. Scientific Frontline

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Reprogrammable materials selectively self-assemble

With just a random disturbance that energizes the cubes, they selectively self-assemble into a larger block. 

While automated manufacturing is ubiquitous today, it was once a nascent field birthed by inventors such as Oliver Evans, who is credited with creating the first fully automated industrial process, in flour mill he built and gradually automated in the late 1700s. The processes for creating automated structures or machines are still very top-down, requiring humans, factories, or robots to do the assembling and making.

However, the way nature does assembly is ubiquitously bottom-up; animals and plants are self-assembled at a cellular level, relying on proteins to self-fold into target geometries that encode all the different functions that keep us ticking. For a more bio-inspired, bottom-up approach to assembly, then, human-architected materials need to do better on their own. Making them scalable, selective, and reprogrammable in a way that could mimic nature’s versatility means some teething problems, though.

Now, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have attempted to get over these growing pains with a new method: introducing magnetically reprogrammable materials that they coat different parts with — like robotic cubes — to let them self-assemble. Key to their process is a way to make these magnetic programs highly selective about what they connect with, enabling robust self-assembly into specific shapes and chosen configurations.

Genes that influence dyslexia

A large-scale gene study identifies series of DNA variants linked to dyslexia

An international team of scientists, including researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen (Netherlands), has for the first time pinpointed a large number of genes that are reliably associated with dyslexia. Around a third of the 42 genetic variants identified have been previously linked to general cognitive abilities and educational attainment. The researchers say their findings may aid our understanding of the biology behind why some children struggle to read or spell.

Dyslexia is known to run in families – partly because of genetic factors – but, until now, little was known about the identities of the genes involved. The new study, led by the University of Edinburgh and published in the journal Nature Genetics, represents the largest molecular genetic investigation of dyslexia to date. Previous studies linking dyslexia to individual genes have been carried out with much smaller numbers of families and the evidence was unclear, the research team says.

The team analyzed DNA from more than 50,000 adults who have been diagnosed with dyslexia and more than one million adults who have not, identified via collaboration with the US company, 23andMe, Inc. “Over several decades of earlier research, more limited genetic investigations of dyslexia gave us tantalizing first clues to how DNA may be involved.” notes Simon Fisher, director of the Language and Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute. “Now, largescale genomic studies of this kind promise to transform understanding of how our genes help us learn to read and write.”

Alligators Exposed to PFAS Show Autoimmune Effects

Photo Credit: Jack Kelly

A recent study of alligators in the Cape Fear River found the animals had elevated levels of 14 different per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals in their blood serum, as well as clinical and genetic indicators of immune system effects. The work adds to the body of evidence connecting PFAS exposure with adverse immune system effects.

The research team, led by Scott Belcher, associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University, took blood samples and did health evaluations on 49 alligators living along the Cape Fear River between 2018 and 2019. They compared these results to a reference population of 26 alligators from Lake Waccamaw, located in the adjoining Lumber River basin.

“We looked at 23 different PFAS and saw clear differences between both types and levels of PFAS in the two populations,” Belcher says. “We detected an average of 10 different PFAS in the Cape Fear River samples, compared to an average of five different PFAS in the Lake Waccamaw population.

“Additionally, blood concentrations of fluoroethers such as Nafion byproduct 2 were present at higher concentrations in alligators from the Cape Fear River basin, whereas these levels were much lower – or not detected – in alligators from Lake Waccamaw. Our data showed that as we moved downstream from Wilmington to Bald Head Island, overall PFAS concentrations decreased.”

A pandemic ‘baby bump’ is happening in the U.S.

The birth rate increase in 2021 was driven largely by women having their first births and women with a college education who may have been more likely to benefit from working from home.
Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures

Do you have a friend, coworker or family member who recently welcomed a new baby? If so, they’re part of a nationwide trend. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has experienced a subtle “baby bump,” according to a new paper published in the journal National Bureau of Economic Research; co-authored by Northwestern University economist Hannes Schwandt.

Schwandt and his coauthors — Martha Bailey of UCLA and Janet Currie of Princeton University — recently analyzed demographic data covering all U.S. births from 2015 through 2021 and all births in California from 2015 through August 2022. They found that birthrates in the U.S. declined slightly as lockdowns began in early 2020, but rose again in 2021 to create a net increase of 46,000 births above the pre-pandemic trend across the two years combined.

The decrease when lockdowns began in 2020 — nine months too early to represent a fertility response to the pandemic — were mostly due to fewer foreign-born women entering the United States as immigrants and having children here, according to the study.

Our brains use quantum computation

Scientists from Trinity believe our brains could use quantum computation after adapting an idea developed to prove the existence of quantum gravity to explore the human brain and its workings. The discovery may shed light on consciousness, the workings of which remain scientifically difficult to understand and explain. Quantum brain processes could also explain why we can still outperform supercomputers when it comes to unforeseen circumstances, decision making, or learning something new

Scientists from Trinity believe our brains could use quantum computation after adapting an idea developed to prove the existence of quantum gravity to explore the human brain and its workings.

The brain functions measured were also correlated to short-term memory performance and conscious awareness, suggesting quantum processes are also part of cognitive and conscious brain functions.

If the team’s results can be confirmed – likely requiring advanced multidisciplinary approaches –they would enhance our general understanding of how the brain works and potentially how it can be maintained or even healed. They may also help find innovative technologies and build even more advanced quantum computers.

