SciTech Now Episode 312

In this episode of SciTech Now, scientists are studying the axolotl salamander’s ability to regenerate their limbs; Brian Hecht unveils some of the latest apps in the music industry; the company Made in Space is making a spacecraft out of asteroids; self-cleaning nanostructures that could help reduce infections; and  Adrienne Bennett, the first African American woman to become a master plumber.



Coming up, salamanders with the ability to regenerate.

The beauty of this animal is that it doesn't matter how many times you cut its leg off.

It will regenerate perfectly.

Experience music beyond your playlist.

What's special is that it captures sound in what they call binaural mode.

And it basically gives you a 360, uh, you know, vision or sound of whatever you're recording.

Turning asteroids into spaceships.

The Seed Craft has some very advanced 3D printing techniques onboard.

And then it, itself, starts to convert the asteroid into the mechanical spacecraft.

Nanostructures with big potential.

So these are some of the different types of nanostructures that we can imprint and have imprinted using our technique.

We can do different kinds of geometries, nano-grooves, different kinds of shapes.

America's first female African American master plumber.

My children can stand back and say, 'My mom did that.

She put the plumbing in that building.'

And that is the reward of it.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

The axolotl is a Mexican salamander with an incredible ability.

Cut its leg off, and the limb will grow right back.

Researchers like Susan Bryant of the University of California, Irvine, are studying these amphibians to understand the underlying mechanisms for their miraculous regenerative powers.

Science Friday has the story.

This is an axolotl, a large Mexican salamander.

They're amphibious.

They're about a foot in length.

And while they're virtually extinct in the wild, they are bountiful in science labs, mainly due to their unique ability to regenerate.

The beauty of this animal is that it doesn't matter how many times you cut its leg off.

It will regenerate perfectly.

If it loses its arm, it will regenerate it.

And you won't even be able to tell later on.

It can also regenerate its tail, legs and gills.

My research has always been on regeneration.

I've never wanted to work on anything else. [ Laughs ] The skin is critical in regeneration of these things.

All the information that you need is in the skin.

The important layer in both development and regeneration is the fibroblast layer.

They are the ones that have the information for how to build the structure.

The process of regeneration is essentially enhanced wound healing.

If you amputate a limb from an axolotl, the wound forms a dome of cells from the connective tissue, also known as a blastema.

As the cells divide and migrate outward, they reform an identical, fully functioning replacement limb.

But Susan Bryant and her team of researchers has taken this concept even further.

Cells will divide to eliminate any discontinuity between themselves and their neighbors.

And so if you have two cells that aren't normally next to each other, then they will insert what should be in between.

The way we think about it is that the cells have positional information.

What we've described it as is along this axis, the information, we describe this with alphabet, A through whatever.

And around the circumference is twelve through one.

If you put a twelve and a six next to each other, what they do is they fill in.

And it creates another whole limb.

To illustrate this concept, Susan Bryant and her team conducts skin graft experiments.

Where you make a wound here.

You have to deviate a nerve to the site and then graft a piece of skin from another part of the circumference with an opposite positional value.

If you do this, you've created a big discontinuity right there.

And so you will get another hand in there to eliminate it.

It's very strange. [ Laughs ]

These new limbs are fully functioning with bone and muscle tissue.

In some cases, axolotls will actually favor the new limb over the older one.

Regeneration is something that all animals make some attempt at, even us.

But it must be that in these animals that regenerate, they keep the information that they used to build the structures in the first place.

They keep it accessible, whereas we've turned it off.

I think what it is is these animals, because they regenerate, they maintain a strong grid, what we call the information grid.

And the information grid works to fill in gaps.

But it doesn't go crazy and make extra stuff.

I think the difference is humans had that strong grid as embryos.

And then we just maintain the integrity of what was made at that time, but we don't have the ability to recreate later on.

We started out with some of the same abilities.

But we lose it very fast.

What we need to do is we need to know more about what happens in other animals before we go -- [ Laughs ] Other animals that don't normally regenerate that we can stimulate to regenerate and then see, you know, what -- what happens to them.

We listen to music all the time.

From our work commutes to the gym, every task or detour in our day can have its own soundtrack.

Now, tech start-ups are putting music back on center stage, giving us access to everything from concerts to surround sound.

Here to discuss trends in business and technology in the music industry is Brian Hecht, our resident serial entrepreneur and adviser to many digital teams, including our own.

So, you know, it seems that there's been a massive shift in the landscape.

Uh, there's always a concern from artists, 'How am I gonna get paid by this Spotify and, uh, you know, Google Play.

These guys are the ones... ITunes are the ones that are making all the money.'

There's still innovation happening in this space.

Yeah, that's right.

I mean, everything has been focused on how we get our music.

