Scientific Earth Conscientious

Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man's power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened (Madame de Stael)

Archive for August, 2012

Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, have engineered a soft robot may be useful for navigating rough terrain or squeezing through tight spaces.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

This robotic worm, built by Dr. Sangbae Kim as a postdoc at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab*, can survive multiple hits with a mallet and keep moving along. The worm is driven by “shape-memory alloy” springs. When electrical current is applied, the springs heat up and contract. When the current is removed, they cool down and return to their original length. This results in motion similar (but not identical) to that of natural muscle, so the material is also referred to as “muscle wire”.
For more technical details, see the publication “Peristaltic locomotion with antagonistic actuators in soft robotics” by S.-O. Seok, C. Onal, R.J. Wood, D. Rus and S. Kim.
The Harvard Microrobotics Lab is part of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS, seas.harvard.edu) at Harvard University, and a core member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (wyss.harvard.edu).
*Dr. Kim now runs the Biomimetic Robotics Lab at MIT: http://web.mit.edu/sangbae/www/.

Earthworms creep along the ground by alternately squeezing and stretching muscles along the length of their bodies, inching forward with each wave of contractions. Snails and sea cucumbers also use this mechanism, called peristalsis, to get around, and our own gastrointestinal tracts operate by a similar action, squeezing muscles along the esophagus to push food to the stomach.

Now researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University have engineered a soft autonomous robot that moves via peristalsis, crawling across surfaces by contracting segments of its body, much like an earthworm. The robot, made almost entirely of soft materials, is remarkably resilient: Even when stepped upon or bludgeoned with a hammer, the robot is able to inch away, unscathed.

Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, says such a soft robot may be useful for navigating rough terrain or squeezing through tight spaces.

The robot is named “Meshworm” for the flexible, meshlike tube that makes up its body. Researchers created “artificial muscle” from wire made of nickel and titanium — a shape-memory alloy that stretches and contracts with heat. They wound the wire around the tube, creating segments along its length, much like the segments of an earthworm. They then applied a small current to the segments of wire, squeezing the mesh tube and propelling the robot forward. The team recently published details of the design in the journal IEEE/ASME Transactions on Mechatronics.

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Hormone in Fruit Flies Sheds Light on Diabetes Cure, Weight-loss Drug for Humans

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

Fruit flies (Drosophila)
Credit: (André Karwath/Wikimedia Commons)

Manipulating a group of hormone-producing cells in the brain can control blood sugar levels in the body – a discovery that has dramatic potential for research into weight-loss drugs and diabetes treatment.

In a paper published in the October issue of Genetics and available online now, neurobiologists at Wake Forest University examine how fruit flies (Drosophila) react when confronted with a decreased diet.

Reduced diet or starvation normally leads to hyperactivity in fruit flies – a hungry fly buzzes around feverishly, looking for more food. That happens because an enzyme called AMP-activated kinase stimulates the secretion of the adipokinetic hormone, which is the functional equivalent of glucagon. This hormone acts opposite of insulin, as it tells the body to release the sugar, or food, needed to fuel that hyperactivity. The body uses up its energy stores until it finds food.

But when Wake Forest’s Erik Johnson, an associate professor of biology, and his research team turned off AMP-activated kinase, the cells decreased sugar release and the hyperactive response stopped almost completely – even in the face of starvation.

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UF Researchers Discover Earliest Use of Mexican Turkeys by Ancient Maya

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

Turkey bone

A new University of Florida study shows the turkey, one of the most widely consumed birds worldwide, was domesticated more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.

Researchers say discovery of the bones from an ancient Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala provides evidence of domestication, usually a significant mark of civilization, and the earliest evidence of the Mexican turkey in the Maya world. The study appears online in PLoS ONE today.

The discovery of the turkey bones is significant because the Maya did not use a lot of domesticated animals. While they cultivated domesticated plants, most of their animal protein came mostly from wild resources, said lead author Erin Thornton, a research associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Trent University Archaeological Research Centre.

“We might have gotten the timing of the introduction of this species to the ancient Maya wrong by a significant chunk of time,” Thornton said. “The species originates from central Mexico, outside the Maya cultural area. This is the species the Europeans brought back with them to Europe — all domestic turkeys originated from Mexico.”

