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Squids: Sophisticated skin

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Squids: Sophisticated skin

Squids have long been a source of fascination for humans, providing the stuff of legend, superstition and myth. And it’s no wonder — their odd appearances and strange intelligence, their mastery of the open ocean can inspire awe in those who see them.

Legends aside, squids continue to intrigue people today — people like UC Santa Barbara professor Daniel Morse — for much the same, albeit more scientific, reasons. Having evolved for hundreds of millions of years to hunt, communicate, evade predators and mate in the vast, often featureless expanses of open water, squids have developed some of the most sophisticated skin in the animal kingdom.

“For centuries, people have been amazed at the ability of squids to change the color and patterns of their skin — which they do beautifully — for camoflage and underwater communication, signaling to one another and to other species to keep away, or as attraction for mating and other kinds of signaling,” said Morse, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.

Like their cephalopod cousins the octopus and cuttlefish, squids have specialized pigment-filled cells called chromatophores that expand to expose them to light, resulting in various shades of pigmentary color. Of particular interest to Morse, however, is the squids’ ability to shimmer and flicker, reflecting different colors and breaking light over their skin. It’s an effect that is thought to mimic the dappled light of the upper ocean — the only feature in an otherwise stark seascape. By understanding how squids manage to fade themselves into even the plainest of backgrounds — or stand out — it may be possible to produce materials with the same, light tuning properties for a variety of applications.

Morse has been working to unlock the secret of squid skin for the last decade, and with support from the Army Research Office and research published in the journal Applied Physics Letters, he and co-author Esther Taxon come even closer to unraveling the complex mechanisms that underlie squid skin.

An Elegant Mechanism

“What we’ve discovered is that not only is the squid able to tune the color of the light that’s reflected, but also its brightness,” Morse said. Research had thus far has established that certain proteins called reflectins were responsible for iridescence, but the squid’s ability to tune the brightness of the reflected light was still something of a mystery, he said.


Previous research by Morse had uncovered structures and mechanisms by which iridocytes — light-reflecting cells — in the opalescent inshore squid’s (Doryteuthis opalescens) skin can take on virtually every color of the rainbow. It happens with the cell membrane, where it folds into nanoscale accordion-like structures called lamellae, forming tiny, subwavelength-wide exterior grooves.

“Those tiny groove structures are like the ones we see on the engraved side of a compact disc,” Morse said. The color reflected depends on the width of the groove, which corresponds to certain light wavelengths (colors). In the squid’s iridocytes, these lamellae have the added feature of being able to shapeshift, widening and narrowing those grooves through the actions of a remarkably finely tuned “osmotic motor” driven by reflectin proteins condensing or spreading apart inside the lamellae.

While materials systems containing reflectin proteins were able to approximate the iridescent color changes squid were capable of, attempts to replicate the ability to intensify brightness of these reflections always came up short, according to the researchers, who reasoned that something had to be coupled to the reflectins in squid skin, amplifying their effect.

That something turned out to be the very membrane enclosing the reflectins — the lamellae, the same structures responsible for the grooves that split light into its constituent colors.

“Evolution has so exquisitely optimized not only the color tuning, but the tuning of the brightness using the same material, the same protein and the same mechanism,” Morse said.


Light at the Speed of Thought

It all starts with a signal, a neuronal pulse from the squid’s brain.

“Reflectins are normally very strongly positively charged,” Morse said of the iridescent proteins, which, when not activated, look like a string of beads. Their same charge means they repel each other.

But that can change when a neural signal causes the reflectins to bind negatively charged phosphate groups that neutralize the positive charge. Without the repulsion keeping the proteins in their disordered state they fold and attract each other, accumulating into fewer, larger aggregations in the lamellae.

These aggregations exert osmotic pressure on the lamellae, a semipermeable membrane built to withstand only so much pressure created by the clumping reflectins before releasing water outside the cell.

“Water gets squished out of the accordion-like structure, and that collapses the accordion so the thickness in spacing between the folds gets reduced, and that’s like bringing the grooves of a compact disc closer together,” Morse explained. “So the light that’s reflected can shift progressively from red to green to blue.”

At the same time, the membrane’s collapse concentrates the reflectins, causing an increase in their refractive index, amplifying brightness. Osmotic pressure, the motor that drives these tunings of optical properties, couples the lamellae tightly to the reflectins in a highly calibrated relationship that optimizes the output (color and brightness) to the input (neural signal). Wipe away the neural signal and the physics reverses, Morse said.

“It’s a very clever, indirect way of changing color and brightness by controlling the physical behavior of what’s called a colligative property — the osmotic pressure, something that’s not immediately obvious, but it reveals the intricacy of the evolutionary process, the millennia of mutation and natural selections that have honed and optimized these processes together.”

