Category Archives: Research

Russians flock to VPNs to escape internet censorship

As the war (or if you’re in Russia, the “special operation“) continues to rage on, Russian authorities have banned the last semblance of independent journalism and are amplifying efforts to restrict domestic access to free information. But millions of Russians are not having it and are flocking to virtual private networks (or VPNs) to browse the free internet.

The demand for VPNs, which allow the user to browse the internet privately and without restriction, skyrocketed in Russia after the invasion. Between February 27 and March 3, demand surged by 668% — but after Russia blocked Facebook and Twitter on March 4, the demand for VPNs grew even more, peaking at 1,092% above the average before the invasion.

By March 5, all the top ten most downloaded apps in Russia are essentially VPNs.

Overall, the Google Play Store saw 3.3 million VPN downloads, while the Apple App Store had 1.3 million. That’s 4.6 million VPN downloads since the invasion started (Russia has a population of around 144 million).

Russian authorities have not yet blocked app stores, although they have the ability to do so. However, they are trying to block VPN traffic at the network level — drawing from China’s experience in censoring the internet. It’s a bit of an arms race: VPNs may be blocked, and then they have to find new ways of evading censorship (often by switching servers).

For users, this means they may be forced to change servers or even apps regularly if they want to access independent, foreign publishers and social media. Otherwise, they will have to contend with the warped, distorted reality typically present in Russian state-owned media.

Russia’s internet censorship is not as stringent as China’s, but it could be getting there very quickly. As Russia becomes more and more isolated, the Kremlin is trying to cast an online iron curtain to block its people from accessing the free internet. The Russian parliament also approved a law making the spreading of “false” news about the war in Ukraine a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Even the word “war” is banned in Russian media.

It’s not the first time we’re seeing something like this. In January, VPN demand in Kazakhstan also skyrocketed by over 3,400% following an internet blackout during anti-government protests. When China passed the Hong Kong national security law, VPN demand also surged (in a country where VPN usage is already common). Myanmar and Nigeria went through similar situations. However, the increase in demand is unprecedented, VPN providers say

VPN demand in Ukraine has also climbed 609% higher than before the invasion, mostly spiked by fears that invading forces will also carry out cyberattacks.

These hard-bodied robots can reproduce, learn and evolve autonomously

Where biology and technology meet, evolutionary robotics is spawning automatons evolving in real-time and space. The basis of this field, evolutionary computing, sees robots possessing a virtual genome ‘mate’ to ‘reproduce’ improved offspring in response to complex, harsh environments.

Image credits: ARE.

Hard-bodied robots are now able to ‘give birth’

Robots have changed a lot over the past 30 years, already capable of replacing their human counterparts in some cases — in many ways, robots are already the backbone of commerce and industry. Performing a flurry of jobs and roles, they have been miniaturized, mounted, and molded into mammoth proportions to achieve feats way beyond human abilities. But what happens when unstable situations or environments call for robots never seen on earth before?

For instance, we may need robots to clean up a nuclear meltdown deemed unsafe for humans, explore an asteroid in orbit or terraform a distant planet. So how would we go about that?

Scientists could guess what the robot may need to do, running untold computer simulations based on realistic scenarios that the robot could be faced with. Then, armed with the results from the simulations, they can send the bots hurtling into uncharted darkness aboard a hundred-billion dollar machine, keeping their fingers crossed that their rigid designs will hold up for as long as needed.

But what if there was a is a better alternative? What if there was a type of artificial intelligence that could take lessons from evolution to generate robots that can adapt to their environment? It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel — but it’s exactly what a multi-institutional team in the UK is currently doing in a project called Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE).

Remarkably, they’ve already created robots that can ‘mate’ and ‘reproduce’ progeny with no human input. What’s more, using the evolutionary theory of variation and selection, these robots can optimize their descendants depending on a set of activities over generations. If viable, this would be a way to produce robots that can autonomously adapt to unpredictable environments – their extended mechanical family changing along with their volatile surroundings.

“Robot evolution provides endless possibilities to tweak the system,” says evolutionary ecologist and ARE team member Jacintha Ellers. “We can come up with novel types of creatures and see how they perform under different selection pressures.” Offering a way to explore evolutionary principles to set up an almost infinite number of “what if” questions.

What is evolutionary computation?

In computer science, evolutionary computation is a set of laborious algorithms inspired by biological evolution where candidate solutions are generated and constantly “evolved”. Each new generation removes less desired solutions, introducing small adaptive changes or mutations to produce a cyber version of survival of the fittest. It’s a way to mimic biological evolution, resulting in the best version of the robot for its current role and environment.

Virtual robot. Image credits: ARE.

Evolutionary robotics begins at ARE in a facility dubbed the EvoSphere, where newly assembled baby robots download an artificial genetic code that defines their bodies and brains. This is where two-parent robots come together to mingle virtual genomes to create improved young, incorporating both their genetic codes.

The newly evolved offspring is built autonomously via a 3D printer, after which a mechanical assembly arm translating the inherited virtual genomic code selects and attaches the specified sensors and means of locomotion from a bank of pre-built components. Finally, the artificial system wires up a Raspberry Pi computer acting as a brain to the sensors and motors – software is then downloaded from both parents to represent the evolved brain.

1. Artificial intelligence teaches newborn robots how to control their bodies

Newborns undergo brain development and learning to fine-tune their motor control in most animal species. This process is even more intense for these robotic infants due to breeding between different species. For example, a parent with wheels might procreate with another possessing a jointed leg, resulting in offspring with both types of locomotion.

But, the inherited brain may struggle to control the new body, so an algorithm is run as part of the learning stage to refine the brain over a few trials in a simplified environment. If the synthetic babies can master their new bodies, they can proceed to the next phase: testing.

2. Selection of the fittest- who can reproduce?

A specially built inert nuclear reactor housing is used by ARE for testing where young robots must identify and clear radioactive waste while avoiding various obstacles. After completing the task, the system scores each robot according to its performance which it then uses to determine who will be permitted to reproduce.

Real robot. Image credits: ARE.

Software simulating reproduction then takes the virtual DNA of two parents and performs genetic recombination and mutation to generate a new robot, completing the ‘circuit of life.’ Parent robots can either remain in the population, have more children, or be recycled.

Evolutionary roboticist and ARE researcher Guszti Eiben says this sped up evolution works as: “Robotic experiments can be conducted under controllable conditions and validated over many repetitions, something that is hard to achieve when working with biological organisms.”

3. Real-world robots can also mate in alternative cyberworlds

In her article for the New Scientist, Emma Hart, ARE member and professor of computational intelligence at Edinburgh Napier University, writes that by “working with real robots rather than simulations, we eliminate any reality gap. However, printing and assembling each new machine takes about 4 hours, depending on the complexity of its skeleton, so limits the speed at which a population can evolve. To address this drawback, we also study evolution in a parallel, virtual world.”

This parallel universe entails the creation of a digital version of every mechanical infant in a simulator once mating has occurred, which enables the ARE researchers to build and test new designs within seconds, identifying those that look workable.

Their cyber genomes can then be prioritized for fabrication into real-world robots, allowing virtual and physical robots to breed with each other, adding to the real-life gene pool created by the mating of two material automatons.

The dangers of self-evolving robots – how can we stay safe?

A robot fabricator. Image credits: ARE.

Even though this program is brimming with potential, Professor Hart cautions that progress is slow, and furthermore, there are long-term risks to the approach.

“In principle, the potential opportunities are great, but we also run the risk that things might get out of control, creating robots with unintended behaviors that could cause damage or even harm humans,” Hart says.

“We need to think about this now, while the technology is still being developed. Limiting the availability of materials from which to fabricate new robots provides one safeguard.” Therefore: “We could also anticipate unwanted behaviors by continually monitoring the evolved robots, then using that information to build analytical models to predict future problems. The most obvious and effective solution is to use a centralized reproduction system with a human overseer equipped with a kill switch.”

A world made better by robots evolving alongside us

Despite these concerns, she counters that even though some applications, such as interstellar travel, may seem years off, the ARE system may have a more immediate need. And as climate change reaches dangerous proportions, it is clear that robot manufacturers need to become greener. She proposes that they could reduce their ecological footprint by using the system to build novel robots from sustainable materials that operate at low energy levels and are easily repaired and recycled. 

Hart concludes that these divergent progeny probably won’t look anything like the robots we see around us today, but that is where artificial evolution can help. Unrestrained by human cognition, computerized evolution can generate creative solutions we cannot even conceive of yet.

And it would appear these machines will now evolve us even further as we step back and hand them the reins of their own virtual lives. How this will affect the human race remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia’s hackers are embroiled in a war of their own

Way before Russian tanks invaded Ukraine, a vicious attack of a different sort was unleashed. In mid-January, a massive cyberattack was unleashed on the Ukrainian servers, likely originating from Russian hackers.

‘Ukrainians … be afraid and expect worse’, the attack read.

Several prominent Ukrainian websites were attacked, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the education ministry portals.

Disturbingly, this may have been dismissed as “business as usual” — after all, Russia has been waging cyberattacks against the world for over a decade, actively trying to influence elections, hacking newspapers and TV channels, and obtaining data. But this time, it was different. This time, the cyberattack prefaced a military invasion.

It wasn’t just Kremlin-backed hackers that attacked Ukraine. Some self-proclaimed “patriotic” Russian hackers, with “respectable” daytime jobs, also participated in cyberattacks.

“Considering everyone is attacking Ukraine servers. I am thinking we should cause some disruption too?” one such hacker posted on social media, as quoted by the BBC.

In this case, the anonymous Russian hacker (and his team of six companions) temporarily brought down Ukrainian government websites through a rudimentary but effective attack called distributed denial of service (DDoS).

