Tag Archives: Biology

These hard-bodied robots can reproduce, learn and evolve autonomously

Where biology and technology meet, evolutionary robotics is spawning automatons evolving in real-time and space. The basis of this field, evolutionary computing, sees robots possessing a virtual genome ‘mate’ to ‘reproduce’ improved offspring in response to complex, harsh environments.

Image credits: ARE.

Hard-bodied robots are now able to ‘give birth’

Robots have changed a lot over the past 30 years, already capable of replacing their human counterparts in some cases — in many ways, robots are already the backbone of commerce and industry. Performing a flurry of jobs and roles, they have been miniaturized, mounted, and molded into mammoth proportions to achieve feats way beyond human abilities. But what happens when unstable situations or environments call for robots never seen on earth before?

For instance, we may need robots to clean up a nuclear meltdown deemed unsafe for humans, explore an asteroid in orbit or terraform a distant planet. So how would we go about that?

Scientists could guess what the robot may need to do, running untold computer simulations based on realistic scenarios that the robot could be faced with. Then, armed with the results from the simulations, they can send the bots hurtling into uncharted darkness aboard a hundred-billion dollar machine, keeping their fingers crossed that their rigid designs will hold up for as long as needed.

But what if there was a is a better alternative? What if there was a type of artificial intelligence that could take lessons from evolution to generate robots that can adapt to their environment? It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel — but it’s exactly what a multi-institutional team in the UK is currently doing in a project called Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE).

Remarkably, they’ve already created robots that can ‘mate’ and ‘reproduce’ progeny with no human input. What’s more, using the evolutionary theory of variation and selection, these robots can optimize their descendants depending on a set of activities over generations. If viable, this would be a way to produce robots that can autonomously adapt to unpredictable environments – their extended mechanical family changing along with their volatile surroundings.

“Robot evolution provides endless possibilities to tweak the system,” says evolutionary ecologist and ARE team member Jacintha Ellers. “We can come up with novel types of creatures and see how they perform under different selection pressures.” Offering a way to explore evolutionary principles to set up an almost infinite number of “what if” questions.

What is evolutionary computation?

In computer science, evolutionary computation is a set of laborious algorithms inspired by biological evolution where candidate solutions are generated and constantly “evolved”. Each new generation removes less desired solutions, introducing small adaptive changes or mutations to produce a cyber version of survival of the fittest. It’s a way to mimic biological evolution, resulting in the best version of the robot for its current role and environment.

Virtual robot. Image credits: ARE.

Evolutionary robotics begins at ARE in a facility dubbed the EvoSphere, where newly assembled baby robots download an artificial genetic code that defines their bodies and brains. This is where two-parent robots come together to mingle virtual genomes to create improved young, incorporating both their genetic codes.

The newly evolved offspring is built autonomously via a 3D printer, after which a mechanical assembly arm translating the inherited virtual genomic code selects and attaches the specified sensors and means of locomotion from a bank of pre-built components. Finally, the artificial system wires up a Raspberry Pi computer acting as a brain to the sensors and motors – software is then downloaded from both parents to represent the evolved brain.

1. Artificial intelligence teaches newborn robots how to control their bodies

Newborns undergo brain development and learning to fine-tune their motor control in most animal species. This process is even more intense for these robotic infants due to breeding between different species. For example, a parent with wheels might procreate with another possessing a jointed leg, resulting in offspring with both types of locomotion.

But, the inherited brain may struggle to control the new body, so an algorithm is run as part of the learning stage to refine the brain over a few trials in a simplified environment. If the synthetic babies can master their new bodies, they can proceed to the next phase: testing.

2. Selection of the fittest- who can reproduce?

A specially built inert nuclear reactor housing is used by ARE for testing where young robots must identify and clear radioactive waste while avoiding various obstacles. After completing the task, the system scores each robot according to its performance which it then uses to determine who will be permitted to reproduce.

Real robot. Image credits: ARE.

Software simulating reproduction then takes the virtual DNA of two parents and performs genetic recombination and mutation to generate a new robot, completing the ‘circuit of life.’ Parent robots can either remain in the population, have more children, or be recycled.

