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In recent research news, scientists have developed a device powered by body heat, an app that helps people change their personalities, a radical stem-cell-based approach to evolutionary studies, and more.

Digital olfactory disease detection

Detecting cancer early on dramatically increases a person’s chances of survival — and dogs are famous for their ability to do so. They can detect skin, breast, bladder, and lung cancer among other diseases in their earliest stages, even before laboratory tests can. 

<strong>Our beloved dogs</strong> are often able to sniff out cancer. What if we had a mechanical tool to do the same job?

Recently, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology reproduced this olfactory ability in a device that, one day, could be integrated ubiquitously into our cell phones in miniaturized form, much like cameras are now. The device detects the chemical and microbial content in the air and then uses machine learning algorithms to identify its similarities to diseased scents.

Interestingly, both dogs and the device are able to detect similarities that elude researchers. After training on one type of cancer, they are able to generalize to other types, even when the biomolecular signatures have nothing in common. 

Have a personality trait you’d like to change?

Since the 1960s, studies on the nature and malleability — or lack thereof — of personality traits have proliferated, reflecting the common human desire to change one’s self.

However, until now, researchers had found these changes happen over the course of a lifetime, after years and decades, and are difficult to enact in short, intentional periods. But, perhaps, all that the researchers were missing was an app.

<strong>Become someone new.</strong> These researchers found that traits like extraversion can be increased with the intervention of an app.

Researchers at the universities of Zurich, St. Gallen, Brandeis, Illinois, and ETH Zurich developed a digital intervention smartphone app that effectively guided users in their efforts to increase desired traits. For example, the majority of those who wanted to increase their conscientiousness or extraversion did so, after only three months.

The changes were noticeable to close friends and family members and persisted for a known period of three additional months. Interestingly, little change was noticed in those who wanted to reduce the expression of a trait, like emotional vulnerability.

Body heat for battery power

For technology consumers, battery lifespan and charge longevity are major considerations, as they decide how frequently they’re willing to remove, recharge, and replace their devices.

However, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recently developed a tiny, flexible thermoelectric generator that is charged on and by the body. Eventually, the researchers hope to use the device to power wearable electronics without having to include batteries in them.

<strong>The same body heat</strong> that warms you up under your sweater can power a thermoelectric generator.

What truly sets the device apart (from other thermoelectric wearable devices) is its stretchiness, enabling it to be worn as a ring, bracelet, or alternative accessory; self-healing abilities, derived from its polyimine material; and near net zero impact on the environment, with 100 percent recyclable parts.

If the device tears, pinching it together will spur bond regrowth, healing the device within a matter of minutes. And its capabilities are all possible on the go. In fact, as you move, your body temperature will rise, increasing the generator's power.

The importance of tree placement

A 2018 report by the World Resources Institute found that “if tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, only behind China and the United States of America.”

With a statistic like that, it’s no surprise that climate studies focus on the warming effects of deforestation, rather than misplaced forestation.

In a phenomenon known as ‘the albedo effect,’ the presence of forests, in some locations, generates a net rise in the Earth’s temperature, as the forests’ dark, leafy surfaces absorb sunlight and trap heat. This is true, for example, in many of the U.S.’s Intermountain forests. 

<strong>Deforestation is a global problem</strong> but large groups of trees in places they shouldn't be can contribute to warming.

With this in mind, researchers at Clark University, developed a new method, using data from state-of-the-art remote sensing, for determining the net effects of forest loss in its locations of occurrence. The method, and its resulting tool, take into account both the albedo effect and changes in greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s all about putting the trees in the right place,” said Clark University Professor Christopher Williams. The tool is meant to ensure communities reap the greatest positive net impact from their tree-planting initiatives, like Canada’s 2Billion Trees Initiative

Evolution of the modern human brain

Despite our shared origins, humans differ widely — in use of language, tools, and creativity — from our long-extinct Neanderthal forbearers.

While these differences are made evident in what we eat and how we spend our time, questions remain about how these changes occurred. 

<strong>Neanderthal genes</strong> may have helped shape us into the humans we are today.

But, in a radical new approach to evolutionary studies (using genetic-editing and stem cell technology), researchers found that a mutation to the Neanderthals’ NOVA1 gene may have played an important role. 

The University of California San Diego scientists engineered brain organoids (‘mini brains’) with the NOVA1 mutation using modern human stem cells. As the brains matured, evidence of the stark differences between Neanderthal-ized and modern human brain organoids emerged: they differed in shape, cell proliferation, proteins, and synapse formation. 

Interestingly, the Neanderthal-ized organoids demonstrated greater electrical activity early on but did not develop into complex networks later on, reflecting a possible evolutionary trade-off.

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