Scientists are growing blood vessels in petri dishes, engineers are using bird feathers as inspiration for a new Velcro-like material, and a Japanese company hopes to use satellites to create artificial meteor showers. Nature’s amazing, but humans are doing it for themselves in this week’s coolest scientific developments.
What is it? In Canada, scientists at the University of Alberta have made steps toward developing a new kind of battery: a lithium-ion device that uses silicon nanoparticles to provide 10 times more charge capacity than is currently available.
Why does it matter? As we’ve previously reported, battery storage is an increasingly big deal as the world switches to renewable energy — providers need to not only generate that power, but also develop technologies to store it until it’s needed. Alberta chemist Jonathan Veinot, a member of the team that worked on the new battery, explained the tech on a more everyday scale: “Imagine a car having the same size battery as a Tesla that could travel 10 times farther or you charge 10 times less frequently, or the battery is 10 times lighter.”
How does it work? Researchers have had their eyes on silicon, an abundant element that can hold more juice than the graphite currently used in lithium-ion batteries. The problem is that the silicon particles expand and contract as they absorb and release lithium ions, and the wear and tear eventually causes the battery to degrade. Thinking they could solve the problem by changing the size of the particles, researchers went about experimenting with a number of differently sized nanoparticles to see which could facilitate the best charge with the most stability. It turned out it was the smallest particles, whose diameter is three-billionths of a meter. The team’s next step is figuring out a faster and cheaper way to produce the silicon nanoparticles to make the technology more accessible.
What is it? Last year we heard news of scientists growing brain organoids — that is, mini brains that generate brain waves — in culture. This month the lab-grown human body gets to add another part: Scientists at the University of British Columbia have grown “perfect human blood vessels” in a petri dish. They hope to use them to gain a better understanding of diabetes, among other diseases linked to the circulatory system.
Why does it matter? “Being able to build human blood vessels as organoids from stem cells is a game changer,” said Josef Penninger, the senior author of a paper on the development published in Nature. “This could potentially allow researchers to unravel the causes and treatments for a variety of vascular diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, wound healing problems, stroke, cancer and, of course, diabetes.” Though complications from diabetes affect the circulatory system, researchers still don’t have a complex understanding of diabetic-related vascular changes. This finding, though, gives them an opening.
How does it work? Penninger’s team created their organoids with pluripotent stem cells — undifferentiated cells that can turn into any adult cell type. In this case, the scientists used the cells to grow blood vessels that they exposed to diabetic conditions to study the effects and search for chemical compounds that could counteract them. The team also transplanted the blood vessels into mice, where they “developed into perfectly functional human blood vessels including arteries and capillaries,” according to UBC, which notes a secondary triumph here: that a human vascular system can successfully be grown in another species.
What is it? Think of running your fingers one way along a feather, and then the other way: If you’re going against the grain, as it were, the feather’s barbs will seal themselves right back up, like a zipper. Impressive, no? Engineers at the University of California, San Diego, are looking at that zipping mechanism as inspiration for next-gen materials.
Why does it matter? Materials mimicking bird feathers could serve as a new kind of adhesive — like a successor to Velcro — or even in aerospace applications: They form such a tight seal that they’re able to capture air to lift birds into the sky. “We believe that these structures could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability,” said materials science researcher Tarah Sullivan. Her team, according to UCSD, is the first in decades to take a close look at the general structure of bird feathers. They just published their initial findings in Science Advances.
How does it work? The soft, threadlike parts that grow off the central shaft of a feather are called barbs, and they hook to one another via tiny spiky parts called barbules. Among other things, Sullivan’s team found that barbules are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of one another no matter the species of bird, suggesting that such spacing might be crucial to the animals’ flight capabilities. “The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,” Sullivan said. “As we studied feathers across many species it was amazing to find that despite the enormous differences in size of birds, barbules spacing was constant.” She developed prototypes of potential new materials that she plans to discuss in a future paper.
What is it? “Gut tube” isn’t a particularly poetic expression, but it’s a vital embryonic stage — it’s what forms when a group of stem cells called the endoderm moves from the surface of the embryo to the center, and it’s a precursor of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. At Harvard Medical School, researchers have been studying gut tube formation to try to get a better handle on the broader question of embryonic development, and they’ve emerged with a clearer picture than ever.
Why does it matter? The Harvard investigation, conducted by postdoc fellow Nandan Nerurkar and colleagues, gestures toward a larger mystery: namely, how a random bunch of cells are able to arrange themselves into a coherent plan that will grow into a living being. “Our major goal is to understand how we, as complex organisms, are formed with such precision from a seemingly disorganized ball of cells — the early embryo,” Nerurkar said. Their findings, published in Nature, could improve the process by which human organs are grown in the lab from stem cells (see above!) and might shed light on congenital gastrointestinal defects.
How does it work? Nerurkar et al used a new kind of imaging to study the development of the gut tube in baby birds. Previously this was done via a process called fate mapping: Cells were labeled early in development and then tracked through development, with static images taken at the beginning and end of the process. This view, though, is “at best incomplete, and at worst completely wrong,” Nerurkar said. He and his team instead used lived imaging to directly observe how cells move as the endoderm is formed.
What is it? In a move somehow not related to the growing cultural acceptance of marijuana worldwide, a Japanese company is bringing back bombastic light shows in the biggest way possible: It wants to create on-demand meteor showers by firing projectiles out of satellites.
Why does it matter? According to a report in Science Alert, the Earth enjoys about 22 meteor showers per year. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that somebody should step in and fill the gaps here with artificial meteor showers, the company — called Astro Live Experiences — is betting that it might be able to gin up an audience for its shows, which will be visible within a 124-mile radius. A prototype satellite just launched for testing.
How does it work? The idea is that the satellite will fire a bunch of metallic pellets, about 1 centimeter in diameter and made of a secret material, from space toward the Earth’s atmosphere, where they will burn up in a riot of colors. Science Alert notes some technical challenges, though, that the company will have to surmount: Rather than just being dropped out of the satellite, the pellets need to be shot to achieve a sufficient velocity, and whatever mechanism shoots them can’t have such recoil that it propels the satellite backwards into space. The company reportedly hopes to have its tech smoothed out by next year and create a meteor shower over Hiroshima.