This Device Could Tune Your Heart—Then Dissolve Away

WIRED

The latest in “electronic medicine” offers an alternative to temporary pacemakers and could help reduce tissue scarring.

THE HEART—THAT PARAGON of natural rhythm—sometimes needs help to stay on beat. Permanent pacemakers, which supply jolts of muscle-contracting current to regulate each thump, can correct chronically irregular hearts, and temporary ones can resolve fleeting dysfunctions that follow open heart surgery. Doctors wire up the heart with electrical leads that pass through the skin, and the muscle tissue envelopes the intruding electrodes like quicksand.

But if the pacemaker is just a temporary precaution, it’s all got to come out. And that’s where it gets tricky.

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The Experimental African Houses That Outsmart Malaria

WIRED

A field test of custom-designed homes proves that when carbon dioxide can flow out, mosquitoes stay out too.

WHEN STEVE LINDSAY first traveled to Gambia in 1985, he met a man living in Tally Ya village whom he remembers as “the professor.” The professor knew how to keep the mosquitoes away.

That’s a big deal for people who live in this small West African country, which serves as the namesake for one of the most deadly bugs on the planet: Anopheles gambiae. “It’s probably the best vector of malaria in the world,” says Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Malaria kills 384,000 people a year in Africa, 93 percent of whom are under 5 years old. The mosquito exploits human behavior by feeding at night when people are sleeping, transmitting the Plasmodium parasite that causes flu-like symptoms, organ failure, and death. “It’s adapted for getting inside houses and biting people,” says Lindsay.

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The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

WIRED

The fiber has been considered a “miracle material” for anything from body parts to food. Has the revolution finally arrived?

ALI ALWATTARI STILL remembers the day he met the goats. It was mid-May, 19 years ago, in Quebec. The sun was lighting up the old maple sugar farm—and small huts where the goats were living. Alwattari, a materials scientist, had spent his career tinkering with chemistry equipment for Procter & Gamble, developing fibers used in Pampers and Swiffers. But the startup Nexia Biotechnologies was aiming to use an entirely different kind of polymer producer—and it was gazing back at him with its rectangular pupils.

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The Coelacanth May Live for a Century. That’s Not Great News

WIRED

Scale markings reveal that this weird fish’s lifespan is double what scientists first estimated. That also means they’re closer to extinction than we thought.

AFRICAN COELACANTHS ARE very old. Fossil evidence dates their genesis to around 400 million years ago, and scientists thought they were extinct until 1938, when museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer noticed a live one in a fisher’s net.

Found off the southeastern coast of Africa, coelacanths also live a long time—scientists have suspected about 50 years. But proving that lifespan has been tough. (Coelacanths are endangered and accustomed to deep waters, so scientists can’t just stick their babies in a tank and start a timer.) Now a French research team examining their scales with polarized light has determined that they can likely live much, much longer. “We were taken aback,” says Bruno Ernande, a marine ecologist who led the study. The new estimated lifespan, he says, “was almost a century.”

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Watch a Drone Swarm Fly Through a Fake Forest Without Crashing

WIRED

Each copter doesn’t just track where the others are. It constantly predicts where they’ll go.

ENRICA SORIA NEEDED soft trees. The mathematical engineer and robotics PhD student from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, or EPFL, had already built a computer model to simulate the trajectories of five autonomous quadcopters flying through a dense forest without hitting anything. But an errant copter wouldn’t survive a tête-à-tête with a physical tree.

So Soria built a fake forest the size of a bedroom. Motion-capture cameras lined a rail hanging above the space to track the movement of the quadcopters. And for “trees,” Soria settled on a grid of eight green collapsible kids’ play tunnels from Ikea, made of a soft fabric. “Even if the drones crash into them,” Soria recalls thinking, “they won’t break.”

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The Sneaky, Lying Flower That Pretends to Be a Rotting Beetle

WIRED

Aristolochia microstoma finds love by smelling like death. Coffin flies can’t resist.