But there were also more sophisticated attacks, presumably orchestrated by organized, Russia-backed hackers. Just days before the military invasion began, on 23 February, numerous Ukrainian government websites and financial services were hit with another wave of DDoS attacks. But in addition to the attacks, a special malware virus was also discovered.

According to cyber-security experts at ESET and Symantec, this second form of attack installed a “wiper” on infected computers, deleting all data on the machines.

“ESET researchers have announced the discovery of a new data wiper malware used in Ukraine, which they have named HermeticWiper,” a spokesman said. “ESET telemetry shows that the malware was installed on hundreds of machines in the country.”

In parallel to all these attacks, a disinformation campaign was also raged against Ukraine. Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) discovered and erased a Russian disinformation network — but many more remain, leaving tech giants faced with a game of whack-a-mole.

Ukraine (and Anonymous) strike back

Just like the Russian military has way more firepower than the Ukrainian one, the difference in the two countries’ cyber-power is also substantial. In retaliation to these cyber-attacks, Ukraine issued a desperate call for volunteer hackers to join the fight.

“We have a lot of talented Ukrainians in the digital sphere: developers, cyber specialists, designers, copywriters, marketers,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s First Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation announced in a post on his official Telegram channel. “We continue to fight on the cyber front.”

His call was heard.

The volunteer IT Army was assigned to a Telegram channel, and 175,000 people have subscribed. Of course, not all of these are hackers. The vast majority are just people with internet that want to help. They are doing things like reporting Russian propaganda channels on Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter. The more savvy users are asked to perform their own DDoS attacks on the websites of Russian ministries and key companies like Gazprom.

The development of such a volunteer unit is unprecedented in history — but we are pretty much living in unprecedented times, and for a country faced with an existential threat, as Ukraine is, it’s unsurprising that they try to muster every bit of help they can.

Some international hackers have also joined the cyber-fight, most notably the decentralized hacktivist collective Anonymous.

Anonymous started with more DDoS attacks on Russian propaganda channels and government websites. At some point, all of the state-controlled Russian banks had their websites shut down. But they soon moved on to other things.

Russian TV channels were hijacked to play Ukrainian music.

“Ukrainian music is playing on Russian TV channels. It is believed that this is the work of hackers from Anonymous, who continue to hack Russian services and websites,” Fedorov said.

Meanwhile, a hacktivist group from Belarus has claimed to be disrupting the movement of military units by shutting down railways in the country (with Belarus supporting Russia’s invasion), though these reports have been hard to confirm.

In addition, Anonymous has leaked vast amounts of emails from a large Belarusian weapons company that worked with Russia on the invasion. The group also leaked a massive database of the Russian Ministry of Defense. “We are also undergoing operations to best support Ukrainians online,” Anonymous said.

The shadow war

The worst may still be coming for Ukraine, as Russia has intensified its bombing of cities — including the use of cluster bombs and the bombing of civilian centers. The country may be headed for a long, dreadful, guerilla war. Behind this war, in the shadows, the cyber-war will also likely descend into lengthy guerilla skirmishes.

‘If Kyiv falls, we keep hacking Putin,’ one volunteer cyber-soldier told Forbes.

It’s still too early to tell how impactful all this will be, and it’s still unclear just how important the data leaked from Russia and Belarus is (most of it is in Russian and is extensive, which means it will take a long time to analyze). But if there’s one thing this is doing, it’s making more publicity for Ukraine’s cause — especially back in Russia, where Putin has a strong grip on what information goes through and the truth is often censored, but also internationally.

For now, the invasion continues to rage on.

These nanobots powered by magnets can successfully remove water pollutants

Surface water, including lakes, canals, rivers, and streams, is a key resource for agriculture, industries, and domestic households. It’s quite literally essential to human activity. However, it’s also very susceptible to pollution, and cleaning it up is rarely easy. But we may have a new ally in this fight: nanobots.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

According to the UN, 90% of sewage in developing countries is dumped untreated into water bodies. Industries are also to blame, as they dispose of between 300 and 400 megatons of polluted water in water bodies every year. Nitrate, used extensively by agriculture, is the most common pollutant currently found in groundwater aquifers.

Once these pollutants enter into surface water, it’s very difficult and costly to remove them through conventional methods, and hence, they tend to remain in the water for a long time. Heavy metals have been detected in fish from rivers, which hold risks to human health. Water pollution can also progress to massive disease outbreaks.

The use of nanotechnology in water treatment has recently gained wide attention and is being actively investigated. In water treatment, nanotechnology has three main applications: remediating and purifying polluted water, detecting pollution, and preventing it. This has led to a big demand lately for nanorobots with high sensitivity

However, there’s a technical challenge. Most nanorobots use catalytic motors, which cause problems during their use. These catalytic motors are easily oxidized, which can restrict the lifespan and efficiency of nanorobots. This is where the new study comes in.

A new type of nanorobot

Martin Pumera, a researcher at the University of Chemistry and Technology in the Czech Republic, and his group of colleagues developed a new type of nanorobots, using a temperature-sensitive polymer material and iron oxide. The polymer acts like small hands that pick up and dispose of the pollutants, while the oxide makes the nanorobots magnetic.

The robots created by Pumera and his team are 200 nanometers wide (300 times thinner than human hair) and are powered by magnetic fields, allowing the researchers to control their movement. Unlike other nanorobots out there, they don’t need any fuel to function and can be used more than one time. This makes them sustainable and cost-effective.

In the study, the researchers showed that the uptake and release of pollutants in the surface water are regulated by temperature. At a low temperature of 5ºC, the robots scattered in the water. But when the temperature was raised to 25ºC they aggregated and trapped any pollutants between them. They can then be removed with the use of a magnet.

The nanorobots could eliminate about 65% of the arsenic in 100 minutes, based on the 10 tests done by the researchers for the study. Pundera told ZME Science that the technology is scalable, which is why with his team he is currently in conversations with wastewater treatment companies, hoping to move the system from bench to proof-of-concept solutions.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

People find AI-generated faces to be more trustworthy than real faces — and it could be a problem

Not only are people unable to distinguish between real faces and AI-generated faces, but they also seem to trust AI-generated faces more. The findings from a relatively small study suggest that nefarious actors could be using AI to generate artificial faces to trick people.

The most (top row) and least (bottom row) accurately classified real (R) and synthetic (S) faces. Credit: DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2120481119

Worse than a coin flip

In the past years, Artificial Intelligence has come a long way. It’s not just to analyze data, it can be used to create text, images, and even video. A particularly intriguing application is the creation of human faces.

In the past couple of years, algorithms have become strikingly good at creating human faces. This could be useful on one hand — it enables low-budget companies to produce ads, for instance, essentially democratizing access to valuable resources. But at the same time, AI-synthesized faces can be used for disinformation, fraud, propaganda, and even revenge pornography.

Human brains are generally pretty good at telling apart real from fake, but when it comes to this area, AIs are winning the race. In a new study, Dr. Sophie Nightingale from Lancaster University and Professor Hany Farid from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted experiments to analyze whether participants can distinguish state of the art AI-synthesized faces from real faces and what level of trust the faces evoked.

 “Our evaluation of the photo realism of AI-synthesized faces indicates that synthesis engines have passed through the uncanny valley and are capable of creating faces that are indistinguishable—and more trustworthy—than real faces,” the researchers note.

The researchers designed three experiments, recruiting volunteers from the Mechanical Turk platform. In the first one, 315 participants classified 128 faces taken from a set of 800 (either real or synthesized). Their accuracy was 48% — worse than a coin flip.

Representative faces used in the study. Could you tell apart the real from the synthetic faces? Participants in the study couldn’t. Image credits: Credit: DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2120481119.

More trustworthy

In the second experiment, 219 new participants were trained on how to analyze and give feedback on faces. They were then asked to classify and rate 128 faces, again from a set of 800. Their accuracy increased thanks to the training, but only to 59%.

Meanwhile, in the third experiment, 223 participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness of 128 faces (from the set of 800) on a scale from 1 to 7. Surprisingly, synthetic faces were ranked 7.7% more trustworthy.

“Faces provide a rich source of information, with exposure of just milliseconds sufficient to make implicit inferences about individual traits such as trustworthiness. We wondered if synthetic faces activate the same judgements of trustworthiness. If not, then a perception of trustworthiness could help distinguish real from synthetic faces.”

“Perhaps most interestingly, we find that synthetically-generated faces are more trustworthy than real faces.”

There were also some interesting takeaways from the analysis. For instance, women were rated as significantly more trustworthy than men, and smiling faces were also more trustworthy. Black faces were rated as more trustworthy than South Asian, but otherwise, race seemed to not affect trustworthiness.

“A smiling face is more likely to be rated as trustworthy, but 65.5% of the real faces and 58.8% of synthetic faces are smiling, so facial expression alone cannot explain why synthetic faces are rated as more trustworthy,” the study notes

The researchers offer a potential explanation as to why synthetic faces could be seen as more trustworthy: they tend to resemble average faces, and previous research has suggested that average faces tend to be considered more trustworthy.

Although it’s a fairly small sample size and the findings need to be replicated on a larger scale, the findings are pretty concerning, especially considering how fast the technology has been progressing. Researchers say that if we want to protect the public from “deep fakes,” there should be some guidelines on how synthesized images are created and distributed.

“Safeguards could include, for example, incorporating robust watermarks into the image- and video-synthesis networks that would provide a downstream mechanism for reliable identification. Because it is the democratization of access to this powerful technology that poses the most significant threat, we also encourage reconsideration of the often-laissez-faire approach to the public and unrestricted releasing of code for anyone to incorporate into any application.

