Scientists grow human eye parts to determine how we see in color

By on November 11, 2021
Molecular Expressions Microscopy Primer: Physics of Light and Color - Human  Vision and Color Perception

Eye can barely believe it, but it’s true.

Researchers at John Hopkins University in Maryland created eyeball parts from stem cells in the hopes of better understanding the how and why we developed ‘trichromatic vision’ — the ability to see in red, blue and green. The study was published in Science on Oct. 12.

Organoids are built in vitro from a small number of stem cells in a 3D suspension, which eventually multiply to form something akin to an organ system.

The eye organoid used in the John Hopkins study produces a miniature retina, the layer of cells at the back of the eyeball that process light, creating the electrical impulses the brain can use to produce vision. Within the space are cone-shaped cells, known as cones, which are able to detect red, blue and green light.

First, the team confirmed that their retina-organoids-in-a-dish were functioning similarly to real human retinas. Then they watched and studied as the organoids developed.

‘Trichromatic color vision differentiates us from most other mammals,’ lead author Kiara Eldred said, explaining how this research would help understand how the eye grows as a fetus develops. 

As the organoids grew, it was the blue-sensing cells that were first to develop, followed by both the red- and green-detecting cells. But what was controlling this differentiation into blue, red or green? Previous research pointed to thyroid hormone being a key molecule in switching the cone cells from one color-based configuration to the next.

Molecular Expressions Microscopy Primer: Physics of Light and Color - Human  Vision and Color Perception

Using CRISPR, the team were able to prevent their organoid’s cells from accessing thyroid hormone during development. Without access to the hormone, it was only the blue-detecting cells that developed, but when thyroid hormone signalling was present, almost all cones developed into the green- and red-detecting cones.

Showing that thyroid hormone is a key molecule for enabling those cones to develop leads to explanations for why pre-term babies, which receive less thyroid hormone, are more likely to have vision disorders. Without the prolonged exposure to the hormone, red-green cones won’t develop. By causing this miniature-scale organoid ‘color-blindness’, the researchers hope that their findings will allow others to accurately create specific cone cells from stem cells — opening up paths to help people with the disorder.

Future studies will look to learn more about human trichromatic vision and potentially examine how other regions in the retina develop and what mechanisms drive the process.

Organoids can’t completely recapitulate the organ systems within the human body, but great strides have been made in their applications in the last five years. They are currently being used to make miniature, simplified brains, guts and other organ systems which more closely replicate human physiological processes — allowing scientists to better study developmental biology, pathophysiology and develop treatments for disease.


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The quest to build the perfect horse — for therapy

By on October 20, 2021

Everything was fine for about half a second.

But then the students heard a loud pop from the motor and watched a spark fly across the meeting room.

Anyone peeking through the glass walls of Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen early in the second semester of 2018 would have seen six very concerned mechanical engineering students race to unplug their senior project, which had just blown a capacitor in a pretty dramatic fashion.

In an instant, the group’s mood had switched from confident to ‘Oh God, what just happened?’ team member James Phillips remembers.

Faculty adviser Marcia O’Malley just sat at a table and laughed.

Turns out, building a robotic horse simulator has its challenges.

It might seem like an unusual pursuit, but the students were creating a machine that could be used in hippotherapy. ‘Hippo’ comes from the Greek for ‘horse.’ You already know what therapy means.

The notion is that a horse’s movement affects a rider’s core posture, balance, coordination, flexibility and strength, while also stimulating the neurosensory systems we need to function, says Ruth Dismuke-Blakely, faculty coordinator at the American Hippotherapy Association. That helps explain why physical, occupational, speech and language therapists use hippotherapy to help patients with a wide range of issues — from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to coordination disorders and traumatic brain injuries.

‘Everything you do as a functioning human — whether it’s walking or handling a fork or talking or getting dressed — all depends on your core postural mechanism,’ Dismuke-Blakely says.

Which means that robotic horse had to move like the real thing.


