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A synthetic synapse on a human structure model

A synthetic version (transparent rectangle) of the junction between a neuron and a muscle is shown on a model of a human hand. Credit: Y. Lee et al.

Synthetic biology

Light pulses prod artificial muscle into action

An optical signal triggers mechanical motion thanks to a nerve junction constructed in the laboratory.

A device inspired by the body’s network of nerve cells could enable wireless control of artificial muscles and prostheses.

When a neuron commands a muscle to contract, the message travels through a junction called a synapse. The development of a synthetic system that mimics the activity of neurons and synapses to control artificial muscles would be a fundamental step for bio-inspired robotics, but such a system has proved challenging to create.

Tae-Woo Lee at Seoul National University and Zhenan Bao at Stanford University in California and their colleagues designed a synthetic synapse equipped with a light detector, which allows researchers to control the device with light pulses. The synapse converts these light signals into electrical impulses that can trigger movement of an artificial muscle made from a strip of polymer material. In tests, varying the rate of light pulses helped to control the strip’s flexion.

This approach is similar to optogenetic techniques, which genetically modify neurons to render them sensitive to light, the authors write.

More Research Highlights...

Ember and thick smoke from bushfires reach Braemar Bay in New South Wales

Vast bush fires that swept across Australia at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 filled the skies with enough smoke to warm a portion of the atmosphere. Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty

Atmospheric science

Smoke from Australian fires turned up the heat in the southern sky

The catastrophic wildfires of late 2019 and early 2020 triggered a lingering temperature rise in a section of Earth’s lower atmosphere.
Visible and infrared images of the device in fully discharged and charged states

A display screen in its uncharged (top left) and charged (top right) state in visible light. The screen reflects one range of infrared wavelengths when uncharged (bottom left) and another range when charged (bottom right). Credit: M. S. Ergoktas et al./Nature Photon.

Optics and photonics

One screen, three images — some invisible in ordinary light

A graphene-based device can display several images simultaneously using a range of wavelengths.
Woman harvesting teff, Ethiopia

A farmer in Ethiopia harvests teff, a cereal. Small farms tend to have more-diverse landscapes than do sprawling industrial operations. Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty

Environmental sciences

Small farms outdo big ones on biodiversity — and crop yields

Large-scale farms account for most of the global food supply, but smallholdings protect species and are just as profitable.
Diagram of the nuclear composition and electron configuration of an atom of xenon-132.

A xenon atom’s electrons (grey circles; illustration) have been observed and even manipulated as they shifted their position. Credit: Carlos Clarivan/Science Photo Library

Atomic and molecular physics

An atom shuffles its electrons at ultrahigh speed — and is caught in the act

Scientists capture the movement of electrons in a xenon atom, a phenomenon that lasts for a fraction of one-billionth of a second.
A canal running alongside banks of earth.

An irrigation canal in the dry and intensively farmed San Joaquin Valley of California. Solar panels over such canals are more efficient than those on dry land. Credit: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

Renewable energy

Solar panels that throw shade on canals are an environmental win–win

Placing solar arrays over canals would prevent water loss and improve panels’ energy harvest.
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