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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Scientists in Japan built a finger for a robot from bioengineered muscles, a bracelet-like brain-machine interface from CTRL-labs can turn any surface into a keyboard by eavesdropping on nerves in your wrist, and ingestible bacteria designed at MIT could help doctors diagnose disease. We have plenty more food for thought this week. Keep reading.

 

 

Pumping Iron

A pair of biorobots worked “in unison to pick up a square frame,” according to the university. GIF credit: The University of Tokyo.

What is it? Engineers at the University of Tokyo have grown living skeletal muscles for a robot from a sheet of muscle cells. They attached the muscle tissues to a robot skeleton and made them flex by stimulating them with electrodes. The “biorobot” was able to pick up and place down a ring, and a pair of the machines worked “in unison to pick up a square frame,” according to the university. “The results showed that the robots could perform these tasks well, with activation of the muscles leading to flexing of a finger-like protuberance at the end of the robot by around 90 degrees,” the university reported.

Why does it matter? Yuya Morimoto, the lead author of the study published in the journal Science Robotics, said that using muscles that work in pairs, one contacting while the other is relaxing, “these robots can mimic the actions of a human finger. If we can combine more of these muscles into a single device, we should be able to reproduce the complex muscular interplay that allow hands, arms, and other parts of the body to function.”

How does it work? The researchers first 3D printed a robot skeleton that included “a joint, pairs of electrodes, anchors for skeletal muscle tissues, and flexible ribbons” that allowed them to rotate the joint, according to the paper. Next they grew the muscle tissues using “hydrogel sheets containing muscle precursor cells called myoblasts, holes to attach these sheets to the robot skeleton anchors, and stripes to encourage the muscle fibers to form in an aligned manner,” the university said. “Once we had built the muscles, we successfully used them as antagonistic pairs in the robot, with one contracting and the other expanding, just like in the body,” study corresponding author Shoji Takeuchi said. “The fact that they were exerting opposing forces on each other stopped them shrinking and deteriorating, like in previous studies.”

 

Give This Brain-Machine Interface A Hand (Though It Doesn’t Actually Need One)

What is it? Consider a common scene of modern humanity: a person typing at a computer. The brain sends signals to the hands, which work the fingertips, which input the information via a keyboard. Neuroscientists have figured out a way to skip a step: They’ve designed a electromyographic wristband that helps the brain communicate directly with the machine, no middleman required.

Why does it matter? “The first thing we want to fix is text on phones,” Thomas Reardon, a creator of Microsoft Internet Explorer who now runs the NYC-based startup CTRL-Labs, said in an interview. Reardon’s technology raises the possibility of ditching the keyboard function altogether, relying instead on sensors on the wrist that would decode messages the brain sends to the motor neurons. As Scientific American put it, “A wearer of the wristband can, in principle, dance fingers in the air or even twitch them in one’s pockets to create a message.” Beyond simple texting, these advances could mean a total overhaul in the way we interface with the machines we use every day. They could also help surgeons perform delicate surgeries with robotic arms.

How does it work? Sort of like an EEG works on your scalp: CTRL-Labs’ as-yet-unnamed technology attaches to the wrist and reads electrical signals the brain sends out. But because it’s on the arm, it’s not detecting all the other stuff going on in your brain. Instead, it’s able to zero in on the motor neurons, which tell which muscles to move where, and input the data into a machine-learning algorithm that enacts whatever movement you’re thinking about, whether that’s writing a note or playing the piano. (Speaking of: Because it doesn’t rely on the user’s actual hands, this tech raises the possibility of a piano player learning to tickle the ivories with, say, 12 fingers instead of 10 — one for each note on the chromatic scale.)

 

Ingestible Bacteria: Not Just For Summer Picnics Anymore

MIT engineers have designed an ingestible sensor equipped with bacteria programmed to sense environmental conditions and relay the information to an electronic circuit. Caption credit: MIT News. Image credit: Lillie Paquette/MIT.

