The Poopbot 3000 (Because This Blog is Classy Like That)

Galleons, when you think about building robots, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? An obedient household helper? An ass-kicking bodyguard? A sex slave?

Whatever your answer, I’m willing to bet it wasn’t “a robot that shits”.

This fiber optic internet really binds up my circuits, man.

Leave it to Canada.

That’s right- Canadian researchers have created a ‘robogut’ to make synthetic feces. For fecal transplants.

Yeah, it’s a thing.

Fecal transplants are a bizarre (yet promising) method of treating some dangerous intestinal bacteria. Like Clostridium difficile, which is responsible for an estimated 14,000 American deaths every year. Essentially, you take healthy bacteria from a fecal donor and transplant it in the sick patient. And voilà! That shit (get it?!) cures you.

It’s not a pretty procedure. There’s this whole bit about putting the fecal sample in a blender and we’re just not going to go into it, okay?

Anyway, even though the donor poo is full of good bacteria to punch the bad bacteria in whatever-the-bacteria-equivalent-of-a-dickhole-is, there is a risk that dangerous pathogens can be transmitted from donor to recipient. So, Emma Allen-Vercoe and her crack (totally unintentional pun) group of Canadian science-types have been trying to synthesize feces, tailoring the microbes in the lab-made poo to each individual recipient.

Unfortunately, it turns out fecal microbes don’t grow well in petri dishes. And so, the team had to make a special ‘robogut’ to grow their dirty little microbes in.

Wait.

WAIT.

It gets better.

What do you think Allen-Vercoe’s team calls their lab-grown poo?

RePOOPulate.

Oh, Canada.

Talk Dirty to Me (Lepidoptera Remix)

Like many office workers, I currently find myself toiling away everyday in a building where coveys of gossiping womenfolk gather ’round tables and chatter away about Fifty Shades of Grey and their romantic lives and whether or not that super cute guy that used to be on One Tree Hill is coming to town next week.

I really hate those bitches.

My loathing for idle chatter aside, I will admit that I’ve always thought gossip a rather human (well, more like primate) thing. It’s hard to picture two does or a handful of squirrels sitting around and talking about their orgasms or which dude squirrel has the bushiest tail.

Turns out, I was wrong. Because moths are apparently chatty motherfuckers.

The major enemy of the moth is the bat (…obviously). As a defense mechanism, moths have developed ears that are sensitive to the echolocation cries of bats. However, scientists have learned that moths use those ears as more than just bat detectors.

They use them to communicate about sex.

Hey baby, wanna bang?

It’s long been thought that moths were mute creatures, but we’ve learned that many moths actually do make sounds. These sounds are just so soft that bats cannot detect them. In fact, moths often communicate from incredibly short distances, no further than 2 cm from each other. Essentially, bats whisper to each other, which is why we’ve never heard them “talk” before.

But what are the moths talking about? Why, sex, of course! Turns out these whispered communiqués are quiet songs of courtship and soft chatter about sex and mating.

The truly interesting part about this discovery is the light it sheds on the evolution of communication for these moths. Originally, moths couldn’t hear. Then, about 50- 60 million years ago, something happened. These guys:

O HAI

That’s right- once bats started flying through the night skies and using echolocation for orientation, moths had to come up with a new trick to survive. And so, they evolved simple ears (ears with just 1, 2, or 4 sensory cells) to catch the sounds of the deadly bats. And once ushered into the world of the hearing, moth communication evolved to take advantage of their new abilities, leading to the hush-hush sexy banter of today.

Bow-chicka-heterocera, amirite?

Attack of the Tiny Treadmill Tots

SCENE 1

Fade from black to a image of a cherubic babe. The baby reaches for a stuffed bear dangling on a wire just out of reach. Camera slowly zooms out, revealing the babe toddling along on a miniature treadmill, a pair of robotic arms supporting the babe by the shoulders as it keeps trying to reach the bear. As the camera zooms out further, we see a host of other treadmills in lines, all with babies walking on them, all trying to reach stuffed animals hung just out of their reach. Hundreds of babies. Thousands of babies. Marching. Marching. Marching.

