Coral That Beats Global Warming

Coral reefs in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba can resist rising water temperatures. If they survive local pollution, these corals may one day be used to re-seed parts of the world where reefs are dying. The scientists urge governments to protect the Gulf of Aqaba ReefsCoral reefs are dying on a massive scale around the world, and global warming is driving this extinction. The planet’s largest reef, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is currently experiencing enormous coral bleaching for the second year in a row, while last year left only a third of its 2300-km ecosystem unbleached. The demise of coral reefs heralds the loss of some of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems. Scientists have shown that corals in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Northern Red Sea are particularly resistant to the effects of global warming and ocean acidification. The implications are important, as the Gulf of Aqaba is a unique coral refuge. The corals may provide the key to understanding the biological mechanism that leads to thermal resistance, or the weakness that underlies massive bleaching. There is also the hope that the Gulf of Aqaba Reefs could be used to re-seed deteriorated reefs in the Red Sea and perhaps even around the world.

Scientists at EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) and UNIL (Université de Lausanne) in Switzerland, and Bar Ilan University and the InterUniversity Institute of Marine Sciences in Israel, performed the very first detailed physiological assessment of corals taken from the Gulf of Aqaba after exposure to stressful conditions over a six-week period. They found that the corals did not bleach.


Under these conditions,  most corals around the world would probably bleach and have a high degree of mortality,” says EPFL scientist Thomas Krueger. “Most of the variables that we measured actually improved, suggesting that these corals are living under suboptimal temperatures right now and might be better prepared for future ocean warming.”

The results are published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


How An Implant Could Help Humans With Spinal Cord Injury To Walk Again

This rhesus monkey has a partial spinal cord lesion, which paralysed its right leg. But a neuroprosthetic implant has allowed the primate to walk again. The brain-to-spine interface decodes motor intention from brain signals, then relays this to the spinal cord, bypassing the injury. Small electrical pulses stimulate neural pathways to trigger specific muscles on the legs – restoring locomotion in real-time.

paralized-primate-walks-againCLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENJOY THE VIDEO

We inserted one of the electrodes in the small region of the cortex that controls the leg. And send the information from all the neurone we recorded to a computer that decoded the motor intention of the primates based on this signal. This means the extension or flexion movement of the leg. And the computer then sends this information to the implantable stimulator that has the capacity to deliver stimulation at the correct location with the correct timing in order to reproduce the intended extension or flexion movement of the leg“, says Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

The research was led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, alongside international collaborators. Other neuroprosthetics have previously given amputees basic control over prosthetics. And in 2012 the team here were able to stimulate a paralysed rat’s muscles to help it walk. This development takes spinal cord stimulation to a new level.

To make the link between the decoding of the brain and the stimulation of the spinal cord, and to make this communication exist – this is completely new“, comments Jocelyne Bloch, neurosurgeon at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV).  A clinical study is now underway in Switzerland to access the feasibility of the implant in helping humans with spinal cord injury.

The research is published in the scientific journal Nature.


Swiss SmartWatch For Doctors

Intensive care doctors may soon be able to wear a smartwatch connected to the system that keeps tabs on the vital parameters of patients in the intensive care unit. If the patients’ readings – which are monitored in real time and stored on a central server – reach a dangerous level, an alert is sent directly to the doctor’s wrist via WiFi. The patient’s name and readings appear on the watch, so the doctor can react quickly and precisely. This application is the second step in a comprehensive monitoring system developed by EPFL’s Integrated Systems Laboratory (LSI). The Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is located in Switzerland.

It began with the creation of a miniaturized microfluidic device that allows medical staff to monitor patients’ critical blood levels. The researchers embedded biosensors in it along with an array of electronics to transmit the results in real time to a tablet via Bluetooth. Seven blood levels are closely monitored: glucose, lactate, bilirubin, sodium, calcium, temperature and pH. The ability to send these readings to a portable device could make it easier to effectively monitor high-risk patients. It means that doctors can get the information they need at any time and place, and they can be alerted in an instant.


