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Talk nerdy to me

This week, we’re looking at a venomous spider that could solve stomach pain, energy you can generate while you walk, and a breakthrough in bioengineered organs.

Wind walkers

There are few natural ways to feel more invigorated than taking a brisk walk. Something about getting your body moving can actually give you energy, and walking can completely change your long-term health. Now, researchers have found a way to turn your strolls into another kind of energy.

<strong>Personal power.</strong> Someday, taking a brisk walk could power your phone, thanks to a tiny wind turbine that scavenges energy.Scientists from the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created a tiny device comprised of two plastic strips that flutter when air moves through them. Much like scuffing your slippers on the carpet to produce a static shock, these two strips can generate and hold onto energy. What’s more, the breeze only needs to be moving at 3.6 mph, which is a speed that can be achieved simply by walking or swinging your arm.

In the future, researcher Ya Yang would like to use the technology to provide sustainable power for small devices like phones and also to scale up the technology to be competitive with traditional wind turbines.

A pain in the gut

When you’re suffering from stomach pain, what do you do? Do you chew some ginger candy? Or drink a tonic of lemon juice and baking soda? What about letting a venomous spider bite you?

The bite that soothes. Molecules from the venom of a tarantula could help researchers develop pain solutions for people with chronic intestinal pain. Courtesy Institute for Molecular Bioscience, University of Queensland.

That last one may seem out of place, but recent research shows that tarantula venom may hold promise for reducing stomach pain. Of course, scientists at The University of Queensland weren’t letting spiders bite patients. Spider venom contains hundreds of peptides that can inhibit the voltage-gated ion channels in cell membranes that are responsible for chronic pain from internal organs. 

The researchers investigated the venom of 28 spiders and found that the Venezuelan PinkFoot Goliath tarantula had two promising molecules in its venom. This will be welcome news to the many sufferers of chronic intestinal pain who find little or no relief from current drugs. 

Painful pandemic

Speaking of pain, we’ve got a story about a certain global pandemic you may have heard about. We’re learning new things about the SARS-CoV-2 virus all the time, and scientists are starting to realize the role it could play in pain relief medication research.

<strong>On the bright side?</strong> The routes by which the SARS-CoV-2 virus may attack human nerve cells could lead to innovation to treat chronic pain. We’ve previously talked about how the virus enters the human cell through the ACE2 receptor. But the virus may have another pathway to infection by binding to a protein on human nerve cells, neuropilin-1. This could be one reason why people who are infected continue to feel fine and spread the disease without knowing it.

That’s why researchers at the University of Arizona are currently investigating if the virus interrupts a certain interaction between the neuropilin-1 protein and pain receptors. Learning more about this can help us not only learn about this virus, but also more about how pain works.

Copycat

If you grew up with a sibling, you know that a great way to annoy them is to repeat everything they do and say. For whatever reason, people seem to hate it when other humans do exactly as they do. However, change the imitator into a cat and you’ve got a basis for some real scientific inquiry

<strong>How smart are cats?</strong> Ebisu, a cat in Japan, can imitate her owner’s actions—an important measure of cognition in animals. Courtesy Fumi Higaki. Ebisu, an 11-year-old cat owned by a dog trainer in Japan, was able to learn that the command “Do as I do” meant to watch her owner and repeat her actions. While this kind of behavior is common in dogs, the only other animals previously known to understand imitation were dolphins, parrots, apes, and killer whales.

But Ebisu’s actions suggest the ability may be more widespread. Ebisu’s owner was a professional trainer, and Ebisu was known to be highly food-motivated, which likely led to her success in following commands. Cats are notoriously hard to study and this research suggests they may have greater abilities than they’re willing to let us know.  

What good is a miniature intestine?

Organoids are miniature organs and tissues grown in a lab that mimic the structure and behavior of their real counterparts. They hold a lot of promise for medical applications but so far have suffered from short lifespans and anatomical inconsistency.

Miniature intestines produced in Switzerland match up anatomically and functionally better than any previous lab-grown tissue models. Courtesy EPFL.

But now bioengineers at EPFL have guided stem cells to grow into a functionally and anatomically correct miniature intestine. This involves shaping the stem cells around a tube-shaped scaffold similar to the surface of native biological tissue. To the scientists’ surprise, as the stem cells spread across the scaffold, they automatically produced the different cell types found in a real gut, with the correct spatial organization. 

While the researchers hint that this work could eventually lead to replacements for damaged tissues, the immediate promise lies in the ability to study interactions between different cell types, leading to new applications in disease modeling and drug discovery.

 

 

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