Using archaeological evidence, comparisons of bone structure and ancient DNA analysis, scientists determined the turkey fossils belonged to the non-local species Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo, which is native to central and northern Mexico. The Mexican turkey is the ancestor of all domestic turkeys consumed in the world today and Mesoamerica’s only indigenous domesticated animal. The discovery of the bones south of the turkey’s natural range shows animal exchange occurred from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural region during the Late Preclassic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100.

“This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource,” Thornton said. “The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast.”

The bones were recovered from the El Mirador archaeological site, one of the largest and most developed Preclassic locations found in the Maya lowlands. The site contains massive temple complexes, some of the largest Maya architecture ever constructed.

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Solar Power Day and Night. KIT Controls Fluctuation of Renewable Energies by Using Modern Storage Systems

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

The new energy module of KIT generates, stores, and distributes electricity. In addition, it balances fluctuating renewable energies. (Montage: PCE/KIT)

Energy storage systems are one of the key technologies for the energy turnaround. With their help, the fluctuating supply of electricity based on photovoltaics and wind power can be stored until the time of consumption. At Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), several pilot plants of solar cells, small wind power plants, lithium-ion batteries, and power electronics are under construction to demonstrate how load peaks in the grid can be balanced and what regenerative power supply by an isolated network may look like in the future.

“High-performance batteries on the basis of lithium ions can already be applied reasonably in the grid today,” says Dr. Andreas Gutsch, coordinator of the Competence E project. As stationary storage systems, they can store solar or wind power until it is retrieved by the grid. “When applied correctly, batteries can also balance higher load and production peaks and, hence, make sense from an economic point of view.”

The Competence E project is presently developing several pilot systems consisting of photovoltaics and wind power plants coupled to a lithium-ion battery. Over a development phase of two years, a worldwide battery screening was made. “Now, we know which lithium-ion cells are suited best for stationary storage systems,” says Gutsch. The first stage of the modular systems will be constructed on KIT Campus North by the end of 2012. It will have a capacity of 50 kW.

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Delirium Increases the Risk of Developing New Dementia 8-fold in Older Patients

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

Credit: Psychiatrictimes.com

Older people who have experienced episodes of delirium are significantly more likely to develop dementia, according to new research. The study is published in the journal Brain today, Thursday, 09August.

When in hospital, older people sometimes become acutely confused and disorientated. This condition, known as delirium, affects at least 15 per cent of older people in hospitals and has long thought to be simply a temporary side effect of other illness (such as an infection, a reaction to a medication or an operation). However, the new research shows that episodes of delirium can have long term effects – increasing the future risk of dementia eight-fold.

Dr Daniel Davis, lead author of the paper from the University of Cambridge, said: “This means that delirium, or the acute causes of delirium, could be a newly discovered cause of dementia. This is important, because although delirium is extremely common, less than a quarter of cases are actually diagnosed in hospitals.”

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Study: One Week of Therapy May Help Reorganize Brain, Reduce Stuttering

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

(a) Brain activations during fluent reading that positively correlate with severity of stuttering, before and after fluency shaping therapy. (b) representing the size of the effect in the left caudate nucleus in each stutterer who subsequently underwent speech therapy (n = 9) as a function of stuttering severity before (▴) and after (Image) therapy, together with respective regression lines (before — and after – – -) therapy. Correlation coefficient drops from 0.65 before to 0.20 after therapy. (c) Gain in fluency (% stuttered syllables) is plotted against the increase in the activity level in the left caudate. No significant correlation is observed.

Just one week of speech therapy may reorganize the brain, helping to reduce stuttering, according to a study published in the August 8, 2012, online issue of Neurology¬ the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The Chinese study gives researchers new insights into the role of different brain regions in stuttering, which affects about one percent of adults.

The study involved 28 people with stuttering and 13 people who did not stutter. Fifteen of the people with stuttering received a week of therapy with three sessions per day. The other stutterers and the controls received no therapy. Therapy involved the participants repeating two-syllable words that were spoken to them and then reading words presented to them visually. There was no time limit in either task. The average scores on stuttering tests and percent of stuttered syllables improved for those who received the therapy. There was no change in scores for the stutterers who did not receive therapy.

Brain scans were used to measure the thickness of the cerebral cortex in the brain for all participants at the beginning and end of the study. They also measured the interactions between areas of the brain while at rest, called resting state functional connectivity. Thickness and strength of interactions was reduced in an area of the brain important in speech and language production called the pars opercularis for those with stuttering compared to the controls. Increased strength of interactions was found in the cerebellum for those with stuttering compared to the controls.