Toward what purpose, who knows?

It is important that babies are speedily introduced to all the accoutrements of modern life in order to better acclimate them to this fast-paced modern world. Cell phones, laptops, cars, tablets, mp3 players… If you use it as an adult, there’s likely a toy version of it for tots.

Even treadmills.

That’s right- because it’s not enough that your child can play doctor or housewife or cashier or carpenter or vet or chef or what-have-you. Now they can also play “cripplingly-weight-obsessed-40-something-who-spends-6-hours-in-the-gym-every-week-and-cries-into-a-pint-of-Ben-and-Jerry’s-every-Saturday-night”. Huzzah.

So, in order to prepare children for feeling woefully inadequate and spiteful every time they go to the gym, we have created a treadmill specifically for tots.

BEHOLD, THE FISHER-PRICE TREADMILL:

Okay, to be fair, I don’t think Fisher Price makes this. To be doubly fair, this has been around longer than the baby treadmill we’re actually here to discuss. And to be triply honest, I have no fucking idea what that orange paddle thing is for… it appears to be a device that will flip up and smack a child in the balls, but I can neither verify that nor understand why someone would put that on a child’s toy (for any reason other than the lolz, of course).

No, the treadmill I’m talking about was “created” (is making a tinier version of an existing thing really “creating” anything?) by kinesiologist Dale Ulrich of the University of Michigan (boo… look at me and my loyalty all up in here).

And now galleons, for the $250,000 question. Was this treadmill created to

A) one day make a 6000 baby version of OK Go’s Here It Goes Again?

B) serve as a challenge on a new game show, Babies vs Drunks?

C) help babies with Down syndrome build core muscles and help them begin walking earlier?

They’re telling me the answer is C, but I think I want to go with B, galleons. Honestly, who wouldn’t watch sloppy drunks compete in basic coordination and skill tests against infants?

Yes, the answer is C. Ulrich’s tiny treadmill was created to help children with Down syndrome build their muscles and drive to walk earlier than they do on their own. Right now, babies with Down syndrome don’t typically begin walking until 24-28 months, while other babies are usually walking by 12 months. Ulrich found that by using a tiny treadmill and helping the babies ‘walk’ on it, they could help reinforce the coordinated movements of walking in the legs. The repetitive treadmill exercise helped the children learn to balance sooner and are driven to stand and walk independently much sooner. Six months sooner, in fact.

But why is this so important?

“Once locomotion occurs, it really advances cognitive development, social skill development and language, so the sooner you get them walking, [the sooner] they can explore their environment,” Dr. Ulrich said.

Okay, I know this is important and all for those born with Down syndrome, but I am a truly atrocious human being and I can’t stop laughing at the mental image of babies tripping and flying off of treadmills.

And that, world, is why I’m not (and have no desire to ever be) a mother. I have no maternal instincts whatsoever.

I Know You Have Bugs…

Okay galleons, I’m… well, I’m not a fan of bugs. Which is really a gross understatement, but I wanted to avoid saying “I have a bad habit of flipping out and flailing my extremities and screaming like a girl (in registers I didn’t know I was capable of even reaching) whenever insects come near me/are within my line of sight/touch me/look at me wrong with their creepy bug eyes, no matter what type of insect we’re talking about (with the weird exception of fireflies, which I can tolerate being on me, but only by a strong application of my will), yes, even butterflies, because I’ve never thought butterflies were that pretty and I don’t care how fucking harmless any of these creepy fucking things are, I don’t want them near me and I will let you and the world know, vocally, that I detest their presence and that I had to do an insect project in my high school biology class that resulted in me having a sobbing breakdown on my kitchen floor while holding a pair of pliers over the three pieces of a butterfly that used to be one piece that I had been attempting to pin to my board”… but since I just love telling on myself, I guess I said that anyway, so now you know my shame.

