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Alt-week 9.1.12: growing bones, repairing voices, and a pair of satellites


Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

There's definitely more than a touch of a biological theme to proceedings this week. In fact, so much so that we thought we might well end up with enough ingredients to make our own cyborg. Or rather, a light-responding canine cyborg with a really cool voice. Yep, science and technology is working hard to make all of these things possible -- albeit independently. If science ever does do the right thing, and pool its resources on such a project, you can thanks us for the tip off. This is Alt-week.

Our little wander down alternative-lane this week starts with Whiskey. No, we're not having a liquid breakfast (if we were, we'd choose our glass carefully), Whiskey is a dog. The Munsterlander you see below is no ordinary hound either, having just recovered from some innovative reconstructive jaw surgery. The new technique was carried out by a team from the University of California, Davis, and involved extracting the diseased piece first, before replacing it with a metal plate along with a sponge containing proteins that stimulate bone growth. Whiskey is said to be recovering well, no doubt much to the chagrin of local cats. This isn't just a happy tale of one dog's fortunate recovery of course, the hope is, that the science can not only benefit our four-legged friends, but be developed to work on our two-legged friends, relatives and colleagues too.

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Assuming that the future of jaw-replacement is taken care of, what about a little work on the voice? Looks like Robert Langer and a colleague -- engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- have picked up that particular baton. By altering the chemical links in polyethylene glycol (something commonly used in cosmetics) they were able to manipulate the material's elasticity, and create a model with properties very similar to human vocal cords. Apparently it's not able to restore damaged tissue, but could be used help restore the vibrational qualities of existing vocal cords. If you're worried that it might make you sound like James Earl Jones (or who knows, James Brown), fear not, as the gels can be given different vocal characteristics to suit different voices. Not only is this a boon to people with legitimate medical conditions, we're imagining the advent of vocal cosmetic surgery too -- off the shelf voices.

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We're sticking with MIT for a bit longer, hanging around on campus trying to look like we belong. Our academic aspirations aside, there is another reason, and that's because the institute -- in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania -- has developed muscles that react to light. Normally our skeletal muscle requires external stimulation to flex, where as this new tissue was developed with myoblasts, to create a light-activated protein. Why you ask? Well, the hope is that a light source (or trigger) is less clumsy than an electrode. This could benefit robotics systems in particular, helping avoid jerky movements, and potentially giving them smoother moves. Between this and the work on vocal cords, you'd be forgiven for thinking MIT was secretly working on a cyborg pre-90s John Travolta.

Think we'd go a whole week without some space related news? Well you'd be wrong. While Curiosity continues to be NASA's current media darling, there is other important work still going on. For example, twin satellites were sent into orbit on Thursday, tasked with exploring our planet's radiation belts. This is no smooth ride either, with extra thick aluminum shields being needed to help protect them from damage from the large amount of highly charged particles they'll encounter. The $686 million mission will help NASA understand the Van Allen belts -- as they are called -- and particularly the effect the sun has on them. The pair of radiation belts normally sit well above where the ISS likes to hang out, collecting particles from the sun and beyond. The satellites are hoped to spend the next two years unraveling their mysteries, and is the culmination of 11 years' work.

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Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

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