Category Archives: Science

Brain-Powered Robot

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie. Scientists grow brains in a lab and use them to power robots. But, it’s really happening at UC San Diego – to a degree. Stem cell researcher Alysson Muotri has teamed up with a high school student for the groundbreaking project. It’s called the Neurobot, and it’s really cool.

It all started thanks to a high school student with a lot of talent and initiative. Christopher Caligiuri read about the work the Muotri lab was doing with brain organoids and wanted to get involved. He reached out and said he would love to help, and had some experience in robotics if that was useful. Muotri not only agreed, he put the sophomore on a pretty impressive project.

To understand how the Neurobot works, you have to understand the basics of the Muotri lab’s brain organoid research. Brain organoids are clusters of brain cells grown in the lab from human stem cells. They don’t contain every type of brain cell, nor do they have the all the various structures of full-fledged brains. They certainly aren’t capable of independent thought. But, they do give off electrical signals, similar to those of a developing fetus.

The team is using those signals to control the Neurobot. Researchers in the Muotri lab collect and record signal data from the organoids. That data is then fed into the robot through software Caligiuri developed. The software interprets the data as a speed commands, which control how fast the Neurobot walks. If you think it sounds cool, you have to see it in action.

Watch — Neurobot: Robotics Meets Stem Cells

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What is in the Air We Breathe?

“What we do in my group is we zoom in on the aerosols.”

Vicki Grassian and her team look at aerosols at a microscopic level to determine their impact on our health and our climate. Aerosols can be mineral dust and sea spray from the ocean or created by human activity or stem from any number of sources. They can travel across the globe impacting people, animals, and the planet in their wake.

Grassian’s work seeks to understand how aerosols and other gases not only affect us but how we might harness them for solar geoengineering.

Watch — What is in the Air We Breathe? – Exploring Ethics

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Glaciers and Sea Level Rise

Using helicopters, icebreakers, fishing vessels, and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles for over a decade, Fiammetta Straneo and her group have been probing the edge of massive calving glaciers in iceberg-choked fjords in Greenland to explore what is the Achille’s heel of glaciers – the marine edge where glaciers meet the sea.

Their goal? Collapsing ice shelves and calving of large icebergs in Greenland and Antarctica have recently become major drivers of sea level rise. The rapidity of these changes has come as a surprise, revealing major gaps in our understanding of how ice sheets respond to a changing climate. To a large extent, these gaps are due to a lack of measurements so Fiammetta and her group have probed in these polar environments to improve models of sea-level rise predictions.

Watch — Navigating the Perilous Waters at the Edge of Glaciers to Understand Sea Level Rise – 2019 Keeling Lecture

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Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction

What makes us human is a question that not only science asks, but all disciplines of mind from philosophy to religion to sociology and ethics, and even to storytelling and the arts.

Tim Disney’s new movie “William” is about a Neanderthal living in the modern world and forces us to ask about humanness and many other questions.

Disney’s movie provides a foil to explore many facets of human nature and sociology, and raises questions about technology and its present and future effects on the human phenomenon.

With research interests and experience exploring the distinctions in the Neanderthal and Human genomes, Alysson Muotri, Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, brought together a panel of experts from across a spectrum of disciplines to explore these issues in a lively and engaging forum with the movie’s creator.

Watch — Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction – A Discussion of Tim Disney’s Motion Picture “William”

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Searching for a Cure for Blindness

There are a number of diseases that can lead to blindness. But, a researcher at UC San Diego thinks there might be one way to cure them all. It’s called endogenous regeneration. Think of a lizard re-growing a lost tail. Zebrafish can do something similar with retinal tissue. Researcher Karl Wahlin says there is evidence humans have the potential to do the same, if scientists can figure out how to activate the process.

Wahlin’s work isn’t limited to teaching the body to repair itself. He’s also using stem cells to study different eye diseases and search for cures. He works with what are known as retinal organoids – miniature retinal models grown in the lab. These can be made from stem cells of people with specific eye diseases so researchers can see how those diseases might develop in the womb, and which treatments might be effective against them.

Now, Wahlin is teaming up with Alysson Muotri from the UC San Diego Stem Cell program who uses brain organoids for similar research. The two have begun working together with the help of a bioengineer who builds 3D-printing machines that can incorporate stem cells. Learn how it all works in the latest piece from the Building the Brain Series.

Watch — Stem Cells and Curing Blindness – Karl Wahlin

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