Actually, compared to how bad I was as a child, I really have gotten better. I mean, I’m still a pathetic girly wuss, but I’m less of a sniveling pathetic girly wuss.

I’ve really matured over the years.

But, despite my dislike of the insect world, we’re gonna talk about an insect today. Because it’s actually pretty interesting.

And also, it may be extinct. Which means it will never come near me. And that makes it the best kind of insect.

Lucihormetica luckae is a species of bioluminescent roach found in Tungurahua, a volcano in Ecuador. Now, when I say found, I mean found in the past tense. This glowing roach was just getting recognition in the scientific community when Tungurahua went and fucking erupted in 2010.

What the fuck, volcano?

Since then, nobody’s been able to find any of these strange roaches. It looks like they may be extinct. Which is kind of a sad day for science.

See, Lucihormetica luckae was kind of an interesting specimen. It was the first example of asymmetrical bioluminescence scientists had ever documented (and the only example- all study of the species came from one subject gathered 70 years ago). See, the little (well, not that little) guy has two spots up…

You know, it would be a lot easier if I just showed you what the fucking thing looked like, wouldn’t it? Okay galleons, meet Lucihormetica luckae:

You’ll notice that it has two large glowing spots on its upper back, as well as one small one on the right side (thus its asymmetry… though with only one example of the species, it’s kind of difficult to tell if that tiny spot is an aberration or the norm, now isn’t it?).

But not only is the bioluminescence of Lucihormetica luckae asymmetrical, it’s also a rare example of mimicry through bioluminescence.

…No, Lucihormetica luckae is not mimicking a jawa (though if it was, it’s doing a really good job):

Nor is it pretending it’s one of those creepy ghosts that attack Romani Ranch in Majora’s Mask:

No, Lucihormetica luckae‘s glow patterns (provided by symbiotic bacteria that dwell in divots on the insect’s body) actually resemble the glow patterns of another insect in the area, the click beetle:

Because click beetles are poisonous, mimicking their glow patterns may have made the predators of Lucihormetica luckae less likely to try to gobble them up. Which is a smart strategy, but thanks to a pesky volcano, it looks like Lucihormetica luckae might not have been as lucky as its name sounds.

Poor little fella… Oh, who the fuck am I kidding? I may love science, but I’d high five the shit out of that volcano if I could.

Just Because Robots Are Cool

And also a little scary, but I think it’s important to stay abreast of all advances in robot technology. Just so I know how advanced they’re getting (and so I’ll know when to start building my bunker and stocking it full of the size 10 cans of dried foods available in the “Emergency Preparedness” section of the local grocery stores- I shit you not, that’s totally a thing here).

But despite what I think is a very reasonable fear of my future robot overlords, I am utterly fascinated by robotics.

Scientists (despite all the sci-fi books and films depicting humanoid robots rising up and taking over the world) have been trying for a very long time to creating human-sized robots capable of doing tasks like make a bed, prepare a meal, or dig a ditch. One of the biggest problems they run into, though, is that current robots do not function well on soft or shifting (like sand or loose dirt) surfaces. Hard, flat surfaces? No problem. Carpet, grass, or the beach? Well… that’s another story.

And so, being thwarted by nature, scientists have decided to study their enemy to find a clue as to how to overcome it. And lo, they came across an idea- while watching lizards run across the ground.

Folks at the Georgia Institute of Technology have come up with some exciting new predictive algorithms that help compensate for ground shift/flow. They then built a six-legged “lizardbot” using a 3-D printer to test these predictions. The little robots was able to scamper across sand just like a real lizard:

“It was our first attempt [at building a robot based the new algorithms] and we’re happy it works,” said biophysicist Daniel Goldman.

Like most advances in robotics, this is a small achievement that will (hopefully) pave the way for further advancements and research. Bit by bit, scientists are figuring out how to mimic the movement of a variety of animals. This is opening the door to more complex robotic creatures in the future.

