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Pitt Team Designs Artificial Cells that Communicate Like Biological Cells

Inspired by the social interactions of ants and slime molds, University of Pittsburgh engineers have designed artificial cells capable of self-organizing into independent groups that can communicate and cooperate. Recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research is a significant step toward producing synthetic cells that behave like natural organisms and could perform important, microscale functions in fields ranging from the chemical industry to medicine.

The team presents in the PNAS paper computational models that provide a blueprint for developing artificial cells—or microcapsules—that can communicate, move independently, and transport “cargo” such as chemicals needed for reactions. Most importantly, the “biologically inspired” devices function entirely through simple physical and chemical processes, behaving like complex natural organisms but without the complicated internal biochemistry, said corresponding author Anna Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

The Pitt group’s microcapsules interact by secreting nanoparticles in a way similar to that used by biological cells signal to communicate and assemble into groups. And with a nod to ants, the cells leave chemical trails as they travel, prompting fellow microcapsules to follow. Balazs worked with lead author German Kolmakov and Victor Yashin, both postdoctoral researchers in Pitt’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, who produced the cell models; and with Pitt professor of electrical and computer engineering Steven Levitan, who devised the ant-like trailing ability.

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Researchers in Brazil Innovate Offshore Oil Spill Cleanup Method

Researchers in Brazil, a global frontier in deepwater oil exploration, have developed a method for cleaning up offshore oil spills that avoids the use of chemical dispersants and hazardous burn-offs.

Scientists say they can use glycerin, a chemical often used in soap and cosmetics, to collect oil in offshore spills and recover it for later use.

That technology may come in handy for Brazil, which is driving forward with its campaign to tap billions of barrels of deepwater crude despite concern over offshore operations sparked by the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The process converts glycerin into a powder that when thrown on top of an oil spill turns into a plastic-like substance that absorbs oil.

“It’s a natural phenomenon that takes place to absorb the oil, because both substances are equally hydrophobic so they both flee the water at the same time,” said Fernando Gomes de Souza, a chemistry professor at the Institute of Macromolecules at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

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last update: August 27, 2014

Space:

NASA and Microsoft Release Interactive Tour of Mars

NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to bring us an interactive tour of Mars chock full of high-res images and loads of information unlike anything most scientists have ever seen.

For the past three years, scientists at NASA have been compiling data on over 100 computers to create this comprehensive map of Mars. The collection of data spans about 40 years worth of space exploration, from the Viking orbiters to the current Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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Science Historian Cracks the ‘Plato code’

A science historian at The University of Manchester has cracked “The Plato Code” – the long disputed secret messages hidden in the great philosopher’s writings.

Plato was the Einstein of Greece’s Golden Age and his work founded Western culture and science. Dr Jay Kennedy‘s findings are set to revolutionise the history of the origins of Western thought.

Dr Kennedy, whose findings are published in the leading US journal Apeiron, reveals that Plato used a regular pattern of symbols, inherited from the ancient followers of Pythagoras, to give his books a musical structure. A century earlier, Pythagoras had declared that the planets and stars made an inaudible music, a ‘harmony of the spheres’. Plato imitated this hidden music in his books.

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea – the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.

“Plato’s books played a major role in founding Western culture but they are mysterious and end in riddles,” Dr Kennedy, at Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences explains.

“In antiquity, many of his followers said the books contained hidden layers of meaning and secret codes, but this was rejected by modern scholars.

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Space:

Hubble Captures Bubbles and Baby Stars

The Large Magellanic Cloud contains many bright bubbles of glowing gas. One of the largest and most spectacular has the name LHA 120-N 11, from its listing in a catalog compiled by the American astronomer and astronaut Karl Henize in 1956, and is informally known as N11. Close up, the billowing pink clouds of glowing gas make N11 resemble a puffy swirl of fairground candy floss. From further away, its distinctive overall shape led some observers to nickname it the Bean Nebula. The dramatic and colorful features visible in the nebula are the telltale signs of star formation. N11 is a well-studied region that extends over 1000 light-years. It is the second largest star-forming region within the Large Magellanic Cloud and has produced some of the most massive stars known.

It is the process of star formation that gives N11 its distinctive look. Three successive generations of stars, each of which formed further away from the center of the nebula than the last, have created shells of gas and dust. These shells were blown away from the newborn stars in the turmoil of their energetic birth and early life, creating the ring shapes so prominent in this image.

Beans are not the only terrestrial shapes to be found in this spectacular high resolution image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. In the upper left is the red bloom of nebula LHA 120-N 11A. Its rose-like petals of gas and dust are illuminated from within, thanks to the radiation from the massive hot stars at its center. N11A is relatively compact and dense and is the site of the most recent burst of star development in the region.
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Researchers Develop World’s First Plastic Antibodies

UC Irvine researchers have developed the first “plastic antibodies” successfully employed in live organisms – stopping the spread of bee venom through the bloodstream of mice.

Tiny polymeric particles – just 1/50,000th the width of a human hair – were designed to match and encase melittin, a peptide in bee venom that causes cells to rupture, releasing their contents. Large quantities of melittin can lead to organ failure and death.

The polymer nanoparticles were prepared by “molecular imprinting” a technique similar to plaster casting: UCI chemistry professor Kenneth Shea and project scientist Yu Hoshino linked melittin with small molecules called monomers, solidifying the two into a network of long polymer chains. After the plastic hardened, they removed the melittin, leaving nanoparticles with minuscule melittin-shaped holes.

When injected into mice given high doses of melittin, these precisely imprinted nanoparticles enveloped the matching melittin molecules, “capturing” them before they could disperse and wreak havoc – greatly reducing deaths among the rodents.

“Never before have synthetic antibodies been shown to effectively function in the bloodstream of living animals,” Shea says. “This technique could be utilized to make plastic nanoparticles designed to fight more lethal toxins and pathogens.”

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Health:

Insulin Peptide May Point to a Solution for Type 1 Diabetes

Researchers at National Jewish Health and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have identified the precise protein fragment, or peptide, that can trigger diabetes in mice. The finding, published in the June 15, 2010, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports an emerging theory about the origins of autoimmunity, and may lead to new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies in humans.

“Our findings contradict conventional wisdom, which suggests that insulin peptides that are well presented to the immune system trigger diabetes,” said John Kappler, PhD, Professor of Immunology at National Jewish Health. “We believe, however, that the peptide we identified triggers diabetes precisely because it is so poorly presented to the immune system.”

The immune system tries to delete all T cells that might cause autoimmune disease. During development in the thymus, immature T cells are exposed to “self” protein fragments, which are part of the organism. T cells that recognize and bind to them are destroyed. This process, however, is not foolproof, and autoimmune T cells do occasionally escape.

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Space:

Astronomers Get First Images of Exoplanet Orbiting its Star

For the first time ever, astronomers have captured images of an exoplanet orbiting its star from one side of the star to the other. The orbit of the exoplanet is at about the same distance as that of Saturn to our Sun. After interpreting the data, scientists believe that this star system may have formed in the same way as our Solar Sytem.

The star, Beta Pictoris, is actually quite young, only about 12 million years old, which is relatively young in cosmic terms. Even though the star is less than three-thousandths of our Sun’s age, it is roughly 75% more massive. At 60 light-years away, Beta Pictoris is one of the best-known examples of another star, like our Sun, that is surrounded by a debris-filled disc.

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