“At this pivotal moment, and as other scientific and engineering fields have done, we encourage the graphics and vision community to develop guidelines for the creation and distribution of synthetic-media technologies that incorporate ethical guidelines for researchers, publishers, and media distributors.”

The study was published in PNAS.

These are the world’s oldest pants — and there’s more to them than meets the eye.

That pair of jeans disintegrating in the bottom of your closet might look old, but that’s nothing compared to these pants. Back in 2014, a group of archaeologists discovered in China a pair of wool pants dating back to around 3,300 years ago – the oldest one ever found. Now, they’ve discovered the way the pants were likely made, and it involves innovative textile techniques.

Image credit: The researchers.

The pants were found by a team of archaeologists excavating tombs in an ancient burial ground in the Xinjiang Uighur region of western China. The cemetery is located on the fringes of the Taklamakan desert, close to the Turfan oasis – a usual stopping place first for Bronze age nomads and then for the caravans of the Silk Route.

The very dry climate in the area preserved the bodies and the grave in a very good condition, including items like food and clothing. The pants were found in the remains of two warriors about forty years old. They were created for horse-riding, which shows in the design. They have straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch with elegant decoration.

The pants were likely part of an outfit that also included a poncho, a pair of braided bands to fasten the trouser legs, another pair to fasten the leather booths, and a wool headband. Of all the garments, the pants were the most special one. They had a very modern look for the time, featuring two-leg pieces that gradually widen at the top.

While the pants were discovered over eight years ago, the same group of researchers continued working on them. Now, they were able to find out how the pants were manufactured and even created a modern replica. It’s a tale of textile innovations and of how cultural practices expanded across Asia, the team argues in its new study.

An innovative approach

Initially, the researchers were puzzled over how the pants had been made, as there were no traces of cutting on the fabric. However, after a close examination, they discovered that a combination of three weaving techniques was used to manufacture them. This was later confirmed by the re-created version of the pants, made by an expert weaver.

The study also revealed that much of the garment consisted of twill, a versatile fabric weave that features in most modern jeans – making this an innovation in textile history. Twill changes the woven wool from firm to elastic, giving the person plenty of flexibility. The most popular fabrics for twill weaves are cotton and polyester or a mix of both.

There were also other innovations in the pants. On the knee section, a technique currently known as tapestry weaving was used to produce a more protective fabric at these joints. On the waist, a method approach was used to have a thicker waistband. A twining method was also used to create a decorative, geometric pattern across the knees and at the ankles and calves.

Today, jeans are manufactured following the same techniques as those used three millennia ago. Also striking is the fact that the cultural practices and knowledge from the ancient herding groups spread across Asia. The patterns used to decorate the horseman’s pants also appear on bronze vessels found in China from around the same time.

The findings behind the pants were published in the journal Quaternary International. If you are still curious to learn more there’s a documentary on YouTube that takes us to the excavation grounds in Asia where the historic pants were discovered. And there’s more. There are a few places online that are also selling their own versions of the pants.

An AI was just used to control plasma inside a nuclear fusion reactor

A groundbreaking technology has been used to improve another, as researchers have demonstrated how AI could be used to control the superheated plasma inside a tokamak-type fusion reactor.

“This is one of the most challenging applications of reinforcement learning to a real-world system,” says Martin Riedmiller, a researcher at DeepMind.

DeepMind produced a range of shapes whose properties are under study by plasma physicists. Image credits: DeepMind & SPC/EPFL.

Current nuclear plants use nuclear fission to harness energy, forcing larger atoms to split into two smaller atoms. Fusion, on the other hand, is the opposite process. In nuclear fusion, two or more atomic nuclei combine to form one or more larger atoms. It’s the process that powers stars, but harnessing this power and using it on Earth is extremely challenging.

If you’re essentially building a miniature star (hotter than the surface of the Sun) and then using it to harness its power, you need to be absolutely certain you can control it. Researchers use a lot of tricks to achieve this, like magnets, lasers, and clever designs, but it’s still proven to be a gargantuan challenge.

This is where AI could enter the stage.

Researchers use several designs to try and contain this superheated plasma — one of these designs is called a tokamak. A tokamak uses magnetic fields in a donut-shaped containment area to keep the superheated atoms (as plasma) under control long enough that we can extract energy from it. The main idea is to use this magnetic cage to keep the plasma from touching the reactor walls, which would damage the reactor and cool the plasma.

TCV plasma. Image credits: Curdin Wüthrich, SPC/EPFL

Controlling this plasma requires constant shifts in the magnetic field, and the researchers at DeepMind (the Google-owned company that built the AlphaGo and AlphaZero AIs that dominated Go and chess) felt like this would be a good task for an algorithm.

They trained an unnamed AI to control and change the shape of the plasma by changing the magnetic field using a technique called reinforcement learning. Reinforcement learning is one of the three main machine learning approaches (alongside supervised learning and unsupervised learning). In reinforcement learning, the AI takes certain actions to maximize the chance of earning a predefined reward.

After the algorithm was trained on a virtual reactor, it was given control of the magnets inside the Variable Configuration Tokamak (TCV), an experimental tokamak reactor in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The AI-controlled the plasma for only two seconds, but this is as much as the TCV can go without overheating — and it was a long enough period to assess the AI’s performance.

Every 0.0001 seconds, the AI took 90 different measurements describing the shape and location of the plasma, adjusting the magnetic field accordingly. To speed the process up, the AI was split into two different networks — a large network that learned via trial and error in the virtual stage, and a faster, smaller network that runs on the reactor itself.

“Our controller first shapes the plasma according to the requested shape, then shifts the plasma downward and detaches it from the walls, suspending it in the middle of the vessel on two legs. The plasma is held stationary, as would be needed to measure plasma properties. Then, finally the plasma is steered back to the top of the vessel and safely destroyed,” DeepMind explains in a blog post.

“We then created a range of plasma shapes being studied by plasma physicists for their usefulness in generating energy. For example, we made a “snowflake” shape with many “legs” that could help reduce the cost of cooling by spreading the exhaust energy to different contact points on the vessel walls. We also demonstrated a shape close to the proposal for ITER, the next-generation tokamak under construction, as EPFL was conducting experiments to predict the behaviorr of plasmas in ITER. We even did something that had never been done in TCV before by stabilizing a “droplet” where there are two plasmas inside the vessel simultaneously. Our single system was able to find controllers for all of these different conditions. We simply changed the goal we requested, and our algorithm autonomously found an appropriate controller.”

The controller trained with deep reinforcement learning steers the plasma through multiple phases of an experiment. On the left, there is an inside view in the tokamak during the experiment. On the right, the reconstructed plasma shape and the target points the researchers wanted to hit. Image credits: DeepMind & SPC/EPFL.

While this is still in its early stages, it’s a very promising achievement. DeepMind’s AIs seem ready to move on from complex games into the real world, and make a real difference — as they previously did with protein structure.

This doesn’t mean that we’ll have nuclear fusion tomorrow. Although we’ve seen spectacular breakthroughs in the past couple of years, and although AI seems to be a promising tool, we’re still a few steps away from realistic fusion energy. But the prospect of virtually limitless fusion energy, once thought to be technically impossible, now seems within our reach.

The study was published in Nature.

Your microbiota will be having non-stop sex this Valentine’s Day

Even if you’re alone this Valentine’s Day, there’s no need to worry: some parts of your body will be getting plenty of action. In fact, your body will host a veritable carnival of the sensual in your tummy, as your microbiota will engage in an orgy of sex and swinger’s parties — where they’ll be swapping genes instead of keys.

A medical illustration of drug-resistant, Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria. Original image sourced from US Government department: Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Image in the public domain.

The salacious gene

Imagine you have a severe disease with a very unusual cure: you can treat by making love with someone who then passes on the necessary genes to cure your ailment. It is, as they say, sexual healing. Using sex to protect or heal themselves is precisely what bacteria can do, and it’s a crucial defense mechanism.

In the past, the research community thought bacterial sex (or conjugation, as scientists call it) was a terrible threat for humans, as this ancient process can spread DNA capable of conveying antibiotic resistance to their neighbors. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing health challenges the world is facing, being projected to cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050.

But there’s more to this bacterial sex than meets the eye. Recently, scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California Riverside witnessed gut microbes sharing the ability to acquire a life-saving nutrient with one another through bacterial sex. UCR microbiologist and study lead Patrick Degnan says:

“We’re excited about this study because it shows that this process isn’t only for antibiotic resistance. The horizontal gene exchange among microbes is likely used for anything that increases their ability to survive, including sharing vitamin B12.”

For well over 200-years, researchers have known that bacteria reproduce using fission, where one cell halves to produce two genetically identical daughter cells. However, in 1946, Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum discovered bacteria could exchange genes through conjugation, an entirely separate act from reproduction.

Conjugation occurs when a donor and a recipient bacteria sidle up to each other, upon which the donor creates a tube, called a pilus that attaches to the recipient and pulls the two cells together. A small parcel of DNA is then passed from the donor to the recipient, providing new genetic information through horizontal transfer.

Ironically, it wasn’t until Lederberg met and fell in love with his wife, Esther Lederberg, that they made progress regarding bacterial sex.

Widely acknowledged as a pioneer of bacterial genetics, Esther still struggled for recognition despite identifying the horizontal transfer of antibiotic resistance and viruses, which kill bacteria known as bacteriophages. She discovered these phages after noticing small objects nibbling at the edges of her bacterial colonies. Going downstream to find out how they got there, she found these viral interlopers hiding dormant amongst bacterial chromosomes after being transferred by microbes during sex.

Later work found that environmental stresses such as illness activated these viruses to replicate within their hosts and kill them. Still, scientists assumed that bacterial sex was purely a defense mechanism.