In fact, Goldman and his team hope the lizardbot’s predictive models will serve as a big step toward putting legged robots on Mars.

That’s good- Curiosity and Opportunity could use some company.

Through the Looking Glass

Galleons, this may come as a surprise to you, but I love science. Yes, it’s true. And I also happen to love art. Thus, my geek flag tends to be at full, quivering mast (oh yeah) when the two get together.

Just like this, but less ear-rapingly annoying and more awesome.

A U.K. artist named Luke Gerram has created a series of blown glass sculptures he’s calling Glass Microbiology. And it is exactly what it sounds like- Gerram has created gorgeous glass representations of viruses and bacteria.

No joke.

Working with virologist Andrew Davidson of the University of Bristol, Gerram has made a series of giant, translucent viruses, crafted to the highest level of detail known to science.

Here are a few of Gerram’s beautiful (and unsettling) creations:

T4 Bacteriophage

Enterovirus 71

Malaria

HIV

E. coli

Definitely my new favorite depiction of large microbes (sorry little plush dudes).

The Birds and the Bacteria

A double dose of science goodness for you, my galleons. Aren’t you lucky?

Scientists in Savannah, GA (can anyone read this city’s name in anything other than a lazy, rolling Southern drawl?) have spent the last 30 years studying the songs of sparrows. Which probably does not involve them sitting out on their large porches, sipping mint juleps and listening to the local wildlife, but dammit all, that’s how I want to imagine it went down.

Anyway, the Savannah scientists have discovered that the songs of their sparrows have changed over the course of 30 years. Which might not be too surprising (one would think they’d have to vary their songs every so often, to keep the ladies interested), but considering sparrows actually only learn one type of song in their lives, it is very interesting. The scientists liken it to human speech patterns, making the comparison that the way people spoke in the 80s is quite different than how we speak today. After all, slang terms rise and fall, becoming a central feature of the language of a certain time period. The same holds true for birds- their songs are full of little bits of “slang”, clicks and trills that change over time.

It’s a fascinating look at cultural evolution. Male sparrows learn their song from the males around them, meaning the changes in song are learned changes being passed to new generations. It’s likely the changes came about thanks to the fickle nature of females- their preference for males with shorter trills, for example, means those males will reproduce with them and will teach youngsters the same trilling technique. And all this happened in a mere 30 years, allowing us to study the evolutionary patterns. Awesomesauce.

***

Even astronauts have to worry about splattered bugs on their windshields, even if those bugs are microscopic little bacteria. A recent study by NASA of the middle and upper troposhpere has revealed that a host of microorganisms hang out in the trophosphere, a region of the atmosphere 4-6 miles above the Earth’s surface. This raised some sciencey eyebrows, seeing as the trophosphere is a difficult environment for life to flourish in.

The microorganisms consisted of a variety of bacteria types, as well as a few fungi. The types of bacteria varied depending on where the air samples were taken- marine bacteria were found in air samples from above the ocean, while terrestrial bacteria were abundant in the above-ground air samples.

Of course, whether the microorganisms actually make their home in the troposphere is not yet known. While the troposphere does contain carbons than many of the varieties of found bacteria could thrive on, it’s also likely the microorganisms get kicked up there from the planet’s surface. Frankly, based on the concentrations of marine bacteria over water and terrestrial bacteria over land, I’d wager the latter. Still, it was surprising for the NASA group to find so many of the little buggers kickin’ it way up there.

Atmospheric scientists are keenly interested in this discovery for a few reasons. The first is that these microorganisms might play a role in the formation of ice, impacting weather patterns. And second, it could represent a new form of long-distance bacteria transport that would be of note for disease transmission models.

Who knows, maybe there are whole bacterial colonies hanging out in the clouds… An odd ecosystem (unless you are a Care Bear), but hey, whatever works for you, little bacteria.