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Carnegie Mellon Scientists Show That Skin-Aging Radicals Also Age Naturally Formed Particles in the Air

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

Diagram of the life cycle of aerosol in the atmosphere, showing emmission, deposition and transport processes and the action of aerosol while in the atmosphere.

Pine trees are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution. They give off gases that react with airborne chemicals — many of which are produced by human activity — creating tiny, invisible particles that muddy the air. New research from a team led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Neil Donahue shows that the biogenic particles formed from pine tree emissions are much more chemically interesting and dynamic than previously thought. The study provides the first experimental evidence that such compounds are chemically transformed by free radicals, the same compounds that age our skin, after they are first formed in the atmosphere.

These findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, can help make climate and air quality prediction models more accurate, and enable regulatory agencies to make more effective decisions as they consider strategies for improving air quality.

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Eating grapes may help protect heart health in men with metabolic syndrome, new study suggests. Grapes reduced blood pressure, improved blood flow and reduced inflammation

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

Consuming grapes may help protect heart health in people with metabolic syndrome, according to new research published in the Journal of Nutrition. Researchers observed a reduction in key risk factors for heart disease in men with metabolic syndrome: reduced blood pressure, improved blood flow and reduced inflammation. Natural components found in grapes, known as polyphenols, are thought to be responsible for these beneficial effects.

The randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover study, led by principal investigator Dr. Maria Luz Fernandez and Jacqueline Barona, a PhD student in Dr. Fernandez’ lab at the Department of Nutritional Sciences of the University of Connecticut, recruited men between 30 and 70 years of age with metabolic syndrome. The study is believed to be the first to look at the impact of grapes on metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together – increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist or low HDL (the good cholesterol) and increased blood triglycerides – significantly increasing the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is a major public health concern, and is on the rise in the U.S.

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University of Illinois researchers have found that DNA’s code can similarly shape metallic structures. DNA segments can direct the shape of gold nanoparticles – tiny gold crystals that have many applications in medicine, electronics and catalysis

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

University of Illinois chemists found that DNA can shape gold nanoparticle growth similarly to the way it shapes protein synthesis, with different letters of the genetic code producing gold circles, stars and hexagons.
Graphic by Li Huey Tan, Zidong Wang and Yi Lu

DNA holds the genetic code for all sorts of biological molecules and traits. But University of Illinois researchers have found that DNA’s code can similarly shape metallic structures.

The team found that DNA segments can direct the shape of gold nanoparticles – tiny gold crystals that have many applications in medicine, electronics and catalysis. Led by Yi Lu, the Schenck Professor of Chemistry at the U. of I., the team published its surprising findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

“DNA-encoded nanoparticle synthesis can provide us a facile but novel way to produce nanoparticles with predictable shape and properties,” Lu said. “Such a discovery has potential impacts in bio-nanotechnology and applications in our everyday lives such as catalysis, sensing, imaging and medicine.”

Gold nanoparticles have wide applications in both biology and materials science thanks to their unique physicochemical properties. Properties of a gold nanoparticle are largely determined by its shape and size, so it is critical to be able to tailor the properties of a nanoparticle for a specific application.

“We wondered whether different combinations of DNA sequences could constitute ‘genetic codes’ to direct the nanomaterial synthesis in a way similar to their direction of protein synthesis,” said Zidong Wang, a recent graduate of Lu’s group and the first author of the paper.

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Much of the year drought has been plaguing American grasslands A recent study found that grasses do not appear to be losing the turf war against climate when it comes to surviving with little precipitation.

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 9, 2012

North American Grasslands
Credit: Slimemold.uark.edu

For much of the year drought has been plaguing American grasslands. But a recent study found that grasses do not appear to be losing the turf war against climate when it comes to surviving with little precipitation.

The Kansas State University-led study looked at the drought tolerance of 426 species of grass from around the world. The goal was to better understand how grasslands in different parts of the world may respond to the changes in frequency and severity of drought in the future.

Grasslands have several important ecological functions, according to Joseph Craine, research assistant professor of biology and the study’s lead author. Grasslands convert and store carbon dioxide, are a food source for grazing animals like cattle and bison, and help cool the surrounding atmosphere.

“The idea is that if you maintain a diverse grassland, you’ll have a large number of drought-tolerant species ready to take over critical functions if there is a change in climate or an extended period of drought, like what we’ve had this year,” Craine said. “Yet, we’ve never known which grasslands have drought-tolerant species in them.”

