SciTech Now Episode 504

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore the Cephalopod Empire, battery technologies that are saving lives, how a microscope has revolutionized our view of cells, and germ zapping robots.

TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Coming up, the cephalopod empire...

There's no other invertebrates on the planet that can do what these animals can do.

...battery technologies that are saving lives...

We're trying to extend life, increase capacity.

...how a new microscope has revolutionized our view of cells...

You can see it in three dimensions and furthermore kind of take it apart or explode it apart.

...germ-zapping robots.

We've already seen zero MRSA infections in our ICU patients.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

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 Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is home to roughly 3,000 cephalopods, likely the largest population at any research laboratory.

The cephalopods provide unique experimental value to scientists, who've been studying them for decades.

Here is the story.

We probably have the largest collection of cephalopods out of any research laboratory in the world, and we're growing extremely rapidly, which is sort of the nature of cephalopods.

We probably have I would guess on the upwards of around 2,000 or 3,000 cephalopods in our collection.

We're breeding them, and we're expanding and scaling up to support our various research communities.

So our program is very much like a startup.

You know, we're trying to get users to come back and use our animals, but our endgame is not for economic profit.

Our endgame is for knowledge and advancing our understanding of not only cephalopods but ourselves.

♪♪ My name is Bret Grasse.

I am the manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

So this is a new resource that's new to the MBL and new to a lot of research communities out there.

Previously, models like zebra fish, frog, mouse, et cetera have been utilized for decades and decades.

Cephalopods are sort of the new kids on the block.

We're really looking to try to promote this group of animals so that those scientists who have been working on the some model for decades may be able to ask the same questions of a different animal and see if they get different answers.

There's no other invertebrates on the planet that can do what these animals can do.

Not only do they have these immense abilities to change the color and texture of their skin, but when you look on a deeper level, they're very unique and have a ton of advantages that we haven't been able to look at using other models.

They've got three hearts, mini brains at the base of each of their arms capable of movements on their own, and abilities to edit their own RNA, very complex cognition, and so for all of those reasons, there's a lot of uses that cephalopods provide that other animals may not have been useful for.

So the five species candidates that we've selected, on average, their life-spans are about 6 months or less, and most are reproductively mature at around 3 or 4 months, so we can effectively breed these animals very rapidly through multiple generations in a short period of time and really get a lot of questions answered very quickly.

Because of their rapid metabolism, their sensitivity and their feeding cues and behavioral cues are unlike any other animal.

It's been kind of a slow road for the cephalopods to kind of make it to the larger research communities, and now through some trial and error, some research and development, we've been able to really advance our ability to not only effectively hold these animals but keep them very happy under our care.

Because we're sort of a startup operation here at the MBL, our day-to-day tasks are sort of all over the place.

I manage the program, and we have Taylor Sakmar, who's really on the ground floor doing a lot of the animal care, the maintenance, the moves.

For fish, you may need to sprinkle some flake food in once a day.

For cephalopods, some of these species we're feeding six times a day.

You can imagine that there is very drastic associated growth with that, so these animals are growing rapidly.

The basics are, you're always staring at these animals, how they're interacting.

Are they getting too crowded in their tanks?

And so we are able to watch their skin patterns, watch that communication and change sort of our animal care based on those observations.

The way we know a happy cephalopod is happy is just looking at different behavioral cues.

So let's say for the flamboyant cuttlefish, happy cephalopod for that would be settled down on the ground, and you can see them walking around, exploring their habitat, whereas our pyjama squid, happy cephalopod would be one buried in because since they're nocturnal, during the day, we just want to see them buried into that sand.

Every species is different, and it's that attention to detail and that focus that makes us successful when we're looking at our larger breeding program.

We have certain species that we can hold in large quantities all together, and that works really well because then they sort of breed with themselves.

They have their own courtship displays.

They can mate as they please.

And then there's other species that don't get along in large communities, so for some of those species, we need get creative.

One method we've played around with is to introduce a barrier in between two octopus in the same tank, and that barrier has holes in it at are large enough for the octopus to reach their arms through in order to effectively mate.

We really look at every species as unique, not only with their hatchling care but with their egg care.

Some eggs, when they're laid, are kind of left on their own.

Eggs like that don't really take a lot of care, so when we harvest those eggs, we can put them in a cradle, something that just has some sort of good water flow.

Certain species, like the flamboyant cuttlefish and octopus, will push jets of water over their eggs in order to promote oxygenation of their eggs and to prevent animals from settling on the outside of the egg surface, and so we do that with a soda-bottle incubator that I developed long ago at the Monterey Bay Aquarium about 7 or 8 years ago.