New Chemosensors Can Detect Heavy Metals in the Body and Environment

According to Grigory Zyryanov, industrial partners, including foreign ones, are interested in the developments.
Photo credit: Anna Marinovich

Ural scientists are developing chemosensors for the diagnosis and therapy of various diseases. These are compounds that change their luminescent properties upon external exposure or contact with organic cells. They can be used to find and suppress cancer cells, diagnose cardiovascular diseases, and determine the level of sugar or drugs in the blood. One of the new developments of scientists from the UrFU is chemosensors for controlling the content of metals in the blood, since an overdose of metals can be dangerous for the body. Grigory Zyryanov, professor at the Department of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry at Ural Federal University, spoke about this on the air of Komsomolskaya Pravda radio.

"One of our activities is the creation of chemosensors for the detection of zinc cations in biological fluids, including blood. Zinc is involved in many physiological processes in the body; it is necessary for normal growth and stabilization of cell membranes. In some cases, such as colds, taking zinc supplements can help boost the body's immune response and speed recovery. However, it is necessary to control zinc levels, since zinc overdose is toxic for the body," explains Grigory Zyryanov.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Thinnest ferroelectric material ever paves the way for new energy-efficient devices

A representation of a two-dimensional ferroelectric material.
Image credit: UC Berkeley/Suraj Cheema.

As electronic devices become smaller and smaller, the materials that power them need to become thinner and thinner. Because of this, one of the key challenges scientists face in developing next-generation energy-efficient electronics is discovering materials that can maintain special electronic properties at an ultrathin size.

Advanced materials known as ferroelectrics present a promising solution to help lower the power consumed by the ultrasmall electronic devices found in cell phones and computers. Ferroelectrics — the electrical analog to ferromagnets — are a class of materials in which some of the atoms are arranged off-center, leading to a spontaneous internal electric charge or polarization. This internal polarization can reverse its direction when scientists expose the material to an external voltage. This offers great promise for ultralow-power microelectronics.

Unfortunately, conventional ferroelectric materials lose their internal polarization below around a few nanometers in thickness. This means they are not compatible with current-day silicon technology. This issue has previously prevented the integration of ferroelectrics into microelectronics.

But now a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley performing experiments at the U.S.

Deeper understanding of the icy depths

Frazil ice formed below the ocean surface drives the generation of cold dense water.
Photo credit: Masato Ito

Scientists have uncovered new details of how ice forming below the ocean surface in Antarctica provides cold dense water that sinks to the seabed in an important aspect of global water circulation.

The results, published in the journal Science Advances, come from a team at the Hokkaido University’s Institute of Low Temperature Science, its Arctic Research Center, and the Faculty of Fisheries science, working with scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research and Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The seas around Antarctica, where a large amount of sea ice is formed, are central to global ocean water circulation, linking the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. When sea ice is formed, it rejects salt, therefore leaving dense, cold water that sinks to the seabed. This water, called Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW), is the coldest and densest water mass in the global circulation, flooding across most of the deep seafloor known as the global abyss. Since the global ocean circulation influences the global climate, it is important to understand the mechanism of AABW formation and how the formation will be impacted by global warming.

Electroshock Therapy More Successful for Depression than Ketamine

Electroconvulsive therapy, often viewed with skepticism by members of the public, outperforms the drug ketamine in treating depression, according to a new report.
Credit: Tiago Bandeira

An analysis of six studies found that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is better at quickly relieving major depression than ketamine, a team of researchers report in JAMA Psychiatry on October 19.

Depression is a common illness affecting about 5% of adults worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Feeling sad, irritable, losing pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable, and sometimes experiencing unexplained pain or fatigue for weeks at a time are all symptoms of depression. Most people diagnosed with depression are offered an oral antidepressant (in combination with psychotherapy) as a first-line treatment option. But if oral antidepressants don’t help, or if the person is at imminent risk of hurting themselves, there are other, more rapid treatment options: ECT, and more recently ketamine or esketamine.

Esketamine, a nasal spray approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat depression, is more commonly used in the US than ketamine. But there are no studies comparing esketamine’s effectiveness with ECT. There are studies done with ketamine, a sister drug to esketamine. Ketamine is commonly used in medicine as an injected anesthetic but has recently been tested as a fast-acting intervention to help people with major depression.

Converting Carbon Dioxide to Minerals Underground

Mineralizing carbon dioxide underground is a potential carbon storage method.
Credit: Illustration by Cortland Johnson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

A new high-profile scientific review article in Nature Reviews Chemistry discusses how carbon dioxide (CO2) converts from a gas to a solid in ultrathin films of water on underground rock surfaces. These solid minerals, known as carbonates, are both stable and common.

“As global temperatures increase, so does the urgency to find ways to store carbon,” said Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Lab Fellow and coauthor Kevin Rosso. “By taking a critical look at our current understanding of carbon mineralization processes, we can find the essential-to-solve gaps for the next decade of work.”

Mineralization underground represents one way to keep CO2 locked away, unable to escape back into the air. But researchers first need to know how it happens before they can predict and control carbonate formation in realistic systems.

“Mitigating human emissions requires fundamental understanding how to store carbon,” said PNNL chemist Quin Miller, co-lead author of the scientific review featured on the journal cover. “There is a pressing need to integrate simulations, theory, and experiments to explore mineral carbonation problems.”

Featured Article

Autism and ADHD are linked to disturbed gut flora very early in life

The researchers have found links between the gut flora in babies first year of life and future diagnoses. Photo Credit:  Cheryl Holt Disturb...

Top Viewed Articles