By the end of the school year, the students finally produced a mechanical horse called Stewie — named for the Stewart Platform that provides freedom of movement along six axes: longitudinal, lateral, vertical, pitch, roll and yaw. Stewart Platforms are used extensively in flight simulation.

With Stewie’s jaunty brown cowboy hat atop a black mane, the simulator provides the benefits of hippotherapy when there’s nary a horse in sight. Plus, there’s nothing to clean up, if you know what I mean.

Hippo what?

It’s May in Louisville, Kentucky. The sun is up, the grass is shockingly green and the air is thick with pollen.

I’ve driven out to Green Hill Therapy, in the middle of horse country. Executive Director Lee Ann Weinberg shows me around the grounds and leads me to a large barn where an 18-year-old horse named Frejya is midsession with a 6-year-old girl named Reese.

Reese’s grandmother, Candora McKinley, tells me her granddaughter was born with hypotonia, or low muscle tone.

‘It has been tremendous for her. When Reese first came, it was really hard for her to sit up real straight,’ McKinley says as she watches Reese bump along on Frejya, flanked by a therapist and a volunteer. ‘It’s really good for her core.’

When horses walk, their hips and torso move side to side, front to back and rotationally. Each rhythmic movement can benefit a child’s specific needs. The horse’s gait moves riders’ hips for them, stimulating a young paraplegic’s muscles and nerves that are otherwise unused. It can also help build core strength, important for children like Reese.

Or take a kid whose brain has trouble processing information that comes through the senses. Every bump on the horse sends a message along the child’s spinal column telling the brain where her body is in space and helping to regulate her system, says Julie Minnick, equine manager at Green Hill Therapy and certified occupational therapy assistant.


Taking the reins

So how do you build a robot that moves like a horse?

‘Our first step was to ride horses,’ Matt O’Gorman tells me over Google Hangouts one morning. He’s with classmates Phillips and Kelsi Wicker just hours after they’ve turned in their final report.

No, really — they had to collect data on how horses move. But since you’re a lot more likely to find information on how racehorses run than on how the average horse walks, the students had to use their phones’ accelerometers to collect those stats. That helped them program the Stewart Platform to mimic horses’ gaits.

And they prototyped the hell out of it.

‘All of a sudden they had a horse,’ says Matt Elliott, a lecturer in Rice’s Mechanical Engineering Department and co-adviser for the team.

Stewie can hold about 250 pounds and is programmed with the gaits of different horses.

Move it

Movement is a powerful thing.

A few studies have found there’s not a whole lot of difference between simulators and horses when treating kids with cerebral palsy or those paralyzed on one side.

Weinberg and Minnick, though, would argue it’s not just about movement.

Minnick describes the bonds kids forge with the horses, how the horses just seem to absorb emotion and respond to the children, and how even nonverbal kids scan the barn looking for the sweet creatures that don’t expect anything from them.

So, why would you opt for a simulator over a real horse?

‘[Horses] have to be fed, exercised; they need people to manage them,’ Phillips tells me over Google Hangouts. ‘A lot of people who live in the city can’t sacrifice the time or the resources.’

Even Weinberg agrees the simulators have value, although she’d recommend getting to a ranch so you can take in the fresh air, chirping birds and earthy smells.

A horse is a horse, of course. 



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NASA ‘optimistic’ Mars rover can survive that crazy dust storm

By on September 28, 2021

marsduststormIt’s been many long days since NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover last phoned home. 

The rover has been quiet since June 10, when a massive planet-covering dust storm cut off its access to solar power. The storm is subsiding and now NASA is playing a tense waiting game to see if the vehicle will come out alive and rolling.

Opportunity is nearly 15 years old and has long outlived its initial three-month mission plan while continuing to deliver science observations back to Earth. 

While the extended silence is worrisome, NASA says ‘there’s reason to be optimistic.’ Studies of the rover’s batteries before the storm show they were in good health and likely won’t suffer much degradation during its time in the dust storm shadows. The temperatures in its location also mean the rover should have stayed warm enough to make it through the stretch of darkness.


