Tag Archives: Science

The Squishy, Far-Out New Experiments Headed to the ISS


Muscle cells, 3D-printed lunar regolith, and le Blob will soon orbit 250 miles above Earth.

ON TUESDAY, NORTHROP Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft will haul slime mold, human muscle cells, 3D printer parts for simulated moon rocks, and a mishmash of other exploratory scientific projects to the International Space Station.

The ISS has a long history of hosting experiments designed by scientists eager to explore how rocket launch, microgravity, and handling by astronauts might affect well-established (but Earthly) phenomena. The technologies behind experiments aboard this week’s rocket range from advancing human space exploration to solving health problems on Earth.

A 3D “regolith” printer may end up on a future moon build, and muscle cells grown aboard the ISS may help find drugs to treat age-related muscle loss on Earth. The mesmerizingly complex growth of the slime mold, on the other hand, is largely meant to be educational; it’s aimed at entrancing the hundreds of thousands of students who will be following its progress.

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What Rat Empathy May Reveal About Human Compassion


Rats may feel concern when cage mates are trapped. But, like people, they don’t always care enough to help.

AGONY IS CONTAGIOUS. If you drop a thick textbook on your toes, circuits in your brain’s pain center come alive. If you pick it up and accidentally drop it on my toes, hurting me, an overlapping neural neighborhood will light up in your brain again.

“There’s a physiological mechanism for emotional contagion of negative responses like stress and pain and fear,” says Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a neuroscientist at Tel-Aviv University in Israel. That’s empathy. Researchers debate to this day whether empathy is a uniquely human ability. But more scientists are finding evidence suggesting it exists widely, particularly in social mammals like rats. For the past decade, Bartal has studied whether—and why—lab rodents might act on that commiseration to help pals in need.

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This Device Could Tune Your Heart—Then Dissolve Away


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


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


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


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


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


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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Where’s the Dark Matter? Look for Suspiciously Warm Planets


Physicists calculated that these mysterious particles will betray their location with heat. To prove it, they’ll need the most powerful telescopes in the cosmos.

WE’RE BATHING IN an uncertain universe. Astrophysicists generally accept that about 85 percent of all mass in the universe comes from exotic, still-hypothetical particles called dark matter. Our Milky Way galaxy, which appears as a bright flat disk, lives in a humongous sphere of the stuff—a halo, which gets especially dense toward the center. But dark matter’s very nature dictates that it’s elusive. It doesn’t interact with electromagnetic forces like light, and any potential clashes with matter are rare and hard to spot.

Physicists shrug off those odds. They’ve designed detectors on Earth made out of silicon chips, or liquid argon baths, to capture those interactions directly. They’ve looked at how dark matter may affect neutron stars. And they’re searching for it as it floats by other celestial bodies. “We know we have stars and planets, and they’re just peppered throughout the halo,” says Rebecca Leane, an astroparticle physicist with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “Just moving through the halo, they can interact with the dark matter.”

For that reason, Leane is suggesting that we look for them in the Milky Way’s vast collection of exoplanets, or those outside our solar system.

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Hungry, Hungry Microbes in Tree Bark Gobble Up Methane


Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.

MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO 2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.

Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cow farts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.

But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.

Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2.

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