Esther Ledeberg in her Stanford lab. Image credits: Esther Lederberg.

Promiscuity means longevity

The newly-published study builds on Esther’s work. The study authors felt this bacterial process extended beyond antibiotic resistance. So they started by investigating how vitamin B12 was getting into gut microbial cells, where the cells had previously been unable to extract this vitamin from their environment — which was puzzling as, without vitamin B12, most types of living cells cannot function. Therefore, many questions remained about how these organisms survived without the machinery to extract this resource from the intestine.

The new study in Cell Reports uses the Bacteroidetes species, which comprise up to 80% of the human microbiome in the intestines, where they break down complex carbohydrates for energy.

“The big, long molecules from sweet potatoes, beans, whole grains, and vegetables would pass through our bodies entirely without these bacteria. They break those down so we can get energy from them,” the team explained.

This bacteria was placed in lab dishes mixing those that could extract B12 from the stomach with some that couldn’t. The team then watched in awe while the bacteria formed their sex pilus to transfer genes enabling the extraction of B12. After the experiment, researchers examined the total genetic material of the recipient microbe and found it had incorporated an extra band of DNA from the donor.

Among living mice, something similar happens. When the group-administered two different subgroups of Bacteroidetes to a mouse – one that possessed the genes for transferring B12 and another that didn’t — they found the genes had ‘jumped’ to the receiving donee after five to nine days.

“In a given organism, we can see bands of DNA that are like fingerprints. The recipients of the B12 transporters had an extra band showing the new DNA they got from a donor,” Degnan said.

Remarkably, the team also noted that different species of phages were also transferred during conjugation, exhibiting bacterial subgroup specificity in some cases. These viruses also showed the capacity to alter the genomic sequence of its bacterial host, with the power to promote or demote the life of its microbic vessel when activated.

Sexual activity in our intestines keeps us healthy

Interestingly, the authors note they could not observe conjugation in all subgroups of the Bacteroidetes species, suggesting this could be due to growth factors in the intestine or a possible subgroup barrier within this large species group slowing the process down.

Despite this, Degnan states, “We’re excited about this study because it shows that this process isn’t only for antibiotic resistance.” And that “The horizontal gene exchange among microbes is likely used for anything that increases their ability to survive, including sharing [genes for the transport of] vitamin B12.”

Meaning that bacterial sex doesn’t just occur when microbes are under attack; it happens all the time. And it’s probably part of what keeps the microbiome and, by extension, ourselves fit and healthy.

Modern humans ventured into Neanderthal territory much earlier than we thought

Until now, archaeological findings suggested that Neanderthals disappeared from Europe about 40,000 years ago, soon after the arrival of Homo sapiens – with limited evidence of encounters between the two groups. But a new study is now saying otherwise, showing evidence that Homo sapiens ventured into Europe much earlier than we thought, deep into Neanderthal territory. 

Image credit: The researchers.

The discovery of a child’s tooth and hundreds of stone tools at a cave in France by a group of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens to about 54,000 years ago. The study also showed that the two types of humans alternated in living in the cave, located in the Rhone region of France.

“We’ve often thought that the arrival of modern humans in Europe led to the pretty rapid demise of Neanderthals, but this new evidence suggests that both the appearance of modern humans in Europe and disappearance of Neanderthals is much more complex than that,” study coauthor Chris Stringer said in a press statement.

A long-term project

Since 1990, the team of researchers has been carefully investigating the sediment on the cave floor. The site is a strategic point in the landscape, they argue, as the river Rhone flows through a narrow between two mountain ranges. Inhabitants of the site would have clear views of herds of animals, today replaced by trains and a highway.

The researchers now discovered hundreds of thousands of objects that they attributed to either modern humans or Neanderthals. These included triangular stone points that were used by Homo sapiens to cut or scrape and as spear tips. Similar tools from the same period were found 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away in present-day Lebanon.

Image credit: The researchers.

Dental remains from at least seven individuals across 12 archaeological layers were also found in the cave. The researchers identified six of these individuals as Neanderthal. But there was a surprise. In a layer between the Neanderthal layers, the team found a fossil moral from a modern human child, between two and six years old.

While they couldn’t find evidence of cultural exchanges between modern humans and Neanderthals who alternated the cave, the succession of occupants is significant on its own. It’s the first-time evidence of the two groups living in the same place is found. They rotated quite rapidly, even abruptly, at least twice, according to the study. 

Understanding human history is a tricky process, but an important one. Modern humans originated in Africa and made their first migration between 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Ancient hominins existed and coexisted before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Some of these groups are identified by fossils, while others by their genetic legacy. 

Many questions now remain after the study, as the researchers explain in a blog post in The Conversation. Did modern humans have a relationship with the Neanderthals, exchanging information for example? Did they interbreed at some point? How did modern humans learn about the stone tools in such a short period of time? 

“The findings are really exciting and are another piece in the puzzle of how and when modern humans arrived in Europe,” Stringer said. “Understanding more about the overlap between modern humans and other hominins in Eurasia is vital to understanding more about their interactions, and how we became the last remaining human species.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances

Pap tests could one day tell women if they have breast or ovarian cancer

Experts have identified changes in a woman’s cervix that can help detect tumors elsewhere in the body. These tests involve scraping cells from the cervix to detect any abnormalities that could cause cervical cancer. But researchers from Innsbruck University and gynecological cancer research charity The Eve Appeal found the cells from this test can also give clues and alerts for other types of cancers. With development, they state that the method used could one day predict the risk of developing ovarian, breast, womb, and cervical cancers from a straightforward smear pap test.

They developed their system using a process known as DNA methylation — epigenetic modifications to DNA that don’t alter the genetic sequence but do determine whether a gene expresses or stifles its function: in this case, forming or preventing cancer in the body. These modifications leave ‘methylation markers or signatures’ on genomic regions that scientists can read to determine what has occurred within a person’s body throughout their lifetime. Akin to the rings of a tree, this method can provide chronological clues as to what has happened in our biological life.

Researchers created the test, dubbed WID (Women’s Risk Identification), to analyze markers left by cancerous activity in the DNA of cervical cells. By calculating a woman’s WID, they hope to identify those with a high risk of developing ovarian, breast, womb, or cervical cancers: providing an early-warning system for medical teams to increase treatment outcomes.

The team was able to spot these modifications because they matched DNA markers found in diseased cervical, breast, ovarian, and womb biopsy tissue (a highly invasive procedure) to those found in the easier to access cells of the cervix — whose similar biological structures undergo the same hormonal changes as the tissues these cancers flourish in.

Finding cancer through the cervix

The first study examined cervical cell samples collected from 242 women with ovarian cancer and 869 healthy controls. To develop the WID risk scale, the scientists measured 14,000 epigenetic changes to identify ovarian cancer’s unique DNA signature to spot the presence of the disease in epithelial tissue scraped from the cervix.

They then validated the signature in an additional cohort of 47 women who had ovarian cancer and 227 healthy subjects. Results identified 71% of women under 50 and roughly 55% of the volunteers older than 50 who had previously tested positive for the disease — giving the tests an overall specificity of 75%. A test’s specificity is its ability to correctly identify people without the disease.

Professor Martin Widschwendter of the University of Innsbruck and UCL, heading up the research, said the findings suggest their WID index is picking up cancer predisposition, adding that the results were similar to a study on women with cancer of the womb. He is adamant their test cannot predict ovarian, with more studies needed.

A possible screening method for an undetectable cancer 

In the second study, the same team analyzed epigenetic changes in cervical cell samples provided by 329 women with breast cancer against those from the same 869 healthy volunteers in the first study. Using the WID index, they were able to identify women with breast cancer based on a unique epigenetic signature. The group once again confirmed these markers in a smaller consort of 113 breast cancer patients and 225 women without this condition.

The researchers also used the patterns to predict whether patients had breast cancer-but they didn’t say exactly how accurate the tests were. Instead, they stressed that further trials are needed-with the hope that clinicians could use their WID as a regular test for women in the future-specifically for those under fifty years of age who do not have access to screening for this disease.

“This research is incredibly exciting,” said Liz O’Riordan, a breast cancer surgeon who was also diagnosed with this disease. “At the moment, there is no screening test for breast cancer in women under the age of 50. If this test can help pick up women with a high risk of developing breast, ovarian, cervical, and uterine cancer at a younger age, it could be a game-changer.”

The team adds that these findings are also crucial for ovarian cancer, whose symptoms can be as benign as a bloated abdomen. The biggest killer of women out of gynecological-based tumors, this disease is diagnosed late by clinicians in an alarming 3 out of four cases.

But for now, Widschwendter says, the findings suggest that the molecular signatures in cervical cells may detect the predisposition to other women-specific cancers rather than providing a solid prediction of the disease.

Because of the pandemic, women have stopped taking pap tests

A pap smear test detects abnormal cells on the cervix, which is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina. Removing these cells can prevent cervical cancer, which most commonly affects sexually-active women aged between 30 and 45. In most cases, the human papillomavirus causes this cancer after being acquired through unprotected sex or skin-to-skin contact. To summarise, the whole point of these tests is to detect women at risk of developing cancer and encourage them to carry further health check-ups, not to find those displaying cancer symptoms.

Around the world, the number of women taking smear tests has dropped substantially during the pandemic. In England, for instance, one of the countries with the highest testing rates, just 7 out of 10 eligible women got a cervical check-up — and conditions are expected to worsen due to a new policy brought in by the UK government at the start of 2022, which saw all eligible women in Wales have their wait times increased from three to five years in between tests. The government expects to roll out the policy in England this year after the pandemic caused the delay of its initial release. Experts insisted the move was safe, but campaigners hit back at the plans, arguing it would cause preventable deaths by delaying the detection of cancer or pre-cancerous issues.

