Spores could unlock the next massive reservoir of renewable energy, evolution-inspired software could give jetliners bird-like wings, and gene therapy made blind mice see again. Did you ever see such a sight in your life?
What is it? Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark used software mimicking natural selection and running on a supercomputer to come up with a “more organic” way to design airplane wings.
Why does it matter? The team wrote in Nature that “the optimized full-wing design has unprecedented structural detail at length scales ranging from tens of meters to millimeters and, intriguingly, shows remarkable similarity to naturally occurring bone structures in, for example, bird beaks.” It could shave off 2 to 5 percent of the wing’s mass and save between 40 to 200 tons of jet fuel per year, if used on a Boeing 777.
How does it work? The team started with the optimized outer skin of the wing and then asked the computer to design the inside support structures. The system had to meet all mechanical requirements but also minimize the amount of material the wing used. The approach yielded a design that was different from building wing one part at a time and provided “insights into the optimal distribution of material within a structure that were hitherto unachievable,” the team reported in Nature.
What is it? Researchers at Columbia University have built an “evaporation engine” that allowed them to capture energy from moisture. They also developed Eva, a small “car” powered by water evaporation (see video here).
Why does it matter? The team calculated that evaporation from lakes and reservoirs in the United States could generate 325 gigawatts and replace 70 percent of the country’s current power production. They wrote that unlike with solar or wind energy, we could “in principle” turn on and off evaporation generation on demand. “We have the technology to harness energy from wind, water and the sun, but evaporation is just as powerful,” says the study’s senior author Ozgur Sahin, a biophysicist at Columbia. “We can now put a number on its potential.”
How does it work? The scientists deposited bacterial spores on thin plastic ribbons. The spores contract and expand like a muscle, depending on the moisture in the air. They used the force to generate motion. Eva, which looks like a waterwheel, uses the spore action caused by evaporation to shift dozens of tiny weights located along its perimeter and use the imbalance for propulsion.
What is it? Scientists at Oxford University say gene therapy lights the way to techniques that could one day reverse a blindness in some people.
Why does it matter? The university reported that “inherited retinal degradations such as retinitis pigmentosa” are the most common cause of blindness in young people. “There are many blind patients in our clinics and the ability to give them some sight back with a relatively simple genetic procedure is very exciting,” said Samantha de Silva, the lead author of the study. “Our next step will be to start a clinical trial to assess this in patients.”
How does it work? The retinas of patients suffering from retinal degeneration contain healthy cells that are not sensitive to light. The team used a modified virus to insert a new gene into these cells and effectively turn them on. In their research, the gene “expressed a light sensitive protein, melanopsin, in the residual retinal cells in mice which were blind from retinitis pigmentosa.” The reported that the mice “maintained vision” for a year after the procedure and were “able to recognize objects in their environment which indicated a high level of visual perception.”
What is it? Gene therapy seems to be on a roll. A team at the University of Chicago used it in a “proof-of-concept” study to make skin transplants that could stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin in people suffering from Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Why does it matter? More than 100 million adults in the U.S. are suffering either from diabetes or prediabetes, and more than 66 percent are overweight. “We think this can provide a long-term safe option for the treatment of many diseases,” said Xiaoyang Wu, assistant professor at the University of Chicago and the author of the study. He said that the approach could be used to treat diabetes and obesity, but also “genetic defect, such as hemophilia. Or it could function as a metabolic sink, removing various toxins.”
How does it work? Like Wu’s colleagues at Oxford, Wu used the gene editing tool CRISPR to insert into skin cells a gene called GLP1 for a hormone that stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which removes glucose from the bloodstream. They also included a genetic bit that allowed them to prompt the gene to produce GLP1 when exposed to the antibiotic doxycycline. Next, they grew a “skin-like organoid,” which they grafted onto mice. “When the mice ate food containing minute amounts of doxycycline, they released dose-dependent levels of GLP1 into the blood,” according to UChicago News. “This promptly increased blood-insulin levels and reduced blood-glucose levels.”
What is it? A team of researchers working in Boston and Sydney developed MeTro, a glue-like substance that “can effectively seal wounds in shape-shifting tissues without the need for common staples or sutures,” according to Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Why does it matter? “The potential applications are powerful, from treating serious internal wounds at emergency sites such as following car accidents and in war zones, as well as improving hospital surgeries,” said Anthony Weiss, a professor at the University of Sydney. The team successfully used the substance to “effectively seal incisions in arteries and lungs of rats and to repair wounds in the lungs of pigs, all suture and staple-free.”
How does it work? The “glue” is based on elastin, a protein present in elastic tissues like the artery walls, skin and lungs. The team engineered E. coli bacteria to produce a precursor material the body uses to build elastin and then zapped it with UV light to make “a versatile highly elastic hydrogel.” Weiss said the team was “now ready to transfer our research into testing on people. I hope MeTro will soon be used in the clinic, saving human lives.”