Evolutionary roboticist and ARE researcher Guszti Eiben says this sped up evolution works as: “Robotic experiments can be conducted under controllable conditions and validated over many repetitions, something that is hard to achieve when working with biological organisms.”

3. Real-world robots can also mate in alternative cyberworlds

In her article for the New Scientist, Emma Hart, ARE member and professor of computational intelligence at Edinburgh Napier University, writes that by “working with real robots rather than simulations, we eliminate any reality gap. However, printing and assembling each new machine takes about 4 hours, depending on the complexity of its skeleton, so limits the speed at which a population can evolve. To address this drawback, we also study evolution in a parallel, virtual world.”

This parallel universe entails the creation of a digital version of every mechanical infant in a simulator once mating has occurred, which enables the ARE researchers to build and test new designs within seconds, identifying those that look workable.

Their cyber genomes can then be prioritized for fabrication into real-world robots, allowing virtual and physical robots to breed with each other, adding to the real-life gene pool created by the mating of two material automatons.

The dangers of self-evolving robots – how can we stay safe?

A robot fabricator. Image credits: ARE.

Even though this program is brimming with potential, Professor Hart cautions that progress is slow, and furthermore, there are long-term risks to the approach.

“In principle, the potential opportunities are great, but we also run the risk that things might get out of control, creating robots with unintended behaviors that could cause damage or even harm humans,” Hart says.

“We need to think about this now, while the technology is still being developed. Limiting the availability of materials from which to fabricate new robots provides one safeguard.” Therefore: “We could also anticipate unwanted behaviors by continually monitoring the evolved robots, then using that information to build analytical models to predict future problems. The most obvious and effective solution is to use a centralized reproduction system with a human overseer equipped with a kill switch.”

A world made better by robots evolving alongside us

Despite these concerns, she counters that even though some applications, such as interstellar travel, may seem years off, the ARE system may have a more immediate need. And as climate change reaches dangerous proportions, it is clear that robot manufacturers need to become greener. She proposes that they could reduce their ecological footprint by using the system to build novel robots from sustainable materials that operate at low energy levels and are easily repaired and recycled. 

Hart concludes that these divergent progeny probably won’t look anything like the robots we see around us today, but that is where artificial evolution can help. Unrestrained by human cognition, computerized evolution can generate creative solutions we cannot even conceive of yet.

And it would appear these machines will now evolve us even further as we step back and hand them the reins of their own virtual lives. How this will affect the human race remains to be seen.

Immune cells from the common cold offer protection against COVID-19, researchers find

If one in 10 cold infections are from coronaviruses, then antibodies produced from these illnesses could surely give a bit more protection against COVID-19, right? A new study has just provided the answer to this question by showing that immunity induced by colds can indeed help fight off the far more dangerous novel coronavirus.

Image credits: Engin Akyurt.

A study from Imperial College London that studied people exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 found that only half of the participants were infected, while the others tested negative. Before this, researchers took blood samples from all volunteers within days of exposure to determine the levels of an immune cell known as a T cell – cells programmed by previous infections to attack specific invaders.

Results show that participants who didn’t test positive had significantly higher levels of these cells; in other words, those who evaded infection had higher levels of T cells that attack the Covid virus internally to provide immunity — T cells that may have come from previous coronavirus infections (not SARS-CoV-2). These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, may pave the way for a new type of vaccine to prevent infection from emerging variants, including Omicron.

Dr. Rhia Kundu, the first author of the paper from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute, says: “Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why. We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.” Despite this promising data, she warns: “While this is an important discovery, it is only one form of protection, and I would stress that no one should rely on this alone. Instead, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, including getting your booster dose.”

The common cold’s role in protecting you against Covid

The study followed 52 unvaccinated people living with someone who had a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19. Participants were tested seven days after being exposed to see if they had caught the disease from their housemates and to analyze their levels of pre-existing T cells. Tests indicated that the 26 people who tested negative for COVID-19 had significantly higher common cold T cells levels than the remainder of the people who tested positive. Remarkably, these cells targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface, providing ‘cross-reactive’ immunity between a cold and COVID-19.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, senior author of the study and Director of the NIHR Respiratory Infections Health Protection Research Unit at Imperial, explained:

“Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection. These T cells provide protection by attacking proteins within the virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface.”