NASA is reaching out to the rover in hopes of hearing back if and when it awakens. The Opportunity team pings the machine several times each week and listens for a response. NASA is also listening for radio signals from Mars that could be coming from the rover.

NASA warns there could be a long lag between the first signs of the rover’s awakening and any further signals. ‘It’s like a patient coming out of a coma,’ NASA says. ‘It takes time to fully recover.’ 

There’s a plan of action in place should the rover get back in touch. Opportunity’s team will strive to learn more about the state of the rover, its batteries, solar cells and temperature. The rover’s clock may need to be reset, and mission control will ask it to image itself to look for dust contamination. 

Now here’s the potentially scarier part. ‘Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same,’ NASA says. The dust storm could have a negative impact on the rover’s batteries, which could put a crimp in its ability to heat itself during the frigid Mars winter. 

Opportunity’s science team is keeping the world informed through a series of mission status updates. Here’s the latest: ‘The science team does not expect to hear anything from Opportunity until the atmospheric opacity over the rover site clears further.’ And so we wait.

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For Virgin Galactic, space tourism now starts in New Mexico

By on September 20, 2021
Virgin Galactic gets FAA's OK to launch customers to space | CTV News


Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is finally moving into its permanent home at New Mexico’s Spaceport America as it prepares for regular flights to space for adventurous (and well-heeled) tourists.

The shiny spaceport has been a relatively quiet and empty place since it was declared open for business all the way back in 2011.

The state of New Mexico had taken a big gamble, building the full-service facility in the middle of the desert on a promise from Branson’s space tourism company that it would be an anchor tenant. Virgin’s plans have been slow to unfold, beset by setbacks including a fatal crash during a test in 2014. 

But at a press conference at the New Mexico state capitol in Santa Fe on Friday, Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared the long wait over.Virgin Galactic gets FAA's OK to launch customers to space | CTV News

‘We’re now finally ready to bring you a world-class spaceline,’ Branson told the small crowd, wearing his trademark bomber jacket and blue jeans. ‘Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, and it’s coming home now.’

Virgin’s announcement came less than 24 hours after rival Blue Origin reiterated its hopes of taking tourists to space aboard its New Shepard rocket by the end of the year. The space startup, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also unveiled a lunar lander design and its ambitions to help millions of people eventually live in orbit and beyond.

When pressed on Friday, Whitesides said Virgin hopes to begin flying commercial passengers to space within the next 12 months. Two passengers who had already booked their reservations with Virgin years ago were on hand for the event in Santa Fe. 

Branson said he hopes to take his first flight to space aboard one of Virgin’s vehicles by the end of 2019. And he allowed that Virgin might also send people to the moon one day.

‘We’re starting by putting people into space,’ he said. ‘If we’re right in thinking that there are thousands of people who’d like to be able to go to space, we can generate enough income then to move on to next-stage things like maybe having a Virgin hotel floating off the moon.’ 

Until now, much of Virgin Galactic’s operations, including its test flights, have been operating out of a facility in the Mojave desert in southern California. 

Whitesides said the company is in the process of moving its staff and its aircraft to the Land of Enchantment, including the VSS Unity, which last year became the first commercial spacecraft to carry a human passenger to the edge of space. 

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Japan to conduct first test as part of space elevator project

By on September 3, 2021

Elon Musk may not believe in space elevators yet, but Japan is taking a step forward to realise the dream of travelling to space by elevators instead of the traditional rocket.

A team of researchers from Japan’s Shizuoka University and other institutions will conduct the first test in space this month as part of a project to build a space elevator, Japan’s The Mainichi reported last week. The space elevator essentially ferries people and cargo shipments in an elevator car travelling on a cable connecting Earth to a space station.

This test is the first exploring the movement of a container on a cable in space. Two ultra-small cubic satellites measuring 10 centimeters on each side connected by a steel cable about 10 metres long will be carried from Kagoshima’s Tanegashima Space Center to the International Space Station on Sept. 11.

