Awesome Science Stuff That Happened Today [Sep 12]

It was a great day for science-loving geeks everywhere. Today’s big haps, in no particular order:

Soccer gets a newer, creepier bioengineered makeover

Photo: John O’Shea

Synthetic soccer balls are so last century. (Replace “soccer balls” with “footballs” if you’re not American.) After making waves at last year’s Abandon Normal Devices festival with his throwback soccer ball made of a straw-stuffed pig’s bladder, John O’Shea has one-upped himself by bioengineering a soccer ball using pig bladder cells grown onto a 3D-printed scaffold. But… why?

“The origins of football are multiple,” he says, using the term the rest of the world uses for the game Americans call soccer. “I’m not convinced that a global monoculture is the best or most interesting way football can develop. The fully synthetic football is a 30-year blip in history.”

The prototype (shown above) is smaller than that FIFA standard size-five ball, but that’s okay: the ball isn’t designed to be functional, but instead to explore the ever-widening gap between the game’s humble origins and the high-stakes money game international sports have become. Later, maybe, says O’Shea, the team will develop a ball that’s actually usable, “but [he would] rather it took on a form appropriate to its technology, not simply the form we are used to.” [Wired Science]

Stem cell research makes a huge advance

The most information your typical human being knows about stem cells is that they’re most easily harvested from embryos. And if you’re anywhere near the US, you know that this is extremely controversial, given the country’s deep divide on the ethics of abortion and at what point during gestation the cells created at conception are (or aren’t) considered “a human being.” For this reason, researchers have been working tirelessly to find an alternate source for stem cells, which could be used to treat and cure a seemingly endless variety of diseases and physical handicaps. That’s why today’s announcement from The University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research is so amazing: The team have succeeded in converting human skin cells directly into immature brain cells (or neural precursor cells). This means they have discovered a way to bypass the need for embryonic stem cells altogether, thereby negating the controversy and increasing future success of adult cell reprogramming that could offer lifesaving (and life-improving) treatment for millions.

“This is an advance of huge significance to stem cell research on a global level,” says Principal Investigator, Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, who is head of the Neural Repair and Neurogenesis Laboratory at the University. “It has the potential to lead to a new understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

This is a huge breakthrough for medical science. /understatement [The University of Auckland]

Dark energy is really real, everyone. We mean it this time.

The debate over whether dark energy actually exists seems to be at a close (again), thanks to the work of a team of astronomers from the University of Portsmouth and LMU University Munich. Dark energy, for the uninitiated, is believed to be the force that causes the increasing expansion of the universe. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to detect it or even provide generally acceptable models of it. So, understandably, many skeptical minds, even in the field of astrophysics, aren’t positive that it’s even real.

Professor Bob Nichol, a member of the Portsmouth team, said: “Dark energy is one of the great scientific mysteries of our time, so it isn’t surprising that so many researchers question its existence.

“But with our new work we’re more confident than ever that this exotic component of the Universe is real – even if we still have no idea what it consists of.”

The team’s research indicates that dark energy is in fact real, with 99.996% certainty. [Royal Astronomical Society]

And now for something completely different

This is silly. It’s also not from today. I’M NOT SORRY.