We deliberately chose a standard smartwatch so that we could see what it was capable of,” said Francesca Stradolini from EPFL. “Since we can’t send a huge amount of data to it, we use a central server that can evaluate the information and send an urgent request for a medical response to whoever is in charge of the intensive care unit.

The main advantage of this new approach, which was developed in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Turin, is that it frees up doctors and other medical staff. They can move freely around the hospital and work on other things while keeping close tabs on their patients, thanks to the technology on their wrist.


Remote-Controlled NanoRobots Move Like A Bacterium In The Body

For the past few years, scientists around the world have been studying ways to use miniature robots to better treat a variety of diseases. The robots are designed to enter the human body, where they can deliver drugs at specific locations or perform precise operations like clearing clogged-up arteries. By replacing invasive, often complicated surgery, they could optimize medicine.

medical robots

Scientist Selman Sakar from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland  teamed up with Hen-Wei Huang and Bradley Nelson at ETHZ to develop a simple and versatile method for building such bio-inspired robots and equipping them with advanced features. They also created a platform for testing several robot designs and studying different modes of locomotion. Their work, published in Nature Communications, produced complex reconfigurable microrobots that can be manufactured with high throughput. They built an integrated manipulation platform that can remotely control the robots’ mobility with electromagnetic fields, and cause them to shape-shift using heat.

Unlike conventional robots, these microrobots are soft, flexible, and motor-less. They are made of a biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles have two functions. They give the microrobots their shape during the manufacturing process, and make them move and swim when an electromagnetic field is applied.

Building one of these nanorobots involves several steps. First, the nanoparticles are placed inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Then an electromagnetic field is applied to orientate the nanoparticles at different parts of the robot, followed by a polymerization step to “solidify” the hydrogel. After this, the robot is placed in water where it folds in specific ways depending on the orientation of the nanoparticles inside the gel, to form the final overall 3D architecture of the nanorobot.

Once the final shape is achieved, an electromagnetic field is used to make the robot swim. Then, when heated, the robot changes shape and “unfolds”. This fabrication approach allowed the researchers to build microrobots that mimic the bacterium that causes African trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as sleeping sickness. This particular bacterium uses a flagellum for propulsion, but hides it away once inside a person’s bloodstream as a survival mechanism.

The researchers tested different microrobot designs to come up with one that imitates this behavior. The prototype robot presented in this work has a bacterium-like flagellum that enables it to swim. When heated with a laser, the flagellum wraps around the robot’s body and is “hidden”.


One Molecule Plays David Against The Goliath Of Aging

Are pomegranates really the superfood we’ve been led to believe will counteract the aging process? Up to now, scientific proof has been fairly weak. And some controversial marketing tactics have led to skepticism as well. A team of scientists from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the company Amazentis wanted to explore the issue by taking a closer look at the secrets of this plump pink fruit. They discovered that a molecule in pomegranates, transformed by microbes in the gut, enables muscle cells to protect themselves against one of the major causes of aging. In nematodes and rodents, the effect is nothing short of amazing. Human clinical trials are currently underway, but these initial findings have already been published in the journal Nature Medicine. 


As we age, our cells increasingly struggle to recycle their powerhouses. Called mitochondria, these inner compartments are no longer able to carry out their vital function, thus accumulate in the cell. This degradation affects the health of many tissues, including muscles, which gradually weaken over the years. A buildup of dysfunctional mitochondria is also suspected of playing a role in other diseases of aging, such as Parkinson’s disease.
The scientists identified a molecule that, all by itself, managed to re-establish the cell’s ability to recycle the components of the defective mitochondria: urolithin A. “It’s the only known molecule that can relaunch the mitochondrial clean-up process, otherwise known as mitophagy,” says Patrick Aebischer, co-author on the study. “It’s a completely natural substance, and its effect is powerful and measurable.”

