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Biological Neon Signs
Scientists have created the first neon sign composed of living organisms, replacing light bulbs with millions of bacteria that light up in unison. These living illuminations are not merely a new art form, but also an example of cutting-edge bioengineering with practical applications.
Researchers at UC San Diego designed the glowing display by attaching a fluorescent protein to the biological clock mechanism in E. coli bacteria and then synchronizing the thousands of bacteria within a colony, according to an announcement of the results. Each colony constitutes a single "biopixel," which is similar to the individual point of light one would see on a TV screen.
The team made a series of varying light displays by sequencing microfluidic chips. The smaller chips contain roughly 2.5 million bacterial cells and 500 biopixels, while the largest is composed of 60 million cells and 13,000 biopixels although it's still the approximate size of a paper clip, SmartPlanet reports. In addition to looking cool, the living neon signs are also expected to prove useful as a biosensor tool.
"[R]esearchers can create the group-engineered bacterial sensor capable of detecting low levels of arsenic in which decreases in the frequency of the oscillations of the cells' blinking pattern indicate the presence and correlate with the amount of the arsenic poison," the Atlantic explains. "They foresee that this approach can be used to detect heavy metal pollutants and disease-causing organisms in a low cost array."
The team hopes to develop a hand-held sensor that could take readings of the bacteria on disposable microfluidic chips in order to detect the presence and concentration of toxins in the field.
Here's an example of the organic neon lights in action:
Exercise in a Pill?
Good news for those having trouble sticking with their New Year's resolution to get in better shape: a newly discovered hormone may be able to provide the benefits of exercise without actually having to hit the treadmill, which means we could see a "workout pill" sometime in the future.
Researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School recently examined a protein known as PGC1-alpha, which stimulates many of the health benefits associated with exercise. They discovered a previously unknown hormone, dubbed "irisin," that turns regular fat into calorie-burning brown fat.
"Brown fat is seen as the most useful, and least harmful, type of fat while white fat merely sits there, storing potential energy, your body's brown fat actually burns calories. And recent studies have found that some people simply have more of it than others," NPR's The Two-Way blog explains. "Because it's a polypeptide naturally produced by the body, a trial of irisin on human test subjects for irisin injections might only be a few years away."
Injections of irisin into white fat cells extracted from mice have already shown that the hormone can induce genetic changes to create more brown cells and also increase cells' respiratory rate, indicating they are burning more energy. Moreover, increasing the levels of irisin in the bloodstream provides a range of long-term health benefits.
"In additional experiments with mice fattened on high-fat kibble, injections of the Fndc5 protein, which cleaves into irisin, improved the animals' glucose tolerance," the New York Times' Well blog reports. "[T]hey did not develop diabetes, despite being at increased risk from their diet."
The new hormone may be a useful tool in helping fight diabetes and reduce obesity rates. But before you cancel your gym membership, remember that it's unlikely irisin injections or an irisin pill will ever replace the full range of health benefits derived from actual exercise.
Building a House on Mars
A manned mission to Mars may be more complicated that most people think. Due to the relative motions of Earth and Mars, astronauts who reach the surface of Mars would have to stay there for at least a year and half. That means they'd need a dwelling, and engineers are already hard at work designing and constructing a model for the first unit of red-planet real estate.
University of Wisconsin students won the X-Hab competition to design an inflatable loft to add to a Mars habitat NASA has already constructed, and the final model is currently being tested in the Arizona desert. A key issue is designing a home that can protect the residents from the elements, including cosmic rays, solar flares and unknown soil compositions.
"NASA is investigating ways to build an electrostatic radiation shield to protect astronauts. For now, however, the easiest solution is surrounding them with materials that absorb the onslaught of energy. This means carefully choosing what materials to use in the habitat shell, but it will also determine how objects are arranged in the interior, General Electric's Txchnologist blog explains. "Food and supplies can be pushed up against the walls as extra protection. NASA is also looking at ways to repurpose discarded supplies and packaging to build up the habitat wall over time."
The dwelling, known as the Habitat Demonstration Unit, also features a "hygiene module" that serves as a bathroom, disposing waste through pneumatic tubes and gullies that astronauts must align with the aid of a live video feed. Another challenge involves dispersing the heat trapped inside the habitat due to extensive insulation, which engineers are attempting to solve by collecting heat from the air and expelling it into the environment. The next hurdle will be to provide space for the astronauts to relax and entertain themselves during their long stay on Mars.
Check out this virtual tour of the Habitat Demonstration Unit:
Have a great weekend, folks.