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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

A computer made out of DNA can perform impressive feats of calculation, a tiny particle accelerator could spell big gains in cancer treatment, and engineers designed a laser ultrasound imaging system that doesn’t require contact with a patient’s body. Some of us are still a little blurry-eyed from the holidays, but scientists are seeing clearly in this week’s coolest advances.


OK DNA Computer

A scientist analyzing a DNA sequence. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A computer made of DNA, designed by researchers at the University of Rochester, can calculate the square roots of perfect squares up to 900.

Why does it matter? DNA computing holds promise as an ultra-efficient alternative to today’s silicon-based computing technologies, and it could be used in medical diagnosis and treatment, for instance. The University of Rochester’s Chunlei Guo, a corresponding author on a new paper published in Small, said, “DNA computing is still in its infancy, but holds great promise for solving problems that are too difficult or even impossible to handle by current silicon-based computers.”

How does it work? DNA “is a natural format to do binary calculations because the naturally cohering base pairs form an implied binary and logic path,” writes Caroline Delbert in Popular Mechanics, explaining that the DNA computer “works by sequencing numbers up to about 1,000 onto a strand using binary-encoded markers, and the solutions light up using fluorescence.”


Tiny Chip, Big Potential

This image, magnified 25,000 times, shows a section of an accelerator-on-a-chip. The gray structures focus infrared laser light (shown in yellow and purple) on electrons flowing through the center channel. By packing 1,000 channels onto an inch-sized chip, Stanford researchers hope to accelerate electrons to 94 percent of the speed of light. Caption credit: Stanford. Image credit: Courtesy Neil Sapra.

What is it? Particle accelerators aren’t generally known for being small — Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, for instance, is a whopping 27 kilometers in circumference, all the better for studying the origins of the universe. But now researchers at Stanford University had designed a particle accelerator that fits on a silicon chip.

Why does it matter? The tiny machine, which can deliver an infrared laser beam thinner than a hair, could be used the perform minute medical procedures including cancer treatments. Today, radiation treatment aimed at tumors is a bit of a blunt tool, but the Stanford team’s accelerator could enable the delivery of radiation directly to a tumor, leaving surrounding tissue undamaged. Other applications could include “cutting-edge experiments in chemistry, materials science and biological discovery that don’t require the power of a massive accelerator,” according to Stanford News. The work was undertaken under the aegis of Stanford’s Accelerator on a Chip International Program, which focuses on accelerator physics and nanotechnologies.

How does it work? According to a Stanford news release, researchers “carved a nanoscale channel out of silicon, sealed it in a vacuum and sent electrons through this cavity while pulses of infrared light — to which silicon is as transparent as glass is to visible light — were transmitted by the channel walls to speed the electrons along.” The prototype is described further in Science.


Ultrasound Beam

A new ultrasound technique uses lasers to produce images beneath the skin, without making contact with the skin as conventional ultrasound probes do. The new laser ultrasound technique was used to produce an image (left) of a human forearm (above), which was also imaged using conventional ultrasound (right). Caption credit: MIT News. Image courtesy of the researchers.

What is it? At MIT, engineers devised a laser ultrasound imaging technique that, unlike conventional ultrasound, doesn’t require contact with a patient’s body.

Why does it matter? Safe for skin and eyes, the imaging system could be used in situations where physical contact is difficult or unwise — for burn victims, for instance, or disaster victims in hard-to-reach places. “We’re at the beginning of what we could do with laser ultrasound,” said MIT’s Brian W. Anthony, a senior author of a new paper in Light: Science & Applications. “Imagine we get to a point where we can do everything ultrasound can do now, but at a distance. This gives you a whole new way of seeing organs inside the body and determining properties of deep tissue, without making contact with the patient.” Anthony said the technology could eventually be small enough to be portable, giving people the ability to perform at-home scans.

How does it work? A laser aimed at the skin produces sound waves that are picked up by a second laser, which takes measurements based off of those waves bouncing off muscle, fat and other tissue. For the first time, the laser ultrasound was tested successfully on humans; aimed at the arms of several volunteers from half a meter away, it was able to image muscle, fat and bone to a depth of 6 centimeters.


Trying Out Some New Material

Computing advances are moving materials science forward. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? New technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are putting the field of materials science on the cusp of a “transformative leap,” according to a recent article by Marilyn Harris in Columbia Engineering Magazine.

Why does it matter? For previous generations of engineers, devising new materials was a time-consuming and meticulous task, often requiring years “to refine a single brilliant insight into a working specimen,” Harris writes. Aiming to refine their methodologies, materials scientists began to embrace “inverse design,” which involves drawing up a wish list of desired properties and then working backward until a material is invented that has them. Now computing advances are moving the field still forward, with important implications for pressing issues of the day — like climate change.

How does it work? When it comes to designing climate solutions, Harris writes, “whether the goal is improved fuel cells, better water filtration, or lighter aircraft, the problem starts on the atomic level.” Unlike scientists, machine learning algorithms have the ability to rapidly cycle through millions of “potentially viable molecular arrangements” that could constitute a new material, guided by parameters put into place by scientists.


Untangling The Brain

Alzheimer’s affects more than 5.5 million people in the United States. The researchers developed a two-vaccine strategy that was successfully tested in mice. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A therapy for Alzheimer’s disease — in the form of a vaccine designed to both prevent and treat the condition — has been successfully tested in animals, and may be headed for clinical trials. The result of a collaboration between researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and Australia’s Flinders University, the treatment is described in a new article in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.

Why does it matter? Characterized by neurodegeneration and cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s affects more than 5.5 million people in the United States. It’s currently the sixth leading cause of death, though estimates vary, and it may well rank third, according to the National Institute on Aging. The disease is linked with accumulations of plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, Flinders professor Nikolai Petrovsky, who developed the vaccine, told Australia’s ABC News. ”Currently, we believe Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a buildup of abnormal clumps of protein in the brain. It’s like they gum up the system, a bit like when your pipes get blocked and they don’t work so well. The same thing happens in the brain with Alzheimer’s, you get these buildups of clumps of protein between the brain cells and they start to interfere with the communication between the brain cells.”

How does it work? “With the vaccine, what we’re doing is getting the immune system to make antibodies that can recognize those abnormal clumps of protein and will actually pull them out of the system and break them down,” Petrovsky said. Working with colleagues at UC Irvine, the researcher developed a two-vaccine strategy that was tested in mice. They’re hoping to get the therapy to clinical trials within two years.

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