A Monthly Snapshot of Life-Changing Technology
July 31st, 2021
1. Toy Meets World
German scientists and students between 9 to 13 years old used Legos and old mobile phone parts to build a high resolution microscope.
Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash
At that age I would have opted for the Lego Candy Machine.
Drawing on easily accessible resources and open-source software in an emerging trend known as "frugal science," researchers hoped to foster curiosity and creativity in their pupils through scientific process. They found that through the project, participating students reaped an enhanced understanding of concepts in microscopy.
Maybe not surprisingly, Lego bricks have proved themselves time and again as effective (and economic) building blocks for DIY instruments. In a previous experiment, students used Lego bricks, some 3D-printed parts, and only a few ordered parts to create an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) capable of imaging small areas—all for under $400, a pretty amazing feat compared to the $100k cost of building a state-of-the-art research grade AFM.
2. The Missing Link
Google-acquired company DeepMind claims to have predicted—with unprecedented precision—the three-dimensional structures of almost all proteins present in the human body.
It's interesting how these cutting-edge scientific images look a lot like abstract art.
Cracking the Code (With Code)
Untangling the possible configurations of a protein from its amino acid sequence is imperative for further investigation of our biology. Why? Because nearly all diseases can be traced back to the structure of a single protein. Scientists believe that identifying these fundamental structures of human life is critical to understanding terminal illnesses. In the early '70s, delineating all of the potential structures of a protein from its amino acid sequence seemed like an impossible task. But today, with artificial intelligence, the calculation has been performed in a matter of minutes—"removing a blindfold from human knowledge."
The revolution was spearheaded by Demis Hassabis, a British neuroscientist and now grown up child chess prodigy. An early fascination with supercomputers led Hassabis to ultimately found DeepMind, an artificial intelligence company that Google would later acquire for $650 million. The technology's capability is analogous to guessing the structure of a pie after seeing pie crust, eggs, salt, pepper, and cream for the first time. On July 22, DeepMind and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published over 350,000 structures, including ~20,000 human proteins—an "astonishing advancement" that defied the early predictions of countless experts on when this kind of thing would realistically occur. Organizations are already jumping all over the database to begin studies.
3. Not Salty About It
Researchers in Korea have developed a device that can turn saltwater into freshwater in just minutes.
Next up...turning water into wine??
In 2018, a major report indicated that a fourth of the world's population exists in regions under water stress. Many areas that rely on snowpack for water runoff are also affected as higher temperatures result in a lack, or decreased amount, of snow. To help combat this issue, a team has designed a nanofiber membrane—essentially an impeccable filtration device to desalinate water. In trials, the membrane filtered out 99.99% of salt over the course of a month, and can turn seawater into drinking water in just minutes, making it a worthy tool in the effort to mitigate the drinking water availability crisis.
4. A Quantum Matter
Physicists claim to have used a quantum computer to build a new phase of matter that continuously cycles between states without consuming energy.
The research collaboration effort from Google, Stanford, Princeton, and other universities has resulted in a genuine "time crystal"—an object with parts moving in a continuous and repeating cycle, sustaining constant change without the use of any energy. Says a co-author of the paper, "the consequence is amazing. You evade the second law of thermodynamics." Time crystals are said to be the first objects that spontaneously break a rule that a stable object will remain the same throughout time, known as "time-translation symmetry."
This puts the time crystal in a new category of phases of matter, thus evolving the very definition of a phase itself. Known phases like water and ice exist in thermal equilibrium, meaning their constituent atoms have calmed down to a state with the lowest energy permitted by ambient temperature, and their properties remain constant over time. The time crystal, on the other hand, retains stability even though it is in an excited and evolving state. While this is a groundbreaking moment for science, it's still unclear whether a time crystal might have practical use. It may only be conceptually valuable.
5. Lab Grown Living
Researchers at MIT propose a new method for growing plant-based materials in a lab.
Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash
Explore even more about the emerging, novel, and strange applications of lab-grown technologies here.
Most of the focus on lab-grown materials has stayed local to resources that seem the most finite. But Luis Fernando Velásquez-García points out that there are other practices just as ripe for alternative means of production—say, making a table from a real tree, a process can take many years. With a team of mechanical and biomedical engineers, Luis (a principle scientist in the Microsystems technology laboratories at MIT) is working on developing plant tissues like wood and fiber in a lab.
Inspired by observation of inefficiencies in agriculture and a desire to leave more arable areas in their wild state, the scientists decided to bring plant production into the lab. The demonstration involved growing structures from an extracted sample of cells from zinnia leaves, a study now published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. By mixing auxin and cytokinin (two plant hormones), and controlling the cell's production of an organic polymer instrumental in wood's firmness, they were able to prove that plant cells can indeed be utilized in a controlled production process.
Room for Growth
What was performed in the study is still quite far away from the real implications Luis' team believes in, like growing a piece of furniture. There are other questions around whether the technology is scalable or able to be competitive on an economic or practical basis. David Stern, a prominent plant biologist who was not involved in the research, purports that scaling the approach would require "significant financial and intellectual investment."
Did you enjoy The Wonder?