In a statement to the Guardian, the UK’s Secretary for Patient Safety and Primary Care says it’s “great to see how this new research could help alert women who are at higher risk to help prevent breast, ovarian, womb, and cervical cancer before it starts.” Until this time, cancer screening remained vital and urged all women aged 25 and above to attend their appointments when invited. The secretary did not remark on the new government policy.

An ovarian cancer specialist urged caution in interpreting the data: They show a “moderate association” between the methylation signature and ovarian cancer, said Dr. Rebecca Stone, the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service director at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “They are not showing that it’s predictive or diagnostic,” Stone stressed. Clarifying that to see whether the cervical cell signature predicts cancer, a study would have to observe a large group of women over a long period.

Filling the gap in screening options for women

In contrast, Athena Lamnisos, CEO of the Eve Appeal, emphasizes the importance of a new screening tool:

“Creating a new screening tool for the four most prevalent cancers that affect women and people with gynae organs, particularly the ones which are currently most difficult to detect at an early stage, from a single test could be revolutionary.”

The Eve Appeal goes on that women could get separate risk scores for each of the four cancers in the future where medical teams could offer those with high scores more active monitoring, regular mammograms, risk-reducing surgery, or therapeutics.

Ultimately, it’s better to prevent than to treat, and this method could offer women worldwide access to proper screening services that could save lives through the application of early intervention and preventative medicine.

Your food may soon come wrapped in self-cleaning, biodegradable plastic inspired by the lotus

Researchers are developing a self-cleaning, eco-friendly bioplastic by taking inspiration from the lotus leaf.

Image via Wikimedia.

Plastic waste is one of the most widespread types of pollution on the planet, with particles of this material permeating soil, water, and the atmosphere. The main drivers of this issue are single-use plastics combined with inadequate recycling capacity. Since plastic is very chemically-stable, it doesn’t break down in the wild, leading to rapid build-ups.plastic

In a bid to help address this issue, researchers at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a self-cleaning bioplastic that degrades rapidly once it comes into contact with soils. The team envisions their material being used in packaging for fresh foods and takeaway. Since it is compostable (breaks down naturally), swapping regular plastic for this new bioplastic in these applications would lead to tremendous environmental benefits, as food packaging is one of the main applications for single-use plastic.

Lotus-inspired

Plastic waste is one of our biggest environmental challenges but the alternatives we develop need to be both eco-friendly and cost-effective, to have a chance of widespread use,” says RMIT PhD researcher Mehran Ghasemlou, lead author of a duo of papers describing the material.

“We designed this new bioplastic with large-scale fabrication in mind, ensuring it was simple to make and could easily be integrated with industrial manufacturing processes.”

Ghasemlou explains that nature is full of ingenious designs and solutions to a variety of problems researchers are trying to solve, and we can draw on this wealth of natural expertise when designing new, high-performance materials that can serve a variety of roles. The new bioplastic is one example of this.

During the development process, the team replicated the “phenomenally water-repellent structure of lotus leaves” into their material to ensure it has excellent hygienic properties. Lotus leaves are covered in tiny pillars, all covered in a layer of wax. This prevents water droplets from adhering to their surface, instead simply rolling off as gravity or wind pulls at them. As they slide off, these droplets carry away any particles from the leaves, keeping them clean.

Image credits Mehran Ghasemlou et al., (2022), ACS Publ.

The surface of the new material is imprinted with a pattern similar to that on lotus leaves. A protective layer of silicon-based organic polymer (PDMS) is then applied. The bioplastic itself is made from starch and cellulose, cheap and widely-available materials in use in a great number of applications today; this means that the logistics needed to create the bioplastic are already well-developed, making it much easier for commercial actors to use the material.

Its manufacturing process requires only simple equipment and requires no high temperatures. Such a process can be carried out cheaply and many areas of the world have the technical capability for it. The team is confident that these traits will help with getting production of the bioplastic rolling en masse.

These materials also promote biodegradability and are non-toxic, meaning that the bioplastic can be used as compost after serving its purpose and actually support natural environments instead of polluting them.

It also offers good physical properties such as strength, making it a suitable replacement for current plastics in a wide range of consumer applications. Due to its biodegradable nature, short-lived items such as single-use containers would be most suited for this bioplastic.

Most compostable or biodegradable plastics today need to undergo industrial processes and be exposed to high temperatures to break down, the team explains. Their bioplastic, however, requires no such intervention — it breaks down naturally and quickly in soils.

“There are big differences between plant-based materials — just because something is made from green ingredients doesn’t mean it will easily degrade,” Ghasemlou said. “We carefully selected our raw materials for compostability and this is reflected in the results from our soil studies, where we can see our bioplastic rapidly breaks down simply with exposure to the bacteria and bugs in soil.”

“Our ultimate aim is to deliver packaging that could be added to your backyard compost or thrown into a green bin alongside other organic waste, so that food waste can be composted together with the container it came in, to help prevent food contamination of recycling.”

The papers “Biodegradation of novel bioplastics made of starch, polyhydroxyurethanes and cellulose nanocrystals in soil environment” and “Robust and Eco-Friendly Superhydrophobic Starch Nanohybrid Materials with Engineered Lotus Leaf Mimetic Multiscale Hierarchical Structures” have been published in the journals Science of The Total Environment and ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, respectively.

Hero or usurper? Map discovery unveils land grabbing by controversial US explorer

Persistence pays off, at least in the case of historian Robert Lee. After spending very long hours going through microfilms in the US National Archives, he stumbled upon an intriguing map. Lee explored it further and realized that it was actually misattributed. The map had been done by controversial US explorer and politician William Clark — and that’s where an intriguing story begins.

A photo of the map. Credit: Lee.

The map depicts the basic geography of the Osage Treaty of 1808, a key moment in US history. Back then, the Osage Nation gave all their land east of Fort Clark in Missouri and Arkansas to the United States. The indigenous communities, affected by this land grabbing episode, ended up siding with the British in the War of 1812

Lee, a Cambridge historian, found the map filed in the secretary of war’s correspondence archive, filed under the authorship of Captain Eli Clemson. He decided to investigate this further, finding out that the map had actually been drawn by William Clark, who was the governor of Missouri at the time of the Osage Treaty. 

But this wasn’t the only finding. Lee also decoded the significance of an unlabeled line on the map. After failing to purchase land from the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Iowas in 1815, Clark redrew the lines of the Osage Treaty – adding 10.5 million acres to public land by claiming the US had already bought this region from the Osages in the 1808 treaty. Clark cheated.

“It’s the closest document we have to an admission in Clark’s own hand that he unilaterally moved a treaty line to aid settlers then invading Sauk, Meskwaki, and Iowa territory. I was stunned, not that Clark had done this, but that this piece of evidence—which is about as close as we’re going to get to catching him red-handed—was just sitting there hidden in plain sight,” Lee told ZME Science.

Understanding the map

Lee said he was convinced that this was a missing Clark map after spending a few hours examining it. The establishment dates of features on the map like several US settlements not founded until after 1808 cast doubt on Clemson’s authorship. One feature — a saltworks in what is today Oklahoma — wasn’t even established until after Clemson’s tour of duty in the region ended.

But figuring out that Clemson didn’t draw it—that it was misfiled and misattributed—was only half of the problem, Lee said. Although it’s unsigned and undated, several clues point to Clark. He was a horrendous speller and this became evident on the map, in which Clark’s map spells Shawnees as “Showonees”. This same mistake is evident in other letters and maps by him. 

The dead giveaway, however, is a line on the map between the Arkansas and Red Rivers that ties this map firmly to a letter Clark wrote in 1816 where he proposed obtaining a Quapaw land cession by extending an Osage treaty line, Lee explains. This proposal never actually happened. It was only even floated in this letter, Lee explained. 

“Most Americans learn about Clark for the three years he spent with the Corps of Discovery (1804-1806) and few know that he then spent over 30 years as the leading architect of Indigenous dispossession in the trans-Mississippi West. As historians have started to look closely at his whole career, the picture has become more balanced and less flattering. This new map adds a new level of detail,” Lee told ZME Science.

This research comes from ongoing work on a book examining how Indigenous dispossession by treaty shaped the development of the United States in the nineteenth century. Clark will figure prominently, as will other unstudied maps by him and others. For now, the study on the map’s finding was published in the journal William and Mary Quarterly. 

The fascinating science behind the first human HIV mRNA vaccine trial – what exactly does it entail?

In a moment described as a “potential first step forward” in protecting people against one of the world’s most devastating pandemics, Moderna, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have joined forces to begin a landmark trial — the first human trials of an HIV vaccine based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology. The collaboration between these organizations, a mixture of non-profits and a company, will bring plenty of experience and technology to the table, which is absolutely necessary when taking on this type of mammoth challenge.

The goal is more than worth it: helping the estimated 37.7 million people currently living with HIV (including 1.7 million children) and protecting those who will be exposed to the virus in the future. Sadly, around 16% of the infected population (6.1 million people) are unaware they are carriers.

Despite progress, HIV remains lethal. Disturbingly, in 2020, 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses, despite inroads made in therapies to dampen the disease’s effects on the immune system. One of these, antiretroviral therapy (ART), has proven to be highly effective in preventing HIV transmission, clinical progression, and death. Still, even with the success of this lifelong therapy, the number of HIV-infected individuals continues to grow.

There is no cure for this disease. Therefore, the development of vaccines to either treat HIV or prevent the acquisition of the disease would be crucial in turning the tables on the virus.

