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This week we’re looking at new water on the Moon, the possibility of 100-percent efficient engines, the trick to growing organoids, a new approach to suicide prevention, and more.

Want to grow organs faster? Give them a squeeze

Scientists at MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital are squeezing lab-grown mini-organs to make them grow faster. Squeezing wrings water out of a cell and brings proteins and other cell constituents into greater proximity. That closeness triggers signals that activate cell growth and division. 

<strong>Squeezing brings</strong> cell constituents into greater proximity, promoting growth and cell division. The number of dividing cells in organoides increases under compression, as seen in the bottom row, during three passages. Courtesy Yiwei Li. In the study, squeezing intestinal cells prompted proteins to turn on a pathway that helps cells maintain a stem-cell state. This state allows cells to quickly grow into more specialized cells. By promoting this ‘stemness,’ cells can be directed to build miniature organs which are used to test drug candidates and better understand organ function.

The technique could one day be used to harvest cells from an individual and, by squeezing them to transform into stem-like cells, grow custom organoids on which to try out personalized drugs and treatments.

The octopus in the operating room

A soft, octopus-sucker-inspired device can transfer thin, fragile sheets of cells, tissue, or flexible electronics in just ten seconds. Courtesy University of Illinois.

Thin sheets of cells have increasingly been used to treat injured or diseased tissues, but these living substances are tricky to handle. Simply gripping or picking up the delicate sheets can cause them to crumple or tear, limiting their practical application. Surgeons need to work and transplant quickly, but current methods for transfer and release take 30-60 minutes for a single tissue sheet. 

Enter the octopus, which can pick up objects of all shapes thanks to small pressure changes in their suction cups. A new device developed by researchers at the University of Illinois is inspired by the cephalopod’s sucker. By using heat to create and release suction, it can pick up and apply thin, delicate sheets without damaging them—and it only takes 10 seconds.

The 100 percent efficient engine 

The combustion engine in a typical car only converts about 25 percent of the energy in gasoline into useful energy. But what if there were an engine that could convert 100 percent of the fuel’s potential?

<strong>Future fuel.</strong> Professor of physics Andrew Jordan is experimenting with quantum engines that may be able to run at 100 percent efficiency. Courtesy Lindsey Valich, University of Rochester.In the quantum world, particles exhibit unique properties that don’t align with the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Quantum measurement engines could use the principles of quantum mechanics to run with 100 percent efficiency.

Such engines have previously been described, but now researchers at the University of Rochester are designing experiments that can be carried out within a realistic quantum system. These quantum engines could be used for very low power tasks, such as moving an atom or charging a microscopic circuit, and may be important components for quantum computers.  

So how could they be scaled up for human-sized activities? Massive parallelization, says Rochester physics professor Andrew Jordan. “Each device only outputs a tiny amount of energy, but by making billions of them working together, you could make a macroscopic engine from the ground up.”

Moon river

The SOFIA flying observatory has detected water on the sunlit side of the moon, NASA reported this week. Scientists previously knew that ice existed in deep, permanently shadowed craters around the Moon’s poles, but this latest discovery raises questions about how water persists under such harsh, airless conditions.

Water discovered. Scientists using NASA’s telescope on an airplane, SOFIA, discovered water on a sunlit surface of the Moon for the first time. Courtesy NASA Ames Research Center.

One possibility is that micrometeorites falling on the lunar surface deposit tiny amounts of water. Or a chemical reaction between hydrogen delivered by the Sun’s solar wind and oxygen-bearing minerals in the Moon’s soil—helped by a little radiation—could be creating the water on the spot. 

Whatever the cause, the discovery presents interesting possibilities for future Moon missions. Water is very rare in space, and if it is widespread even in small amounts, it could aid future human space exploration. “If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries,” says NASA scientist Jacob Bleacher.    

Reducing the risk

Suicide rates have been rising for the past twenty years. Mental health treatments are available, but it can be difficult for clinicians to determine which patients will make an attempt at ending their own life.

<strong>Overlooked danger.</strong> A new machine-learning algorithm scans electronic health records to predict whether a patient is in danger of a suicide attempt. Courtesy Centers for Disease Control (CDC).A new artificial intelligence algorithm developed by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and University of South Florida reads electronic health records to identify patients at highest risk of self-harm.

More than eighty percent of information in electronic health records is in text format, such as clinical notes and progress reports. The new algorithm is unique in accessing and analyzing these narrative texts for risk-assessment. Trained on archival records, the machine model learned which patterns of language in the clinical notes indicated self-harm and  ultimately reached an accuracy rate of nearly 80 percent.

The success of models like this one could help clinicians refer high-risk patients for treatment earlier and potentially avert more cases of self-harm and suicide.

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