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Galactic gas stations

March 7, 2014 1:31 pm | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Future lunar missions may be fueled by gas stations in space, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers: A spacecraft might dock at a propellant depot, somewhere between the Earth and the moon, and pick up extra rocket fuel before making its way to the lunar surface.

A river of plasma, guarding against the sun

March 7, 2014 7:39 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

The Earth’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere, stretches from the planet’s core out into space, where it meets the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted by the sun. For the most part, the magnetosphere acts as a shield to protect the Earth from this high-energy solar activity. But when this field comes into contact with the sun’s magnetic field, powerful electrical currents from the sun can stream into Earth’s atmosphere.

New catalyst could lead to cleaner energy

March 6, 2014 8:20 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemists have devised a way to trap carbon dioxide and transform it into useful organic compounds, using a simple metal complex. More work is needed to understand and optimize the reaction, but one day this approach could offer an easy and inexpensive way to recapture some of the carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles and power plants.

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Need a water filter? Peel a tree branch

February 27, 2014 7:39 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

If you’ve run out of drinking water during a lakeside camping trip, there’s a simple solution: Break off a branch from the nearest pine tree, peel away the bark and slowly pour lake water through the stick. The improvised filter should trap any bacteria, producing fresh, uncontaminated water. In fact, a team has discovered that this low-tech filtration system can produce up to 4 L of drinking water a day.

How to create selective holes in graphene

February 25, 2014 7:55 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Researchers have devised a way of making tiny holes of controllable size in sheets of graphene, a development that could lead to ultra-thin filters for improved desalination or water purification. The team of researchers succeeded in creating subnanoscale pores in a sheet of the one-atom-thick material, which is one of the strongest materials known.

Going with the flow makes bacteria stick

February 24, 2014 7:32 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In a surprising new finding, researchers have discovered that bacterial movement is impeded in flowing water, enhancing the likelihood that the microbes will attach to surfaces. The new work could have implications for the study of marine ecosystems, and for our understanding of how infections take hold in medical devices.

Closing the “free will” loophole

February 20, 2014 8:01 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In a recently published paper, researchers proposed an experiment that may close the last major loophole of Bell’s inequality, a 50-year-old theorem that, if violated by experiments, would mean that our universe is based not on the textbook laws of classical physics, but on the less-tangible probabilities of quantum mechanics. Such a quantum view would allow for seemingly counterintuitive phenomena such as entanglement.

Smarter caching

February 19, 2014 7:32 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Computer chips keep getting faster because transistors keep getting smaller. But the chips themselves are as big as ever, so data moving around the chip, and between chips and main memory, has to travel just as far. As transistors get faster, the cost of moving data becomes, proportionally, a more severe limitation. So far, chip designers have circumvented that limitation through the use of “caches”.

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Hitchhiking vaccines boost immunity

February 18, 2014 8:04 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Many vaccines consist of a killed or disabled version of a virus. However, for certain diseases, this type of vaccine is ineffective, or just too risky. An alternative, safer approach is a vaccine made of small fragments of proteins produced by a disease-causing virus or bacterium. This has worked for some diseases, but in many cases these vaccines don’t provoke a strong enough response. Until now.

The physics of curly hair

February 14, 2014 8:23 am | by Denise Brehm, Civil and Environmental Engineering | News | Comments

The heroes and villains in animated films tend to be on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. But they’re often similar in their hair, which is usually extremely rigid or straight and swings to and fro. It’s rare to see an animated character with bouncy, curly hair, since computer animators don’t have a simple mathematical means for describing it. That is, until now.

Research reveals structure of key protein complex

February 13, 2014 1:04 pm | by Veronica Meade-Kelly, Broad Institute | News | Comments

Researchers have formed the first high-definition picture of the Cas9 complex, a key part of the CRISPR-Cas system used by scientists as a genome-editing tool to silence genes and probe the biology of cells. Their findingsare expected to help researchers refine and further engineer the tool to accelerate genomic research and bring the technology closer to use in the treatment of human genetic disease.

Herding robots

February 12, 2014 7:50 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | Videos | Comments

Writing a program to control a single autonomous robot navigating an uncertain environment with an erratic communication link is hard enough; write one for multiple robots that may or may not have to work in tandem, depending on the task, is even harder. As a consequence, engineers designing control programs for multiagent systems have restricted themselves to special cases. Until now.

