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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

It’s the start of 2017, and we can’t help but wonder what amazing scientific advances await. Judging by the year’s first haul, we may soon be able to push things around with tractor beams, print electronics on paper and toast to science with a glass of chardonnay nurtured by data. Cheers!


A Key To A Scourge


Salk Institute scientists solved the structure of the HIV intasome, a large molecular machine that inserts viral DNA into the genomes of its host. Image credit: Salk Institute.

Salk Institute scientists have discovered new insights into why HIV is so adept at invading human DNA and replicating in the body. In a paper published in the journal Science, they revealed the piece of HIV’s molecular machinery that inserts a DNA copy of the virus RNA into a human host’s DNA. The machinery, known as the “intasome,” uses enzymes called integrases to paste the foreign DNA into the host. Using a next-generation imaging technique called single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, the researchers found an intasome that was more complex than those in other retroviruses. This realization could also lead to new avenues for developing antiretroviral drugs that fight HIV, which kills 1 million people and infects another 2 million each year worldwide. “HIV is a clever virus and has learned to evade even some of the best drugs on the market,” said the study’s senior author Dmitry Lyumkis, a Helmsley-Salk Fellow at the Salk Institute. “Understanding the mechanisms of viral escape and developing more broadly applicable drugs will be a major direction in the future.”


Pacemakers Powered By The Sun?


Above: The solar measurement device worn by study participants to examine the real-world feasibility of solar-powered medical implants. Image credit: Lukas Bereuter. Top: An X-Ray image of a pacemaker inside a cardiac patient. Image credit: Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Bern say solar cells worn under the skin could charge future pacemakers and other electronic implants, eliminating the need for batteries, which can be uncomfortable and difficult to replace. A team led by Lukas Bereuter of Bern University Hospital and the University of Bern in Switzerland developed cells with special filters to mimic how the skin would interfere with penetrating light. Thirty-two volunteers wore the cells on their arms for one week in summer, autumn and winter. Researchers found that a cell measuring just over half a square inch provided even more power than the typical pacemaker uses. “The overall mean power obtained is enough to completely power for example a pacemaker or at least extend the lifespan of any other active implant,” said Bereuter. The team’s findings appear in Annals of Biomedical Engineering.


Conductive Ink Makes Paper-Based Electronics


Duke University chemists have found that silver nanowire films conduct electricity well enough to form functioning circuits without applying high heat, enabling printable electronics on heat-sensitive materials such aslike paper or plastic. Image credit: Ian Stewart.

Need a new light bulb or battery? Just press print. Duke University researchers have created a conductive liquid that ink-jet printers can use to produce inexpensive electronic circuits on nearly any surface. A similar technology employs silver nanoparticles to print the radio-frequency identification tags emblazoned on DVDs, but these must be heated to melt the ink into a single, continuous circuit. Why? Because of the nanoparticles’ shape. Duke scientists tested ink made with long nanowires instead of other shapes such as nanospheres or microflakes. The result: They were 4,000 times more conductive than the nanoparticles you’ll find in RFID tags — and they didn’t require heat.

“If you use nanowires, then you don’t have to heat the printed circuits up to such high temperature and you can use cheaper plastics or paper,” said chemist Benjamin Wiley. This introduces the possibility of printing LEDs, touchscreens, batteries, solar-power cells and amplifiers. The Duke study appears on the ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces website.


Beam Me Up, Makers!

A University of Bristol research assistant led an effort allowing anyone with access to a 3D printer, some cheap parts and a bit of electronics know-how to build a working acoustic tractor beam — a device that can trap and pull objects with sound waves. Asier Marzo initially helped develop a version of the device while he was a graduate student. His team has now gone a step further. The device improves on simple acoustic levitation by enabling the user to push and pull a small object around. It costs $70 to make, he says. “It’s very easy to push particles from the source, but what’s hard is to pull them toward the source; to attract the particles,” Marzo said. “When you move the tractor beam, the particle moves, but otherwise the trap is static. It can levitate small plastics; it can also levitate a fly and small biological samples. It’s quite handy.”


A Little Sip Needs A Lot Of Tech

Crystal glass with white wine

Brought to you by data. The Kendall-Jackson winery is using a system harnessing solar-powered weather stations, sensors that monitor variables such as sap in the vines, and moisture-detecting drones. Image credit: Getty Images

The Internet of Things now includes vineyards. Jackson Family Wines, the makers of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay and dozens of others wines on five continents, are going high-tech to fight climate change and water scarcity. The winery is using a system harnessing solar-powered weather stations, sensors that monitor variables such as sap in the vines, and moisture-detecting drones. The data, which streams in over cellular networks, is then used to direct water from uphill reservoirs through gravity-fed irrigation pipes and variable-frequency pumps to water the vines only when needed. The whole operation is saving the winemaker money while also decreasing its carbon emissions.


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