Tunable-Brightness Thin-Films

The presence of a membrane may be the vital link for the development of bioinspired thin films with the optical tuning capacity of the opalescent inshore squid.

“This discovery of the key role the membrane plays in tuning the brightness of reflectance has intriguing implications for the design of future buihybrid materials and coatings with tunable optical properties that could protect soldiers and their equipment,” said Stephanie McElhinny, a program manager at the the Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

According to the researchers, “This evolutionarily honed, efficient coupling of reflectin of its osmotic amplifier is closely analogous to the impedance matched coupling of activator-transducer-amplifier networks in well-engineered electronic, magnetic, mechanical and acoustic systems.” In this case the activator would be the neuronal signal, while the reflectins acts as transducers and the osmotically controlled membranes serve as the amplifiers.

“Without that membrane surrounding the reflectins, there’s no change in the brightness for these artificial thin-films,” said Morse, who is collaborating with engineering colleagues to investigate the potential for a more squid skin-like thin-film. “If we want to capture the power of the biological, we have to include some kind of membrane-like enclosure to allow reversible tuning of the brightness.”

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Charge your laptop in a minute or your EV in 10? Supercapacitors can help

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Imagine if your dead laptop or phone could charge in a minute or if an electric car could be fully powered in 10 minutes.

While not possible yet, new research by a team of CU Boulder scientists could potentially lead to such advances.

Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in Ankur Gupta’s lab discovered how tiny charged particles, called ions, move within a complex network of minuscule pores. The breakthrough could lead to the development of more efficient energy storage devices, such as supercapacitors, said Gupta, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.

“Given the critical role of energy in the future of the planet, I felt inspired to apply my chemical engineering knowledge to advancing energy storage devices,” Gupta said. “It felt like the topic was somewhat underexplored and as such, the perfect opportunity.”

Gupta explained that several chemical engineering techniques are used to study flow in porous materials such as oil reservoirs and water filtration, but they have not been fully utilized in some energy storage systems.

The discovery is significant not only for storing energy in vehicles and electronic devices but also for power grids, where fluctuating energy demand requires efficient storage to avoid waste during periods of low demand and to ensure rapid supply during high demand.

Supercapacitors, energy storage devices that rely on ion accumulation in their pores, have rapid charging times and longer life spans compared to batteries.

“The primary appeal of supercapacitors lies in their speed,” Gupta said. “So how can we make their charging and release of energy faster? By the more efficient movement of ions.”

Their findings modify Kirchhoff’s law, which has governed current flow in electrical circuits since 1845 and is a staple in high school students’ science classes. Unlike electrons, ions move due to both electric fields and diffusion, and the researchers determined that their movements at pore intersections are different from what was described in Kirchhoff’s law.

Prior to the study, ion movements were only described in the literature in one straight pore. Through this research, ion movement in a complex network of thousands of interconnected pores can be simulated and predicted in a few minutes.

“That’s the leap of the work,” Gupta said. “We found the missing link.”



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AI headphones let wearer listen to a single person in a crowd, by looking at them just once

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Noise-canceling headphones have gotten very good at creating an auditory blank slate. But allowing certain sounds from a wearer’s environment through the erasure still challenges researchers. The latest edition of Apple’s AirPods Pro, for instance, automatically adjusts sound levels for wearers — sensing when they’re in conversation, for instance — but the user has little control over whom to listen to or when this happens.

A University of Washington team has developed an artificial intelligence system that lets a user wearing headphones look at a person speaking for three to five seconds to “enroll” them. The system, called “Target Speech Hearing,” then cancels all other sounds in the environment and plays just the enrolled speaker’s voice in real time even as the listener moves around in noisy places and no longer faces the speaker.

The team presented its findings May 14 in Honolulu at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The code for the proof-of-concept device is available for others to build on. The system is not commercially available.

“We tend to think of AI now as web-based chatbots that answer questions,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “But in this project, we develop AI to modify the auditory perception of anyone wearing headphones, given their preferences. With our devices you can now hear a single speaker clearly even if you are in a noisy environment with lots of other people talking.”

To use the system, a person wearing off-the-shelf headphones fitted with microphones taps a button while directing their head at someone talking. The sound waves from that speaker’s voice then should reach the microphones on both sides of the headset simultaneously; there’s a 16-degree margin of error. The headphones send that signal to an on-board embedded computer, where the team’s machine learning software learns the desired speaker’s vocal patterns. The system latches onto that speaker’s voice and continues to play it back to the listener, even as the pair moves around. The system’s ability to focus on the enrolled voice improves as the speaker keeps talking, giving the system more training data.

The team tested its system on 21 subjects, who rated the clarity of the enrolled speaker’s voice nearly twice as high as the unfiltered audio on average.