IT WAS THE butterflies that tipped them off. Thomas Rupp, a PhD student in ecology at the Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, was walking through a mountain forest with his teammates near Athens, Greece, when he saw them: the insects that, when in caterpillar form, feed on a special kind of plant called Aristolochia microstoma. “Wherever I saw this butterfly flying,” Rupp says, “I knew that there must be some Aristolochia plants around.”

Rupp crouched down to find the plant’s unusual flowers lying hidden among rocks and leaves. They are a dark merlot red, and they look like an inflated bulb connected to a narrow tube tipped by a small pore called a stoma. The whole thing looks a lot like the entry to an intestinal tract. It’s not. It’s even weirder.

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How Many People Die When Polluters Exceed Their Limits?

WIRED

A new report tallies the death toll from excess emissions by looking at air pollution and spikes in local ozone levels.

MEASURING AIR QUALITY is inherently a measure of excess—any amount of toxic nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, and fine particulate matter is probably bad for human health. But when it comes to federal regulations, the notion of excess gets a bit wonky. When a refinery or plant outstrips the limits set by the local public health authorities to cap pollution, those fumes are considered “excess emissions,” or, more wonkily still, “exceedances.”

Emissions limits are arbitrary, of course. Less pollution is always better in a country where more than 20 people die every hour from poor air quality, and where that burden skews toward communities of color. But parsing the human cost of these overflows is helpful for weighing—or possibly tightening—those arbitrary limits. So Nikolaos Zirogiannis, an environmental economist at Indiana University, decided to quantify the health toll in one state: How many people die each year as a result of that extra pollution?

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The Long, Strange Life of the World’s Oldest Naked Mole Rat

WIRED

These death-defying rodents do not age normally. Will their weird biology help extend human life spans, or are those ambitions a dead end?

JOE HAS LOOKED old since the day he was born, back in 1982. He’s pink and squinty and wrinkly. His teeth are weird: His incisors sit outside his lips to keep the dirt out of his mouth as he digs tunnels for his tube-shaped body.

“He looks remarkably the same,” says Rochelle Buffenstein, a comparative biologist who has studied naked mole rats since the 1980s when she was doing her doctoral work in Cape Town, South Africa. That’s where she met Joe. (He doesn’t have an official name, so we’re going with Joe.) A few years later, Buffenstein was starting her own research on vitamin D metabolism in mole rats because they spend all their time in dark tunnels, away from the sun. She moved to Johannesburg with a few subjects to begin her work, leaving Joe behind. He was eventually shipped off to the Cincinnati Zoo. But he and Buffenstein would soon reunite.

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This Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm Can Twist, Grasp—and Feel

WIRED

Nathan Copeland learned to move a robotic arm with his mind, but it was kind of slow. Then researchers gave him touch feedback.

NATHAN COPELAND WAS 18 years old when he was paralyzed by a car accident in 2004. He lost his ability to move and feel most of his body, although he does retain a bit of sensation in his wrists and a few fingers, and he has some movement in his shoulders. While in the hospital, he joined a registry for experimental research. About six years ago, he got a call: Would you like to join our study?

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This Is Your Brain Under Anesthesia

WIRED

For the first time, researchers were able to observe, in extra-fine detail, how neurons behave as consciousness shuts down.

WHEN YOU ARE awake, your neurons talk to each other by tuning into the same electrical impulse frequencies. One set might be operating in unison at 10 hertz, while another might synchronize at 30 hertz. When you are under anesthesia, this complicated hubbub collapses into a more uniform hum. The neurons are still firing, but the signal loses its complexity.

A better understanding of how this works could make surgery safer, but many anesthesiologists don’t use an EEG to monitor their patients. That bugs Emery Brown, who does monitor his patients’ brain patterns when they are under. “Most anesthesiologists don’t think about it from a neuroscience standpoint,” says Brown, who is a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, as well as a practicing anesthesiologist. For the past decade, he has studied what happens to brains when their owners are unconscious. He wants to know more about how anesthetics work, and to track fine-grain signatures of how neurons behave when patients are under. He wants to be able to say: “Here’s what’s happening. It’s not a black box.”

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