From there, the connected satellites will be launched and a motorised container acting as an elevator car will travel along the cable and have its journey recorded via a camera attached to the satellites.

The project’s technical advisor, Japan’s construction giant Obayashi Corporation, is also working on a similar project, though it previously said it expects to deliver a space elevator by 2050.


The Mainichi identified a number of obstacles researchers face. These include the development of special cables that are resistant to high-energy cosmic rays (Obayashi said carbon nanotubes are a strong candidate as the cables’ material), the transmission of electricity from Earth to space and keeping cosmic elevators safe from collisions with space debris and meteorites.

Space elevators are expected to cut the costs — and risks — of space travel massively if they can be realized. While cargo would typically cost about $22,000 per kilogram via shuttle, Obayashi’s elevator will cut that to about $200. Researchers also expect these elevators to travel up to 200 kilometers per hour and arrive at the ISS eight days after launch, said the publication.

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Hurricane Florence seen from space is a ‘no-kidding nightmare’

By on August 27, 2021

Hurricane Florence is getting worse. While people on the ground are preparing for floods, high winds and surging waves, the satellites and astronauts in orbit are looking down on the storm from above, and the views are startling.

NASA released a video of the hurricane on Monday as captured by cameras mounted outside the International Space Station.


The ISS was flying 255 miles (410 kilometers) above the storm when it got the footage, which NASA describes as ‘dramatic.’ 

The video tracks across the swirling clouds at the outer edges of the hurricane before passing over the eye. The video also includes still images from NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, who photographed the storm from the ISS.

The massive storm is threatening the East Coast of the US with an expected landfall early Friday. South Carolina and North Carolina are evacuating people living in vulnerable areas along the coast. 

NASA shared a new sobering view of Florence on Wednesday morning. The high-def ISS camera makes the storm look like it’s eating a good chunk of the globe.


European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst snapped some photos of his own to share on Twitter on Wednesday. 

‘Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye. Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you,’ Gerst writes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Goes-East weather-monitoring satellite used its lightning mapping technology for a video showing Florence, Tropical Storm Isaac and Hurricane Helene as they traveled across the Atlantic on Tuesday.

NASA also released an intriguing infrared look from its Aqua satellite on Tuesday, showing Hurricane Florence likely going through a process called ‘eyewall replacement.’ 



The image shows a band of thunderstorms in red outside of the hurricane’s eye that’ll eventually choke off and then replace the original center. ‘The storm’s intensity can fluctuate over this period, initially weakening as the inner eye wall dies before again strengthening as the outer eye wall contracts,’ says NASA.

Satellites and astronauts will continue to monitor Hurricane Florence from the safe vantage point of space.

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Impostor Syndrome leaves most tech workers feeling like a fake

By on August 19, 2021

Feeling like a hack is more common than you might think. In fact, 58 percent of people with technology-focused careers suffer from Impostor Syndrome, according to a new informal study from workplace social media site Blind.

Impostor Syndrome was first defined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes as a feeling of ‘phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.’ 


In 1978, the two psychologists studied 150 highly successful women who, despite degrees, scholastic honors, high scores on standardized tests and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, considered themselves to be impostors.

A more recent study in 2011 published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that an estimated 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at one point in their lives.

The anonymous workplace social network Blind conducted a survey to determine how many of the site’s users grapple with intense feelings of insecurity in tech fields.

Blind’s user base includes 44,000 Microsoft employees, 29,000 from Amazon, 11,000 from Google, 8,000 from Uber, 7,000 from Facebook, and 6,000 from Apple, just to name a few.

From Aug. 27, 2018 through Sept. 5, 2018, Blind asked its users one question in a survey — ‘Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome?’ A total of 10,402 users on Blind responded.

Blind found that 57.55 percent surveyed experienced Impostor Syndrome.

Seventy-two percent of Expedia employees say they experienced impostor syndrome, the highest among companies with at least 100 employee responses.

On the lower end of the spectrum, only 44.45 percent of Apple employees experienced impostor syndrome. This is the lowest among companies with at least 100 employee responses.

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