However, it’s not so easy to make an HIV vaccine because the virus mutates very quickly, creating multiple variants within the body, which produce too many targets for one therapy to treat. Plus, this highly conserved retrovirus becomes part of the human genome a mere 72 hours after transmission, meaning that high levels of neutralizing antibodies must be present at the time of transmission to prevent infection.

Because the virus is so tricky, researchers generally consider that a therapeutic vaccine (administered after infection) is unfeasible. Instead, researchers are concentrating on a preventative or ‘prophylactic’ mRNA vaccine similar to those used by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna to fight COVID-19.

What is the science behind the vaccine?

The groundwork research was made possible by the discovery of broadly neutralizing HIV-1 antibodies (bnAbs) in 1990. They are the most potent human antibodies ever identified and are extremely rare, only developing in some patients with chronic HIV after years of infection.

Significantly, bnAbs can neutralize the particular viral strain infecting that patient and other variants of HIV–hence, the term ‘broad’ in broadly neutralizing antibodies. They achieve this by using unusual extensions not seen in other immune cells to penetrate the HIV envelope glycoprotein (Env). The Env is the virus’s outer shell, formed from the cell membrane of the host cell it has invaded, making it extremely difficult to destroy; still, bnAbs can target vulnerable sites on this shell to neutralize and eliminate infected cells.

Unfortunately, the antibodies do little to help chronic patients because there’s already too much virus in their systems; however, researchers theorize if an HIV-free person could produce bnABS, it might help protect them from infection.

Last year, the same organizations tested a vaccine based on this idea in extensive animal tests and a small human trial that didn’t employ mRNA technology. It showed that specific immunogens—substances that can provoke an immune response—triggered the desired antibodies in dozens of people participating in the research. “This study demonstrates proof of principle for a new vaccine concept for HIV,” said Professor William Schief, Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, who worked on the previous trial.

BnABS are the desired endgame with the potential HIV mRNA vaccine and the fundamental basis of its action. “The induction of bnAbs is widely considered to be a goal of HIV vaccination, and this is the first step in that process,” Moderna and the IAVI (International AIDS Vaccine Initiative) said in a statement.

So how exactly does the mRNA vaccine work?

The experimental HIV vaccine delivers coded mRNA instructions for two HIV proteins into the host’s cells: the immunogens are Env and Gag, which make up roughly 50% of the total virus particle. As a result, this triggers an immune response allowing the body to create the necessary defenses—antibodies and numerous white blood cells such as B cells and T cells—which then protect against the actual infection.

Later, the participants will also receive a booster immunogen containing Gag and Env mRNA from two other HIV strains to broaden the immune response, hopefully inducing bnABS.

Karie Youngdahl, a spokesperson for IAVI, clarified that the main aim of the vaccines is to stimulate “B cells that have the potential to produce bnAbs.” These then target the virus’s envelope—its outermost layer that protects its genetic material—to keep it from entering cells and infecting them.  

Pulling back, the team is adamant that the trial is still in the very early stages, with the volunteers possibly needing an unknown number of boosters.

“Further immunogens will be needed to guide the immune system on this path, but this prime-boost combination could be the first key element of an eventual HIV immunization regimen,” said Professor David Diemert, clinical director at George Washington University and a lead investigator in the trials.

What will happen in the Moderna HIV vaccine trial?

The Phase 1 trial consists of 56 healthy adults who are HIV negative to evaluate the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates mRNA-1644 and mRNA-1644v2-Core. Moderna will explore how to deliver their proprietary EOD-GT8 60mer immunogen with mRNA technology and investigate how to use it to direct B cells to make proteins that elicit bnABS with the expert aid of non-profit organizations. But readers should note that only one in every 300,000 B cells in the human body produces them to give an idea of the fragility of the probability involved here.

Sensibly, the trial isn’t ‘blind,’ which means everyone who receives the vaccine will know what they’re getting at this early stage. That’s because the scientists aren’t trying to work out how well the vaccine works in this first phase lasting approximately ten months – they want to make sure it’s safe and capable of mounting the desired immune response.

And even though there is much hype around this trial, experts caution that “Moderna are testing a complicated concept which starts the immune response against HIV,” says Robin Shattock, an immunologist at Imperial College London, to the Independent. “It gets you to first base, but it’s not a home run. Essentially, we recognize that you need a series of vaccines to induce a response that gives you the breadth needed to neutralize HIV. The mRNA technology may be key to solving the HIV vaccine issue, but it’s going to be a multi-year process.”

And after this long period, if the vaccine is found to be safe and shows signs of producing an immune response, it will progress to more extensive real-world studies and a possible solution to a virus that is still decimating whole communities.

Still, this hybrid collaboration offers future hope regarding the prioritization of humans over financial gain in clinical trials – the proof is that most HIV patients are citizens of the third world.

As IAVI president Mark Feinberg wrote in June at the 40th anniversary of the HIV epidemic: “The only real hope we have of ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic is through the deployment of an effective HIV vaccine, one that is achieved through the work of partners, advocates, and community members joining hands to do together what no one individual or group can do on its own.”

Whatever the outcome, money is no longer a prerogative here, and with luck, we may see more trials based on this premise very soon.

Study on mice: Exercising later in life can keep your muscles young

Exercising can not only make you feel younger, but it can also actually keep you younger as well. A study on mice suggests that exercising, even later in life, can do wonders for your muscles. In addition to underscoring the importance of staying active, the study could also help us uncover some of the secrets of rejuvenation.

Even though some diseases are inherited, we can still improve our overall health through lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise. Still, whatever the reason, the genes related to some of these conditions must be expressed for them to develop. So how does this happen?

A new study has brought us closer to an answer by mapping the genetic changes involved in rejuvenating the muscle cells of elderly mice put on an exercise program.

Turning genes on and off

The analysis centers on DNA, the “blueprint” for our bodies. DNA consists of four bases, called cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, and the process used to help manage these massive helixes: a methyl molecule composed of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms. These atoms attach themselves to one of the four bases (cytosine) to form what’s known as a CpG site.

When this occurs, the CpG becomes methylated and the site produces proteins to regulate something in the body — whatever that something may be. In contrast, the region becomes unmethylated when you lose that methyl group, turning that gene off. In this way, a process called DNA methylation can promote or inhibit the expression of specific genes — whether it’s stopping a tumor, preventing cancer, or activating genes responsible for causing wrinkles in old age. This process is constant, occurring billions of times a second in every cell throughout the body, and we’re just starting to understand it.

DNA methylation is one of the many mechanisms of epigenetics, where inborn or acquired changes in DNA don’t touch the actual sequence – meaning a person can potentially reverse things like fat deposits through diet or exercise. More and more studies are starting to suggest that this is an unharnessed and robust process, linked to longevity and the regulation of lifespan in most organisms on earth.

The current study attempts to further this theory using lifestyle interventions such as exercise to roll back genetic aging in skeletal muscle – measuring the animal’s ‘epigenetic clock’ for accuracy. This clock is measured via methylation levels in the blood to reflect exposures and disease risks independent of chronological age, providing an early-warning system and a true representation of a period of existence.

Kevin Murach, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, says, “DNA methylation changes in a lifespan tend to happen in a somewhat systematic fashion. To the point, you can look at someone’s DNA from a given tissue sample and with a fair degree of accuracy predict their chronological age.”

Using exercise to turn back the clock

The study design was relatively simple: mice nearing the end of their natural lifespan, at 22 months, were given access to a weighted exercise wheel to ensure they built muscle. They required no coercion to run on the wheel, with older mice running from six to eight kilometers a day, mostly in spurts, and younger mice running up to 10-12 kilometers.

Results from the elderly mice after two months of weighted wheel running suggested they were the epigenetic age of mice eight weeks younger, compared to sedentary mice of the same maturity.

The team also used the epigenetic clock to map a multitude of genes involved in the formation and function of muscles, including those affected by exercise. Blood work indicated that the genes usually over methylated (hypermethylated) in old age resumed normal methylation in the active aged mice, unlike those mapped in their sedentary counterparts.

For instance, the rbm10 gene is usually hypermethylated in old age, disrupting the production of proteins involved in motor neuron survival, muscle weight & function, and the growth of striated muscle. Here it was shown to undergo less methylation in older mice who exercised, improving its performance. Normal methylation levels also resumed across the Timm8a1 gene, keeping mitochondrial function and oxidant defense at workable levels – even where neighboring sites exhibited dysfunctional epigenetic alterations.

More work is needed to harness DNA methylation

Murach notes that when a lifespan is measured incrementally in months, as with this mouse strain, an extra eight weeks — roughly 10 percent of that lifespan — is a noteworthy gain, further commending the importance of exercise in later life.

He adds: that although the connection between methylation and aging is clear, methylation and muscle function are less clear. Despite these sturdy results, Murach will not categorically state that the reversal of methylation with exercise is causative for improved muscle health. “That’s not what the study was set up to do,” he explained. However, he intends to pursue future studies to determine if “changes in methylation result in altered muscle function.”

And, “If so, what are the consequences of this?” he continued. “Do changes on these very specific methylation sites have an actual phenotype that emerges from that? Is it what’s causing aging or is it just associated with it? Is it just something that happens in concert with a variety of other things that are happening during the aging process? So that’s what we don’t know.”

He summarizes that once the medical community has mapped the mechanics of dynamic DNA methylation in muscle, their work could provide modifiable epigenetic markers to improve muscle health in the elderly. 

Anonymizing smartphone data is no longer enough — users can be identified with just a few details

Vast amounts of data from users are available to smartphone companies. Companies ensure us that this data is anonymized — devoid of personal indicators that could pinpoint individual users. But these insurances are hollow, a new study claims: a skilled attacker can identify individuals in anonymous datasets.

Image credits: Olia Nayda.

