Swedish researchers developed a vaccine to prevent E. coli-related diarrhea, Australian scientists are leveraging “coral IVF” to help repair the Great Barrier Reef, and Japanese engineers designed a robot that can climb ladders. It’s a wide world of wonder in this week’s coolest scientific advances.
What is it? Researchers from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg have reported successful results in a placebo-controlled trial of a vaccine to combat E. coli-related diarrhea — a significant cause of illness and death in parts of the world.
Why does it matter? The vaccine specifically targets a group of E. coli called enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, or ETEC, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the leading cause of travelers’ diarrhea and a major cause of diarrheal illness in lower-income countries, especially among children.” ETEC is spread by food or water contaminated with human or animal feces, and produces a toxin that stimulates the lining of the intestine to secrete excess fluid — hence the diarrhea. No vaccine currently exists.
How does it work? The Swedish researchers developed a vaccine that can be administered orally and, in this trial, worked well on populations acutely vulnerable to ETEC: young children. Conducting the trial in Bangladesh, the university reported “80–100% of children 2–5 years of age and 50–80% of infants 6–11 months of age responding to all key vaccine antigens.” Researchers have already begun a subsequent trial on children 6-23 months of age in Africa, and in 2020 they plan to test the vaccine — called ETVAX — on Finnish travelers to the continent. Results of the most recent trial are described further in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
What is it? When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore — just the same for Dean Martin as for the Great Coral Reef, where scientists “captured millions of coral sperm and eggs” during a “synchronized sex” event following a full moon, and have “successfully reared and ‘turbo charged’ the coral larvae with algae symbionts, ready to replenish heavily degraded sections of reef.”
Why does it matter? That’s a mouthful, but consider the name of the group of Australian researchers undertaking this work and you might get a better idea of their goals: They call themselves the “Coral IVF” team, and it’s their goal to “reseed” the ailing reef by growing millions of “coral babies” in nurseries. They take advantage of a yearly event called coral spawning, in which the reef releases all its eggs and sperm into the ocean simultaneously to collide and form new colonies — it’s how the organism reproduces. The Coral IVF team, comprising researchers from three Australian universities, is trying to optimize the process.
How does it work? This year’s spawning event began on Nov. 17 following the full moon, with the IVF team on hand to scoop up the reef babies and place them in floating coral nurseries, where the larvae are “co-cultured” with algae to boost their chances of survival. “This innovative technique is like giving the baby corals a ‘battery pack’ by allowing the coral larvae to take up symbiotic algae, giving them the potential to acquire more energy, and therefore grow faster and survive better,” said Southern Cross University’s Peter Harrison, who’s credited with discovering coral spawning in the 1980s. “If we succeed in increasing their survival rate it can make a big difference in being able to scale up future restoration processes.”
What is it? Maybe you thought that, if you were being chased by robot assassins, you could hide out in a hayloft or something. Unfortunately, though, robots can climb ladders now.
Why does it matter? Actually, robots with the ability to climb ladders are notable because roboticists are interested in designing machines that emulate four-legged animals. As Evan Ackerman puts it in IEEE Spectrum, “Biology provides a gold standard that robots are striving to reach, and it’s going to take us a very long time to make quadrupeds that can do everything that animals can.” That said, it’s significant to see a robot that can do something that four-legged animals can’t do. Dogs, for instance, aren’t very good at ladders, and while their climbing abilities generally exceed those of dogs, cats too have trouble gripping the rungs of a vertical ladder.
How does it work? In fact, grasping is the key ability animals lack, as Ackerman explains: A creature’s center of mass moves farther away from a ladder the steeper the ladder is, so gripping rungs — as opposed to simply standing on them, which is all a dog can do — gets more important. Designed by roboticists at Tokyo Metropolitan University, the autonomous 7-kilogram climbing robot has four legs with a kind of opposable thumb for gripping (robots with opposable thumbs: What could go wrong?) as well as an inertial measurement unit and a 3D camera on its face. Trained to climb via neural network, the machine was on display at IROS 2019.
What is it? Researchers from Rice University in Texas and Swansea University in the U.K. discovered a new use for old newspapers: growing carbon nanotubes.
Why does it matter? Carbon nanotubes are single-atom sheets of graphene rolled up into nanoscale cylinders — and they’re highly promising across a variety of industries, as Swansea notes in a press release: “Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties that can be used in a huge range of things, such as conductive films for touchscreen displays, flexible electronics, fabrics that create energy and antennas for 5G networks.” At the same time, they’re difficult and expensive to manufacture. The Rice/Swansea collaboration provides a way to grow them on a large scale using a material that’s ubiquitous in many recycling bins: newsprint.
How does it work? Carbon nanotubes can be synthesized in one of a few ways; in this experiment researchers used chemical vapor deposition, in which a chemical reaction occurs on the surface of a heated substrate — in this case, kaolin newsprint. The resulting soot “was found to consist primarily of carbon nanotubes and bi-layer graphene in the form of collapsed nanotubes, also known as graphene nanoribbons,” according to a paper published in MDPI Journal C.
What is it? Speaking of graphene: The supermaterial is a key ingredient in a trippy flexible wearable health sensor that could monitor things like pulse and blood oxygen levels based on “ambient light passing through tissue.”
Why does it matter? The American market for wearable technology is projected to be in the tens of billions of dollars by 2022, according to Nature, but one problem facing the field is that while the devices can be embedded in soft material, certain hardware components are — well — hard, like sensors and electronics. The two-dimensional material graphene, composed of a single sheet of carbon atoms, has “tremendous potential for the development of next-generation wearable, soft biosensors,” per Nature’s Deji Akinwande and Dmitry Kireev.
How does it work? Writing in Science Advances, a team of Spanish researchers describe a wearable device in which graphene is coated with a layer of light-sensitive semiconducting nanoparticles called quantum dots. The dots generate pairs of charged particles when illuminated, producing an electric signal, and the device can also use light to take biomeasurements: As Akinwande and Kireev explain, light at certain wavelengths passes through skin and tissue but is absorbed by the blood; the sensor can then monitor the intensity of the light to measure, for instance, heart rate.