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Gizmorama - July 2, 2018

Good Morning,

Scientists at the University of Texas have built a nerve gas detector - Macgyver style! Seriously, they made it with Lego blocks, a smartphone and other materials. What's more Macgyver than that?

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- New nerve gas detector built using Lego blocks and a smartphone --*

Scientists at the University of Texas have built a nerve gas detector using Lego blocks, a smartphone and other materials. The technology could help first responders and scientists identify the presence of deadly toxic gases like VX and sarin.

Nerve-agents are odorless, tasteless gases that can be used as chemical weapons. They can cause serious illness or death in a matter of minutes.

"Chemical weapons are dangerous threats to humanity," Eric Anslyn, a chemistry professor at Texas, said in a news release. "Detection and neutralization are key to saving lives."

To detect nerve-agents, scientists combined a chemical sensor with a smartphone camera. Researchers housed the sensor inside a small box made out of Lego bricks.

To test their technology, scientists used non-toxic gases that look and behave just like nerve-agents. During lab tests, scientists tweaked the sensor to generate unique fluorescence for each type of nerve-agent. Different colors and levels of brightness signify the presence of different toxic gases.

The smartphone camera is used to photograph the sensor's different fluorescent responses.

"Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see differences in the level of florescence with the naked eye in the field," said researcher Xiaolong Sun. "And instruments used in the lab to measure florescence are not portable and cost $30,000. This device essentially takes photographs of the glowing."

Scientists developed software to tap into the camera capabilities of the iPhone, but the software can be adapted for other smartphones.

The Lego contraption provides a lightweight structure to house the sensors and provide the darkness needed for the camera to successfully photograph the fluorescent signals. The only other necessary materials are an ultraviolet light source and a standard 96-well test plate.

The lightweight contraption is mobile and efficient, yielding fast results. When detecting potential nerve gases, some of which require different decontamination procedures, timeliness is vital. The technology is also relatively cheap to build.

Scientists detailed their new nerve gas detector Wednesday in the journal ACS Central Science.

*-- Research predicts what life on other planets might look like --*

If scientists don't know what alien life will look like, how do they know what to look for?

As part of NASA's Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, an international team of astronomers, biologists and geologists have compiled the best strategies for anticipating and locating life beyond our solar system.

In a series of scientific papers published in the latest issue of the journal Astrobiology, NExSS researchers laid out their prescriptions for advancing the science of the search for alien life.

"We're moving from theorizing about life elsewhere in our galaxy to a robust science that will eventually give us the answer we seek to that profound question: are we alone?" Martin Still, NASA exoplanet scientist, said in an agency update.

The newly published papers address two main questions: what biochemical signals should scientists searching for alien life look for, and what instruments should they use to look for those signals?

The research also details the challenges complicating each of those questions.

"Detecting life is such a daunting challenge," Russell Deitrick, an astrophysicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a news release. "Just about every day I go from hopeful to cynical and back again."

As detailed by Deitrick and his colleagues, the in-depth study of alien atmospheres will offer scientists the best chance for honing in on the signatures of alien life.

But even as telescopes and their instruments become more powerful and advanced, allowing for the analysis of the chemical composition of faraway atmospheres, the first biochemical signals are unlikely to be sure things.

"Anything we detect will be ambiguous, so I see biosignature detection as really just the beginning of the search for life. After that we still have the whole process of vetting and understanding, which is why we are making so much effort to do this now."

One of the keys to identifying potential biochemical signatures is predicting what biological molecules will look like when illuminated by the faint emissions of stars cooler than our sun. Scientists must also anticipate life-supporting environs that look different than Earth's.

"We have to be open to the possibility that life may arise in many contexts in a galaxy with so many diverse worlds -- perhaps with purple-colored life instead of the familiar green-dominated life forms on Earth, for example," said Mary Parenteau, an astrobiologist and microbiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "That's why we are considering a broad range of biosignatures."

While an abundance of oxygen remains a promising biosignature, the gas can also be produced by non-biological processes. As well, life can exist without generating large amounts of oxygen.

"On early Earth, we wouldn't be able to see oxygen, despite abundant life," said Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Oxygen teaches us that seeing, or not seeing, a single biosignature is insufficient evidence for or against life -- overall context matters."

Moving forward, NExSS scientists suggest researchers should look for a combination of biochemical characteristics, not a single biosignature.


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