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Science Square (Issue 106)
Jul 1, 2015

A New Blood Test Can Tell Every Virus You've Ever Had

Engineers have developed a new tool which can test for both past and current viral infections by analyzing a single drop of a patient's blood. The new method, known as VirScan (Systematic Viral Epitope Scanning), is superior to existing technologies, which are only able to search for a single virus at a time. When we are infected by a virus, our immune system starts fighting it by producing antibodies that neutralize the foreign object that is carrying disease. VirScan simply screens those antibodies that are produced against any of the 1000 strains of the total 206 virus species known to infect humans. Since our immune system continues to produce these antibodies even long after the virus disappears, VirScan is able to detect both current and past infections. As a pilot study, scientists have used VirScan to screen the blood of 569 people in the US, South Africa, Peru, and Thailand. The findings showed that each patient, on average, had antibodies for around 10 different species of virus. They also found that blood samples from patients with HIV showed a larger number of antibodies for different viruses than those without HIV. The test is relatively simple and will only cost $25. VirScan will be particularly useful in underdeveloped regions of the world, where it can be used to track disease patterns among various global populations and to develop targeted therapeutic approaches.

New Computers Run on Water Droplets

After a decade of hard work, scientists have finally created a working computer based on the physical movement of water droplets. They devised a system in which water droplets are trapped in a magnetic field. When the field is rotated or flipped, droplets move in precise directions and distances, resulting in a synchronous computer based entirely on the physics of water. Researchers applied the physics of moving droplets to the operating clock, an essential component of any computer or computer-driven devices such as smartphones, airplanes, and even the internet. Almost every computer program runs several simultaneous operations and a clock ensures that the information is synchronized. In theory, the new line of computers can perform the very same operations as common computers, although a computer based on the physical movement of water will clearly run much slower than a conventional computer based on the movement of electrons. But scientists do not aim to compete with super-fast liquid CPU computers anyway; their goal is to build a completely new class of computers that can manipulate physical matters instead of bits of information. The current chips of new computers are about half the size of a postage stamp, and the droplets are smaller than poppy seeds. The fact that the magnetic field can control millions of droplets simultaneously makes the system exceptionally scalable. Scientists foresee that this technology can potentially turn computers into high-throughput chemistry and biology laboratories. Instead of running reactions in test tubes, each droplet can carry some chemicals and become its own test tube, and the droplet computer offers extraordinary control over these interactions.

Cosmic Dance at the Far End of Our Solar System

Astronomers find that 4.5 billion miles away, the Pluto system is more peculiar and complicated than anyone predicted. Hubble Space Telescope images revealed that Pluto, with its largest moon, Charon, and smaller moons Styx, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos, shows unconventional rhythmic gyrations unlike anything in our solar system. Scientists suggest that this unpredictable lunar behavior stems from the gravitational pull exerted by Charon. Since Pluto and Charon are close in size, instead of one orbiting the other, they jointly orbit around a common center of gravity. It is like two unequal weights at the ends of a dumbbell, and the dumbbell is rotating. Astronomers called this phenomenon a "binary planet." While Pluto and Charon perform their movements, the four little moons circle them, wobbling a bit when they go closer to either Pluto or Charon, being pushed and pulled by the two bigger objects. Since the small moons don't have enough mass for their internal gravity to keep them in a round shape, they look more like American footballs than spheres. With the small moons wobbling and flipping around in unpredictable ways, if you lived on Nix ,for example, the sun would come up in different parts of the sky on different days. After a 9.5-year journey through the solar system, NASA's $700 million New Horizon spacecraft will arrive at the Pluto system in July. The New Horizon is expected to take extremely high resolution images of Pluto and its moons, and astronomers hope to better understand how big Pluto system is and what it is made of.