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Talk nerdy to me

This week we look at why videoconferences aren’t emotionally satisfying, an artificial limb controlled by the mind, genetically engineered plants that make their own light, and more.

The eye of the beholder

Videoconferencing was first conceptualized in the 1870s, and AT&T demonstrated a one-way video phone call in 1927. But videoconferencing has finally come into its own now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to work from home.

<strong>Videoconferences don’t satisfy</strong> because they lack eye contact, say researchers at Tampere University. Courtesy Jonne Renvall.But many of us have found that talking to coworkers on a screen is not at all the same as face-to-face. So what is it that’s missing?

Researchers at Tampere University in Finland hoped to find out by looking at the way our bodies react to eye contact in different situations—in-person interaction, over a video call, and watching a video. The researchers measured skin conductance—which reflects engagement of the autonomic nervous system —and activation of facial muscles in response to another person’s direct or averted gaze.

The good news: The researchers found that when eye contact happened in-person or on a video call, the autonomic nervous system responded. Study author Jonne Hietanen, says the results imply that this activation requires only the perception of being seen by someone. Physical presence is not needed.

The bad news? Most video conferencing systems do not permit eye contact.

Implanting sensation

A new arm prosthesis will allow people with amputations to experience sensations of touch. It works much like a biological arm thanks to an implant system that anchors the prosthesis to the skeleton in the stump of the amputated limb.

Patients control this prosthetic arm directly with their minds, thanks to an advanced implant that sends signals between the prosthesis and the brain. Courtesy Chalmers University of Technology.

The new implant, called e-OPRA, sends signals in both directions between the prosthesis and the brain.

The patient’s mind controls the prosthesis via the electrical muscle and nerve signals sent through the arm stump and captured by electrodes. The system fits inside the prosthesis and processes signals using AI algorithms. Three patients have been successfully using the mind-controlled prostheses for several years.

This new type of prosthesis is a clinically practical replacement for a lost arm, says research leader Max Ortiz Catalan of Chalmers University of Technology. “No matter how sophisticated a neural interface becomes, it can only deliver real benefit to patients if the connection between the patient and the prosthesis is safe and reliable in the long-term.”

The technology is close to becoming a finished product, and the team is now working on adapting the system for leg prostheses.

Growing and glowing

Bioluminescence, the production and emission of light by living organisms, occurs naturally in many of Earth’s species. The ability to light up serves many functions including camouflage, attraction, communication, and mimicry. 

The glow up. DNA from bioluminescent fungi was used to create tobacco plants that glow with visible light over their life cycle. Courtesy ScienceAlert.

While scientists have produced glowing plants in the past, the work of a team at the Russian Academy of Sciences has shed new light (pardon the pun) on the process. The researchers have genetically engineered a plant with a self-sustaining glow that lasts for the duration of the plant's life cycle.

Two species of tobacco plant were engineered with the genes of bioluminescent fungi. The result was a brighter glow than previously engineered plants. The new plants also don’t have to consume chemicals to maintain the glow. 

In the future, we may use glowing plants to reduce our dependence on electric lighting. For the present, the team hopes to expand their research to flowering plants like periwinkles, petunias, and roses. They hope to produce plants with a brighter glow and different colors.

New life for old sneakers

Polyurethane foams—widely used in mattresses, insulation, and sneakers—usually end up in a landfill. The foam’s chemical bonds are so strong the only recycling option is to shred the material for re-use in carpets.

<strong>Turning old shoes into shopping cart wheels.</strong> A new upcycling process for polyurethane foam means old mattresses and sneakers could be diverted from landfills and turned into new products. But now researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota have developed a method for upcycling this persistent foam. The new process involves mixing postconsumer polyurethane foam waste with a catalyst solution that makes the foam malleable. A “twin-screw” extrusion process removes air from the foam to create a new material in the shape of either a hard, durable plastic or soft, flexible film.

The foam waste can then be processed into higher quality rubbers and hard plastics for use in products like shoe cushioning, watch wristbands, and shopping cart wheels. Chemistry professor William Dichtel says that the work, “Could pave the way for industry to begin recycling polyurethane foam waste for many relevant applications.”

This beetle is nothing to sneeze at

As the global climate continues to warm, pollen seasons “will start sooner, last longer, and produce more pollen than in the past,” according to a 2018 Climate.gov report. That’s bad news for the millions who suffer from allergies. But a tiny beetle may come to the rescue. 

<strong>The ragweed leaf beetle</strong> is so hungry for ragweed that it can prevent the plant from flowering. No flowers means no pollen means a lot less sneezing. Ragweed is one of the most common weed allergies—and the ragweed leaf beetle, Ophraella communa, loves to much on its leaves and flowers. So much so that it can actually reduce the amount of pollen the plant produces, bringing relief to sufferers.  

The beetle is native to North America, but was recently discovered inhabiting northern Italy. According to research led by Heinz Müller-Schärer, a biologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, the voracious insect prevented most ragweed plants in the region from flowering.

Müller-Schärer found that the insect can reduce pollen production by 82%. In countries with a similarly mild climate, the beetle can produce up to four generations a year. That many beetles could reduce the number of people in Europe with ragweed-related allergy symptoms by approximately 2.3 million. Associated health costs could drop by 1.1 billion euros.

"A few beetles can defoliate a large plant in two to three days completely, then they regrow but are eaten up again. Ophraella is a feeding machine 24 hours a day," Müller-Schärer said.

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