Are we gonna stream it from Spotify, buy it from iTunes?

And it's kind of a zero-sum game.

I mean, there's only so much money that's gonna be spent.

So for the music economy and the experience to expand, you have to come up with new ways to approach it.

And people are turning to how we experience that music because we have every song ever written at our fingertips.

What comes next?

Right. We're talking a couple of different start-ups.

The first one you wanted to talk about is Jukely.

What's that?

Yeah, well, the best way to experience live music is to go see live music.

And going to a concert is really a big pain.

You have to find the tickets.

They're expensive, logistics and things like that.

So Jukely makes it super simple.

For one subscription, you get to see a different concert every night of the week, every night of the year.

Uh, and it works like an app, almost like a dating app.

You swipe through.

And there are 24 concerts every night in 16 different cities.

And there's no search.

So you can't go in and look for Rihanna or Beyoncé. It's there to expose you to new and emerging bands or acts that you wouldn't otherwise have known about.

These are real-time concerts that are happening somewhere?

These are real.

And they're same day.

So if you want to see something tonight, go on the app.

It's included in the price.

And you just pick what you want.


So I pay an annual or monthly fee?

It's a monthly fee.

And, uh, they will give you a little bit of guidance.

They'll give you what genre it is.

So they'll give you a #BritPop.

So I may scan for those things.

And, uh, then hit -- hit the hashtag and see other acts like that.

Okay. Hooke Audio?

Yeah, Hooke Audio is super interesting.

So, you know, stereo sound has been around for decades.

And you listen back to a mono recording from the Beatles, you can totally tell the difference.


Hooke Audio is... It looks and feels just like a regular set of wireless headphones.

And you can listen to music to it.

But what's special is that it captures sound in what they call binaural mode.

And it basically gives you a 360, uh, you know, vision or sound of whatever you're recording.

So even on your iPhone, if you are recording using these instead of the little microphone, you get to really hear everything that's going on around you.

You know, they have a sample on their website of Mardi Gras.

And you can stand there.

And there's a brass band walking down Bourbon Street.

And you can hear it as it passes.

And you can hear the people shouting and singing and clapping on this side around you.

So it's not just left and right.

It's really all around you.

So, really, it's almost like dual microphones in the earphones.

It's exactly like that.

And because of the technology, it can triangulate and give you, you know, really discrete positioning.

So you hear where the sound is coming from.


Speaking of positioning, the next one is Jaunt.

Now, I've seen these on a concert stage.

But I didn't know they were in the audio and the music business.

Yeah. They... It is used for a lot of things.

And it is particularly well suited for audio.

They are a start-up in that they were started in 2013.

But they've raised $100 million, including from companies like Disney.

And they are the gold standard in what they call cinematic virtual reality.

So they have a proprietary combination of hardware, software, algorithms.

And it produces an immersive experience that you really have to, you know, experience to believe.

I tried... One of their experiences on their app in Paul McCartney.

They do 'Live and Let Die' in concert, which is the bomb theme.

It has the sort of slow beginning and then the explosive middle section.


And it is breathtaking.

You can see the fireworks.

Paul McCartney fades in and out at the piano.

You turn around and see the audience with their lighters.

Um, it's really unlike any other VR experience that you're gonna find.

And when you watch that, compared to like the little cardboard players you get or Pokémon Go, you look at that, and you're like, 'Wow, this is the future potential of virtual reality.'

So this is what looks like a flying saucer sitting on a tripod at a concert stage.

It's not just recording video.

It's also recording full 360 sound.

That's right.

It's really -- it really is like you're there.

And it's professional grade, unlike Hooke Audio, which is really there for you to use with your iPhone and your -- and your little headphones.

This is industrial-grade virtual reality.

How long until 360 sound becomes what we are familiar with?

Right now, you know, as we went from mono to stereo, where's the leap from stereo to 360?


Well, a lot of it is just cultural adoption, right?

The thing about Hooke Audio, for example, is it's really just a set of headphones that you can wear on your commute.

And then you can begin to capture things.

So it's not like you have to find a special device.

Even the Jaunt, you can use it with one of those little cardboard things that you might get in the newspaper to sample a kind of, uh, you know, VR reporting of some sort.


So it's really about making the technology and the devices accessible because they really do require something else.

You can't just, uh, you can't just turn on your, uh, shower radio and get a VR experience if you wanted to.

Brian Hecht, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

An asteroid spaceship may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but one company is working to make it a reality.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to chief technology officer and co-founder of Made in Space, Jason Dunn, via Google Hangout.

Jason Dunn, thanks so much for joining us.

I'm glad to be here.


So, you are working on a project to, basically, turn existing asteroids into kind of, low-tech spaceships.

But let's back up first and talk about what the issue is that even necessitates that.

