CRISPR technology, we can now find the precise epigenetic marks that are important for gene expression,” said co-author Hannele Ruohola-Baker.


Forever Plastics

plastic bottles

What is it? Researchers at the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath developed a process for recycling plastic that preserves its quality indefinitely.

Why does it matter? More efficient ways of breaking down and reusing plastic are necessary to make recycling more economically viable. “Our method creates new opportunities for polycarbonate recycling under mild conditions, helping to promote a circular economy approach and keep carbon in the loop indefinitely,” said CSCT’s Jack Payne, first author on a new study in ChemSusChem.

How does it work? Mechanical recycling, the traditional approach, is harsh, involving high temperatures that degrade plastic so that it is no longer as valuable for repurposing into new products. The Bath team used a zinc-based catalyst and methanol to break down a type of plastic called BPA-PC, often used in construction, to its constituents at room temperature — and in a mere 20 minutes. The results could be reused to produce industrial chemicals and upcycled plastics of equal quality to the originals.


Testing, Testing

A DNA double helix. Image credit: Arek Socha.

What is it? An international team led by genomic researchers at Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia developed a single test that can screen for more than 50 hard-to-diagnose genetic disorders at once.

Why does it matter? Diagnosing a group of rare neurological and neuromuscular diseases called repeat expansion disorders is historically difficult, leaving patients waiting years before their problems can be pinpointed and treated. This new test will help patients avoid years of unnecessary muscle or nerve biopsies for diseases they don’t have, or risky treatments that suppress their immune system, said Kishore Kumar, co-author of a new study in Science Advances.

How does it work? The researchers took advantage of a new technology called nanopore sequencing, which analyzes long stretches of genetic material in real time, to scan for abnormally long repeated DNA sequences that are the hallmarks of expansion disorders. “In the one test, we can search for every known disease-causing repeat expansion sequence, and potentially discover novel sequences likely to be involved in diseases that have not yet been described,” said lead author Ira Deveson. The research sets the stage for developing the test for clinical use within the next two to five years.


Air Traffic

The Jetson One in action. Video credit: Jetson.


What is it? The founders of a Swedish startup built a flying car they claim anyone can pilot.

Why does it matter? Serial entrepreneur and sci-fi enthusiast Peter Ternström was disappointed we’d made it to the year 2022 without the flying car his childhood cartoons promised — so he made one. “It makes me really happy to be able to at least provide the first little step in the creation of a flying car with the Jetson One,” he told EuroNews.

How does it work? Designed as a pleasure vehicle, the low-flying, single-seat Jetson One travels up to 63 miles per hour for about 20 minutes. The real innovation is not in the minimalist aluminum chassis or all-electric motors, but in the highly automated flight control computer. Equipped with lidar sensors for terrain tracking and obstacle avoidance, as well as an auto-landing system, it’s designed for novices without a pilot’s license. “The first time you jump in it, and it picks you up in the sky and you just start floating over a forest or over a beach or whatever you want,” Ternström said. At press time, three $92,000 vehicles were unclaimed in the 2023 production run of 136 units.