Craine conducted the study with Kansas State University’s Troy Ocheltree, research assistant of biology; Jesse Nippert, assistant professor of biology; Gene Towne, biology research associate and Konza Prairie Biological Station fire chief; and Adam Skibbe, information resource specialist for the Division of Biology, as well as with colleagues from the University of Oregon and the Nature Conservancy in Minneapolis, Minn. It is the largest study conducted to quantify how tolerant grass species are to severe drought.

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Planting the seeds of defense. Salk study finds stress triggers widespread epigenetic changes that aid in disease resistance

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

The Salk researchers infected two lines of plants with a bacteria to determine whether methylation, a type of epigenetic chemical modification to DNA, plays a role in a plant’s response to stress. The leaf on the left, taken from a normal plant five days after infection, shows disease systems. The leaf on the right, taken from a mutant plant incapable of methylation, shows no signs of disease, suggesting that methylation functions in stress responses.
Credit: Image: Courtesy of Robert H. Dowen

It was long thought that methylation, a crucial part of normal organism development, was a static modification of DNA that could not be altered by environmental conditions. New findings by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, however, suggest that the DNA of organisms exposed to stress undergo changes in DNA methylation patterns that alter how genes are regulated.

The scientists found that exposure to a pathogenic bacteria caused widespread changes in a plant’s epigenetic code, an extra layer of biochemical instructions in DNA that help control gene expression. The epigenetic changes were linked to the activity of genes responsible for coordinating a plant’s response to stress, suggesting that the epigenome may help organisms develop resistance to pathogens and other environmental stressors.

“This means the epigenome may not just be a static set of instructions, but also a way of rewriting those instructions based on experience,” says Joseph Ecker, a professor in Salk’s Genomic Analysis Laboratory, who led the research team. “Our findings, combined with other researchers’ findings, build the case that life experiences leave an imprint on our DNA.”

In the study, published Aug. 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ecker and his colleagues studied how DNA methylation regulates the immune system of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant. Methylation is a biochemical process that, among other things, suppresses the expression of “jumping genes” called transposons that have been incorporated into the genome over time. Using genome-wide sequencing technologies, the researchers found a wide range of methylation changes in the plant’s response to a bacterial infection and performed a variety of analyses to determine how these methylation changes alter gene expression.

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Cichlid fish: How does the swim bladder affect hearing?

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

Steatocranus tinanti has a tiny reduced swim bladder.
Credit: Friedrich Ladich

“Sound vibrations are transmitted to the inner ear via anterior extensions of the swim bladder or via bony ossicles”, the biologist Tanja Schulz-Mirbach explains how swim bladders may serve for hearing. The hearing sensitivity improves considerably in this way. The anterior part of the swim bladder functions in specialized fish species similar to an ear drum. Up to now the effects of the different swim bladder morphologies have not been investigated in detail in cichlid fishes. The behavioural biologists of the University of Vienna Tanja Schulz-Mirbach and Friedrich Ladich as well as Brian Metscher from the Department of Theoretical Biology of the University of Vienna studied the relationship between the shape of the swim bladder and its function. “These fish are perfect for such an investigation because this fish family possesses a large variety of swim bladders ranging from tiny reduced ones to large highly specialized swim bladders with extensions up to the inner ear”, the bioacoustician Tanja Schulz-Mirbach explains.

Different swim bladders

Currently we know approximately 1,300 species of cichlid fishes, which live in various habitats.”Using microtomographic methods in cooperation with Brian Metscher we could reconstruct swim bladder specializations in detail”, Tanja Schulz-Mirbach says. Some cichlid species such as the bottom-living Steatocranus tinanti inhabit fast flowing waters in the Congo river basin and their swim bladders are widely reduced. Cichlids which live in rather calm waters possess large bladders which either lack a connection to the inner ear such as the jewel cichlid Hemichromis guttatus or which possess anterior extensions bringing the swim bladder close to the inner ears. The Malagasy species Paratilapia polleni has simple tube-like swim bladder extensions whereas the Indian cichlid Etroplus maculatus has more complex extensions consisting of a gas-filled tube and a tissue pad which touches the inner ear.

