A Look Inside the Lab

qifan zhangQifan Zhang, photo by Rong Zhu.

Scientists haven’t exactly been quiet about their frustrations with the current presidential administration. There was that global “March for Science” on Earth Day this year, which brought researchers and concerned citizens out to demonstrate in more than 600 cities. And many at MIT have been particularly outspoken; 400 opposed Trump’s cabinet appointments in a November letter, and in June, university officials told Reuters they wanted the president to stop citing climate research he didn’t understand.

Here’s one way to make sure you don’t misrepresent someone else’s research: ask them! That’s why, in our July/August issue, we caught up with a few cutting-edge MIT researchers to get the lowdown on what’s going on in the lab. Their work, their words. No #fakenews.

Developing technology that could offer cheaper, faster and ultimately safer food testing thanks to your smartphone.

“It’s extremely shocking to hear about bacteria outbreaks and large food recalls in the 21st century—and frequently, nearly every week. People still die because of bacterial contamination. The problem has been realized for several decades, but no optimal solution has come out.

We are trying to solve the food-borne bacterium contamination and outbreak problem by using a colloid-based [gel-like] sensor assay. The current method takes a long time to culture the bacterium before results are shown, which means food is shipped and consumed before it’s cleared safe to eat. (That’s why there are so many recalls.)

The colloid sensor has the advantage of being cheap, fast and easy to use (without technical training), offering a potential strategy to check bacterial contamination before consumption.

It’s really exciting to publish our work and raise awareness about the food safety to the general public. We are also working to commercialize this technology in the meantime. Hopefully, our future product could significantly reduce food-borne outbreaks and help everybody enjoy their favorite dishes without safety concerns.”


Photo by Jess Benjamin

Working on a device that can extract water from aireven in arid regions.

“Our system uses a new class of porous material called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which can grab water molecules in their surfaces under various humidity conditions. At night, when it’s cooler, a prototype consisting of the MOF material and condenser is opened, letting air circulate, which allows the MOF to capture water molecules. During the day, the enclosure is closed, and the sun’s heat brings up the temperature of the MOF material and releases the vapor. This creates super-humidity conditions in the enclosure to condense vapor into liquid water. By selecting the right MOFs for your climate conditions, water can be captured and harvested in an entire spectrum of humidities.

This water-harvesting work was first inspired by a collaborative effort between our group at MIT and Professor Yaghi’s group at UC Berkeley on a thermal battery project using MOF-water pairs. While MOFs showed great promise for energy storage applications, we realized that MOFs are also well-suited for capturing water vapor from air.

This isn’t new physics or chemistry we invented, but realizing the potential application of such new materials and engineering them into a prototype is what engineers do. I was really excited about realizing a proof-of-concept device that can potentially solve highly challenging water problems in the future.”

living material

No, these glowing gloves aren’t the kind you wear to a rave—that’s a cell-infused material designed to light up when it comes in contact with certain chemicals.

So uh, what’s the point of that? Great question! We asked its creators to tell us a bit about it.

Can you explain your work in a few quick sentences for us laypeople?
We design a new “living material”—a tough, stretchy, biocompatible sheet of hydrogel injected with living cells that are genetically programmed to light up in the presence of certain chemicals. We fabricate various wearable sensors from the cell-infused hydrogel, including a rubber glove with fingertips that glow after touching a chemically contaminated surface and bandages that light up when pressed against chemicals on a person’s skin.

It can potentially be used in applications ranging from crime-scene investigation to pollution monitoring and medical diagnostics.

How did you get into this particular field of study?
Living cells have been programmed with different functions, including sensing and responding. However, most of them only have been demonstrated in the laboratory, and it is still challenging to make them into free-standing materials and devices.

How to maintain living cells viable and functional in living materials and devices? How to prevent living cells from escaping the living materials and devices? In this study, we choose robust hydrogels to host living cells to address these challenges and design new living materials and devices.

What’s it like to work in a city like Cambridge (and a university like MIT), where so much cool research is happening?
Research at MIT aims to develop innovative solutions to the world’s most daunting challenges. From addressing the energy needs of tomorrow to improving cancer therapies, MIT’s research efforts are enhanced through creative collaborations. People from different disciplines, including mechanical engineering, materials science and biomedical engineering, are exchanging their ideas and collaborating with each other to solve challenging problems.

Answers from lead author and graduate student Xinyue Liu; Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT; Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science; and graduate students Tzu- Chieh Tang, Eleonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk and Shaoting Lin.

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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