Cool Stuff Last Week:The cure for everything, three-parent embryos, and mechanical insects

  1.    IBM has come up with a new antivirus – for humans.

When asked to come up with a new antivirus software, a talented but confused team of individuals at IBM took the task a bit too literally – they accidentally created a macromolecule that might eliminate all viruses ever.

Obviously, that’s a lie. The very talented team, consisting of researchers from IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, very purposely created a macromolecule that might eliminate all viruses.

Viruses are traditionally very difficult to target because they mutate so frequently. This is an observable example of evolution in action and also why you need a flu vaccine every year. Viruses do, however, have certain characteristics in common, and scientists at IBM exploited these characteristics to create a theoretically all-encompassing anti-viral macromolecule.

The macromolecule does three things: first, it contains a functional unit which binds to healthy immune cells, competing with viruses for access to the healthy cells. Second, it makes the pH inside the virus more basic, which interferes with the virus’ ability to replicate DNA. Third, it uses electrostatic interactions to attract and capture the virus, preventing it from being able to infect healthy cells.

The new macromolecule was tested and shown to be effective on a wide range of viruses, including Zika, Ebola, and influenza. Word has it that the cognitive computing system IBM Watson may be used to further develop the antiviral drug.

  1.   The problem with three-person IVF embryos.

Three-parent embryos are one of the latest and most controversial in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques. The purpose of the procedure is to eliminate diseases caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA. Though a child gets most of his or her genetic material from the nuclei of the egg and sperm – half from Mom and half from Dad – a small amount of that genetic material comes from mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria reside outside the nucleus and are inherited only from the mother. Mitochondrial diseases can be severe and often result in death of the child. In three-parent embryos, the child begins life with sperm from Dad, a nucleus from Mom, and an egg minus the nucleus from a female donor.

Despite the controversy, the UK approved three-parent IVF embryos in 2015. New evidence, however, suggests this decision may require further review. In a report published in Cell, Dieter Egli and colleagues found that the technique is not 100% effective at eliminating defective mitochondrial DNA – and this can cause major problems down the road. The team discovered that the small numbers of mitochondria carried over during the transfer of the nucleus to the donor egg can “outcompete” and eventually replace the donor mitochondria. Although this does not happen in all cases, even small levels of defective mitochondria can pose a risk of disease to the child. Dr. Egli’s team, as well as other biologists in the field, recommend three-embryo IVF technology to be better refined before it is adopted as standard clinical practice.

  1.   Mechanical insects: has science gone too far?

Quick, what scarce resource does the world need more of? If you said bugs, you will be very excited to find out that scientists have now developed small mechanical insects that can land on you and everything.

Okay, wait, come back, sit down. These little robots are actually super cool. Until now, aerial robots (also known as drones) were limited by their ability to store power and to bear mechanical stress induced by flight. Now, scientists at MIT and Harvard have developed a little robot that is able to land on any available surface – an overhang, a tree branch, even a leaf – regardless of material or stability. This enables the robot to extend its mission time, which could be very useful for applications like long-term monitoring of disaster areas or military operations.

The robot’s landing gear is basically an electrostatically-charged pad that can be turned on to allow it to land and off to let it take off again. The system mimics certain aspects of how real insects alight on varied surfaces. This elegant mechanism differs from previous landing gear approaches, which tended to rely on mechanical anchoring or material properties of the landing surface. So the next time your personal drone is knocked out of the sky by your very exasperated neighbor’s shoe, consider investing in one of these land-anywhere technological marvels.

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

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