A super-powered micro-animal, a hacker-proof grid, and more.
- By Eliza StricklandEliza Strickland is a senior associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, a publication for tech and engineering insiders.
Watching Matt Damon play a stranded astronaut in The Martian, moviegoers might assume they’re learning exactly how to survive on Mars. Simply pop up a greenhouse, fertilize the sandy soil with excrement, and behold a thriving crop of potato plants that will sustain life. But that flick, and the novel on which it’s based, left out a crucial fact about life on the red planet: The thin atmosphere there provides almost no protection from space radiation. The surface of Mars is constantly bombarded by the sun’s energetic particles and the galaxy’s cosmic rays, which would rip through a human’s DNA and cause harmful mutations. In one year, a Mars resident would receive a radiation dose five times higher than the annual limit for a worker in a U.S. nuclear power plant.
The solution for would-be colonists—looking at you, Elon Musk—may come from a microscopic creature called the tardigrade. While this animal’s chubby body and tiny claws have earned it “water bear” and “moss piglet” monikers, its cuteness is quite deceiving. The critter can withstand severe conditions—extreme cold, boiling heat, crushing pressure, and intense radiation—that would kill a human instantly.
To understand the tardigrade’s radiation tolerance, researchers at the University of Tokyo hunted around the micro-animal’s cells and identified a special protein that seems to protect the integrity of the cells’ DNA. Curious whether this hardiness could be replicated in people, the scientists then altered human cells in a petri dish by adding the tardigrade gene that codes for the production of the special protein. When the team fired X-rays at both the engineered human cells and unaltered ones, they found about 40 percent less damage to the DNA inside tardigrade-tinged cells.
It’s not yet exactly clear how the creature’s protein protects the delicate twists of DNA, but what is certain is that it seems to work in human cells, which bodes well for futurists—not to mention SpaceX’s bottom line. If scientists can equip resident humans, animals, and even potato plants with the protective protein, they might just live long and prosper on Mars.
To Catch a Hacker
When cyber-hackers overtook parts of Ukraine’s electricity grid last December, plunging more than 200,000 people into darkness, the unprecedented attack sent utility companies everywhere scrambling to address long-standing vulnerabilities in their own power systems. While utilities carefully monitor technological conditions in the big transmission lines that connect power plants to substations, the surveillance of their distribution grids that light up homes is much shakier.
The industry typically relies on antiquated technology that checks power flow at station switches and meters every three to five seconds—more than enough time for malcontents to create a fiery catastrophe.
California-based Power Standards Lab has invented gear that canvasses sprawling networks and detects cyber-intruders immediately. The small and affordable devices, known as Micro Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs), constantly sample a distribution grid’s voltage and current and provide 120 readouts per second at each location. According to company president Alex McEachern, the technology is so sophisticated that this instant feedback could reveal a rehearsal for a cyberattack. “If hackers are verifying that they have control of a substation, they can flip certain switches without anyone noticing,” he told FP. “Micro PMUs are sensitive enough for us to say, ‘Look at that, somebody’s playing with the grid.’”
Seeing the Forest Through the Trees
Some of the world’s tropical forests are seriously stressed out. Droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change are pushing woodlands to their tipping points, scientists say, yet the numerous complex factors at work in an ecological system make it nearly impossible to predict the precise time and place of these impending die-offs.
But it seems researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands appreciate a challenge. Reviewing a decade’s worth of tropical-forest satellite photos, the team analyzed the various shades of canopy foliage, detecting subtle shifts unrelated to seasonal changes, and matched the color variations to the temperature and rainfall records at the corresponding times. Due to short-term increases in heat or dips in rainfall, some areas were slower to regain their deep emerald tone, signaling spots that are less likely to withstand continued climate swings, pest invasions, and other environmental stressors. The researchers hope this watch-list of endangered forests will be just the call to arms needed for tropical nations to take stronger measures to combat climate change.
Every year, pharmaceutical companies devise a flu vaccine based on which strain of the evolving virusis likely to dominate the coming season. Because forecasters can guess wrong, however, scientists are forever on the hunt for a universal remedy.
Normally, surface proteins—to which the immune system responds strongly—are what dictate the design of a seasonal vaccine. But a recent model designed by a group of scientists from Spain and the United Kingdom discovered that the answer might be in the virus’s interior proteins, which don’t provoke a strong immune response—but, unlike the surface proteins, also don’t change over time. Ultimately, the researchers’ computer simulation analyzed stable viral proteins and found complex combinations that could trigger a vigorous immune-system response. The vaccine they modeled for the United States, for instance, is reportedly effective for 95 percent of the population. Now it’s up to pharma companies to pick up the tab and make the idea a reality.
That’s the number of hand-held drones the U.S. military owns. Of those, how many navigate without a human operator or GPS? One. Developed by startup Shield AI, the new scouting drone uses lasers, cameras, and sonar to map its movement—even inside tunnels, buildings, and other shielded locations where GPS signals are blocked.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of FP magazine.
Credit: Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes / Eye of Science / Science Source Images