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MIT creates bacteria-powered clothing straight out of science fiction

The exercise gear of the future could be covered in living microbial cells capable of expanding and shrinking in response to changes in humidity, thus allowing an athlete’s body to cool down after sensing increases in body heat and sweat, according to a team of researchers at MIT.

In fact, Dr. Wen Wang, a former research scientist at the institute’s Media Lab and Department of Chemical Engineering, and her colleagues designed both a breathable workout suit with flaps that open and close for ventilation and running shoes with a similar breathable quality.

As they reported last week in the journal Science Advances, the moisture-sensitive cells present no danger to the individuals wearing the suit, and act as miniature sensors and actuators, causing built-in flaps to open during intense workouts and close once the body begins to cool down.

These “biohybrid wearables,” they explained in their study, demonstrate that “the hygroscopic and biofluorescent behaviors of living cells” could be combined with “a humidity-inert material” to create “a heterogeneous multilayered structure” that could quickly change shape in response to human sweat. In short, it will automatically provide ventilation when you get too hot.

In a statement, co-author Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at MIT, called the breakthrough “an example of harnessing the power of biology to design new materials and devices and achieve new functions,” adding that the team believes that such work “will find important applications at the interface between engineering and biological systems.”

Material experience no degradation, even after 100 moisture tests

Dr. Wang and her colleagues drew inspiration for their new biohybrid workout gear by observing how some kinds of living things are capable of altering their structures in response to changes in humidity. They hypothesized that they could harness the ability of yeast, bacteria and other kinds of natural shape-shifters to develop fabrics that could automatically respond to moisture.

First, they took cells belonging to the most common nonpathogenic strain of E. coli – cells which were found to expand or shrink in response to changing humidity. Next, they modified those cells to glow in humid conditions by expressing the green fluorescent protein, then used a technique to print parallel lines of the bacteria onto sheets of latex to create two-layered structures.

The researchers then tested the fabric by exposing it to various conditions. When placed on a hot plate, where it dried out, the bacteria cells began to shrink and the overlying latex layer started to curl up. However, then it was exposed to steam and became more moist, the cells started glowing and expanding, which caused the latex material to flatten out. The material passed 100 such tests with “no dramatic degradation” in overall performance, according to the study authors.

The flaps used in the suit were specially designed to prevent the bacteria cells from coming into contact with the skin, and placed in specific locations based on maps of where the body tends to produce the most heat and sweat, they explained. The researchers also went on to integrate their biohybrid material into the bottom of a prototype running shoe, and hope to eventually work with sportswear makers to bring their designs to the commercial market.


Image credit: MIT

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‘Puffy planet’ has the same density as Styrofoam

Astronomers have discovered a new planet orbiting a star 320 light years from Earth with the same density as Styrofoam. The “puffy planet” may provide opportunities for testing atmospheres that will be useful when assessing future planets beyond our solar system for signs of life.

“It is highly inflated, so that while it’s only one fifth the mass of Jupiter, it is nearly 40 percent larger, making it about as dense as Styrofoam, with an extraordinarily large atmosphere,” says Joshua Pepper, assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University and leader of the study in the Astronomical Journal.

Astronomers have only found two other exoplanets with precisely measured masses and radii that have lower densities than the newly discovered planet, designated KELT-11b.

Artist conception of KELT-11B (Credit: Walter Robinson/Lehigh)

The planet’s host star is extremely bright, allowing precise measurement of the properties of the planet’s atmosphere making it “an excellent test-bed for measuring the atmospheres of other planets,” Pepper says. Such observations help astronomers develop tools to see the types of gases in atmospheres, which will be necessary in the next 10 years when they apply similar techniques to Earth-like exoplanets with next-generation telescopes that are now under construction.

Hunt for life on exoplanets gets new tools

KELT-11b is an extreme version of a gas planet, like Jupiter or Saturn, but is orbiting very close to its host star with an orbital period less than five days. Its host star, KELT-11, has started using up its nuclear fuel and is evolving into a red giant, so the planet will be engulfed by its star in the next hundred million years and won’t survive.

The unusual exoplanet was discovered by the KELT (Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope) survey, which uses two small robotic telescopes, one in Arizona and the other in South Africa. The low-cost telescopes scan the sky night after night, measuring the brightness of about five million stars. Researchers search for stars that seem to dim slightly at regular intervals, which can indicate a planet is orbiting that star and eclipsing it.

They then use other telescopes to measure the gravitational “wobble” of the star–the slight tug a planet exerts on the star as it orbits—to verify that the dimming is due to a planet and to measure the planet’s mass.

Color key to aid search for life on exoplanets

“When we initiated the KELT project, it was with the hope that we would find exoplanets like KELT-11b, whose atmospheres are puffy and whose host stars are very bright,” says Keivan Stassun, professor of physics at Vanderbilt University.

“Just the right combination to permit lots of starlight to percolate through a thin atmosphere, eventually telling us what these other-worldly atmospheres are made of and even what their weather patterns are like.”

The KELT telescopes are specifically designed to discover scientifically valuable planets orbiting very bright stars. KELT-11 is the brightest star in the southern hemisphere known to host a transiting planet and the sixth brightest transit host discovered to date.

