Physicists invent a new way to search for dark matter using lasers

Japanese physicists devise technology to discover axion dark matter.

Physicists invent a new way to search for dark matter using lasers

KAGRA observatory | CERN laser experiment.

Credit: University of Tokyo Institute for Cosmic Ray Research / CERN
  • Physicists from the University of Tokyo plan to use lasers to discover axions.
  • Axions are theoretical particles that may be components of dark matter.
  • Dark matter is a mysterious substance that may compose up to 27% of the universe.


Japanese physicists propose modifications to existing equipment that could allow them to pinpoint axions, hypothetical particles that may be components of dark matter. Dark matter, a mysterious theoretical substance that is thought to make up about 27% of all matter in the universe, is yet to be directly observed.

The scientists hope to track down the elusive axions using experiments with lasers.

The difficulty in finding dark matter is that it is made of, as many physicists think, weakly interacting massive particles or WIMPs, produced in the early Universe. While we haven't figured out how to spot these particles directly, interacting with regular matter, but we've been able to predict their existence by the gravitational effects they have throughout the universe.

The celebrated Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has been used to search for WIMPs, and now a new approach from Japan hopes to use the KAGRA Observatory to discover dark matter by tracking down axions.

KAGRA stands for the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector. This first major gravitational wave observatory in Asia is located deep under a mountain of the Kamioka mine in Japan's Gifu Prefecture.

The Assistant Professor Yuta Michimura from the Department of Physics at the University of Tokyo, which runs the KAGRA project, explained that because axions are light and don't interact with normal matter, they are good candidates for dark matter.

Interestingly, he also quantified how much dark matter is there, saying the amount of it inside our planet would weigh as much as a squirrel

"We don't know the mass of axions, but we usually think it has a mass less than that of electrons, " said Michimura. "Our universe is filled with dark matter and it's estimated there are 500 grams of dark matter within the Earth, about the mass of a squirrel."

The proposed instrument that would hunt for axion dark matter.

Credit: 2019 Nagano et al | University of Tokyo Institute for Cosmic Ray Research

As you can imagine, spotting such particles is no easy task. Physicists have to figure out ways that can make the particles reveal themselves through their signatures.

Koji Nagano, a graduate student at the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research at the University of Tokyo, says that their models show that axions affect light polarization, which describes the geometrical orientation of oscillating electromagnetic waves.

Their method of finding axions relies on this finding.

"This polarization modulation can be enhanced if the light is reflected back and forth many times in an optical cavity composed of two parallel mirrors apart from each other, " further expounds their approach Nagano.

The best examples of such cavities, says the researcher, are the long tunnels of gravitational-wave observatories.

"There is overwhelming astrophysical and cosmological evidence that dark matter exists, but the question "What is dark matter?" is one of the biggest outstanding problems in modern physics," said Nagano. "If we can detect axions and say for sure they are dark matter, it would be a truly exciting event indeed. It's what physicists like us dream for."

The team proposes plans to inexpensively modify existing observatories like KAGRA or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the U.S. to search for the axions. The plan, according to Michimura, would be to add "polarization optics in front of photodiode sensors in gravitational-wave detectors."

The idea's additional benefit is that it doesn't require building entirely new facilities. Upgrading gravitational wave labs would not hamper their original missions — looking for gravitational waves. But the new functionality would open a new chapter in the search for dark matter.

The study involved Koji Nagano, Tomohiro Fujita, Yuta Michimura, and Ippei Obata.

Check out the their paper "Axion Dark Matter Search with Interferometric Gravitational Wave Detectors" in the journal Physical Review Letters.

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
Surprising Science
  • 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.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

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

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

Keep reading Show less
Quantcast