A green living material that demonstrates similar strength to cement-based mortar

This photograph shows green photosynthetic cyanobacteria growing and mineralizing in the sand-hydrogel framework. The living material has similar strength to cement-base mortar.

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College of Engineering and Applied Science at Colorado University Boulder

Article Highlights
  • Cement and concrete haven't changed much as technology in over a hundred years, but researchers in Colorado are revolutionizing building materials by literally bringing them to life. The method developed, presented January 15 in the journal Matter, combines sand and bacteria to build a living material that has structural load-bearing and biological function
  • The researchers created a green living material that demonstrates similar strength to cement-based mortar
  • "We use photosynthetic cyanobacteria to biomineralize the scaffold, so it actually is really green. It looks like a Frankenstein-type material," says senior author Wil Srubar, who heads the Living Materials Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. "That's exactly what we're trying to create--something that stays alive."
  • The hydrogel-sand brick is not only alive, but it also reproduces. By splitting the brick in half, the bacteria can grow into two complete bricks with the help of some extra sand, hydrogel, and nutrients. Instead of manufacturing the bricks one by one, Srubar and his team demonstrated that one parent brick could reproduce up to eight bricks after three generations.
  • "What we're really excited about is that this challenges the conventional ways in which we manufacture structural building materials," says Srubar. "It really demonstrates the capability of exponential material manufacturing."
  • "This is a material platform that sets the stage for brand new exciting materials that can be engineered to interact and respond to their environments," says Srubar. "We are just trying to bring building materials to life, and I think that is the nugget in this whole thing. We're just scratching the surface and laying the foundation of a new discipline. The sky is the limit."
  • "In austere environments, these materials would perform especially well because they use light from the sun to grow and proliferate with very little exogenous material needed for their growth," says Srubar. "It's going to happen one way or another, and we're not going to be trucking bags of cement all the way to Mars. I really do think that we'll be bringing biology with us once we go."

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Could millions of additional violent crimes in the coming decades be due to climate change?

via University of Colorado Boulder

Article Highlights
  • CU Boulder-led study predicts millions of additional violent crimes in coming decades
  • People in the United States could see tens of thousands of extra violent crimes every year—because of climate change alone.
  • “Depending on how quickly temperatures rise, we could see two to three million more violent crimes between now and the end of the century than there would be in a non-warming world,” said Ryan Harp, CIRES researcher and lead author of a new study
  • Warmer winters appeared to be setting the stage for more violent crimes like assault and robbery, likely because less nasty weather created more opportunities for interactions between people
  • “We are just beginning to scratch the surface on the myriad ways climate change is impacting people, especially through social systems and health,” Karnauskas said. “We could see a future where results like this impact planning and resource allocation among health, law enforcement and criminal justice communities.”

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Manipulating brain cells using a smartphone

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology A neural implant with replaceable drug cartridges and powerful bluetooth low-energy can target specific neurons.

A soft neural implant, capable of delivering multiple drugs and color lights, might speed research on diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, addiction, depression and pain.

A team of scientists in Korea and the United States have invented a device that can control neural circuits by  using a tiny brain implant managedby a smartphone.

Publishing in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers said the soft neural implant is the first wireless neural device capable of delivering multiple drugs and color lights. The device could speed up efforts to uncover brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, addiction, depression, and pain.

“The wireless neural device enables chronic chemical and optical neuromodulation that has never been achieved before,” said lead author Raza Qazi, a researcher with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and University of Colorado Boulder.

Co-author Michael Bruchas, a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine and pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said this technology will help researchers in many ways.

“It allows us to better dissect the neural circuit basis of behavior, and how specific neuromodulators in the brain tune behavior in various ways,” he said. “We are also eager to use the device for complex pharmacological studies, which could help us develop new therapeutics for pain, addiction and emotional disorders.”

The device uses Lego-like replaceable drug cartridges and powerful bluetooth low-energy to deliver drugs and light to specific neurons of interest.

Resarchers said this technology significantly overshadows conventional neuroscience methods, which usually involve rigid metal tubes and optical fibers. Apart from limiting the subject’s movement due to the physical connections with bulky equipment, their relatively rigid structure causes lesion in soft brain tissue over time, therefore making them not suitable for long-term implantation. Though some efforts have partly mitigate adverse tissue response by incorporating soft probes and wireless platforms, the previous solutions were limited by their inability to deliver drugs for long periods of time as well as their bulky and complex control setups.

