Science Current: Night Vision Mice, Wireless Babies, Skin Printers, & Forward Footed Apes
This is the first Science Current episode ever. Here are my favorite science stories of the Week! Learn how scientists gave mice night vision, how scientists are making babies in the NICU wirelss, a bioprinter that prints skin onto wounds and a discovery that makes early human evolution a bit more clear!
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My Favorite Science News For The Week
Look around you. What do you see? If you’re in your car, probably a bunch of other cars, the road, annoying billboards, and a ton of other stuff. That has to be everything around you, right? Well, what you are seeing is actually a relatively small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light.
Visible light is just the right wavelength for the cones and rods in our eye to detect and turn into signals that get sent to our brains to make an image of our surroundings. However, you aren’t seeing the infrared waves coming from the heat in the engines of the cars, or the radio waves being sent above your head.
It’s pretty crazy what our eyes can do, but like I said, it’s just a small portion of a spectrum that contains other waves such as x-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, ultraviolet, infrared, etc.
Scientists at the University of Science and Technology in China and the University of Massachusetts Medical School have recently done something amazing with mice. They gave them the ability to see infrared light, or in other words, heat.
Now, animals being able to detect infrared light isn’t anything new. Snakes have sort of a “sixth sense” so to speak where they are able to pick up heat or infrared signals through sensors on their skin. Mosquitos and bed bugs rely on infrared vision to find their next meal, which could possibly be you. Some fish and frog species can switch between infrared and visible light to catch prey.
What is unique, however is the ability to give an organism the ability to see infrared light that didn’t previously have it. How the scientists did this was amazing. After a single injection of nanoparticles into the eyes of the mice, some were able to see infrared for up to 10 weeks.
Normally, infrared light has a wavelength that is too long for the rods and cones in our eyes to detect. However, the nanoparticles that were injected sort of anchor to the rods and cones and are able to detect the infrared waves and then turn it into a signal that gets sent through the rods and cones to the brain to make an image.
According to the scientists, the infrared waves would appear as the color green to the mice. They confirmed that the mice could actually see infrared by testing different variables such as how much their eyes constricted in the presence of infrared light and then sending them through a maze in the light and then in the dark.
One of the lead scientists said, “we believe this technology will also work in human eyes, not only for generating super vision but also for therapeutic solutions in human red color vision deficits.” This also means that humans with the injection could have a sort of night vision since you wouldn’t be relying on visible light.
Right now, in order to see at night we have to use detectors and cameras as a sort of artificial eye in order to see at night. This new technology has huge implications in the military and civilian world. There is still a lot of work to be done to find the best nanoparticles and to make sure it’s safe, but this could be revolutionary.
It’s kind of weird that we all walk on two legs when you really think about it. What if tables only had two legs, or imagine trying to climb up a ladder that only had two legs and wasn’t set up against anything. It would be incredibly hard to balance these.
What’s even more strange is when life transitioned from crawling around on all fours to just two legs. If it happened in an instant, all of the lifeforms making the change would just stumble around. They wouldn’t be able to do anything.
Luckily, the change to being bipedal happened over a long span of time. It gave life time to adapt to this strange balancing act. It’s one of the biggest distinguishing factors between humans and our other ape cousins. Humans are just one among many of our ancestors trying to perfect this method of transportation.
This change wasn’t just random, there were huge evolutionary advantages to walking on two legs. One is that as apes of the past started to use tools, they needed to have limbs available to use the tools. Another is that walking and running on two legs uses much less energy in humans than moving around on all fours as is seen in other apes.
This all happened a long, long time ago, but research on a newly found female skeleton of the human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered in Ethiopia gave some interesting insights about our evolution. It gives us evidence to believe that the switch to bipedalism happened earlier than previously thought.
A paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution states that this specimen shows us a transition between walking upright imperfectly and also being able to travel through the trees. Before it, none of the evidence was clear enough to allow researchers to come to any real conclusions about this time-period.
This is one of the first examples of a fossil that has the big toe mostly parallel to the other toes, unlike what is seen in current apes. This allows the foot to propel our motion forward much more efficiently. Apes like chimps and orangutans have offset big toes so that they can hold onto trees with their feet and hands.
I always thought it would be nice to be able to grab stuff with my feet and that toes seem kind of pointless. Imagine the possibilities. You could pick stuff up off the floor without bending over and give some killer massages, but I guess I would rather be able to walk in the end.
