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© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN
© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

Scientists Grow Hairy Skin in the Lab

© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN
© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

Anybody can make skin cells—in fact, you’re doing it right now. But large, transplantable sheets of skin? That’s a bit harder. Still, it’s not impossible: Japanese scientists have successfully grown sophisticated artificial skin, including hair follicles and sweat glands. Their results were published last week in the journal Science Advances

These are heady days for lab-grown tissue. In the last decade, scientists have managed to create petri-dish tear ducts, kidneys, rat legs, muscle and bone, and even beef. All of this is good news, as transplantable organs and other body parts are in high demand, but some have been harder to cook up than others. Skin, for example. 

Your hide may look simple, but there’s actually a lot going on: there are three distinct layers (the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis, which is composed of fat and connective tissue), sweat glands, and hair follicles. For skin to be skin, it’s got to be functional, lead author Takashi Tsuji said in a press statement. "Up until now, artificial skin development has been hampered by the fact that the skin lacked the important organs, such as hair follicles and exocrine glands, which allow the skin to play its important role in regulation.”

Tsuji and his colleagues decided to start at the very beginning, before skin cells are even skin cells. They used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which are adult cells that have been reprogrammed with the stem-cell-like power to grow into anything.

The researchers used chemicals to activate a gene in the cells called Wnt10b, which is known for its role in skin growth. The iPS were cultured until they grew into little clumps called embryoid bodies (EBs), then transplanted into mice. Once inside the mice, the EBs continued to develop into skin tissue. To test the tissue’s medical potential, the researchers removed the new skin from the mice and transplanted it into other mice. They found that the artificial skin settled in and continued to develop normally as three-layered skin complete with glands and follicles. They also noticed that the new skin was able to connect with nearby nerves and muscles—an essential element in any transplanted tissue. 

Bioengineered skin with hair follicles. Image credit: © Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

The researchers say their lab-grown skin is a step toward both important medical advances and a reduction in the use of lab animals in research (despite the study's reliance on mice subjects).

“With this new technique, we have successfully grown skin that replicates the function of normal tissue,” Tsuji said. “We are coming ever closer to the dream of being able to recreate actual organs in the lab for transplantation, and also believe that tissue grown through this method could be used as an alternative to animal testing of chemicals."

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
iStock
iStock

The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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