When the pandemic started and lockdowns were enforced, the world seemed to grind to a halt. You could see that easily just by looking around, but the data also confirmed it. For instance, mobility trends published by the likes of Apple and Google showed that a significant part of the population had stopped commuting to work, and people were increasingly using more cars and less public transit.

At first, users were understandably spooked by the data. Do tech companies know where I go and what I do? That’s not how it goes, the companies assured us. The data is anonymized — they know a user went somewhere and did something, but they don’t know who that user is. Other apps also scoop vast quantities of data from your smartphone, either for ad targeting or for other purposes, though in many cases, they are still legally mandated to make the data anonymized, removing all identifiable bits like names and phone numbers.

But that’s no longer enough. With just a few details (like for instance, how they communicate with an app like WhatsApp), researchers were able to identify many users from anonymized data. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, associate professor at Imperial College London and one of the study authors, told AFP it’s time to “reinvent what anonymisation means”.

What is anonymous?

The researchers started by looking at anonymized data from around 40,000 smartphone users, mostly gathered from messaging apps. They then “attacked” the data — mimicking a process a malicious actor would do. Essentially, this involved searching for patterns in the data to see whether it could be figured out who individual users are.

With only the direct contacts included in the dataset, they were able to pinpoint individual users 15% of the time. When, in addition, further interactions between those primary contacts were included, they were able to identify 52% of the users.

This doesn’t mean that we should give up on anonymization, the researchers explain. However, we should strengthen what this anonymization means, making sure that the data is indeed anonymous.

“Our results provide evidence that disconnected and even re-pseudonymised interaction data remain identifiable even across long periods of time,” the researchers wrote. “These results strongly suggest that current practices may not satisfy the anonymisation standard set forth by (European regulators) in particular with regard to the linkability criteria.”

“Our results provide strong evidence that disconnected and even re-pseudonymized interaction data can be linked together,” the researchers conclude.

Researchers suggest restricting large datasets to simple questions-and-answers systems or using differential privacy systems that add arbitrary substitutions that ensure data privacy,

The study was published in Nature Communications.

Scientists identify the specific gene that protects against severe COVID-19

Researchers from Karolinska University have discovered a gene that reduces the severity of Covid infections by 20%. In their paper the scientists state that this explains why the disease’s symptoms are so variable, hitting some harder than others.

Why do some people fall severely ill from COVID-19 while others don’t? In addition to risk factors like age or obesity and plenty of other environmental factors, it also comes down to our varying genetic makeup. Therefore, researchers across the globe have begun the mammoth task of mapping the genes involved in making people more susceptible to catching SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and developing a severe infection.

These large-scale efforts have thrown up more than a dozen genomic regions along the human chromosome containing large clusters of genes associated with severe COVID-19. However, the specific causal genes in these regions are yet to be identified, hampering our ability to understand COVID-19’s often selective pathology.

Now, scientists build on these findings to pinpoint a gene that confers protection from critical illness.

Neanderthal DNA protects against severe COVID-19

The previous studies from 2020 concentrated on the genetic data of people of European ancestry recorded by multi-disciplinary teams all over the world for the 1000 Genomes Project. This monumental collaboration uncovered a specific segment of DNA known as the OAS1/2/3 cluster, which lowers the risk of developing an acute COVID-19 infection by 20%. Inherited from Neanderthals in roughly half of all people outside of Africa, this segment is responsible for encoding genes in the immune system.

The genetic array came about as a result of the migration of an archaic human species out of the African continent about 70,000 years ago who mated and mingled DNA with Neanderthals reproduced in their offspring’s haplotypes, a set of inheritable DNA variations close together along a chromosome. 

However, most human haplotypes outside Africa now include DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans (an ancient human originating in Asia). Consequently, this ancient region of DNA is heaving with numerous genetic variants, making it challenging to distinguish the exact protective gene that could serve as a target for medical treatment against severe COVID-19 infection.

A possible solution is that people of African descent do not contain these archaic genes in their haplotypes, making them shorter and easier to decipher.

To test this theory, the researchers checked the 1000 Genomes project database for individuals carrying only parts of this DNA segment – focusing on individuals with African ancestry who lack heritage from the Neanderthals. Remarkably, the researchers found that individuals of predominantly African ancestry had the same protective gene cluster as those of European origin.

Genetic studies should be a multi-cultural affair

Once they established this, the researchers collated 2,787 COVID-19 cases with the genetic data of 130,997 individuals of African ancestry to reveal the gene variant rs10774671 G thought to convey protection against COVID-19 hospitalization. Their results correspond to a previous, more extensive study of individuals of European heritage, with analysis suggesting it is likely the only causal variant behind the protective effect.

Surprisingly, this previously ‘useless’ ancient variant was found to be widespread, present in one out of every three people of white European ancestry and eight out of ten individuals of African descent.

In evolutionary terms, the researchers write that the variant exists today in both these gene pools “as a result of their inheritance from the ancestral population common to both modern humans and Neanderthals.” Accordingly, their data adds more weight to the standard held theory that a common ancestor originated in Africa millions of years ago before sharing their DNA across the globe.

And while there’s much more to uncover regarding the newly discovered variant, the researchers can firmly suggest at this stage that the protective gene variant (rs10774671 G) works by determining the length of a protein encoded by the gene OAS1. As the longer version of the protein is more effective at breaking down the virus than the unaltered form, a life-threatening infection is less likely to occur.

Using genetic risk factors to design new COVID-19 drugs

Despite their promising results, the team cautions that the 1000 Genomes Project does not provide a complete picture of this genomic region for different ancestries. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Neanderthal haplotype is virtually absent among individuals of primarily African ancestry, adding, “How important it is to include individuals of different ancestries” in large-scale genetic studies.

Senior researcher Brent Richards from McGill University says that it is in this way “we are beginning to understand the genetic risk factors in detail is key to developing new drugs against COVID-19.”

If these results are anything to go by, we could be on the cusp of novel treatments that can harness the immune system to fight this disease.

Archaeologists discover forgotten structures in Peru’s Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, built high in the Andes by the Inca civilization more than 500 years ago, remains one of the most fascinating and popular attractions for visitors to South America. The site, as well as the surrounding Machu Picchu National Park, also remains an important site for archaeological research, with new discoveries made to this day — as was the case with a new study.

Image credit: Flickr / Sandeepachetan

In a new study, a team of archaeologists from the University of Warsaw used drones and laser technology to explore the area around the Inca complex Chachabamba, a ceremonial center focused on water. They found a dozen previously-unknown small structures erected in a circular and rectangular pattern at the edge of the complex. 

The researchers suggest that the structures were inhabited by the individuals that operated Chachabamba. Dominika Sieczkowska, lead author of the study, told local media that there are indications that women were the main caretakers of the complex, based on objects discovered during previous archaeological studies. 

The ruins of Chachabamba, discovered around 1940, are located on an old Inca road along the southern bank of the Urubamba River. It was an important religious site, with a set of baths that were likely used for rituals. It’s also believed to have had a secondary function as a gatehouse, guarding the entrance to Machu Picchu. 

The area is difficult to study, as the ruins lie deep in the jungle. Also, in 2012, mudslides restricted access to the ruins even further. Seeking to further understand the area, and using novel archaeological approaches, researchers began doing archaeological research at the site in 2016. Now, they’ve published their findings. 

“This study was conducted to answer several fundamental questions,” the team wrote in their paper. “The amount of water that flowed through the channels which supplied water to the bathhouse system is unknown. a greater or lesser speed and quantity of water flow may have been crucial for the ceremonies performed in the baths.”

An innovative approach

A lidar view of the Vilcanota Valley and Chachabamba. Image credits: B. Ćmielewski.

For their study, the researchers used a relatively new tool in archaeology known as light detection and ranging (or LiDAR). Lidar uses a pulsed laser to estimate the variable distances of an object from the Earth’s surface. These pulses, together with data collected by an airborne system, generate 3D information about the target object.

LiDAR has become a valuable tool for archaeologists to study areas that are either dangerous or inaccessible to study. In 2018, Peru ordered a LiDAR survey by helicopter of the ruins of Chachabamba. While the data provided information over the area, it wasn’t sufficiently detailed, leading to researchers using drones for this study instead. All in all, drones and Lidar open up new avenues for archaeological research, especially in cases where objectives are remote and difficult to observe directly.

A ceremonial sector at the Chachabamba site. Image credits: D. Sieczkowska.

The scans showed 12 structures close to the main ceremonial part of Chachabamba and a set of underground stone canals. These were fed by the Urubamba River and supplied water across the site. The researchers then used computer simulations to re-create how water may have flowed to the ritual baths, based on the canal’s death.

“We can conclude that the water in the hydraulic system at Chachabamba served a more symbolic than utilitarian purpose (for example, the filling of vessels for domestic use). Our calculations indicate that the water may have flowed unevenly throughout the system and overflowed in certain parts of the channels,” the researchers wrote.

No doubt, many other structures await detection in South America’s deep jungle — we’re merely scratching the surface.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. 

China builds the world’s first artificial moon

Chinese scientists have built an ‘artificial moon’ possessing lunar-like gravity to help them prepare astronauts for future exploration missions. The structure uses a powerful magnetic field to produce the celestial landscape — an approach inspired by experiments once used to levitate a frog.

The key component is a vacuum chamber that houses an artificial moon measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter. Image credits: Li Ruilin, China University of Mining and Technology

Preparing to colonize the moon

Simulating low gravity on Earth is a complex process. Current techniques require either flying a plane that enters a free fall and then climbs back up again or jumping off a drop tower — but these both last mere minutes. With the new invention, the magnetic field can be switched on or off as needed, producing no gravity, lunar gravity, or earth-level gravity instantly. It is also strong enough to magnetize and levitate other objects against the gravitational force for as long as needed.