To achieve chronic wireless drug delivery, scientists had to solve the critical challenge of exhaustion and evaporation of drugs. The researchers collaborated to invent the neural device, which could allow neuroscientists to study the same brain circuits for several months without worrying about running out of drugs.

These “plug and play” drug cartridges were assembled into a brain implant for mice with a soft and ultrathin probe, the thickness of a human hair, which consisted of microfluidic channels and tiny LEDs, smaller than a grain of salt, for unlimited drug doses and light delivery.

Controlled with an elegant,  simple user interface on a smartphone, the device can easily trigger any specific combination or precise sequencing of light and drug deliveries in any implanted target animal without need to be  inside the laboratory. Using these wireless neural devices, researchers could also easily setup fully automated animal studies where behavior of one animal could positively or negatively affect behaviour in other animals by conditional triggering of light and/or drug delivery.

“This revolutionary device is the fruit of advanced electronics design and powerful micro and nanoscale engineering,” said Jae-Woong Jeong, a professor of electrical engineering at KAIST. “We are interested in further developing this technology to make a brain implant for clinical applications.”

The researchers at the Jeong group at KAIST, South Korea, develop soft electronics for wearable and implantable devices. The neuroscientists at the Bruchas Lab in Seattle study brain circuits that control stress, depression, addiction, pain and other neuropsychiatric disorders. This collaborative effort among engineers and neuroscientists over three years and tens of design iterations led to the successful validation of this brain implant in freely moving mice.

Learn more: Scientists manipulate brain cells using a smartphone

 

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Could machine learning technology be good at recognizing emotions?

Researchers use fMRI brain imaging technology at CU Boulder. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder)

Could a computer, at a glance, tell the difference between a joyful image and a depressing one?

Could it distinguish, in a few milliseconds, a romantic comedy from a horror film?

Yes, and so can your brain, according to research published this week by CU Boulder neuroscientists.

“Machine learning technology is getting really good at recognizing the content of images—of deciphering what kind of object it is,” said senior author Tor Wager, who worked on the study while a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder. “We wanted to ask: Could it do the same with emotions? The answer is yes.”

Part machine-learning innovation, part human brain-imaging study, the paper, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, marks an important step forward in the application of “neural networks”—computer systems modeled after the human brain—to the study of emotion.

It also sheds a new, different light on how and where images are represented in the human brain, suggesting that what we see—even briefly—could have a greater, more swift impact on our emotions than we might assume.

“A lot of people assume that humans evaluate their environment in a certain way and emotions follow from specific, ancestrally older brain systems like the limbic system,” said lead author Philip Kragel, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Cognitive Science. “We found that the visual cortex itself also plays an important role in the processing and perception of emotion.”

The birth of EmoNet

For the study, Kragel started with an existing neural network, called AlexNet, which enables computers to recognize objects. Using prior research that identified stereotypical emotional responses to images, he retooled the network to predict how a person would feel when they see a certain image.

He then “showed” the new network, dubbed EmoNet, 25,000 images ranging from erotic photos to nature scenes and asked it to categorize them into 20 categories such as craving, sexual desire, horror, awe and surprise.

EmoNet could accurately and consistently categorize 11 of the emotion types. But it was better at recognizing some than others. For instance, it identified photos that evoke craving or sexual desire with more than 95 percent accuracy. But it had a harder time with more nuanced emotions like confusion, awe and surprise.

Even a simple color elicited a prediction of an emotion: When EmoNet saw a black screen, it registered anxiety. Red conjured craving. Puppies evoked amusement. If there were two of them, it picked romance.  EmoNet was also able to reliably rate the intensity of images, identifying not only the emotion it might illicit but how strong it might be.

When the researchers showed EmoNet brief movie clips and asked it to categorize them as romantic comedies, action films or horror movies, it got it right three-quarters of the time.

What you see is how you feel

To further test and refine EmoNet, the researchers then brought in 18 human subjects.

As a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine measured their brain activity, they were shown 4-second flashes of 112 images. EmoNet saw the same pictures, essentially serving as the 19th subject.

When activity in the neural network was compared to that in the subjects’ brains, the patterns matched up.