What is it? Scientists at MIT have designed an ingestible chip that carries specially engineered bacteria through the digestive tract, where they can help diagnose harmful gastrointestinal conditions.

Why does it matter? The new chip, described in a recent article in Science magazine, is like sending a team of tiny spies into the body. There they can look for problems such as bleeding from a gastric ulcer — which now requires an endoscopy, and sometimes sedation of the patient, to diagnose. “By combining engineered biological sensors together with low-power wireless electronics, we can detect biological signals in the body and in near real-time, enabling new diagnostic capabilities for human health applications,” said Timothy Lu, an MIT professor and a senior author of the study, in an MIT News report. This kind of sensor could be designed for one-time use, or to stay in the stomach over longer periods, sending out periodic signals to help doctors figure out what’s going on in there.

How does it work? Researchers have recently made strides in bioengineering bacteria that do things like light up in response to the presence of certain stimuli, such as the markers of a disease. The MIT team figured out a way to combine engineered bacteria with a low-power electronic chip that could emit a signal. The university reports, “This ‘bacteria-on-a-chip’ approach combines sensors made from living cells with ultra-low-power electronics that convert the bacterial response into a wireless signal that can be read by a smartphone.”

 

The Sweetest 3D Printer

Top and above: Freeform printing allows the researchers to make intricate structures, such as this model of a heart, that could not be made with traditional layer-by-layer 3-D printing. The structures could be used as scaffolds for tissue engineering or device manufacturing. Caption credit: Illinois News Bureau. Images credit: Travis Ross, Beckman Institute.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Illinois built a 3D printer that uses “a type of sugar alcohol used to make throat lozenges” called isomalt to print scaffolds for tissue engineering. “This is a great way to create shapes around which we can pattern soft materials or grow cells and tissue, then the scaffold dissolves away,” said Rohit Bhargava, a professor of bioengineering and director of the Cancer Center at university.

Why does it matter? Bhargava said that possible applications could include growing tumors in the lab. “Cell cultures are usually done on flat dishes,” he said. “That gives us some characteristics of the cells, but it’s not a very dynamic way to look at how a system actually functions in the body. In the body, there are well-defined shapes, and shape and function are very closely related.” The technique also gives them “the ability to precisely control the mechanical properties of each part of the structure by making slight changes in the printer parameters.”

How does it work? The researchers started by looking for the right sugary material that doesn’t burn or crystallize. Next, they built a printer with the “right temperature, pressure to extrude it from the nozzle, diameter of the nozzle, and speed to move it so it prints smoothly but then hardens into a stable structure,” according to the university. Finally, they reached out to Greg Hurst at Wolfram Research in Champaign, Illinois, to develop software that allowed them to “design scaffolds and map out printing pathways.”

 

How To Make A Molecule

Harvard’s Lee Liu said the discovery of the technique for fusing the atoms is “an important first step to making ‘custom’ molecules that could serve as qubits (building blocks of a quantum computer).” Image credit: Harvard University.

What is it? At Harvard, researchers have created a molecule by taking one single atom and fusing it with another atom, in what the university jokingly called “the world’s smallest chemical beaker.”

Why does it matter? It’s science at the most elemental level, and a triumph of “stripping a chemical reaction down to the bare essentials: two atoms, and something to add or remove energy,” according to Lee Liu, the senior graduate student on the project. In addition to helping scientists study atomic collisions in a environment, Liu said the discovery of the technique for fusing the atoms is “an important first step to making ‘custom’ molecules that could serve as qubits (building blocks of a quantum computer).”

How does it work? The researchers used a device called an optical tweezer — basically a highly focused laser beam that can pluck single atoms from hot vapor. Selecting one sodium atom and one cesium atom, the researchers moved the two so close together that the laser beams overlapped, and then blasted the atoms with a shot of light from a third laser to cause them to form a bond.

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