All of this means that scientists will be able to test equipment in the extreme simulated environment to prevent costly mistakes. This is beneficial as problems can arise in missions due to the lack of atmosphere on the moon, meaning the temperature changes quickly and dramatically. And in low gravity, rocks and dust may behave in a completely different way than on Earth – as they are more loosely bound to each other.

Engineers from the China University of Mining and Technology built the facility (which they plan to launch in the coming months) in the eastern city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province. A vacuum chamber, containing no air, houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter at its heart. The artificial landscape consists of rocks and dust as light as those found on the lunar surface-where gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as that on Earth–due to powerful magnets that levitate the room above the ground. They plan to test a host of technologies whose primary purpose is to perform tasks and build structures on the surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite.

Group leader Li Ruilin from the China University of Mining and Technology says it’s the “first of its kind in the world” that will take lunar simulation to a whole new level. Adding that their artificial moon makes gravity “disappear.” For “as long as you want,” he adds.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the team explains that some experiments take just a few seconds, such as an impact test. Meanwhile, others like creep testing (where the amount a material deforms under stress is measured) can take several days.

Li said astronauts could also use it to determine whether 3D printing structures on the surface is possible rather than deploying heavy equipment they can’t use on the mission. He continues:

“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface.”

It could also help assess whether a permanent human settlement could be built there, including issues like how well the surface traps heat.

From amphibians to artificial celestial bodies

The group explains that the idea originates from Russian-born UK-based physicist Andre Geim’s experiments which saw him levitate a frog with a magnet – that gained him a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000, which celebrates science that “first makes people laugh, and then think.” Geim also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The foundation of his work involves a phenomenon known as diamagnetic levitation, where scientists apply an external magnetic force to any material. In turn, this field induces a weak repulsion between the object and the magnets, causing it to drift away from them and ‘float’ in midair.

For this to happen, the magnetic force must be strong enough to ‘magnetize’ the atoms that make up a material. Essentially, the atoms inside the object (or frog) acts as tiny magnets, subject to the magnetic force existing around them. If the magnet is powerful enough, it will change the direction of the electrons revolving around the atom’s nuclei, allowing them to produce a magnetic field to repulse the magnets.

Diamagnetic levitation of a tiny horse. Image credits: Pieter Kuiper / Wiki Commons.

Different substances on Earth have varying degrees of diamagnetism which affect their ability to levitate under a magnetic field; adding a vacuum, as was done here, allowed the researchers to produce an isolated chamber that mimics a microgravity environment.

However, simulating the harsh lunar environment was no easy task as the magnetic force needed is so strong it could tear apart components such as superconducting wires. It also affected the many metallic parts necessary for the vacuum chamber, which do not function properly near a powerful magnet.

To counteract this, the team came up with several technical innovations, including simulating lunar dust that could float a lot easier in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in many of the critical components.

The new space race

This breakthrough signals China’s intent to take first place in the international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program (named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e), whose recent missions include landing a rover on the dark side of the moon in 2019 and 2020 that saw rock samples brought back to Earth for the first time in over 40 years.

Next, China wants to establish a joint lunar research base with Russia, which could start as soon as 2027.  

The new simulator will help China better prepare for its future space missions. For instance, the Chang’e 5 mission returned with far fewer rock samples than planned in December 2020, as the drill hit unexpected resistance. Previous missions led by Russia and the US have also had related issues.

Experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator suggested drill resistance on the moon could be much higher than predicted by purely computational models, according to a study by the Xuzhou team published in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology. The authors hope this paper will enable space engineers across the globe (and in the future, the moon) to alter their equipment before launching multi-billion dollar missions.

The team is adamant that the facility will be open to researchers worldwide, and that includes Geim. “We definitely welcome Professor Geim to come and share more great ideas with us,” Li said.

Science may not be the meritocracy we thought it to be: gender and race discrepancies are prevalent

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers highlighted the disparities in the scientific community in the US. Simply put, the US scientific workforce is not representative of the population. Barriers to entry and participation prevent important segments of the population, especially when it comes to race and gender.

Concepción Feminist Mural in Madrid. Wikimedia commons.

Researchers investigated the representation of different groups between more than 1 million articles in the Web of Science between 2008 and 2019. The groups are racial categories constructed in the American society: White, Black, Asian, and Latinx. These categories were also divided by gender (male and female).

The data showed that women, Black and Latinx scientists are underrepresented in various different scientific topics, while White and Asian men are generally overrepresented. In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Black, Latinx, and White women are underrepresented and Asian women have a medium representation. This is different in Psychology and Arts, both Asian women and men are underrepresented.

The most over-represented group in STEM are Asian men and, and the same carries in social sciences more related to economy and logistics topics. Black scientists are better represented only in research fields related to racial inequalities and African or African American culture. Something similar happens to Latinx authors that seem to be more involved in topics such as immigration, political identities, and racism. 

This graphic shows the representation of various racial, ethnic, and gender groups as published authors in various fields. It shows that Latino, Black, and white women are significantly underrepresented as authors in engineering and technology, mathematics, and physics publications and are heavily overrepresented in health fields. Credit: Diego Kozlowski/University of Luxembourg.

The authors also compared how specialized each group is. Asian scientists are more focused on a specific topic compared to White authors who are more scattered among the topics. In contrast, topics regarding gender identity and inequality are the focus of Black and Latinx women, emphasizing the gender role imposed in society and signaling that women are trying to shift perceptions in this field.

In terms of citation, Asian men are more cited in Social Sciences and are more likely to be involved in topics that are highly cited. In the Health topics, White authors are more cited, followed by Black, Asian, and Latinx. This is a clear confirmation that minoritized groups are more cited in topics less favored in the scientific community and are less cited in both lowly and highly cited topics.

These inequalities are indicative of the inequalities in American society. While this study focused on the US, this is a global problem that needs to be addressed. In addition to making academia fairer and more inclusive, research has also shown that diversity among research teams fosters innovation and more impactful research. For now, it appears the open and fair academia may not be all that open and fair after all.

Electric knee implants could help millions of arthritis patients

An answer could be on the horizon for millions of people living with arthritis after scientists have found a way to repair joints using electrical implants. The implants work by producing a current every time the person moves their joint to regrow the protective cartilage that cover the ends of bones .

Bioengineers from the University of Connecticut developed a biodegradable mesh implant, about half a millimeter thick, which generated tiny electrical signals to repair arthritic joints in rabbits. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, saw the team successfully regrow cartilage in rabbits’ knees without using potentially toxic growth factors or stem cells. Crucially, the cartilage that grows back is mechanically robust, with further plans to trial the implant in larger animals and humans.

In their white paper, the team states that although more work is needed to improve the scaffold, this study provides evidence that biodegradable implants that produce electricity independently can use exercise to treat arthritis.

No cure for arthritis despite tens of millions of sufferers

According to the CDC, 58.5 million people currently have arthritis in the United States, which costs the American people $303.5 billion annually. While there are treatments, arthritis technically has no cure.

It is a widespread and painful disease caused by damage to joints formed between the body’s bones. One of the subtypes of this disease, called osteoarthritis, attacks the cartilage at the end of bones in the joint. As this buffer deteriorates, bones begin to rub against each other so that everyday activities like walking become agonizingly painful – making the growth of new cartilage highly desirable. 

Sufferers face years of pain without surgical or pharmaceutical intervention, but these treatments can only slow down the damage instead of repairing damage to the joint. However, even this process involves taking healthy cartilage from the patient or a donor and comes with inconveniences and risks.

Therefore, regrowing healthy cartilage in the damaged joint itself would be very helpful. Some researchers have investigated chemical growth factors to induce the body to regrow it; other attempts rely on a bioengineered scaffold to promote tissue growth. But, neither of these approaches works-even in combination-with the regrown cartilage breaking under the everyday stresses of the joint.

Your joints can generate electricity to heal you

The new breakthrough involves a tissue scaffold made out of poly-L lactic acid (PLLA) nanofibers, a material often used to stitch surgical wounds that dissolve after the person heals. The scaffold produces a little burst of electrical current when squeezed in a process known as piezoelectricity. In this case, the joint’s regular ‘squeezing’ is provided by walking, which generates a weak electrical field that encourages cells to colonize the implant and grow into cartilage.

“Piezoelectricity is a phenomenon that also exists in the human body. Bone, cartilage, collagen, DNA, and various proteins have a piezoelectric response. Our approach to healing cartilage is highly clinically translational, and we will look into the related healing mechanism”, says Dr. Yang Liu, a postdoctoral fellow in Nguyen’s group and the lead author of the published work.

Nguyen’s group implanted their scaffold in the knee of injured rabbits. After a month in recovery, the rabbits were encouraged to walk for 20 minutes a day on a slow-moving treadmill to exercise their legs and generate the electric current. The charge encouraged the regrowth of fresh, mechanically robust cartilage, making the knee as solid and functional as before it was injured. Whereas rabbits treated with nonpiezoelectric scaffold and exercise treatment still had a hole in this protective sheath and limited healing.

In an interview with New Scientist, Thanh Nguyen, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering, says, “If used in people, the material used to make the implant would dissolve after about two months – although it could be tweaked to make it last longer.”

What next for this promising implant?

Nguyen states that the results are exciting but cautions that further tests need to be carried out on larger animals that bear more similarities to humans.

His lab now plans to observe the treated animals for 1-2 years to ensure the cartilage is durable and wants to test the PLLA scaffolds in older animals as arthritis usually affects the elderly. He concludes by saying that if the scaffolding helps older animals heal, it indeed could be a bioengineering breakthrough.