Mushrooms are producing electricity, wearable tech can regenerate frog legs, and a possible new particle could help physicists better understand the primordial soup of the universe. It’s a veritable gumbo of discovery in this week’s coolest scientific happenings.
What is it? Scientists at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey took an ordinary grocery-store mushroom — a white button mushroom, to be precise — and dressed it up with bacteria capable of producing electricity.
Why does it matter? Mario and Luigi get a jolt of energy whenever they touch a mushroom — why shouldn’t the rest of us? But also, says Manu Mannoor, a Stevens assistant professor of mechanical engineering: “With this work, we can imagine enormous opportunities for next-generation bio-hybrid applications. For example, some bacteria can glow, while others sense toxins or produce fuel. By seamlessly integrating these microbes with nanomaterials, we could potentially realize many other amazing designer bio-hybrids for the environment, defense, healthcare and many other fields.”
How does it work? Mannoor and his partner, Sudeep Joshi, took an ordinary mushroom and 3D-printed its surface with a cyanobacteria “bio-ink.” Cyanobacteria (familiar in other contexts as blue-green algae) is known to scientists for its ability to produce electricity, but it doesn’t live very well in the lab. The Stevens team, however, wondered if a mushroom might provide it with friendly conditions — nutrients, moisture, pH, etc. They were correct. As Stevens reports, “Shining a light on the mushrooms activated cyanobacterial photosynthesis, generating a photocurrent,” collected with graphene nanoribbons that had also been 3D-printed onto the ‘shroom. The scientists published their findings in Nano Letters.
What is it? A team of scientists at the University of California, San Diego, designed a form of gene therapy that halted a condition similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — in mice.
Why does it matter? Up to 10 percent of ALS patients inherit the disease, and in 20 percent of those, it’s caused by the mutation of a gene called SOD1. ALS patients experience a wrenching neurodegenerative condition, and most survive only three to five years beyond the onset of symptoms. Previous studies indicate that, in cases of inherited ALS, replacing the mutated genes with healthy genes can help stop the disease — but it’s challenging to deliver the treatment into the spinal cord where it’s needed. If further tests of the new strategy work and ultimately become available to humans, it could lead to people getting genetic testing, and possible treatment, before the onset of ALS symptoms.
How does it work? At UC San Diego, researchers Martin Marsala and Mariana Bravo Hernandez tucked a compound that silences the SOD1 gene into a virus. They then injected the virus into mice with an inherited ALS-like condition, aiming it just above the spinal cord. Bravo Hernandez said, “We’re injecting it beneath the membranes that protect the spinal cord, so there’s no barrier. That’s what allows us to impact all the neurons inside the spinal cord.” She further detailed the promising results, including delayed symptoms and greater mobility over the long term, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience this week in San Diego.
What is it? After the Higgs boson, what’s left for the Large Hadron Collider to find? Oh, maybe just a “bizarre and unexpected new particle” that might be showing up in data that physicists have been collecting from the world’s largest particle supercollider — and that might overturn current understandings of physics.
Why does it matter? When it was finally discovered in 2012, the Higgs boson — aka the “god particle” — bolstered what’s known as the standard model of physics: the broad theoretical explanation that attempts to articulate the physical underpinnings of our universe. But, while the standard model is still the most widely accepted theory of — well — everything, there are crucially some things it doesn’t explain. Like dark matter. And gravity. Scientists at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which operates the supercollider on an underground loop straddling the border of France and Switzerland — are continuing to search for particles and study physical interactions to help us further our understanding of the universe, whether to fill out the standard model (see: supersymmetry) or to come up with a new theory altogether.
How does it work? LHC scientists work by smashing protons together at close to the speed of light and observing the results of the collisions. In studying fluctuations in the data they collect, physicists try to detect previously unknown particles. And recently they noticed some intriguing evidence for one that, if confirmed, would be a particle no one’s seen before, or particularly expected. CERN scientists — a conservative lot — warn that more data-crunching is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn. One, Alexandre Nikitenko, told the Guardian, “Theorists are excited and experimentalists are very skeptical. As a physicist I must be very critical, but as the author of this analysis I must have some optimism too.”
What is it? When African clawed frogs lose a limb, they’re typically only able to regenerate, at most, a “featureless, thin, cartilaginous spike” in its place, says Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University. Like humans, the frogs are considered a “nonregenerative” animal, as opposed to those, like sea cucumbers, that can sprout viable new appendages. But Levin and his colleagues designed a device that, by “kick-starting” tissue repair at the injury site, helps the frogs regenerate bigger, more structured limbs.
Why does it matter? The bioreactor, as described in Cell Reports, offers a new path for the field of cell-stimulating therapies called electroceuticals. It relies on progesterone, best known as the hormone that helps prepare the uterus for pregnancy, but which also assists in nerve, blood vessel and bone tissue repair. As researchers point out, while human limb regeneration has long been a dream of biomedical scientists, very little work has been done in terms of regrowing appendages in nonregenerative animals. Until now.
How does it work? The Tufts team 3D-printed bioreactors out of silicon and attached them to the frogs’ injury sites for 24 hours; the contraptions were filled with a hydrogel laced with regeneration-promoting proteins as well as progesterone. Just 24 hours of exposure yielded nine months of “changes in gene expression, innervation, and patterned growth,” according to a release from Tufts. “The fact that the model applies treatments locally, which can also be varied over time and location on the wound, makes this a powerful tool for discovering regeneration therapeutics,” Levin said.
What is it? As a human these days, it’s easy to feel insufficient compared to the awesome, and growing, power of our machine counterparts, who’re developing both intellectual and physical abilities at a fearsome pace. But here’s a heartening metric: In the U.K., scientists have just switched on a computer they’ve designed to mimic the human brain. But rather than fitting inside your standard-shaped skull, this neuromorphic network requires a million processing cores, 1,200 interconnected circuit boards and — one imagines — a heck of an electricity bill.
Why does it matter? Located at the University of Manchester and dubbed Spiking Neural Network Architecture — SpiNNaker, to its friends — the network took 20 years of planning and 10 years of construction, and it can model “more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet,” according to the university. And one thing you can do with a really big brain is better figure out how the human brain works: running simulations, for instance, to see how neurons fire, and possibly better understanding conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
How does it work? One thing that makes SpiNNaker brainlike is that it “mimics the parallel communication architecture of the brain,” with its neurons sending billions of pieces of information simultaneously in many directions, rather than from point A to point B like a standard computer. Still, it’ll have yet more scaling up to do before it catches up to the ol’ human noggin: Even at 1 million processors, the machine can generate just about 1 percent of the action of the human brain, which contains nearly 100 billion neurons.