March 2017


Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT



Detecting mutations could lead to earlier liver cancer diagnosis
In many parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, exposure to a fungal product called aflatoxin is believed to cause up to 80 percent of liver cancer cases. This fungus is often found in corn, peanuts, and other crops that are dietary staples in those regions. MIT researchers have now developed a way to determine, by sequencing DNA of liver cells, whether those cells have been exposed to aflatoxin. This profile of mutations could be used to predict whether someone has a high risk of developing liver cancer, potentially many years before tumors actually appear. This approach could also be used to generate profiles for other common carcinogens. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/detecting-mutations-earlier-liver-cancer-diagnosis-0327

Toward printable, sensor-laden “skin” for robots
In this age of smartphones and tablet computers, touch-sensitive surfaces are everywhere. They’re also brittle, as people with cracked phone screens everywhere can attest. Covering a robot — or an airplane or a bridge — with sensors will require a technology that is both flexible and cost-effective to manufacture in bulk. A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory thinks that 3-D printing could be the answer. In an attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of flexible, printable electronics that combine sensors and processing circuitry and can act on their environments, the researchers have designed and built a device that responds to mechanical stresses by changing the color of a spot on its surface. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/goldbug-beetle-printable-sensor-laden-skin-robots-0323=


MIT Report warns of hacking risk to critical infrastructure, recommends improvements
In a world where hackers can sabotage power plants and impact elections, there has never been a more crucial time to examine cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, most of which is privately owned. In a new report based on a year of workshops with leaders from industry and government, a team of MIT experts makes a series of recommendations for the Trump administration to develop a cybersecurity plan that coordinates efforts across departments, encourages investment, and removes parts of key infrastructure like the electric grid from the internet. The report also recommends changes in tax law and regulations to incentivize private companies to improve the security of their critical infrastructure. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-experts-urge-trump-administration-immediate-cybersecurity-action-0328

Security for multi-robot systems
Distributed planning, communication, and control algorithms for autonomous robots make up a major area of research in computer science. But in the literature on multirobot systems, security has gotten relatively short shrift. Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and their colleagues have presented a new technique for preventing malicious hackers from commandeering robot teams’ communication networks. The technique could provide an added layer of security in systems that encrypt communications, or an alternative in circumstances in which encryption is impractical. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/security-multirobot-systems-hackers-0317

Science & Tech

Conquering metal fatigue
Metal fatigue can lead to abrupt and sometimes catastrophic failures in parts that undergo repeated loading, or stress. It’s a major cause of failure in structural components of everything from aircraft and spacecraft to bridges and power plants. As a result, such structures are typically built with wide safety margins that add to costs. Now, a team of researchers at MIT and in Japan and Germany has found a way to greatly reduce the effects of fatigue by incorporating a laminated nanostructure into the steel. The layered structuring gives the steel a kind of bone-like resilience, allowing it to deform without allowing the spread of microcracks that can lead to fatigue failure. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/metal-fatigue-laminated-nanostructure-resistance-fracturing-0309

Energy & Environment

Tiny bacterium provides window into whole ecosystems
William Blake may have seen a world in a grain of sand, but for scientists at MIT the smallest of all photosynthetic bacteria holds clues to the evolution of entire ecosystems, and perhaps even the whole biosphere. The key is a tiny bacterium called Prochlorococcus, which is the most abundant photosynthetic life form in the oceans. New research shows that this diminutive creature’s metabolism has evolved in a way that may have helped trigger the rise of other organisms, to form a more complex marine ecosystem. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/tiny-bacterium-provides-window-whole-ecosystems-0327