Scientists have genetically engineered skinny pigs that are more tolerant to cold, ocean mussels could lead to self-healing plastic, and transparent solar panels are soaking up the sun. It’s been a bright week for science.
What is it? Michigan State University scientists have developed a transparent solar panel that can be used as a window.
Why does it matter? Clear solar panels could be used to tap the sun’s power in buildings, cars and even tech devices. There are 5 to 7 billion square meters of glass surfaces in the United States, according to the researchers, who say these clear panels have the potential to provide approximately 40 percent of the country’s current energy demands. Besides making new power-generating window panels, the technology could be also used to retrofit existing windows.
How does it work? The MSU team used organic molecules to create a thin material similar to plastic that captures the sun’s ultraviolet and near-infrared light and moves to the edge of the window panel, where a solar cell converts it to energy. “Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said lead engineering researcher Richard Lunt. While the transparent panels are far less efficient than normal solar panels, buildings have a lot more surface area where they could be deployed. “Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible,” Lunt said.
What is it? Astronomers are marveling over the discovery of a small rock hurtling through space that they say came from outside our solar system.
Why does it matter? Although astronomers had predicted such a visitation, this is the first time they have recorded one. Now they’re scrambling to amass information about the object while they can. They’d better hustle: It’s swung past the sun and is already zooming away at about 25 miles per second.
How does it work? Rob Weryk, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, discovered the object while reviewing images from the university’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Maui. What gave it away as an interstellar interloper: its unusual speed and trajectory. “It’s moving so fast that the sun can’t capture it into an orbit,” Weryk said. It also was apparent to astronomers that this object has a “hyperbolic orbit” rather than the elliptical orbits seen in our solar system.
What is it? Chinese scientists have genetically engineered pigs with a gene that allows them to stay warm by burning fat, rendering them 24 percent leaner than their peers.
Why does it matter? The scientists hope to prevent “millions of piglets” from perishing each year because of cold weather and also save farmers money in heating and feeding bills. As an added bonus, “People like to eat the pork with less fat but higher lean meat,” said lead researcher Jianguo Zhao of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
How does it work? Most mammals have a gene called UCP1, which helps regulate body temperature. Pigs, however, are missing this gene, so the scientists used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to insert mouse UCP1 into pig DNA. From these modified cells, the scientist created cloned pig embryos, which eventually emerged as 12 leaner but otherwise normal piglets. The hardest work, however, might be convincing people to eat genetically modified bacon: “I very much doubt that this particular pig will ever be imported into the USA — one thing — and secondly, whether it would ever be allowed to enter the food chain,” the research paper editor, R. Michael Roberts, a professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Missouri told NPR.
What is it: Researchers have developed a stretchy, strong polymer that is similar to the flexible material saltwater mussels use to cling to the ocean’s rocks. New plastics made from this polymer could be “tough enough to glue together disparate materials such as wood and metal, and even able to heal themselves when damaged,” according to Science magazine.
Why does it matter? There are a lot of polymer materials out there that are stretchy and springy: wetsuit fabric, tire rubber and silicone. The problem is that scientists have never been able to make these materials sturdier because they become brittle when you add more polymer strands to the chemical makeup. A tough, flexible synthetic polymer (plastic or resin) would be a welcome ingredient in biomaterials, like artificial tendons and robotic joints.
How does it work? After studying mussels’ chemical makeup, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara added iron ions to synthetic polymer bonds. They were able to mimic the mussels’ strong clinginess and self-healing properties, even out of the water. “We found that the wet network was 25 times less stiff and broke at five times shorter elongation than a similarly constructed dry network,” explained co-lead author Emmanouela Filippidi. “That’s an interesting result, but an expected one. What’s really striking is what happened when we compared the dry network before and after adding iron. Not only did it maintain its stretchiness but it also became 800 times stiffer and 100 times tougher in the presence of these reconfigurable iron-catechol bonds. That was unexpected.”
What is it? Using a mathematical algorithm, University of Michigan scientists may have found a new way to directly reprogram ordinary cells to become whatever type of cell they wish, just like stem cells.
Why does it matter? This would be a faster way to create specialized cells on demand as well as potentially enable the reprogramming of cells to fight cancer or genetic diseases. “This work also has important implications for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, since it provides a blueprint for generating any desired cell type,” explained stem cell biologist Max Wicha.
How does it work? Right now, the only way to reprogram adult cells is by using a lengthy process that involves coaxing skin or blood cells into an embryonic-like state, and then reprogramming these cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, into new cells for therapeutic purposes. The Michigan researchers’ algorithm helps detects patterns in 3D genome representations and can predict when it is the right time to inject a specific cell with a protein that assists with the reprogramming. The team is now looking to move its theoretical work into the lab.