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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Doctors in France designed a device that partially awakened a man who’d been in a vegetative state for 15 years, Spanish agriculturists genetically engineered a low-gluten wheat, and researchers in New York figured out how to use the human heart to secure computers. Does all this progress make your pulse quicken, too?

 

You Can’t Steal This Heart

“No two people with identical hearts have ever been found,” said Wenyao Xu of the University of Buffalo. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The highway patrol use Doppler radars to track speeding drivers. Now researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York have created a Doppler-enabled system that uses the heart as a unique identifier to secure computers.

Why does it matter? Unlike current biometric tools, such as fingerprints and face and retinal scans, this system is passive and requires no contact by the user. “Logging-in and logging-out are tedious,” said Wenyao Xu, lead author on the group’s study, which its collaborators will present next month at a mobile computing conference in Snowbird, Utah. The team calls its system “a safe and potentially more effective alternative to passwords and other biometric identifiers.”

How does it work? A low-level Doppler radar emitting “less than one percent of the radiation from our smartphones” scans the heart for about 8 seconds to measure its size, shape and movement and then continues to monitor it throughout the computer session. If someone else’s heart “signature” appears, the computer won’t operate. “No two people with identical hearts have ever been found,” Xu said. He plans to shrink the system so it could fit “onto the corners of computer keyboards.” The university says future applications could include smartphone security and airport screeners.

 

Getting Back In Touch

The man who spent 15 years in a vegetative state was able to turn his head when prompted, stay awake for longer periods while a therapist read a book, and widen his eyes in response to perceived threat. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A man who’d been a vegetative state for 15 years turned his head and responded to cues after doctors in Lyon, France, used a special device to stimulate his vagus nerve, which runs from the brain into the abdomen and is involved wakefulness.

 Why does it matter? Although people who are in a vegetative state can breathe without assistance and experience occasional periods of wakefulness, they cannot communicate with others and often aren’t aware of their surroundings. “They don’t have a presence in the world,” said study leader Angela Sirigu of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France. Should vagal nerve stimulation work similarly in other patients, the technology could help them achieve a degree of autonomy and ability to communicate they currently lack. 

How does it work? Doctors implanted a device in the man’s chest and stimulated his vagus nerve daily for a month. “Clinical examination revealed reproducible and consistent improvements in general arousal, sustained attention, body motility and visual pursuit,” said the study’s authors in a paper published in Current Biology. Put plainly, the man was able to turn his head when prompted, stay awake for longer periods while a therapist read a book, and widen his eyes in response to perceived threat — all behaviors typically absent in people who are in a vegetative state.

 

Aluminum’s Density Foiled

“Spaceflight, medicine, wiring and more lightweight, more fuel-efficient automotive parts are some applications that come to mind,” says Utah State University chemist Alexander Boldyrev. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at Utah State University have used computational modeling to design a crystalline form of aluminum so lightweight it could float on water.

Why does it matter? Lighter aluminum could have a broad array of uses. “Spaceflight, medicine, wiring and more lightweight, more fuel-efficient automotive parts are some applications that come to mind,” says Utah State University chemist Alexander Boldyrev. 

How does it work? “My colleagues’ approach to this challenge was very innovative,” Boldyrev says. “They started with a known crystal lattice, in this case, a diamond, and substituted every carbon atom with an aluminum tetrahedron.” The result: a crystal aluminum with density of 0.61 gram per cubic centimeter. Conventional aluminum’s density is 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter, and water’s is 1 gram per cubic centimeter.

 

U.S. And Russia To Boldly Go, Together

NASA and Roskosmos will also “develop international technical standards, which will be used later, in particular to create a space station in lunar orbit,” the Russian space agency said. Illustration credit: NASA. Top illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The U.S. and Russia say they’ll work together on a NASA-led project for building a manned space station orbiting the moon to serve as a “gateway to deep space and the lunar surface.” The station is part of NASA’s broader “deep space gateway” exploration program for extending man’s reach into the solar system.

Why does it matter? “NASA plans to expand human presence into the solar system starting in the vicinity of the Moon using its new deep space exploration transportation systems, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft,” said NASA. “This plan challenges our current capabilities in human spaceflight and will benefit from engagement by multiple countries and U.S. industry.”

How does it work? NASA said Russia and the U.S. would work together “to identify common exploration objectives and possible missions for the 2020s.” They will also “develop international technical standards, which will be used later, in particular to create a space station in lunar orbit,” the Russian space agency Roscosmos said in a statement.

 

No Loafing Around

 

Scientists used gene-editing tool CRISPR to remove the genes for the gluten component called gliadins from wheat. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Agriculture scientists at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, have genetically engineered wheat to produce gluten with lesser impact on people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and can cause nutrient malabsorption.

Why does it matter? Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, helps give bread its spongy texture. But in some people, it triggers an autoimmune response that causes a slew of serious complications. People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity — which the researchers say affect more than 7 percent of the Western population — either must avoid bread altogether, or choose a gluten-free variety, which some consumers find unappetizing.

How does it work? The scientists used gene-editing tool CRISPR to remove the genes for the gluten component called gliadins, the main trigger for gluten reactions. “Up to 35 different genes were mutated in one of the lines of the 45 different genes identified in the wild type, while immunoreactivity was reduced by 85%,” the scientists said in a paper published in Plant Biotechnology.

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