We have a bunch of scientists and researchers from all over the world that come to the Marine Biological Laboratory in order to use these types of resources we have available.

So a lot of our collaboration with our researchers is a lot of microscopy, a lot of embryology, a lot of genetic work with injections.

We're also creating innovative products in order to support the various scientific communities.

Like our IR dens to actually monitor egg laying.

It looks pitch-black, but if you look at it through infrared light, it completely disappears, so at night, we can have our pyjama squids going around, mating, laying eggs, and we can more effectively watch them and see what they're doing underneath those laying dens.

And we need to know when those eggs are laid just so we have a better idea of when that first cell division in the embryo occurs, and then we can actually get that egg over to the researchers in time.

We lovingly call our operations the cephalopod empire.

It's not saying that other people in other parts of the world shouldn't be doing cephalopod research.

The opposite, we want to encourage that growth, and we want to encourage the study of cephalopods, and that's because what we're really trying to do is build the personnel, the people around us, the people who are working with genetics, behavior, regeneration of limbs, and we can really rise together and learn more about these animals.

Battery technology innovations are saving lives.

At the forefront of these innovations in science and medicine is one of the world's leading energy-storage researchers and most successful women inventors in the United States.

Joining us now is Esther Takeuchi, State University of New York Distinguished Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Stony Brook University.

So we should start out by saying your work is literally in the hearts or in the chests of thousands and millions of people.

You helped create the battery that's in the defibrillator in what we would consider pacemakers, right?

Correct.

That's right.

And these are amazing batteries because they're not the kind that I can just sort of replace.

They have to be incredibly durable.

They have to be incredibly small, and what went into thinking about how to make that and that challenge?

The challenge for the defibrillator battery was significant in that, at that time, pacemaker batteries were very widespread, but pacemaker batteries only have to deliver about one million times smaller energy than the defibrillator, so we needed a very high-powered battery that could last 5 years without being recharged, so...

Because these literally give you a jolt if they see your heart stopping.

Correct.

That's correct.

It's a lifesaving shock to the heart.

Okay.

You've been in this energy- storage field for a long time.

Why?

Why this particular field?

It ended up being a bit of serendipity in that my background was chemistry and electrochemistry, and the opportunity to study batteries just matched extremely well with my scientific background.

You've got more than 120, I don't know, you can update the number...

A hundred and fifty.

A hundred and fifty different patents in this space...

Yes.

Correct.

...and you're thinking about, you know, batteries on a larger scale.

Now batteries seem to be the question that are underpinning all of our forays into renewable energy.

Right.

So batteries are going to play and do play a key role in two areas.

One is electric vehicles, and then, ultimately, you want the electric vehicle charged by clean energy, so that means introduction of solar, wind, which inherently are intermittent, so you need a battery -- some way to store that energy that you can then deliver later to the electric vehicle.

Because when there's a cloud, the solar panel is not as efficient.

When it's not windy, the wind turbine is not working, so when it's extra windy or very sunny, you're going to have to put it somewhere.

Correct.

So right now, it seems that the batteries are, you know, there's Powerwall by Tesla.

There's other kind of washing-machine-sized batteries.

They're pretty dirty when it comes to actually how they're made.

Yeah.

How do we improve that process?

So we've been thinking about that in two ways.

One is, we've really been focused on identifying and testing, developing environmentally friendly materials that can be used as batteries, especially for grid-level storage where maybe the battery can afford to be a little bit bigger, but it needs to be low-cost and environmentally friendly, so the basic elements that we're using are critical, so we focus on things like iron and iron oxides.

The second thing we're doing is really thinking about how to possibly reuse or regenerate batteries so they don't all end up in landfills, that maybe there's a way to recover more than just the elements but some parts or subparts, you know, modules, and regenerate them to extend their life.

You know, is there a way... Do you see, that, you know, kind of solving this battery equation could be the thing that gets us off of fossil fuels because once it becomes cheap enough to, well, get the energy from the Sun or the wind, but really cheap enough to store it, that we could actually make this transition away from, say, burning coal or natural gas?

I'm so glad you asked that question because I believe that it's absolutely going to happen and sooner than most people realize.

We're going to transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy economy to what I call an electricity economy where we're going to be generating electricity directly by solar, by wind, feeding it directly into batteries and then EVs, and that will be the dominant energy footprint, and it's going to be here before we know it.

Because right now, even the people that buy the electric cars because they want to do right, most often, they're plugging into an electrical grid that is powered by fossil fuels.

Correct.

It's not necessarily coming from the sunshine that's captured on their rooftops.

That's exactly right.

So as we integrate renewables, then we go full circle into having a fossil-fuel-free energy economy.