Scott Gaudi, associate professor of astronomy at Ohio State University, is a coauthor of the study. The National Science Foundation and NASA funded the work, along with support from a number of participating universities and foundations.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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We’ve created a ‘bubble’ around the Earth

The effects of human activity have long been cited as a primary cause of global climate change, but new research from NASA has revealed that our use of technology also appears to be having an impact not just on the planet, but on Earth’s near-space environment as well.

As the US space agency announced on Wednesday, the Van Allen space probes have detected a new, artificial bubble surrounding Earth that was the result of the interplay between very low frequency (VLF) radio communications and high-energy radiation particles.

In certain situations, these interactions can create a barrier surrounding the planet and protect it from solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other potentially dangerous space weather, NASA said. A paper detailing the discovery has been published by the journal Space Science Reviews.

“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth,” explained Phil Erickson, assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts.

NASA looking to use VLF waves to defend against space weather

As The Atlantic correctly pointed out, Earth already has its own, natural protective bubble – the magnetosphere, a region of space that surround the planet in which its magnetic field controls the charged particles found nearby. The new bubble, the publication noted, formed accidentally.

Humans use VLF waves when they want to communicate with submarines traveling at or near the surface of the ocean. These waves, which are emitted from ground-based stations, can travel to the Earth’s atmosphere and beyond. When they do, they can alter the movement of radiation particles in the vicinity, and on occasion, this interaction leads to the creation of a barrier which can be spotted by the orbiting Van Allen Probes.

The Van Allen Probes, NASA explained, study electrons and ions in the near-Earth environment. While completing their mission, the probes noticed that the outward extent of this newly created sphere stretches almost precisely to the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belts (a layer made up of charged particles that is held in place by the planet’s magnetic fields).

The inner edge of the Van Allen belts is farther away from the Earth now than they were back in the 1960s, The Atlantic noted. Humans sent fewer VLF transmissions back then, leading NASA scientists to speculate that if the low-frequency waves were not around, then the Van Allen belts would likely be much closer to the surface of the planet than they currently are.

With additional research, Erickson and his colleagues believe that VLF transmissions could be a way to remove excess amounts of radiation from the near-Earth environment. The agency is now planning to test VLF transmissions in the upper atmosphere to determine whether or not they can successfully remove the excess charged particles that often appear during extreme space weather events – particles that could disrupt radio waves and/or the power grid, The Atlantic said.


Image credit: NASA

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Fuel cell microbes turn methane into electricity

Researchers have created a microbial fuel cell that can convert methane directly to electricity.

The fuel cell could help to solve the problem of moving methane from place to place. Transporting methane from gas wellheads to market provides multiple opportunities for this greenhouse gas to leak into the atmosphere.

“Currently, we have to ship methane via pipelines,” says Thomas K. Wood, professor of chemical engineering at Penn State. “When you ship methane, you release a greenhouse gas. We can’t eliminate all the leakage, but we could cut it in half if we didn’t ship it via pipe long distances.”

The researchers’ goal is to use microbial fuel cells to convert methane into electricity near the wellheads, eliminating long-distance transport. That goal is still far in the future, but they now have created a bacteria-powered fuel cell that can convert the methane into small amounts of electricity.

“People have tried for decades to directly convert methane,” says Wood. “But they haven’t been able to do it with microbial fuel cells. We’ve engineered a strain of bacteria that can.”

Bottom of the sea

Microbial fuel cells convert chemical energy to electrical energy using microorganisms. They can run on most organic material, including wastewater, acetate, and brewing waste. Methane, however, causes some problems for microbial fuel cells because, while there are bacteria that consume methane, they live in the depths of the ocean and are not currently culturable in the laboratory.

“We know of a bacterium that can produce an energy enzyme that grabs methane,” says Wood. “We can’t grow them in captivity, but we looked at the DNA and found something from the bottom of the Black Sea and synthesized it.”

Fixing methane leaks wouldn’t cost so much

The researchers actually created a consortium of bacteria that produces electricity because each bacterium does its portion of the job. Using synthetic biological approaches, including DNA cloning, the researchers created a bacterium like those in the depths of the Black Sea, but one they can grow in the laboratory. This bacterium uses methane and produces acetate, electrons, and the energy enzyme that grabs electrons.

Shuttles from sludge

The researchers, who report the results in the journal Nature Communications, also added a mixture of bacteria found in sludge from an anaerobic digester—the last step in waste treatment. This sludge contains bacteria that produce compounds that can transport electrons to an electrode, but these bacteria needed to be acclimated to methane to survive in the fuel cell.

“We need electron shuttles in this process,” says Wood. “Bacteria in sludge act as those shuttles.”

Microbe ‘friends’ use electrons to eat methane

Once electrons reach an electrode, the flow of electrons produces electricity. To increase the amount of electricity produced, the researchers used a naturally occurring bacterial genus—Geobacter—which consumes the acetate created by the synthetic bacteria that captures methane to produce electrons.

To show that an electron shuttle was necessary, the researchers ran the fuel cell with only the synthetic bacteria and Geobacter. The fuel cell produced no electricity. They added humic acids—a non-living electron shuttle—and the fuel cells worked. Bacteria from the sludge are better shuttles than humic acids because they are self-sustaining. The researchers have filed provisional patents on this process.

“This process makes a lot of electricity for a microbial fuel cell,” says Wood. “However, at this point that amount is 1,000 times less than the electricity produced by a methanol fuel cell.”

Additional researchers are from Penn State and the National Institute of Cardiology, Mexico City. The US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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