This work builds on the team’s previous “semantic hearing” research, which allowed users to select specific sound classes — such as birds or voices — that they wanted to hear and canceled other sounds in the environment.

Currently the TSH system can enroll only one speaker at a time, and it’s only able to enroll a speaker when there is not another loud voice coming from the same direction as the target speaker’s voice. If a user isn’t happy with the sound quality, they can run another enrollment on the speaker to improve the clarity.

The team is working to expand the system to earbuds and hearing aids in the future.

Additional co-authors on the paper were Bandhav Veluri, Malek Itani and Tuochao Chen, UW doctoral students in the Allen School, and Takuya Yoshioka, director of research at AssemblyAI. This research was funded by a Moore Inventor Fellow award, a Thomas J. Cabel Endowed Professorship and a UW CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund.



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Theory and experiment combine to shine a new light on proton spin

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Nuclear physicists have long been working to reveal how the proton gets its spin. Now, a new method that combines experimental data with state-of-the-art calculations has revealed a more detailed picture of spin contributions from the very glue that holds protons together. It also paves the way toward imaging the proton’s 3D structure.

The work was led by Joseph Karpie, a postdoctoral associate in the Center for Theoretical and Computational Physics (Theory Center) at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

He said that this decades-old mystery began with measurements of the sources of the proton’s spin in 1987. Physicists originally thought that the proton’s building blocks, its quarks, would be the main source of the proton’s spin. But that’s not what they found. It turned out that the proton’s quarks only provide about 30% of the proton’s total measured spin. The rest comes from two other sources that have so far proven more difficult to measure.

One is the mysterious but powerful strong force. The strong force is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. It’s what “glues” quarks together to make up other subatomic particles, such as protons or neutrons. Manifestations of this strong force are called gluons, which are thought to contribute to the proton’s spin. The last bit of spin is thought to come from the movements of the proton’s quarks and gluons.

“This paper is sort of a bringing together of two groups in the Theory Center who have been working toward trying to understand the same bit of physics, which is how do the gluons that are inside of it contribute to how much the proton is spinning around,” he said.

He said this study was inspired by a puzzling result that came from initial experimental measurements of the gluons’ spin. The measurements were made at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a DOE Office of Science user facility based at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The data at first seemed to indicate that the gluons may be contributing to the proton’s spin. They showed a positive result.

But as the data analysis was improved, a further possibility appeared.

“When they improved their analysis, they started to get two sets of results that seemed quite different, one was positive and the other was negative,” Karpie explained.

While the earlier positive result indicated that the gluons’ spins are aligned with that of the proton, the improved analysis allowed for the possibility that the gluons’ spins have an overall negative contribution. In that case, more of the proton spin would come from the movement of the quarks and gluons, or from the spin of the quarks themselves.

This puzzling result was published by the Jefferson Lab Angular Momentum (JAM) collaboration.

Meanwhile, the HadStruc collaboration had been addressing the same measurements in a different way. They were using supercomputers to calculate the underlying theory that describes the interactions among quarks and gluons in the proton, Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).

To equip supercomputers to make this intense calculation, theorists somewhat simplify some aspects of the theory. This somewhat simplified version for computers is called lattice QCD.

Karpie led the work to bring together the data from both groups. He started with the combined data from experiments taken in facilities around the world. He then added the results from the lattice QCD calculation into his analysis.

“This is putting everything together that we know about quark and gluon spin and how gluons contribute to the spin of the proton in one dimension,” said David Richards, a Jefferson Lab senior staff scientist who worked on the study.

“When we did, we saw that the negative things didn’t go away, but they changed dramatically. That meant that there’s something funny going on with those,” Karpie said.

Karpie is lead author on the study that was recently published in Physical Review D. He said the main takeaway is that combining the data from both approaches provided a more informed result.

“We’re combining both of our datasets together and getting a better result out than either of us could get independently. It’s really showing that we learn a lot more by combining lattice QCD and experiment together in one problem analysis,” said Karpie. “This is the first step, and we hope to keep doing this with more and more observables as well as we make more lattice data.”

The next step is to further improve the datasets. As more powerful experiments provide more detailed information on the proton, these data begin painting a picture that goes beyond one dimension. And as theorists learn how to improve their calculations on ever-more powerful supercomputers, their solutions also become more precise and inclusive.

The goal is to eventually produce a three-dimensional understanding of the proton’s structure.

“So, we learn our tools do work on the simpler one-dimension scenario. By testing our methods now, we hopefully will know what we need to do when we want to move up to do 3D structure,” Richards said. “This work will contribute to this 3D image of what a proton should look like. So it’s all about building our way up to the heart of the problem by doing this easier stuff now.”



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