Stop a fire with a spark

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Apr 8 2011, 07:33am hrs
Fire fighting

Through the ages, water has been the best weapon to fight fire. However, it isnt very efficient, with massive amounts being wasted. In an effort to address this, as well as to put out fires better, researchers developed foam that did the deed as well as water. Now, theyve expanded their arsenal with an even more radical toolelectricity.

Its long been known that electricity can bend, flicker and put out flames. Dr Ludevico Cademartiri and his team at Harvard University built on this idea and, in a paper presented to the American Chemical Society, reported that they put out a foot-and-a-half high fire using only an electrified metal wire. The idea is that the electrical field charged the carbon particles (soot) created by the fire, generating a flow of charged particles in the fire that pushed the flame away from its fuel, effectively putting it out. Remarkably, they used only 600W of electricity to do it (the same amount used by a fancy car stereo). Controlling the heat and distribution of a fire also has direct implications for more efficient burning of fossil fuels and in internal combustion engines.

Save our skin

Now, suppose you were in such a fire, and before the fireman with his electric wand arrived, you suffered a nasty burn on your arm. Youre going to need a skin graft to replace all that damaged skin. The problem with skin grafts is that they take a long time to heal, all the while being extremely susceptible to infection.

Doctors knew that stem cells have something to do with healing damaged skin. They just didnt know what, and how to control it. Researchers at Kings College London and Osaka University seemed to have solved this puzzle. They claim to have isolated the chemicalHMGB1that signals stems cells from bone marrow to move to the damaged skin site and begin repairs. Apparently, HMGB1 acts like a megaphone in the system, as the researchers put it, sending out a distress signal (Save Our Skin, another gem from the researchers) whenever stem cells are needed. An injection of HMGB1 near a stubborn injury or burn could spur healing at an unprecedented pace, they say.

Eyesight to the blind

It seems those stem cells just cant catch a break. When they arent rushing about repairing skin, researchers have them doing all kinds of extraordinary things in their labs. This time, scientists from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Japan have managed to use stem cells to grow a rudimentary eye. Obviously, this has great implications for dealing with blindness and diseases that cause blindness.

Writing in Nature, the researchers explained how they used embryonic stem cells to grow an optic cup, containing the retina, neurons and light-sensitive cells needed to see properly. However, it was only 2 mm across, about the size of the eye of a new-born mouse. The lead scientist on the study, Yoshiki Sasai, said that this feat could be repeated with human cells within two years. The ultimate plan is to create a bank of healthy retina cells to transplant into patients who need them, but thats a while away. No rest for those weary stem cells.