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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Scientists are 3D-printing miniature livers, storing vaccination information subcutaneously on people’s bodies, and peering through space and time at a trio of cotton-candy-like planets some 2,400 light-years away. As ever, it’s out with the old and in with the newest — and coolest — discoveries in GE Reports’ last science roundup of 2019.


Liver Let Live

Above: Computer artwork depicts the division of stem cells. At the University of Sao Paulo, researchers induced pluripotent stem cells to develop into liver cells, which they combined with bio-inks then printed on a 3D printer. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the University of Sao Paulo’s Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Center (HUG-CELL) used 3D printing to produce hepatic organoids, or “mini-livers.”

Why does it matter? The little livers “perform all of the liver’s typical functions, such as producing vital proteins, storing vitamins, and secreting bile,” according to Agencia FAPESP, the news agency of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation. Because they’re created from a patient’s own cells, they run no risk of rejection if transplanted into the patient’s body. HUG-CELL director Mayana Zatz, a co-author of a new study in Biofabrication, said, “More stages have yet to be achieved until we obtain a complete organ, but we’re on the right track to highly promising results. In the very near future, instead of waiting for an organ transplant, it may be possible to take cells from the patient and reprogram them to make a new liver in the laboratory.”

How does it work? Under this technique, blood cells from ailing patients are reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into any type of cell in the body. After being induced to develop into liver cells, they’re mixed with a bio-ink, then printed on a 3D printer into structures that develop further in culture. The entire process, from blood collection to tissue production, takes about 90 days.


Getting Under Patients’ Skin

MIT engineers developed a way to store medical information under the skin using a dye made from quantum dots — which can be read by specially equipped smartphones. Image credit: Second Bay Studios.

What is it? No paper or electronic medical records? No problem. Researchers at MIT have devised a way to store vaccination history on a patient’s body — in a pattern of dye just under the skin.

Why does it matter? According to the World Health Organization, around 1.5 million people die each year from diseases that could be prevented by vaccine. The problem is partly one of record-keeping in places, such as developing countries, where there’s little data storage infrastructure — it can be hard to conduct vaccination campaigns when you don’t know who needs which vaccines. Records that can be stored on the body could solve this problem, said Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University and former MIT postdoc: “In areas where paper vaccination cards are often lost or do not exist at all, and electronic databases are unheard of, this technology could enable the rapid and anonymous detection of patient vaccination history to ensure that every child is vaccinated.”

How does it work? The dye developed by McHugh and colleagues, described in a new article in Science Translational Medicine, is made of quantum dots — nanocrystals that emit near-infrared light that can be scanned by a specially equipped smartphone. The dye lasts under the skin for up to five years.


These Robots Are Getting A Lot Of Buzz

What is it? It’s annoying to be constantly harassed by a buzzing fly you can’t seem to swat. Now imagine that you swat the fly and find that it’s incapable of being killed, and you’ll get an idea of what researchers at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have just invented: the most annoying fly in the world.

Why does it matter? In truth, their soft, unkillable robotic insect is a feat of engineering, bringing together technologies in soft robotics, electronics and wireless intelligence. Researchers have dubbed the bugs DEAsects, where DEA stands for dielectric elastomer actuators. According to EPFL, the technology “opens up new possibilities for the broad use of DEAs in robotics, for swarms of intelligent robotic insects, for inspection or remote repairs, or even for gaining a deeper understanding of insect colonies by sending a robot to live amongst them.”

How does it work? The team built two types of DEAsects. One is a soft, tethered model that can be folded, stepped on or swatted and is “exceptionally robust.” The other is untethered and “fully wireless,” weighing less than 1 gram and equipped with a microcontroller and photodiodes that enable it to recognize black and white patterns. The DEAs in their name refer to their manner of propulsion; the actuators produce vibrations (over 400 times per second) that move the artificial insects lightly and quickly through the air. The technology is described further in Science Robotics.


A Storied House

What is it? Last week brought news of the world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood; this week it’s the world’s largest 3D-printed building, which opened in Dubai after just two weeks of construction.

Why does it matter? Fast and low-cost, 3D printing is “quickly gaining popularity as an affordable and sustainable way to build,” according to the website Inhabitat, which has a collection of photos of the new building, constructed by the Boston-based company Apis Cor. The project was also significant because Apis Cor had to make sure its process — and the building that resulted — was optimized for Dubai’s harsh climate, characterized by extremes of temperature and humidity.

How does it work? Apis Cor’s creation is a two-story administrative building for the municipality of Dubai, standing 9.5 meters tall with an area of 640 square meters. The entire structure was printed on-site with a mobile 3D printer.


Power Puff Planets

The mass of the super-puff planets isn’t much large than Earth’s — but in size, they’re closer to Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

What is it? Data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has given astronomers new insight into three “super-puff planets” located in the Kepler 51 star system. Huge but lightweight, they’re just a few times the mass of earth, but have atmospheres so bloated that they’re nearly the size of Jupiter. They’ve also been described as “cotton candy planets.”

Why does it matter? In addition to being weird, super-puff planets are rare: Astronomers have observed fewer of 15 of them. Aiming the telescope at the puffy planets of the Kepler 51 system, researchers hoped to gain insight into the makeup of their atmospheres, as well as into how the planets might have formed in the first place. “This is an extreme example of what’s so cool about exoplanets in general,” said Zachory Berta-Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, and co-author of a forthcoming paper in The Astronomical Journal. “They give us an opportunity to study worlds that are very different than ours, but they also place the planets in our own solar system into a larger context.”

How does it work? With help from the Hubble, researchers were able to peg the planets’ densities at less than .1 gram per cubic centimeter of volume — indeed, about the same density as cotton candy. Because they’re covered in an opaque layer, the team was unable to peer into the super-puffs’ atmospheres, but theorize that they’re made mostly of hydrogen and helium, and surrounded by a haze of methane. They found, too, that the gases are escaping rapidly into space, meaning the planets are shrinking. The team theorized that the low density of the planets has to do with their relatively young age, and at least one of them, Kepler-51 b, will shrink enough over time that it’ll come to resemble Neptune — a much more familiar galactic shape.

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