Do you end up having to build an entirely new battery, or can you make incremental changes into the composition of existing ones?

We're doing both.

We are definitely making incremental changes.

For example, we're trying to extend life, increase capacity.

The latest thing is, we're thinking about how to charge batteries faster, but then we're also looking at new generations of materials and batteries that don't exist today to really go beyond the current boundaries that define what we think of as lithium ion.

You know, the irony is also that these things have become so common in our hands, and at this point, we almost treat them as disposable objects.

I mean, there's a planned obsolescence from the manufacturers.

They know that they're going to get a little slower in 2 to 3 years, and they know that we're going to go out and buy another one, right, and one of the biggest problems that people have, and Apple even started to address this, is battery loss and the ability for us to recharge quickly or recharge fully.

Yeah.

And we're throwing away a computer...

Yes.

...because the battery is not working like it was 3 years ago.

Correct.

So how do we fix... I mean, on a... This is the thing that we actually have in our hands, right?

Yeah.

But we're throwing it away really because the battery doesn't work, and we can't change it.

So I think there are several things that contribute to that.

One is fundamental understanding of batteries still needs to be done.

The basic research to truly understand the limiting mechanisms is still underway.

The second thing is, it's kind of a trade-off in design.

How big do we want the battery?

How complex do we want the phone?

So the more complex we make the phone, the more energy it consumes.

It drains the battery faster, wears the battery out, so there's some middle ground that would extend the life of the battery perhaps, but maybe that's not what the consumers look for.

Maybe they want that smaller, fancier phone and are willing to sacrifice turning it in every 2 years.

All right.

Esther Takeuchi, chemical engineer and professor at Stony Brook University, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Researchers have created a microscope capable of observing cells in 3-D.

With this new technology, scientists can watch videos of cells in their natural environments without needing to extract them.

Eric Betzig, group leader at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, joins us via Google Hangout to discuss the implications of this new technology.

So, Eric, I, probably like most people in, you know, middle-school biology class remember looking at everything on a flat slide through this little microscope, and I never really thought about the fact that I was just looking at them in 2-D.

What's the importance, what's the leap forward in being able to see a cell in 3-D?

Well, if you want to understand how the cell works, you can make an analogy to understanding how a car works or how the engine of a car works, and if all you had was a two-dimensional picture of it, it's pretty difficult to puzzle out how it works, but if you can see it in three dimensions and furthermore kind of take it apart or explode it apart, then you can get a better idea of what's going on.

All right.

So how did you do it?

How are you being able to... How are able to see something that is so tiny?

It's not like you're getting a telescope to shrink down and looking from the side.

So it's... think of it like a deli slicer but which doesn't actually physically cut the cells.

So it's a very, very thin sheet of light, which just scans one plane at a time as it goes through the cell, but it does it very rapidly, and from that, we computationally put together a 3-D image.

So that's one part of the problem, but the other part is to get it away from that glass slide that you talked about, which is like looking at cells in the Sahara, okay?

They're not exactly exhibiting their native behaviors, so what you'd like to be able to do is look at cells in the environment in which they evolved because that's the only way you're going to get the real picture, and so that's where another technology, borrowed from astronomy, comes in -- adaptive optics.

Because as you look into multicellular organisms, the light gets scrambled by the other cells on top of the cell you want to see, and the adaptive optics unscrambles it so you can then use this deli slicer to get your 3-D image of any cell inside of the organism.

You're literally talking about some of the same techniques that we're using in high-power telescopes that help us look out across space...

Absolutely.

...to try and look inside a single cell.

Yes.

Correct.

Now, the advantage of looking at a cell in the Sahara, as you say, was the fact that we could put these cells into middle-school classrooms, and we could make them portable and whatever.

I'm assuming that your microscope is not that small.

That would be correct.

So in the original prototype in our paper, it fills a 10-foot table.

We are hard at work on actually producing one that will fit on a small coffee table that we would like to make accessible to other labs so that...You know, if you have one microscope in the world that can do this thing, it's like having one Hubble Space Telescope.

You know, it's a pretty narrow bottleneck to get results, and so the path to success is replication and getting other people to be able to do it as well.

Now, you've also called your microscope a three-in-one microscope.

Explain.

Well, in the sense that it is this deli slicer in the center, but the way it works is, you have to create this thin sheet of light, which is the knife, so to speak, but then you have to look at the light which is generated in the cell, actually perpendicular to that knife, to see what's going on, and the trouble is, is the light that goes in gets warped, and the light that gets out gets warped, so it's two adaptive optic microscopes and one deli slicer, so that's the three-in-one.

Got it.