Why can't we just keep sending stuff up from Earth?

The answer... It's a really good question.

And that was... That question is really what drove me and my friends to create the company that we started, called Made in Space.

Six years ago, we were looking at this problem of, how do we -- how do we really move out beyond Earth?

How will people, one day, settle anywhere in space?

And what we realized is that we have been doing space almost exactly the same way for the past 55 years.

We've been using the same, essential, rocket technology to launch everything off of the surface of Earth and send it into space.

We're at the bottom of what we call a gravity well.

Earth has this well of gravity that we have to escape out of.

And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to leave the gravity well and get into space.

So the idea of space manufacturing is, if I can build things in space and not have to bring the -- the raw materials from Earth, now I've really changed the equation.

And I can start to rethink how to do space exploration.

And you've started to do that.

And -- not you, but other space scientists have started to do that with 3D printing and look into the possibilities of making what you can't pack with you.

What kinds of options does that open up?

In 2014, Made in Space put a 3D printer on the space station.

So that was our, like, our first initiative of bringing space manufacturing to fruition.

So astronauts can get tools that they need at a moment's notice.

Anybody around the planet can put hardware into space without launching it on a rocket.

And that, to us, is the first stepping stone towards a future where more and more and more is manufactured in space rather than on Earth.

So what we're looking at today is both the near term -- how do you build things in space that are usable today?

But also the long term.

When we can have, you know, the resources from an asteroid to manufacture with, what will we build?

How will we build it?

So it's a really exciting company.

We get to think about the far-off visions of the future and work on some really, really cool technology that is happening today.

And one of those projects for the future is this RAMA project that NASA just has funded you with.

Can you explain what that is and how, exactly, you're going to launch an asteroid?

So, NASA has a really interesting program called NIAC.

It's the, um, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program.

And what they do is they look at studying ideas that really no one has ever thought of and -- and trying to put some -- some, uh, science behind it.

Is this possible?

Is this idea possible?

Surely, people have thought a lot about how would you move an asteroid from where it currently exists to a more interesting location, let's say a mining outpost.

And they -- they've always done it with the conventional technology.

Let's bring a rocket engine to the asteroid and -- and drag it with a spacecraft inside of a net or something.

So at Made at Space, we were thinking about, 'Well, what are the other options?

How else could you move an asteroid from one place to another?'

This one thing that excites us a lot is the idea of self-replicating machines because a 3D printer is, essentially, a self-replicating machine.

If it can build another 3D printer, and then that printer builds another 3D printer, it goes on forever.

And we like this, you know, the nerd -- nerds in us at the company like the idea of, um, sending 3D printers into space that build more 3D printers.

And when we're talking about these self-replicating machines, there still needs to be a person there involved in starting those processes and putting those things together.

Is that right?

It's not an automatic process?

What we're designing right now is a spacecraft, what we call a Seed Craft.

It's build here on the ground by humans, launched from Earth to an asteroid.

But the Seed Craft has some very advanced 3D printing techniques onboard.

And then it itself starts to convert the asteroid into the mechanical spacecraft.

Just on its own accord once it senses something that is the proper material and size?


So we're taking a simulated lunar dirt called a regolith simulant.

And we're taking that.

And we're putting it through a special 3D printer and actually building functional parts.

And there are some applications for this on Earth, you said, as well.

What can some of the findings from this research and this R&D help with back here on Earth in our gravity well?

What we're looking at is a, you know, fully automated technology that can go anywhere and turn the natural resources into something more usable.

So you could imagine robots one day building shelters in, you know, the developing world or maybe for disaster relief.

You could have pipelines being fixed automatically.

There's all kinds of really interesting things that you could do as soon as you can just send really smart robots out into the field that can turn the environment into something more useful.

And about how far away would we be from some of those sorts of things?

We're looking at a mission that could exist in, like, the late 2030s.

We're really looking out there.

Um, but what we're doing with NASA today is we're building a road map of technologies.

If we're going to get to this mission in 2035, we need to start investing in all of these new technologies so that by the time we can do the mission, we've developed the right technologies.

We're laying the groundwork already.

Jason Dunn, thanks again for joining us.

Thank you, Andrea.

Every year, thousands of patients develop infections while being treated in hospitals.

To help prevent this, researchers at the University of Central Florida are developing inexpensive nanostructures to make self-cleaning medical equipment affordable and accessible for health care professionals.

Here's the story.

Nanotechnology -- one nanometer about one-billionth of a meter.

So if you make it into a nanostructure or nanoparticle, then the properties, the physical as well as chemical properties, are going to change.

And that's the whole point of nanotechnology.

Once you get that properties changed or enhanced, the applications are limitless.

Nanostructures have a lot of applications in hydrophobicity and making it so that water and oils don't stick to a surface.

