Scientists create the 5th form of matter for 6 minutes

It's exotic, incredibly cold stuff.

Scientists create the 5th form of matter for 6 minutes
  • It was the first Bose-Einstein condensate made in space
  • Creating the condensate in low gravity allows it to hold longer
  • Scientists hope Bose-Einstein condensate will allow finer detection of subtle quantum phenomena

For six minutes, 150 miles above Kiruna, Sweden on January 23, 2017 floated the coldest known spot in the universe. As far as we know, the coldest anything in nature can be is absolute zero on the Kelvin scale, which is –459.67°F and –273.15°C. This postage-stamp-sized atom chip packed tight with thousands of rubidium-87 atoms was just a few billionths of a degree warmer than that. The atom chip was up there in low orbit to help a team of scientist study up-close some of the oddest, least-understood stuff there is: Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The team of German scientists was led by Dennis Becker of QUEST-Leibniz Research School, Leibniz University Hannover, Hanover, Germany.

Bose-Einstein condensate is the fifth-known form of matter, after solids, liquids, gases, and plasma. When atoms in zero gravity reach a temperature close to absolute zero, they cede their individuality and act as one "super-atom." A that point, they're tens of thousands of atoms all vibrating in sync, creating something like a blob in which the tiniest of disturbances can be detected. Scientists hope that BEC can one day be harnessed for gravitational-wave detection.

The BEC on Earth

In 2010, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics packed a cylindrical capsule about the size and width of a door with a few million rubidium atoms trapped on an atom chip, lasers, the required energy supply, solenoids, and a camera. They dropped the capsule 146 meters from the top of a tower. It fell for about four seconds, and during the zero gravity of free-fall, they remotely generated a BEC on the atom chip in less than a second. (In the lab, it takes up to a minute.) Once the BEC formed, they released the trap and the camera allowed them to see its spread as it fell. They were able to observe the BEC for a few seconds before it hit bottom.

The 2010 experiment, close-up.

(Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics)

The mid-winter 2017 space BEC

The January 23rd experiment was the first time anyone's created the Bose-Einstein condensate in space. The low gravity allowed them to extend the viewing time too the BEC to six minutes, a massive improvement, allowing researcher to race through 110 remote-controlled experiments. The team's apparatus was launched into space under the auspices of the MAIUS 1, or Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity.

a. MAUIS launch vehicle; b. The launch compartment; c. The vacuum-sealed device holding the atom chip

(Becker, et al)

The atomic chip

A magneto-optical trap holding the rubidium atoms formed by laser beams (C) is loaded on an atom chip via a cold-atom beam (A). The BEC is created in, transported by, and released from the magnetic trap of the atom chip. Two additional light beams (BD) induce Bragg diffraction scattering the BEC, and a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera records the BEC using laser light (D).

Image: Becker, et al.

Hurry up and experiment

In one significant experiment, researchers split the BEC with a laser and then were able to watch it rejoin. This could be an important technique because upon parting, the two halves were identical on a quantum level, and any differences observed after rejoicing would indicate some sort of interference, such as a gravitational wave.

NASA has their own Cloud Atom Lab, an ice-chest-sized environment deployed on the ISS for low-gravity BEC research. While Becker's team made the first space BEC, the NASA team has reportedly been extending the time a BEC can be maintained.

January's experiments

(Becker, et al)

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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  • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
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