How long until you can actually replicate this microscope and get it to a scale and an affordability level where there could be a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand of them?

Yeah, well, I'd be happy with a hundred to begin with, but the goal for us is to have this new version ready sometime late this fall, and the deli slicer part actually has been replicated in probably over a hundred labs now, and again, we have a pretty well-working model about how to document these things, so it becomes easy for others to replicate.

We're going to replicate that model for this new microscope, so it's hopefully as successful as the last one.

So in this pursuit of science, you're basically giving away the ingredients and the how-to kit on how someone can do this for themselves, or I should say, labs can do this for themselves.

How much time and energy went into making that first one, and then how much time and energy now that the blueprint exists to make the second one?

Yeah, so time and energy on the first one, you're probably looking at the culmination of about 4 years of effort by maybe two or three people.

The new one is at least as much effort.

What are some of the things that you think you see being impacted just by shifting the perspective and the view?

I mean, because when you look at cellular, our understanding of how cells work, it's always been in a two- dimensional level unless there's computational models.

Even worse, I mean, it isn't even so much thinking two-dimensionally.

It's thinking statically, so if you open a college textbook on biology, and you look at the picture, the drawing they have of a cell in there and its internal organelles, to me, I view that of a caricature of what the cell really is.

It isn't even a representation.

It's a caricature.

Cells are... I think the picture which is coming out of microscopes, which I really consider a 4-D microscope because it's 3-D plus the time, and the time is a critical element of it because the thing that defines life is that it's animate, and it's moving.

Again, you would never understand the engine in your car if the pistons were all frozen together in the view you got, right?

So I think what these new microscopes are showing is how incredibly dynamic and, by chance, how things bump together even at the molecular level, which is actually what drives everything that makes you and me.

So really we're talking how we understand, for example, how drugs work, usually on receptors and binding areas of specific cells, that's all been with an understanding of a plane and a fixed point in time.

Well, not even so much a plane, but, for example, typical drug discovery works in terms of a lock and key.

Yeah.

Pocket in one protein, and you try to have a drug that fits in that pocket so the other protein can't get there.

But that's only one way of looking at it.

There are other types of interactions between proteins that are much more transient and sort of just a kiss-and-run kind of thing, and so I think these new microscopes are revealing that and actually will therefore offer different types of strategies for drug discovery than the traditional ones.

All right.

Eric Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you, Hari.

♪♪

Hospitals across the nation are challenged with maintaining a bacteria-free environment for patients.

Now in one hospital in New Jersey, a robot named Jimi is making sanitization easier.

Reporter Leah Mishskin has the story.

Two buttons are pushed.

You have 15 to 30 seconds to leave the room.

Then the Xenex robot, temporarily named Jimi, begins a treatment cycle.

The company behind Jimi and the LightStrike technology says it's using pulsed xenon to create this UVC light.

Unlike UVA and UVB, known for damaging skin, UVC is mostly absorbed by the ozone layer and doesn't reach Earth.

Xenex says superbugs, germs and bacteria have no resistance to it, and they die in 5 minutes or less.

People have to actually leave the room.

Why is that?

Yeah.

It's actually... It will not harm people.

It will not penetrate your skin.

If you're in the room, though, the light is, as we mentioned, super intense, super bright, and so if you stare at it for a long time, it could irritate your eyes.

According to a National Institute of Health study, long-term exposure to UVC could be harmful by causing acute and chronic eye and skin damage.

This robot has motion sensors and won't even turn on if it detects people.

Hunterdon Medical Center's Lisa Rasimowicz says her role is to prevent the spread of infections.

If you go to a hospital, you might even get more sick just because of what you're exposed to.

Yeah.

The think about hospitals is that there are sick patients here, so it is possible that as you're sick, as your immune system is weak, if you do get exposed to somebody else's germs, that potentially you could pick up another infection, but we in the health care field have been working on this forever.

Enter Jimi, the hospital's second robot.

They bought it after seeing a drop in hospital-acquired infections.

So when you're saying you're seeing a drastic difference, what are we talking?

So we've already seen... In the short time that we've been using the robot in ICU, we've already seen at least a 55 percent decrease in our cases.

We also have had zero MRSA infections in our ICU patients.

We've had zero central-line bloodstream infections in our ICU patients, so we're really achieving.

We're seeing the goal that we set for ourselves.

It costs about $125,000, but the company says by preventing just a couple of infections, it pays for itself.

And do you think this technology could be used in other places, not just in hospitals?

Yeah.

We're looking at application in college, in professional sports programs.

We're looking at airports.

We're looking at everything.

Technology helping to prevent the spread of what is left behind.

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...