In 10 years of covering science and technology developments on ISRAEL21c, we’ve come across virtually everything – from the revolutionary, to the ingenious, the exciting, and even occasionally the downright wacky. And sometimes it’s a bit of everything combined.

We’ve brought together a list of our top 10 weird science favorites, ranging from trees that text message farmers when they are thirsty, to rodent security officers, internal bras, artificial noses, and disappearing dog poo.
Be sure to check our site for more weird (and not-so-weird) scientific advances in Israel.

1. Trees SMS farmers when they’re thirsty

Eran Raveh installing his tree messaging system.

A device in development by Eran Raveh and Arieh Nadler from the Israel Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Agricultural Research Organization taps into the stem of a tree and allows it to text or email the farmer — or even turn on the irrigation tap itself — when it needs a drink.

Instead of tediously checking 26 points in the ground around the plant, farmers would use the system to automatically monitor electric conductivity inside the tree, a parameter of water stress. Still a few years from the market, the device has already caught the interest of California citrus, banana and mango farmers, as well as vintners. It will be cheap, too, costing only about $250 per orchard because just one probe could monitor some 500 trees.

2. Test-tube testes

Growing sperm in a Petri dish.

In what could be a breakthrough for infertile men, researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheva, along with a German scientist, have invented a special three-dimensional agar culture system (SACS) that allows them to generate sperm from stem cells in a Petri dish.

They are investigating the application of their technique in men with zero sperm count at Israeli IVF clinics. They are also testing it on the germ cells of a young boy who has undergone radiation treatment. It could take up to 10 years until the product is on the market, but lead investigator Prof. Mahmoud Huleihel believes that they have achieved a significant advance in producing viable sperm from germ cells for the first time.

3. Cup & Up is like an internal bra

Cup & Up is attached to the ribs through two small incisions.

The Cup & Up kit devised by an Israeli startup uses the MIM technique (minimally invasive mastopexy) to reshape, support and lift breast tissue in a much more minimally invasive manner than cosmetic breast surgery. The procedure requires two small incisions through which the device is attached to the ribs.

Inventor Dr. Eyal Gur, head of the department of reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, calls it an internal bra. “All women are looking for the right bra that will hold their breasts in the position they like or prefer aesthetically. … So I was thinking that with a harness created from materials used in medicine — silicon, threads and very small anchoring screws — we could support breast tissue and avoid further breast sagging.”

4. Love detectors and lie detectors

Netanya-based Nemesysco makes layered voice analysis (LVA) software products that can turn a desktop computer into a highly sensitive stress and lie detector (think job interview or insurance fraud) and can detect love and other relevant emotions over a Skype or telephone conversation — in just milliseconds through normal speech.

The 8,000-algorithm-powered software is touted as “a decision support tool in various cases, such as when making an important purchase decision, hiring home care assistance or negotiating personal issues,” not to mention numerous commercial, crime-investigation and security applications.

5. Disappearing dog doo

The prototype AshPoopie.

AshPoopie, the brainchild of renowned biotech inventor Prof. Oded Shoseyov of the Hebrew University, is a pooper-scooper with a critical difference: After it gathers dog droppings, it turns them into odorless, sterile ash within seconds. All the dog-walker has to do is push a button to release an activation capsule from the cartridge inside the unit.

With about 75 million registered dogs in the United States and the same number in Europe, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest pet product manufacturers and retailers are interested in partnerships, licensing agreements, joint ventures and sole marketing rights from the manufacturer, Ramat Gan-based Paulee CleanTec. The product will be on the market this year.

6. Sniffing out cancer

Prof. Hossam Haick: the nose knows.

NA-NOSE, an inexpensive “nano-artificial nose” developed and being commercialized by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Prof. Hossam Haick, detects disease biomarkers passing from the bloodstream to the lungs and out through the breath. The device can even distinguish between lung, prostate, breast, head, neck and colorectal cancers — without blood tests or biopsies.

This revolutionary nanotechnology invention won Haick a €1.73 million Marie Curie Excellence Award in 2006 and a €1.8 million European Research Council award in 2010. An additional €5.4 million grant is funding a European consortium of eight universities and companies, headed by Haick, to develop advanced screening nanosensors for lung cancer.

7. The latest in high-tech security — a mouse

The mouse finds the drugs every time.

Israeli startup Bioexplorers has a non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and cargo: trained rodents. “Mice have an excellent sense of smell, and they’re relatively easy to train,” explains CEO Eran Lumbroso.

When a person goes through a Bioexplorers system passageway, a fan blows air into a sensor receptor and delivers it into a chamber containing several trained mice. If they sniff drugs or bombs, they move into another chamber and set off an alarm. “The mice rarely make an error, and the entire procedure is far less invasive or intimidating than the alternatives, like using dogs or X-ray machines,” says Lumbroso.

8. Robotic fly

The robotic fly now being commercialized is even smaller than the prototype shown here.

It looks like a pesky fly, but don’t swat this one — it is actually a miniaturized device cooked up in Prof. Moshe Shaham’s robotics laboratory at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. Based on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology, the tiny robot theoretically can be guided inside the body via an external controller to perform a variety of medical tasks in a much less invasive way than currently possible.

Shaham says the technology recently went from the lab to a company that is now working to commercialize it. “The first application will be to make sure artificial shunts in the body are functioning properly,” he says. He couldn’t speculate on exactly when it will be on the market.

9. Wrinkle-reducing pillowcase

Sleeping your way to smoother skin.

No, this is not about ironing your linens. The Israeli company Cupron makes a range of textile products impregnated with copper oxide, including a pillowcase that it claims can reduce facial lines after sleeping on it for two weeks. As you sleep, perspiration from your skin releases copper ions from the case, which stimulate the production of collagen, helping to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Other products the company manufactures in Beit Shemesh include bath towels that don’t retain odors, a self-sterilizing makeup brush set, socks that fight athlete’s foot, and even socks, already in use by the Israel Defense Force, that don’t have to be washed.

10. Robotic octopus

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Better than a real octopus.

Life scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are part of an international team designing the world’s first robotic octopus — also the world’s first soft-bodied robot — to help marine scientists explore nooks and crannies on the ocean floor. Unlike clunky submarines, the eight-tentacled device would gingerly walk over delicate objects without damaging coral reefs and pristine marine environments.

The initial goal of the project is to monitor the effects of global warming on the sea, but it also could have important applications in surgery, search-and-rescue missions after devastating natural disasters. Using artificial muscle technologies, the scientists hope to replicate not only the way an octopus moves, but also its sucker systems, nervous and sensory systems and the structure of its skin. Due date is 2013.