Star Trek introduced the world to a wide range of fictional technology, most of which, like beaming or warp drive, will likely remain fiction. However, a team of scientists from the University of Canada has taken the phaser, the show's famous stun-laser, out of the TV and into reality. Unfortunately, right now it only works on worms.
The scientists fed the worms a chemical called dithienylethene, which changes shape when exposed to UV light. The altered dithienylethene absorbs electrons better than its natural shape, and interrupts the worms' metabolic processes when it does. When the scientists zapped the worms with a beam of UV light, the chemical changed shape, stopped the cellular processes, and paralyzed the organism.
Dithienylethene is but one of many chemicals that change shape when exposed to different wavelengths of light. These photo-activated compounds hold promise as targeted, cancer-fighting drugs, and this is the first time they have ever been shown to work in a living animal.
As for their future as a part of a super stun weapon, lead researcher Neil Branda of the University of Canada was oddly noncommittal, telling the BBC, "I'm not convinced there's a legitimate use of turning organisms on and off in terms of paralysis, but until somebody tells me otherwise, I'm not going to say that there isn't an application."
Um, so, are we getting our phaser or not? Get on this, Branda!
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.