Even though no cartilage remained on the fossil, researchers were able to tell based off the structure of the bones that the big toe would’ve had cartilage similar to humans. This would make the big toe’s purpose more likely for pushing off rather than climbing. In the big toe’s struggle to find meaning and purpose, it finally gets some closure.
The ardipithicus fossil also has its knees above the ankle, whereas in chimps, the knees bow out much more. This sample was dated to about 6.3 million years ago which makes it one of the first human like ancestors on record.
3D printers are pretty cool, right? I mean, you can make all sorts of little widgets like a fidget spinner, a little model dinosaur, maybe even a model of your face. You want to know what I think is even more cool? A bioprinter.
A printer that let’s you load up your own cells and can heal large wounds or burns by printing skin, layer by layer, to heal you. Ya, that’s way more cool. Nothing against 3D printers, but a skin printer is just more cool. I don’t know what else to say.
Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have made a device that isn’t too far off from this. Their device allows for bi-layered skin to be printed directly onto wounds. That’s amazing.
A small amount of the patient’s own uninjured cells are mixed into a water based gel and then put in the bioprinter. More specifically, cells called fibroblasts that are a huge part of the healing process are isolated.
Then, imaging technology scans the wound and sends the data through a software program that determines where to best place the cells for optimal healing. When this is done, it sort of jump starts the body’s natural healing process rather than printing the actual skin itself.
If this technique passes clinical trials, it could replace skin grafts which are sort of the gold standard for healing large skin wounds. With skin grafts you first have the challenge of finding a donor and then risk rejection if the body doesn’t accept the donated skin.
The director of the program said, “A mobile bioprinter that can provide on-site management of extensive wounds could help to accelerate the delivery of care and decrease costs for patients." So ya, 3D printers have a lot of awesome applications, but as far as printers go, bioprinters take the cake in my book.
The last story for today hits close to home for me. My sister spent quite some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when she was born due to some complications with her breathing. Don’t worry, she made it through, but it was a stressful time.
Because of this experience and because of all the others who have children in the NICU, I really like seeing improvements in that area of medicine. When babies are in there, they are covered in sensors which serve a crucial purpose in monitoring their vitals, but at the same time there are numerous cords coming off the baby, which is hard to see and also makes it hard to facilitate physical bonding.
Recently, an interdisciplinary team at Northwestern University developed a pair of wireless sensors that will likely go on to replace the tangled mess of cords that are currently being used. After a series of the first human trials, they concluded that these wireless sensors are just as accurate and precise as the wired sensors.
In addition to looking better and allowing for more parent-baby interaction, the sensors are also more gentle on the little baby’s skin. The first study was done on 20 babies who all wore the wireless sensors alongside the wired ones to make sure their vital were getting measured accurately. Then another study was done on 70 babies and they got the same good results.
John Rogers who was one of the pioneers of the project said, “We wanted to eliminate the rat's nest of wires and aggressive adhesives associated with existing hardware systems and replace them with something safer, more patient-centric and more compatible with parent-child interaction.”\
He also stated, "We were able to reproduce all of the functionality that current wire-based sensors provide with clinical-grade precision. Our wireless, battery-free, skin-like devices give up nothing in terms of range of measurement, accuracy and precision -- and they even provide advanced measurements that are clinically important but not commonly collected."
One of the sensors lays across the baby’s back and the other wraps around the baby’s foot. They are also compatible with medical imaging if the baby needs to go in for an X-ray, MRI or CT scan, for example.
Since one is one is close to the heart and the other is on the babies foot, they can pretty reliably measure blood flow and circulation which could somewhat replace blood pressure cuffs which can damage the fragile babies.
The sensors themselves are a paper thin, biocompatible and elastic silicone that is laced with microelectronics, making them much smaller than current wired sensors. It’s finally the technology upgrade that the medical field has been waiting for since the 1960’s.
The wireless sensors in the device communicate with a transmitter placed underneath the crib which sends all of the data to a central software to be read. Amazingly, each sensor is also only about $10 so medical professionals don’t have to worry about sanitizing it after each use, they can just throw it away. These are estimated to be rolled out within the next 2 to 3 years.
This is awesome to me. Getting rid of the 5 or 6 wires that make a bundle that’s almost bigger than the baby would make the entire experience so much better for the parents and the baby. Often times, new mothers really can’t even hold their babies or feed them, making an already traumatic time more stressful. This is the type of technology the medical field should be moving towards.