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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sneaky robots made Austrian bees talk to Swiss fish, a Japanese and Russian team revived a muscle cell from a woolly mammoth that died 28,000 years ago, and a California Institute of Technology team has a design for spaceships powered by a light beam. This week’s column is truly illuminating.

 

Long Distance Call Of The Wild

What is it? Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland and four other European schools have found a way for some bees and fish to talk to one another. The fish were swimming in Switzerland and the bees were buzzing 700 kilometers away in Austria. Wait, what?

How does it work? The scientists designed special robots that can infiltrate a group of animals and influence their behavior, say, by making fish swim in a prescribed direction by emitting visual and behavioral signals like different colors, stripes, vibrations and tail movements, according to the Swiss university. In their new experiment, the team also embedded the robots in a bee colony. Those robots were giving out signals like temperature variation, air movements and others. “The robots in the two groups recorded the dynamics of each group, exchanged that information with each other, and then translated the information received into signals appropriate for the corresponding species,” the university reported, adding that “after 25 minutes, the animal groups were synchronized — all the fish swam in a counterclockwise direction and all the bees had swarmed around one of the terminals.”

Why does it matter? The Swiss school said the results could help roboticists “develop an effective way for machines to capture and translate biological signals. And for biologists, the study could enable them to better understand animal behavior and how individuals within an ecosystem interact.” One day, the research could also help humans tap animals’ “exceptional sensory capabilities” to monitor the environment, or steer them from danger, say, by keeping birds away from airport.

 

The Power Of The Wireless

“We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future — by harvesting Wi-Fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas — to bring intelligence to every object around us,” said MIT engineering professor Tomás Palacios. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT News.

What is it? Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions have built a flexible, battery-free electronic device that converts Wi-Fi signals into electricity, which could be used to recharge batteries or power electronic circuits. The design can generate about 40 microwatts, enough to turn on a LED.

Why does it matter? MIT News reported the technology could be used for wearable electronics, medical devices and sensors for the internet of things. “What if we could develop electronic systems that we wrap around a bridge or cover an entire highway, or the walls of our office and bring electronic intelligence to everything around us? How do you provide energy for those electronics?” said Tomás Palacios, MIT engineering professor and co-author of the study, which was published in Nature. “We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future — by harvesting Wi-Fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated in large areas — to bring intelligence to every object around us.”

How does it work? The team developed an ultrathin semiconductor and rectifier just a few atoms thick to build a flexible “rectifier” that captures energy from Wi-Fi signals and converts it into direct current. “The reported work provides blueprints for other flexible Wi-Fi-to-electricity devices with substantial output and efficiency,” MIT News reported.

 

28,000 Years Later

An approach similar to the process used for cloning animals allowed Japanese and Russian scientists to observe “signs of biological activities” in cell nuclei harvested from muscle tissue of a woolly mammoth that died 28,000 years ago. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A team of Japanese and Russian scientists observed “signs of biological activities” in cell nuclei harvested from muscle tissue of a woolly mammoth, “Yuka,” who was preserved in Siberian permafrost 28,000 years ago. They “revived” the nuclei inside a mouse germ cell. Japan’s Kindai University, which led the project, said the research was “a pioneering achievement that demonstrates for the first time in the world that some well-preserved mammoth fossils retain cell nuclei that can be reconstituted in the currently living embryos.” Akira Iritani, the 90-year-old co-author on the new study, told CNN: “I was looking under the microscope at night while I was alone in the laboratory. I was so moved when I saw the cells stir. I’d been hoping for this for 20 years.”

Why does it matter? The team wrote in Scientific Reports that the research “provides a platform to evaluate the biological activities of nuclei in extinct animal species.” Kindai University said, “future leaps of evolutionary biology are expected.”

How does it work? The team transplanted Yuka’s cell nuclei into mouse oocytes, female germ cells produced in the ovary that mature into eggs, an approach similar to the process used for cloning animals. “After nuclear transfer, mouse proteins were loaded onto the mammoth cell nucleus and a part of the mammoth cell nucleus started to form a new nucleus-like structure,” the university reported. “These events are often observed when animals are cloned using this method, and therefore our study shows that the 28,000-year-old fossils still possess at least partially active nuclei.”

 

Here Comes Wetware

What is it? A team from Microsoft and the University of Washington have turned on the first automated system that can store and retrieve information from synthetic DNA. “In a simple proof-of-concept test, the team successfully encoded the word ‘hello’ in snippets of fabricated DNA and converted it back to digital data using a fully automated end-to-end system,” according to a Microsoft news release. The company said it is looking at developing “algorithms and molecular computing technologies to encode and retrieve data in fabricated DNA, which could fit all the information currently stored in a warehouse-sized datacenter into a space roughly the size of a few board game dice.” The team published the results in Scientific Reports.

Why does it matter? The team wrote in the paper that “synthetic DNA has emerged as a novel substrate to encode computer data with the potential to be orders of magnitude denser than contemporary cutting edge techniques.” Microsoft also said “under the right conditions, DNA can last much longer than current archival storage technologies that degrade in a matter of decades.” But storing data in DNA still requires laboratory technicians to be parts of the process. Microsoft principal researcher Karin Strauss said the team’s “ultimate goal is to put a system into production that, to the end user, looks very much like any other cloud storage service — bits are sent to a data center and stored there and then they just appear when the customer wants them. To do that, we needed to prove that this is practical from an automation perspective.”

How does it work? The system translates the ones and zeros of the binary code into the four building blocks that make the rungs of the DNA molecule: adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. Using “inexpensive, largely off-the-shelf lab equipment,” the system then sends “the necessary liquids and chemicals into a synthesizer that builds manufactured snippets of DNA” and dispatches them into a storage vessel. Later, adding more chemicals, the system can convert the DNA back into “information a computer can understand,” according to Microsoft.

 

Laser Beam Me Up, Scotty

A conceptual illustration of a nano-patterned object reorienting itself to remain in a beam of light. Image and caption credits: The Atwater laboratory. Light sails could one day power spaceships. Top illustration credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at Caltech found a way to levitate “objects of many different shapes and sizes — from micrometers to meters” with a light beam. They did it by etching special nanoscale patterns on their surface.

Why does it matter? “There is an audaciously interesting application to use this technique as a means for propulsion of a new generation of spacecraft,” said Harry Atwater, professor of applied physics and materials science at Caltech. “We’re a long way from actually doing that, but we are in the process of testing out the principles.” Caltech said “the work is a step toward developing a spacecraft that could reach the nearest planet outside of our solar system in 20 years, powered and accelerated only by light.”

How does it work? Caltech said the nanoscale patterns on the object’s surface interact with light in such a way “that the object can right itself when perturbed, creating a restoring torque to keep it in the light beam. Thus, rather than requiring highly focused laser beams, the objects’ patterning is designed to ‘encode’ their own stability. The light source can also be millions of miles away.” The results of the research, funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, were published in Nature Photonics.

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