Like TV’s MacGyver hacking together a flamethrower from a rubber hose, a paper clip, and some old gym socks, scientists have a knack for solving problems by putting seemingly random items to good use in unexpected ways. Here’s a look at just a few of the strange and surprising engineering transformations that are being cooked up in labs across the world.
To ensure the steady supply of natural rubber for tires, manufacturers are hoping to harness flower power in a big way.
Rubber can be made in a lab out of petroleum byproducts, but tires require a significant proportion of natural rubber made from the milky latex produced by the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. Why? For one, natural rubber is superior to its synthetic cousins in terms of hardiness and flexibility. Unfortunately, extracting it exacts a sizable ecological toll—as rubber plantations metastasize through forests, biodiversity decreases, erosion rises, and watersheds are stressed out. And even without human intervention, rubber tree plantations in Asia are vulnerable to the same fungal diseases that decimated natural rubber production in Brazil.
Enter the humble dandelion. Scientists across the world are competing to improve a Central Asian strain of this common weed that can supply latex sap on a large enough scale to create a new kind of rubber farm. Flower boosters say dandelions have the advantage over trees because they’re quicker to mature and less vulnerable to pests. To better optimize dandelions for rubber production, researchers are using conventional breeding and genetic engineering techniques to boost the plants’ size and tweak their shape, aiming for thicker taproots (that are richer in latex sap) and upright leaves (that are easier for harvesting machines to pick up).
It might sound a bit mad science-y on the surface, but researchers had a perfectly good reason for turning heart cells from a rat (plus a soupçon of silicone) into a jellyfish-like puppet that “swims” in water when an electric current is turned on. Constructing this tiny medusoid—which, though made of living cells, is no more alive than any regular cell culture—was a way for Harvard researcher Kit Parker and his team to demonstrate that they really understood how the heart’s muscular pumping mechanisms work.
The medusoid is simply a layer of rat heart muscle cells grown on a thin, flexible silicone sheet. When the electric current is applied, the cells contract as they would inside a heart, but, because of the way they’re arranged on the sheet, they power the rhythmic swimming strokes. The researchers think the medusoid could open up new ways to test heart drugs or repair damaged heart valves. And it’s a pretty cool experiment on its face, too.
“Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” Parker told Nature.
In tissue transplantation, the growth of new blood vessels helps to knit the graft to the host. But sometimes, particularly with large grafts, there’s not enough time for those vessels to grow. Doctors at multiple institutions are exploring ways to grow tissue in labs with artificial blood vessels that can keep the graft healthy as it molds to the recipient. The trouble is, blood vessels come in a lot of shapes and sizes, down to very thin capillaries that admit cells only in single file. To create smaller-scale artificial blood vessels, some scientists are investigating a rather sweet technique: using the spun-sugar strands of cotton candy as a mold.
The process is relatively simple: Coating cotton candy with a stronger substance such as epoxy or silicone materials that can be placed safely in the body but will also not biodegrade. After the coating sets, the structure is popped into water, and the cotton candy melts away, leaving a mesh of tiny channels. Weill Cornell Medical Center researcher Jason Spector has experimented with ways to line these tiny channels with the cells that line natural blood vessels, which would keep blood from clotting inside the artificial channels. If perfected, these artificial blood vessels could allow scientists to better engineer tissues not just for grafts but for testing drugs as well.
MIT researcher Leon Bellan, who’s also taken up the cotton candy idea, told the Boston Globe: “What’s nice about this technique is that it’s inherently three-dimensional.” Plus, he added, “it makes the lab smell nice.”
Photo illustration: Julie Rossman
By: Roxanne Palmer
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