The team started out by testing their hypothesis on the usual suspect: the nematode C. elegans. It’s a favorite test subject among aging experts, because after just 8-10 days it’s already considered elderly. The lifespan of worms exposed to urolithin A increased by more than 45% compared with the control group.

These initial encouraging results led the team to test the molecule on animals that have more in common with humans. In the rodent studies, like with C. elegans, a significant reduction in the number of mitochondria was observed, indicating that a robust cellular recycling process was taking place. Older mice, around two years of age, showed 42% better endurance while running than equally old mice in the control group.

According to study co-author Johan Auwerx, it would be surprising if urolithin A weren’t effective in humans. “Species that are evolutionarily quite distant, such as C elegans and the rat, react to the same substance in the same way. That’s a good indication that we’re touching here on an essential mechanism in living organisms.”

Urolithin A’s function is the product of tens of millions of years of parallel evolution between plants, bacteria and animals. According to Chris Rinsch, co-author and CEO of Amazentis, this evolutionary process explains the molecule’s effectiveness: “Precursors to urolithin A are found not only in pomegranates, but also in smaller amounts in many nuts and berries. Yet for it to be produced in our intestines, the bacteria must be able to break down what we’re eating. When, via digestion, a substance is produced that is of benefit to us, natural selection favors both the bacteria involved and their host. Our objective is to follow strict clinical validations, so that everyone can benefit from the result of these millions of years of evolution.”



Nanotechnology Against Watch Counterfeiters

Thanks to research currently being carried out at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute, an ultraviolet lamp may soon be all that you need to tell the difference between luxury watches and knock-offs. The “DNAwatch” technology is actually being developed by EPFL spinoff company Nanoga, and involves what is being referred to as a nanoscopic watermark.


Using a machine ordinarily used for manufacturing LEDs, a proprietary blend of chemicals is applied to a glass surface as a vapor, forming into photonic crystals. These crystals are in turn made up of ultrathin layers of atoms, and they convert UV light into colorsdifferent colors can be produced by tweaking the geometry and alignment of the crystals on the glass.

Lithographic printing techniques are used to mask some areas of the surface, so that the watermark takes on a watch-specific pattern. When viewed under visible light, that pattern is invisible to the human eye, in no way altering the watch’s appearance. Under UV light, however, the watermark shows up.

According to EPFL, counterfeiting such a watermark would be as difficult as forging the Swiss 50-franc note. Not only would counterfeiters need to know which chemicals to use and in what proportions, but they would also need expensive equipment to apply them.

A variation on the process should reportedly also work on ceramic and metal surfaces. Nanoga is currently shopping the DNAwatch technology around to various luxury watchmakers.


Perovskite Solar Cells Surpass 20% Efficiency

Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are pushing the limits of perovskite solar cell performance by exploring the best way to grow these crystals.
Michael Graetzel and his team found that, by briefly reducing the pressure while fabricating perovskite crystals, they were able to achieve the highest performance ever measured for larger-size perovskite solar cells, reaching over 20% efficiency and matching the performance of conventional thin-film solar cells of similar sizes. This is promising news for perovskite technology that is already low cost and under industrial development. However, high performance in pervoskites does not necessarily herald the doom of silicon-based solar technology. Safety issues still need to be addressed regarding the lead content of current perovskite solar-cell prototypes in addition to determining the stability of actual devices.

peroskite solar cell

Layering perovskites on top of silicon to make hybrid solar panels may actually boost the silicon solar-cell industry. Efficiency could exceed 30%, with the theoretical limit being around 44%. The improved performance would come from harnessing more solar energy: the higher energy light would be absorbed by the perovskite top layer, while lower energy sunlight passing through the perovskite would be absorbed by the silicon layer. Graetzel is known for his transparent dye-sensitized solar cells. It turns out that the first perovskite solar cells were dye-sensitized cells where the dye was replaced by small perovskite particles. His lab’s latest perovskite prototype, roughly the size of an SD card, looks like a piece of glass that is darkened on one side by a thin film of perovskite. Unlike the transparent dye-sensitized cells, the perovskite solar cell is opaque.

