Plant Biology is a Gateway

Too many college students have been subject to teachers’ aids who think they are too clever to be stuck teaching mere underclassmen. For that reason, [The Thought Emporium] is important because he approaches learning with gusto and is always ready to learn something new himself and teach anyone who wants to learn. When he released a video about staining and observing plant samples, he avoided the biggest pitfalls often seen in college or high school labs. Instead of calling out the steps by rote, he walks us through them with useful camera angles and close-ups. Rather than just pointing at a bottle and saying, “the blue one,” he tells us what is inside and why it is essential. Instead of telling us precisely what we need to see to get a passing grade, he lets our minds wonder about what we might see and shows us examples that make the experiment seem exciting. The video can also be seen below the break.

The process of staining can be found in a biology textbook, and some people learn best by reading, but we haven’t read a manual that makes a rudimentary lab seem like the wardrobe to Narnia, so he gets credit for that. Admittedly, you have to handle a wicked sharp razor, and the chance of failure is never zero. In fact, he will tell you, the opportunities to fail are everywhere. The road to science isn’t freshly paved, it needs pavers.

If a biology lab isn’t in your personal budget, a hackerspace may have one or need one. If you are wondering where you’ve heard [The Thought Emporium]’s voice before, it is because he is fighting lactose intolerance like a hacker.

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Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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Gentle Electric Eel

It’s no shock that electric eels get a bad rap for being scary creatures. They are slithery fleshy water snakes who can call down lightning. Biologists and engineers at the University of California had something else in mind when they designed their electric eel. Instead of hunting fish, this one swims harmlessly alongside them.

Traditional remotely operated vehicles have relied on hard shells and spinning propellers. To marine life, this is noisy and unnatural. A silent swimmer doesn’t raise any eyebrows, not that fish have eyebrows. The most innovative feature is the artificial muscles, and although the details are scarce, they seem to use a medium on the inside to conduct a charge, and on the outside, the saltwater environment conducts an opposite charge which causes a contraction in the membrane between to the inside and outside. Some swimming action can be seen below the break, and maybe one of our astute readers can shed some light on this underwater adventurer’s bill of materials.

One of our favorite submarines is the 2017 Hackaday Prize winner, The Open Source Underwater Glider. For a more artistic twist on submersibles, the Curv II is one of the most elegant we have seen.

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Carbon Augmented Spider Silk

Some of the creepy-crawlers under our feet, flitting through the air, and waiting on silk webs, incorporate metals into their rigid body parts and make themselves harder. Like Mega Man, they absorb the metals to improve themselves. In addition to making their bodies harder, silk-producing creatures like worms and spiders can spin webs with augmented properties. These silks can be conductive, insulating, or stronger depending on the doping elements.

At Italy’s University of Trento, they are pushing the limits and dosing spiders with single-wall carbon nanotubes and graphene. The carbon is suspended in water and sprayed into the spider’s habitat. After the treatment, the silk is measured, and in some cases, the silk is significantly tougher and surpasses all the naturally occurring fibers.

Commercial spider silk harvesting hasn’t been successful, so maybe the next billionaire is reading this right now. Let’s not make aircraft-grade aluminum mosquitoes though. In fact, here’s a simple hack to ground mosquitoes permanently. If you prefer your insects alive, maybe you also like their sound.

Thank you for the tip, [gippgig].

Henrietta Lacks and Immortal Cell Lines

In early 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks visited the “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins hospital for a painful lump she found on her cervix. She was seen by Dr. Howard W. Jones, who indeed found a tumor growing on the surface of her cervix. He took a tissue sample, which confirmed Henrietta’s worst fears: She had cancer.

The treatment at the time was to irradiate the tumor with radium tubes placed in and around the cervix. The hope was that this would kill the cancerous cells while preserving the healthy tissue. Unbeknownst to Henrietta, a biopsy was taken during her radium procedure. Slivers of her tumor and of healthy cervix cells were cut away. The cancer cells were used as part of a research project. Then something amazing happened: the cancerous cells grew and continued to grow outside of her body.

As Henrietta herself lay dying, the HeLa immortal cell line was born. This cell line has been used in nearly every aspect of medical research since the polio vaccine. Millions owe their lives to it. Yet, Henrietta and her family never gave consent for any of this. Her family was not informed or compensated. In fact, until recently, they didn’t fully grasp exactly how Henrietta’s cells were being used.

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Automated Chamber Passes Just the Right Gas

It sounds like an overly complicated method a supervillain would use to slowly and painfully eliminate enemies — a chamber with variable oxygen concentration. This automated environmental chamber isn’t for torturing suave MI6 agents, though; rather, it enables cancer research more-or-less on the cheap.

Tasked with building something to let his lab simulate the variable oxygen microenvironments found in some kinds of tumors, [RyanM415] first chose a standard lab incubator as a chamber to mix room air with bottled nitrogen. With a requirement to quickly vary the oxygen concentration from the normal 21% down to zero, he found that the large incubator took far too long to equilibrate, and so he switched to a small acrylic box. Equipped with a mixing fan, the smaller chamber quickly adjusts to setpoints, with an oxygen sensor providing feedback and controlling the gas valves via a pair of Arduinos. It’s quite a contraption, with floating ball flowmeters and stepper-actuated variable gas valves, but the results are impressive. If it weren’t for the $2000 oxygen sensor, [RyanM145] would have brought the whole project in for $500, but at least the lab can use the sensor elsewhere.

Modern biology and chemistry labs are target-rich environments for hacked instrumentation. From DIY incubators to cheap electrophoresis rigs, we’ve got you covered.

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The Hackaday Prize: Growing Your Own Soil

When a rainforest is clearcut for agricultural use, we only see the surface problems: fewer trees, destruction of plant and animal habitats, and countless other negative effects on the environment. A lurking problem, however, is that the soil is often non-ideal for farming. When the soil is exhausted, the farmers move further into the rainforest and repeat the process.

In the Amazon, however, there are pockets of man-made soil that are incredibly nutrient-dense. Figuring out how to make this soil, known as Terra Preta, on a massive scale would limit the amount of forest destruction by providing farmers a soil with more longevity which will, in turn, limit the encroachment on the rainforest. That’s the goal of this Hackaday Prize entry by [Leonardo Zuniga]: a pyrolysis chemical reactor that can make this soil by turning organic matter into a type of charcoal that can be incorporated into the soil to make Terra Preta.

As a bonus to making this nutrient-dense soil on a massive scale, this reactor also generates usable energy as a byproduct of processing organic waste, which goes several steps beyond simple soil enrichment. If successful and scalable, this project could result in more efficient farming techniques, greater yields, and, best of all, less damage to the environment and less impact on the rainforests.