An extinction in the blink of an eye

February 11, 2014 9:53 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96% of marine species and 70% of life on land. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

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Better RNA interference, inspired by nature

February 11, 2014 7:54 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Inspired by tiny particles that carry cholesterol through the body, Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineers have designed nanoparticles that can deliver snippets of genetic material that turn off disease-causing genes. This approach, known as RNA interference, holds great promise for treating cancer and other diseases. However, delivering enough RNA to treat the diseased tissue has proven difficult.

Researchers identify one of the earliest stars in the universe

February 10, 2014 8:20 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Scientists have thought that the first stars in the universe burst with tremendous energy, spewing out the first heavy elements, such as carbon, iron, and oxygen. But according to new research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not all of these first stars may have been forceful exploders.

Optogenetic toolkit goes multicolor

February 10, 2014 7:39 am | News | Comments

Optogenetics allows scientists to control neurons’ electrical activity with light by engineering them to express light-sensitive proteins, called opsins. Most opsins respond to light in the blue-green range. Now, a team has discovered an opsin that is sensitive to red light, which allows researchers to independently control the activity of two populations of neurons at once, enabling much more complex studies of brain function.  

Theorists predict new forms of exotic insulating materials

February 7, 2014 8:02 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Topological insulators have been of great interest to physicists in recent years because of unusual properties that may provide insights into quantum physics. But most analysis of such materials has had to rely on highly simplified models. Now, a team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has performed a more detailed analysis that hints at the existence of six new kinds of topological insulators.

A microchip for metastasis

February 6, 2014 8:09 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Nearly 70% of patients with advanced breast cancer experience skeletal metastasis, in which cancer cells migrate from a primary tumor into bone. While scientists are attempting to better understand metastasis in general, not much is known about how and why certain cancers spread to specific organs. Now researchers have developed a 3-D microfluidic platform that mimics the spread of breast cancer cells into a bone-like environment.

Testing nanomedicine with blood cells on a microchip

February 4, 2014 11:51 am | by Brett Israel, Georgia Institute of Technology | News | Comments

Designing nanomedicine to combat diseases is a hot area of scientific research, primarily for treating cancer, but very little is known in the context of atherosclerotic disease. Scientists have engineered a microchip coated with blood vessel cells to learn more about the conditions under which nanoparticles accumulate in the plaque-filled arteries of patients with atherosclerosis, the underlying cause of myocardial infarction and stroke.

Materials database proves its mettle with new discoveries

February 4, 2014 10:34 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Trying to find new materials, to improve the performance of anything from microchips to car bodies, has always been a process of trial and error. Massachusetts Institute of Technology materials scientist Gerbrand Ceder likens it to setting out from Boston for California, with neither a map nor a navigation system—and on foot.

Growing a business, from the lab

February 3, 2014 7:45 am | by Rob Matheson, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In the early 1990s, MIT researcher Shuguang Zhang, then an MIT postdoctoral researcher, stumbled upon peptides that could self-assemble into nanostructures, creating 3-D environments for cell culturing. It was, at the time, a breakthrough discovery. But it wouldn’t be until a decade later, in a last-ditch effort to bring this discovery to the public, that these peptides would find commercial application through 3-D Matrix.

Weapon fights drug-resistant tumors

January 31, 2014 9:16 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Cancer drugs that recruit antibodies from the body’s own immune system to help kill tumors have shown much promise in treating several types of cancer. However, after initial success, the tumors often return. A new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveals a way to combat these recurrent tumors with a drug that makes them more vulnerable to the antibody treatment.

Storage system for “big data” dramatically speeds access to information

January 30, 2014 11:51 am | by Helen Knight, MIT News correspondent | News | Comments

For "big data" to be useful it must first be analyzed, meaning it needs to be stored in such a way that it can be accessed quickly when required. Hard disk storage is slow, and dynamic random access memory cannot be used with today’s large datasets. Researchers have now developed a flash-based storage system for big-data analytics that can dramatically speed up the time it takes to access information.

“Rogue” asteroids may be the norm

January 30, 2014 7:33 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

To get an idea of how the early solar system may have formed, scientists often look to asteroids. These relics of rock and dust represent what today’s planets may have been before they differentiated into bodies of core, mantle and crust. In the 1980s, scientists’ view of the solar system’s asteroids was essentially static. But in the last decade, astronomers have detected asteroids with compositions unexpected for their locations in space.

Expanding our view of vision

January 28, 2014 8:24 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Every time you open your eyes, visual information flows into your brain, which interprets what you’re seeing. Now, for the first time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientists have noninvasively mapped this flow of information in the human brain with unique accuracy, using a novel brain-scanning technique. 

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