The results are published in Science.


Bionic Finger Feels Texture

An amputee was able to feel smoothness and roughness in real-time with an artificial fingertip that was surgically connected to nerves in his upper arm. Moreover, the nerves of non-amputees can also be stimulated to feel roughness, without the need of surgery, meaning that prosthetic touch for amputees can now be developed and safely tested on intact individuals.

The technology to deliver this sophisticated tactile information was developed by Silvestro Micera and his team at EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) and SSSA (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna) together with Calogero Oddo and his team at SSSA. The results, published today in eLife, provide new and accelerated avenues for developing bionic prostheses, enhanced with sensory feedback.


“The stimulation felt almost like what I would feel with my hand,” says amputee Dennis Aabo Sørensen about the artificial fingertip connected to his stump. He continues, “I still feel my missing hand, it is always clenched in a fist. I felt the texture sensations at the tip of the index finger of my phantom hand.

Sørensen is the first person in the world to recognize texture using a bionic fingertip connected to electrodes that were surgically implanted above his stump.

Nerves in Sørensen’s arm were wired to an artificial fingertip equipped with sensors. A machine controlled the movement of the fingertip over different pieces of plastic engraved with different patterns, smooth or rough. As the fingertip moved across the textured plastic, the sensors generated an electrical signal. This signal was translated into a series of electrical spikes, imitating the language of the nervous system, then delivered to the nerves.

Sørensen could distinguish between rough and smooth surfaces 96% of the time.


Very Cheap Solar Cells With Very Good Efficiency

Some of the most promising solar cells today use light-harvesting films made from perovskites – a group of materials that share a characteristic molecular structure. However, perovskite-based solar cells use expensive “hole-transporting” materials, whose function is to move the positive charges that are generated when light hits the perovskite film.

Perovskite cheap Publishing in Nature Energy,  scientists from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have now engineered a considerably cheaper hole-transporting material that costs only a fifth of existing ones while keeping the efficiency of the solar cell above 20%.

As the quality of perovskite films increases, researchers are seeking other ways of improving the overall performance of solar cells. Inadvertently, this search targets the other key element of a solar panel, the hole-transporting layer, and specifically, the materials that make them up. There are currently only two hole-transporting materials available for perovskite-based solar cells. Both types are quite costly to synthesize, adding to the overall expense of the solar cell.

To address this problem, a team of researchers led by Mohammad Nazeeruddin at EPFL developed a molecularly engineered hole-transporting material, called FDT, that can bring costs down while keeping efficiency up to competitive levels. Tests showed that the efficiency of FDT rose to 20.2% – higher than the other two, more expensive alternatives. And because FDT can be easily modified, it acts as a blueprint for an entire generation of new low-cost hole-transporting materials.

The best performing perovskite solar cells use hole transporting materials, which are difficult to make and purify and are prohibitively expensive, costing over €300 per gram, preventing market penetration,” says Nazeeruddin. “By comparison, FDT is easy to synthesize and purify, and its cost is estimated to be a fifth of that for existing materials – while matching, and even surpassing their performance.”


Walking Again After Spinal Cord Injuries

Scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)  in Switzerland proved in 2012 that electrical-chemical stimulation of the spinal cord could restore lower body movement in paralysed rats. Now they’re a step closer to making this a possibility for humans with spinal injuries. By applying so-called ‘surface implants‘ directly to the spinal cord, any movement or stretching of the nerve tissues could cause inflammation and, ultimately, rejection of the implant. This is their solution. Called e-Dura, it’s a soft and stretchy implant that can be bent and deformed similar to the living tissue that surrounds it.