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Berkeley Lab Researchers Take a Mesocale Look at Magnetic Vortex Formations. Researchers discovered that the formation of magnetic vortices in ferromagnetic nanodisks is an asymmetric phenomenon

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

Mi-Young Im and Peter Fischer of Berkeley Lab’s Center for X-Ray Optics led a study at the Advanced Light Source in which it was discovered that the formation of magnetic vortices in ferromagnetic nanodisks is an asymmetric phenomenon.
(Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt)

The phenomenon in ferromagnetic nanodisks of magnetic vortices – hurricanes of magnetism only a few atoms across – has generated intense interest in the high-tech community because of the potential application of these vortices in non-volatile Random Access Memory (RAM) data storage systems. New findings from scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) indicate that the road to magnetic vortex RAM might be more difficult to navigate than previously supposed, but there might be unexpected rewards as well.

In an experiment made possible by the unique X-ray beams at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS), a team of researchers led by Peter Fischer and Mi-Young Im of the Center for X-Ray Optics (CXRO), in collaboration with scientists in Japan, discovered that contrary to what was previously believed, the formation of magnetic vortices in ferromagnetic nanodisks is an asymmetric phenomenon. It is possible that this breaking of symmetry would lead to failure in a data storage device during its initialization process.

“Our experimental demonstration that the vortex state in a single magnetic nanodisk experiences symmetry breaking during formation means that for data storage purposes, there would probably need to be a lengthy verification process to correct for errors,” Im says. “On the plus side, non-symmetric behavior creates a biasing effect that could be applied to a sensor or a logic device.”

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Scientists are reporting development of proteins that are up to 15,000 times more effective than their natural counterpart in destroying chemical warfare agents

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

In an advance that could be used in masks to protect against nerve gas, scientists are reporting development of proteins that are up to 15,000 times more effective than their natural counterpart in destroying chemical warfare agents. Their report appears in ACS’ journal Biochemistry.

Frank Raushel, David Barondeau and colleagues explain that a soil bacterium makes a protein called phosphotriesterase (PTE), which is an enzyme that detoxifies some pesticides and chemical warfare agents like sarin and tabun. PTE thus has potential uses in protecting soldiers and others. Natural PTE, however, works against only one of the two molecular forms of these chemical warfare agents, and it happens to be the less toxic form. The scientists thus set out to develop new versions of PTE that were more effective against the most toxic form.

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NJIT Scientist Creates Instrument for NASA that will enable scientists to unlock the mysteries of the radiation belts surrounding Earth. Aug. 23 Launch

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

Scientist Louis J. Lanzerotti,

NJIT Distinguished Research Professor and former Bell Labs scientist Louis J. Lanzerotti, will see his 50-year quest to better understand space weather and Earth’s Van Allen Radiation Belts rocket, once again, into space on Aug. 23, 2012.  This is when NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) begin their mission to study the extremes of space weather.   Lanzerotti, today one of the most respected and valued scientists behind space exploration, was the principal investigator to build one of five instruments aboard each of the two spacecraft that comprise the RBSP mission.

The mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory(APL) manages the mission and has built and will operate the two RBSP spacecraft for NASA.  RBSP begins its exploration with a predawn Aug. 23, 2012 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket.  Each RBSP spacecraft weighs about 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds) and carries an identical set of five instrument suites that will enable scientists to unlock the mysteries of the radiation belts surrounding Earth.

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UCF Nanoparticle Discovery Opens Door for Pharmaceuticals

Posted by Scientific Earth Conscientious on August 8, 2012

Ayman Abouraddy (left) and graduate students Joshua Kaufman and Soroush Shabahang at UCF’s CREOL. The optical fiber held by Abouraddy is similar to the fiber that the students were working with when the nanoparticle discovery was made.
Credit: University of Central Florida

What a University of Central Florida student thought was a failed experiment has led to a serendipitous discovery hailed by some scientists as a potential game changer for the mass production of nanoparticles.

Soroush Shabahang, a graduate student in CREOL (The College of Optics & Photonics), made the finding that could ultimately change the way pharmaceuticals are produced and delivered.

The discovery was based on using heat to break up long, thin fibers into tiny, proportionally sized seeds, which have the capability to hold multiple types of materials locked in place. The work, published in the July 18 issue of Nature, opens the door to a world of applications.

Craig Arnold, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University and an expert in laser material interactions who did not work on the project, said no one else in the field has been able to accomplish that feat.

With a new non-chemical method of creating identical particles of any size in large quantities, “the possible applications are up to your imagination,” Arnold said.

The most immediate prospect is the creation of particles capable of drug delivery that could, for example, combine different agents for fighting a tumor. Or it could combine a time-release component with medications that will only activate once they reach their target – infected cells.

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