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Researchers have published a new method of guiding lightning strikes using a laser. And another team of researchers developed a new test that uses DNA as bait for respiratory viruses like COVID-19.

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And now, onto the rest of SciShow News. [♪ INTRO] Everything’s cooler when it’s made of lasers. This is a scientific fact and I will not be accepting any arguments. That goes double when they’re lasers that can catch lightning.

For the past 270 years, lightning rods have consisted of a simple metal rod attached to the top of a building and grounded by a wire stuck in the ground. This works fine if you’re just trying to protect a building or cell tower from lightning damage. But there are other scenarios where we need lightning protection.

So researchers have been trying to give this centuries-old technology a makeover for a very long time. And one team has just published a new method of guiding lightning strikes using short, intense laser pulses in the journal Nature Photonics. Worldwide, lightning wreaks havoc at large facilities like airports, power stations, and rocket launchpads, causing billions of dollars of damage and over 4,000 fatalities a year.

Now, we’re never going to be able to stop lightning from happening, but we can improve on the ways we protect important infrastructure from damage. Because, while it works great on the ground, a lightning rod isn’t much use in the air – for example. But then again, there were no airplanes around in the 1700’s, when Ben Franklin was supposedly inventing it.

But if we can’t stop lightning, we can at least try to control where it goes. In 1965, researchers published a way of triggering lightning strikes, by launching a small rocket with a trailing grounding wire into the electric fields beneath a thundercloud. Kind of like discharging static electricity before you get zapped unexpectedly.

But why use rockets when you have lasers? Researchers began investigating initiating lightning with lasers in the late nineties, and in 1999, Japanese researchers successfully triggered two lightning strikes with three lasers. And then, in this new study, researchers set up a high-powered laser that fires 1000 pulses per second near a 124-meter-tall telecommunications tower on top of a mountain in Switzerland.

This tower receives around 100 lightning strikes per year. They did this to test the idea that laser filamentation could be used to both trigger and guide lightning strikes, using just one laser. Laser filamentation works by sending short, intense laser pulses into a medium, in this case, the clouds of a thunderstorm.

The intensity and short duration of the laser beam ionize the air molecules, causing them to lose an electron, and creates a narrow column of plasma referred to as the laser filament. The air molecules around this newly formed filament get superheated and pushed away in all directions, creating a channel of electrically charged, less-dense air. Which is catnip for a lightning bolt.

The laser filaments themselves can reach 100 meters in length, and the filamentation process can be controlled so that filaments form up to a kilometer from the laser. So this means that the laser can be used trigger lightning to strike the filament. And, it can be used to guide the lightning strikes to occur at a specific spot that’s far from infrastructure that needs protection.

The researchers deployed the laser during several thunderstorms in the summer of 2021, and they were able to record four successful guided lightning strikes to the tower, demonstrating that the laser filamentation process worked. While this method is still in the experimental stages, it’s possible that, one day, a laser could be used to guide lightning away from airborne infrastructure like planes and rockets. But okay, fishing for lightning using lasers: pretty cool.

But what about fishing for viruses? Researchers at Cambridge University have developed a new test using DNA as bait to fish for the viruses responsible for common respiratory infections, like influenza, RSV, and COVID-19. They published their results in the journal Nature Nanotechnology this week.

Currently, it’s winter in our neck of the woods, meaning we’re on the lookout for this triple threat, not to mention the common cold. And all of these viruses cause similar symptoms, yet require different treatments and a separate test to confirm or deny an infection. And if you want to detect which strain of virus is causing the infection, like with COVID-19, a PCR test is the only way to accurately do this.

PCR tests rely on copying the genetic material over and over again until there’s enough to sequence the viral genome and determine which strain it is. And while PCR tests are very accurate, they take hours to run. So researchers at Cambridge have come up with a solution to these issues, developing a new type of test that can accurately detect up to five viruses, or viral strains, in a single sample in under an hour.

To do this, they developed molecule-sized baits, double strands of DNA that have little tails of unpaired single strands. Because DNA likes to base pair with a complementary strand, those overhangs were sticky, but only for a matching nucleic acid. The single strands were given sequences that would pair with the RNA of five pre-determined viruses or viral strains.

And DNA can be written to pair with anything we want, so it’s customizable. So you could, for example, spot the flu, COVID-19, RSV, and two bonus viruses all at once. How it works is that a nasal swab is collected and treated to exposed the viral RNA.

The DNA bait is then introduced, where it can stick to matching RNA if it’s present. Then, the sample gets read by passing it through a nanopore, an unbelievably small hole used for identifying single molecules of nucleic acid. When the sample passes through the pore, it generates a signal that can be read..

Ultimately, this new test could save countless lives. The detection of multiple viruses quickly and accurately means that patients won’t have to wait days for diagnosis, and they can receive the right treatment the first time around. So, maybe a little bit less sexy than lightning lasers, but personally, I’m happy to have both the cool science, and the science that can help people’s everyday lives.

It’s nice to be able to go to one place for all of your answers. Which is what’s so great about annual calendars. You can go to one place for all of your meetings, appointments, holidays, events, and everything else that’s going on in your life.

But most calendars have run of the mill holidays on them. But the Complexly Calendars have a curated list of science-related holidays that you’ll probably be interested in as a SciShow viewer. For example, they highlight International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, International Day of Mathematics on March 14, and LGBTQ+ STEM Day on November 18th!

You can get your Complexly Calendar now for a 50% discount, by going to or the link in the description down below. And every purchase of a Complexly Calendar supports the SciShow team, and we don’t take your support for granted. [♪ OUTRO]