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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Researchers in Vienna designed a noninvasive ultrasound treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, scientists in Atlanta formulated a universal flu vaccine and NASA astronomers discovered a planet in the Goldilocks zone: just the right distance from its star that it could sustain life. All that — plus the food of the future — in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries.

 

Brain Gains

A new treatment for neurodegenerative diseases stimulates the brain using painless, noninvasive ultrasound. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Neuroscientists from the Medical University of Vienna designed a noninvasive treatment that uses ultrasound to regenerate brain function in patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

Why does it matter? Conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — two of the world’s most common neurodegenerative diseases — are linked to the loss of brain neurons, leading to “memory lapses, speech disorders, mood swings and movement disorders,” according to a Medical University news release. As lead researcher Roland Beisteiner and his colleagues write in Advanced Science, neuroscientists have recently pursued “the potential of ultrasound to stimulate the human brain in a highly focused and precisely targeted manner,” but no techniques have yet been developed.

How does it work? The treatment is tailored to the patient. The first step is obtaining a map of the brain through magnetic resonance imaging. An ultrasound device then is used to “target particular areas of the brain and stimulate them,” Beisteiner explained, adding that the procedure is noninvasive and painless. He said, “It is like starting up an old engine again. Those neurons that are still activatable show marked improvements after the procedure. The decline in performance is slowed down.” Early tests have been promising, and the researchers are looking for more volunteers to continue their study.

 

An In-flu-ential Discovery

Part of the difficulty of treating the influenza virus is that different strains emerge every flu season — but a universal vaccine could confer broad immunity. Image credit: Getty Images. 

What is it? In Atlanta, researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences have designed a “universal flu vaccine” and tested it successfully in mice.

Why does it matter? The flu, a virus-caused respiratory illness, isn’t just an annual hassle — it’s a public health problem, resulting in 12,000 to 61,000 deaths since 2010, and possibly up to 45 million illnesses in the U.S., according to the CDC. Part of the problem is that different flu strains emerge each season, necessitating yearly rounds of vaccination. Researchers are seeking a vaccine that would confer broad protections against many strains on the basis of a single inoculation. According to Georgia State University, “A universal influenza vaccine would eliminate the need for vaccinations each season and offers universal protection against all influenza strains.”

How does it work? Researchers designed a vaccine that includes two major influenza proteins: matrix protein 2 ectodomain (M2e), which is found in all flu virus strains, and neuraminidase (NA), located on the surface of the influenza virus. “By using this approach, we hope this nanoparticle vaccine can protect humans from different strains of influenza virus,” said Ye Wang, first author on a study published in Advanced Healthcare Materials. Researchers administered the vaccine via intramuscular injection into mice, which were then exposed to six influenza strains, against which they proved to have immune protection.

 

Singing A Different Tuna

A California startup has pioneered a way to grow fish from cells in a lab — but is this just another example of scientists playing cod? Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Coming soon to your nearest poké shop? Last month, San Diego startup BlueNalu unveiled fillets of yellowtail tuna grown directly from cells in a lab.

Why does it matter? Food producers are pursuing more creative ways to supply consumers with proteins that have less of an effect on the environment. An analysis last year by the consulting firm AT Kearney estimated that by 2040, 60% of the “meat” we consume won’t come directly from animals — it’ll be either plant-based (i.e., the Impossible Burger) or lab-grown. A corporate chef for BlueNalu said that the company’s new fish product “supports ocean health and biodiversity,” and comes with an added perk for chefs: It’s boneless.

How does it work? The San Diego Union-Tribune has a handy diagram illustrating the process, which starts with taking muscle tissue from an actual fish. Stem cells from that tissue are then isolated, treated with enzymes and placed in a nutrient solution in a bioreactor — where they multiply. Concentrated cells are mixed with a bio-ink and printed into shapes that can be steamed, fried, marinated or eaten raw. BlueNalu hopes to get its products into test markets within two years. The company is also developing other lab-grown food, including mahi mahi and red snapper.

 

Food Production That’s A Breeze

What is it? Perhaps tuna grown from cells is still a bit too heavy and you’d prefer something lighter. Have you considered food made from thin air? That’s the promise of Solar Foods, a Finnish company creating protein products by feeding bacteria with ingredients sourced strictly from the atmosphere.

Why does it matter? Even when it’s done sustainably, farming requires huge amounts of land, water and other resources. British environmentalist George Monbiot, speaking with the BBC, said, “Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown.” If electricity for Solar Foods can be sourced from renewable solar and wind power, the operation could grow its products with almost zero effect on the climate.

How does it work? The company collects soil microbes and grows them in a fermenter — like those used in breweries — using “main ingredients” captured from the air: CO2, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. (More information is available in this PDF.) The product that Solar Foods’ scientists have developed is called Solein, a flavorless protein powder they envision as a neutral additive to many foods, and which they envision competing with soy by 2025. They hope to have Solein on the market by 2021.

 

Goldilocks Planet

What is it? NASA reports that its astronomers have discovered an “Earth-sized planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface.” It’s called TOI 700 d.

Why does it matter? The finding is a triumph for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite program, or TESS, which was launched with just such a goal: to locate Earth-size, potential hospitable planets. TESS, as NASA puts it, “will find the most promising exoplanets orbiting our nearest and brightest stars, giving future researchers a rich set of new targets for more comprehensive follow-up studies.”

How does it work? Launched in 2018, TESS “monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for 27 days at a time,” according to NASA. “This long stare allows the satellite to track changes in stellar brightness caused by an orbiting planet crossing in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit.” The researchers who identified TOI 700 d — which orbits TOI 700, a small, cool dwarf star about 100 light-years away — presented their findings at a recent American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, and they have submitted three papers to scientific journals. TOI 700 d is the outermost planet in its system and 20% larger than Earth. It completes an orbit every 37 days — the years there just fly by.

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