“We found a correspondence between patterns of brain activity in the occipital lobe and units in EmoNet that code for specific emotions. This means that EmoNet learned to represent emotions in a way that is biologically plausible, even though we did not explicitly train it to do so,” said Kragel.

The brain imaging itself also yielded some surprising findings. Even a brief, basic image – an object or a face – could ignite emotion-related activity in the visual cortex of the brain. And different kinds of emotions lit up different regions.

“This shows that emotions are not just add-ons that happen later in different areas of the brain,” said Wager, now a professor at Dartmouth College. “Our brains are recognizing them, categorizing them and responding to them very early on.”

Ultimately, the resesarchers say, neural networks like EmoNet could be used in technologies to help people digitally screen out negative images or find positive ones. It could also be applied to improve computer-human interactions and help advance emotion research.

The takeaway for now, says Kragel:

“What you see and what your surroundings are can make a big difference in your emotional life.”

Learn more: A computer system that knows how you feel

 

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A promising first step toward low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals

A gram of biodegradable plastic created by nanobio-hybrid microbes developed by CU Boulder engineers. Photo: Nagpal Lab / University of Colorado Boulder

CU Boulder researchers have developed nanobio-hybrid organisms capable of using airborne carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce a variety of plastics and fuels, a promising first step toward low-cost carbon sequestration and eco-friendly manufacturing for chemicals.

By using light-activated quantum dots to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells, the researchers were able to create “living factories” that eat harmful CO2 and convert it into useful products such as biodegradable plastic, gasoline, ammonia and biodiesel.

“The innovation is a testament to the power of biochemical processes,” said Prashant Nagpal, lead author of the research and an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We’re looking at a technique that could improve CO2 capture to combat climate change and one day even potentially replace carbon-intensive manufacturing for plastics and fuels.”

The project began in 2013, when Nagpal and his colleagues began exploring the broad potential of nanoscopic quantum dots, which are tiny semiconductors similar to those used in television sets. Quantum dots can be injected into cells passively and are designed to attach and self-assemble to desired enzymes and then activate these enzymes on command using specific wavelengths of light.

Nagpal wanted to see if quantum dots could act as a spark plug to fire particular enzymes within microbial cells that have the means to convert airborne CO2 and nitrogen, but do not do so naturally due to a lack of photosynthesis.

By diffusing the specially-tailored dots into the cells of common microbial species found in soil, Nagpal and his colleagues bridged the gap. Now, exposure to even small amounts of indirect sunlight would activate the microbes’ CO2 appetite, without a need for any source of energy or food to carry out the energy-intensive biochemical conversions.

“Each cell is making millions of these chemicals and we showed they could exceed their natural yield by close to 200%,” Nagpal said.

The microbes, which lie dormant in water, release their resulting product to the surface, where it can be skimmed off and harvested for manufacturing. Different combinations of dots and light produce different products: Green wavelengths cause the bacteria to consume nitrogen and produce ammonia while redder wavelengths make the microbes feast on CO2 to produce plastic instead.

The process also shows promising signs of being able to operate at scale. The study found that even when the microbial factories were activated consistently for hours at a time, they showed few signs of exhaustion or depletion, indicating that the cells can regenerate and thus limit the need for rotation.

“We were very surprised that it worked as elegantly as it did,” Nagpal said. “We’re just getting started with the synthetic applications.”

The ideal futuristic scenario, Nagpal said, would be to have single-family homes and businesses pipe their CO2 emissions directly to a nearby holding pond, where microbes would convert them to a bioplastic. The owners would be able to sell the resulting product for a small profit while essentially offsetting their own carbon footprint.

“Even if the margins are low and it can’t compete with petrochemicals on a pure cost basis, there is still societal benefit to doing this,” Nagpal said. “If we could convert even a small fraction of local ditch ponds, it would have a sizeable impact on the carbon output of towns. It wouldn’t be asking much for people to implement. Many already make beer at home, for example, and this is no more complicated.”

The focus now, he said, will shift to optimizing the conversion process and bringing on new undergraduate students. Nagpal is looking to convert the project into an undergraduate lab experiment in the fall semester, funded by a CU Boulder Engineering Excellence Fund grant. Nagpal credits his current students with sticking with the project over the course of many years.

“It has been a long journey and their work has been invaluable,” he said. “I think these results show that it was worth it.”

Learn more: These nano-bugs eat CO2 and make eco-friendly fuel

 

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