We want to do self-cleaning medical equipment because it's such a big issue.

Something like 100,000 people a year die from infections they acquire in a hospital.

And that's just from materials in a hospital not being clean.

So the biggest challenge is actually the challenge we're solving and that's the cost to manufacture.

Nano-fabrication is, historically, expensive.

What we have generated is a different type of building.

Right now, we're trying to make everything self-cleaning or as many things self-cleaning as we can.

We're changing the topography or the existing layer that's already there.

And it's got a permanent nanostructure pattern on it that gives you the benefits.

So these are some of the different types of nanostructures that we can imprint and have imprinted using our technique.

We can do different kinds of geometries, nano-grooves, different kinds of shapes.

These types of structures are very good for different kinds of optical applications or for self-cleaning.

In fact, when you put water on these, these are super hydrophobic.

So water will actually bead up and roll off of it.

We're about 200 times cheaper than current methods.

And we're significantly faster.

So we just hope to make nanotexturing available to the masses so that everyone can have access to nanotechnology for absolutely everything we do.

Adrienne Bennett is America's first female African American master plumber.

She was contracted to design the plumbing system in Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.

Up next, Adrienne explains the complexities of her work and shares a preview of her current project.

Plumbing, a lot of people don't realize, is not just some plumbing of a plugged toilet.

It's just not when a turn a faucet on or go to a drinking fountain, you get a chance to sip some water.

We actually protect the drinking water.

That is the number-one goal for the plumbing industry.

I love this industry.

As difficult as it is, challenging with the weather, and you're eating dirt, eating dust.

You know, you -- you come out looking like, you know, this dirt ball.

But it's the end product.

I can stand back.

My children can stand back and say, 'My mom did that.

She put the plumbing in that building.'

And that is the reward of it.

Plumbing has such a vast avenue.

And I've been blessed with the fact that once I completed plumbing apprenticeship, I became a plumbing inspector.

At that turn, I had to learn and know the code book.

You have to understand why the water does what it does, why this pitch on the pipe, why the atmosphere affects this and affects that.

It all plays into science.

And you have to understand the theory of it.

And that's why it takes you five years.


It takes you 20 plus years.

I'm still learning.

The younger of the Bennetts wanted to know what it's gonna take for us to open up the company.

I said, 'You sure you wanna do this?'

He says, 'Very much so.'

He came up with Benkari.

It's a combination of two family names, Bennett and Bakari.

We are the only woman-owned plumbing company in the state of Michigan.

Not such as a master plumber, but as a woman.

I think the industry as such has been difficult.

Um, it's -- it's a male-dominated industry.

There's no -- no way about it.

So it's been a struggle for her to -- to get involved, to get the notoriety that she deserves.

So, from that standpoint, I've noticed probably a more ambitious nature than the guys I'm used to working with.

The project that we have today, this is, uh, Goodwill Industries.

It's gonna be a new welcome center.

They're in the underground phase.

They're putting in the storm, which takes the rainwater from the roof line and conveys it away from the building.

The sanitary is what picks up the waste from the toilets, the hand-washing sinks, the kitchen sinks, and conveys it away from the building.

The underground is required and necessary because without it, the water would just dump on the floor.

So this is -- this is the part we don't see.

This is under the floor.

So it's... This is gonna be buried in the dirt.

They're gonna pour a concrete floor over it.

So once it's tested and inspected and approved, it will be covered up, never to be seen again, hopefully.

And then you will see the stub up through the concrete floor.

As you elevate in the company, a lot of master plumbers don't do the work anymore.

They may be an estimator.

Or they may just do what I do.

They shuffle papers.

Or they go on and develop the business.

A.K. Bennett, he's the project manager.

We have Ronald McCullen.

He's our senior, uh, consulting engineer for the company.

We have Alondre Barry, who is our plumbing superintendent/estimator.

After 35 years, they come to me for questions, with questions.

And I answer them the best I can do.

They feel I have a lot to offer.

Benkari is definitely a family.

And we care about the success of the company.

And all of that is fun with growth.

Each new job we get, that's fun.

That's, you know, that's entertainment for us.

You know, how big of a job are we gonna get?

What new contract are we getting?

What are they working on?

When we get the blueprints, you know, look at what's on the blueprints.

But all that's fun because we're still learning.

The most recent award I received, it came from within my industry.

It was from the National Association of Women in Construction, NAWIC, the trade branch, which I'm a member of.

And it -- it's a truly an honor for them to have honored me with the Detroit Crystal Vision Award Woman of the Year.

It's awesome.

I think that youngsters in general, women and men alike, they see what she has become and struggled as she's gone through.

And I think she lends an enthusiasm.

She's a great inspiration for anyone who is interested in improving themselves.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.