One important aspect of our studies is that we design the implant so that it could, one day, be used in a therapeutical context. So we wanted an implant that could stay for quite some time in vivo without inducing any detrimental effect. And so the first question we asked was: is soft making a difference?“, said Professor Stephanie Lacour, co-author of the study at EPFL.
E-Dura has a small tube through which neuro-transmitting drugs can be administered to the injured tissue to reanimate nerve cells. Built by on-site engineers, the device is made from silicon substrate covered with stretchable gold electric conducting tracks. Researchers found that when the prototype was implanted into rats’ spinal cords it caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. They concede, however, there is one significant hurdle to overcome.

There’s no link at the moment between the brain; so the motor command between the brain and the actual stimulation pattern on the spinal cord. So we now also have to find a way to link the two so that the person will think about moving and, indeed, the stimulation will be synchronised“, comments Prof. Lacour.
The team has set its sights on human clinical trails, and sees potential new therapies for e-Dura to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management.


Children Learn To Write By Teaching Robots

The CoWriter Project aims at exploring how a robot can help children with the acquisition of handwriting, with an original approach: the children are the teachers who help the robot to better write! This paradigm, known as learning by teaching, has several powerful effects: it boosts the children’ self-esteem (which is especially important for children with handwriting difficulties), it get them to practise hand-wrtiing without even noticing, and engage them into a particular interaction with the robot called the Protégé effect: because they unconsciously feel that they are somehow responsible if the robot does not succeed in improving its writing skills, they commit to the interaction, and make particular efforts to figure out what is difficult for the robot, thus developing their metacognitive skills and reflecting on their own errors. Séverin Lemaignan, one of the authors of the study, said the research was based on a recognized principle in pedagogy known as ‘the protégé effect‘. The prototype system, called CoWriter, was developed by researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne  (EPFL) (Switzerland). A humanoid robot, designed to be likeable and interact with humans, is presented with a word that the child spells out in plastic letters. The robot recognizes the word and tries to write it, with its attempt appearing on a tablet. The child then identifies and corrects the robot’s errors by re-writing the word or specific letters.

Children teach a robot

The robot is facing difficulties to write. So the child as a teacher tends to commit itself to help the robot. And this is what we call in psychology ‘the protégé effect’; the child will try to protect this robot and help him to progress. And it’s a pretty well known fact that if the robot fails and keeps on failing and not improve its handwriting, the child will feel responsible for that. And by just relying on this effect we can really engage the children into a sustained interaction with the robot,” explained Lemaignan.
The team hopes their research will be the basis for an innovative use for robotics which addresses a widespread challenge in education.


Computers That Learn Just As The Brain Does

Scientists working towards mapping and modelling the human brain, have taken the first step by implanting a simplified mouse brain inside its virtual body. This virtual mouse, they say, could one day replace live mice in lab testing – letting them performing mock experiments with the same degree of accuracy. When certain stimuli are applied to the virtual mouse‘s whiskers and skin, for example, the corresponding parts of its brain are activated.

Image converted using ifftoany

Image converted using ifftoany


That allows us at least in a simplified way to have muscles and senses distributed on the body, like touch is distributed across the entire body surface. And simple models of a peripheral nervous system that would allow us to control muscles, and then interface between the brain and these other parts, so that we get basically the whole animal reconstructed,” explains Neurorobotics scientist Marc-Oliver Gewaltig (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne EPFL), part of the Human Brain Project (HBP) in Switzerland.
Scientists around the world mapped the position of the mouse brain’s 75 million neurons and the connections between different regions. The virtual brain currently consists of just 200,000 neurons – though this will increase along with computing power. Gewaltig says applying the same meticulous methods to the human brain, could lead to computer processors that learn, just as the brain does. In effect, artificial intelligence.
If you look at the neurobotics platform, if you want to control robots in a similar way as organisms control their bodies; that’s also a form of artificial intelligence, and this is probably where we’ll first produce visible outcomes and results“, he added.. The EU-funded Human Brain Project is scheduled to run until 2023. Among its ambitions, they hope to map diseases of the brain to help diagnose people objectively and develop new, truly personalised therapies.