However, experts not involved in the study caution against presuming anyone who has previously had a cold caused by a coronavirus will not catch the novel coronavirus. They add that although the study provides valuable data regarding how the immune system fights this virus, it’s unlikely this type of illness has never infected any of the 150,000 people who’ve died of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK to date.

Other studies uncovering a similar link have also warned cross-reactive protection gained from colds only lasts a short period.

The road to longer-lasting vaccines

Current SARS-CoV-2 vaccines work by recognizing the spike protein on the virus’s outer shell: this, in turn, causes an immune reaction that stops it from attaching to cells and infecting them. However, this response wanes over time as the virus continues to mutate. Luckily, the jabs also trigger T cell immunity which lasts much longer, preventing the infection from worsening or hospitalization and death. But this immunity is also based on blocking the spike protein – therefore, it would be advantageous to have a vaccine that could attack other parts of the COVID virus.

Professor Lalvani surmises, “The spike protein is under intense immune pressure from vaccine-induced antibodies which drives the evolution of vaccine escape mutants. In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less. Consequently, they are highly conserved between the SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron.” He ends, “New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

Demystifying nootropics – Is cognitive enhancement even a thing?

Whether you’re a college student hoping to improve your grades, a professional wanting to achieve more at work, or an older adult hoping to stave off dementia, the idea of popping a magic pill that boosts your brainpower can be tempting. So it’s no surprise that the use of nootropics or smart drugs is on the rise globally. But do they work? And more importantly, are they safe? In a sea of supplements and marketing blurb, what’s the real story behind these supposed cognitive enhancers? Let’s have a look at some of these questions.

Nootropics are prescription drugs, supplements, or natural substances that claim to boost cognitive functions such as memory, creativity, or motivation. Similarly, cognitive enhancement refers to the use or abuse of said smart drugs by healthy people exhibiting no neurological-based deficiency. Meaning, more often than not, ‘smart drugs’ are an off-label prescription medication used for non-medical purposes. Despite this unsettling fact, the use of off-label prescription nootropics is on the rise globally.

Developed in 1964 by Romanian chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea, the concept of nootropics involves a list of criteria which is as follows:

1. Nootropics should aid with improvement in working memory and learning

2. Supports brain function under hypoxic conditions or after electroconvulsive therapy.

3. Protects the brain from physical or chemical toxicity.

4. Natural cognitive functions are enhanced.

5. Nootropics should be non-toxic to humans without causing depression or stimulation of the brain.

The criterion above may suggest that cognitive enhancers are purely lab-made; however, they’re also present in everyday foodstuffs and beverages. As an example, caffeine is a natural nootropic and the most widely consumed psychoactive substance worldwide. Found in coffee, cocoa, tea, and certain nuts, an intake of one or two cups of coffee a day has been shown in clinical trials to increase alertness and decrease reaction time, albeit very gently. And while caffeine was once considered risky, many experts now agree that natural caffeine present in foodstuffs is more beneficial than harmful when consumed in moderation.  

Due to the sheer volume of false advertising surrounding nootropics, the first thing to check is whether a cognitive enhancer is backed by science — the best thing to do this is to see if it has gone through clinical or human trials. A prime example here is caffeine, whose cognitive benefits have been thoroughly tested in humans by various academic institutions. To date, it has been shown that caffeine consumption increases intracellular messengers, prolongs adrenaline activity, and circulates calcium into cells. Collectively, these mechanisms provide neuroprotection, increases heart rate, vascular tone, blood pressure, and bronchodilation. Human trials have also indicated that caffeine improves vigilance and attention without affecting memory or mood.

Eggs are another proven brain food that has been through clinical trials; shown to be rich in choline, a substance key to the production of acetylcholine, instrumental in many bodily functions, from achieving deep sleep to retaining new memories. Frequent egg consumption is associated with higher cognitive performance as well, particularly among the elderly. However, as with synthetic nootropics, too much of these foods also has adverse consequences, with higher doses of caffeine causing jittery, anxious feelings. Nevertheless, you’ll be pleased to hear there is no official daily limit on the number of eggs a person can eat just as long as they don’t add saturated fat or too much salt to them.

Another well-trialed natural nootropic is an ancient herb called Ginkgo biloba – both human and animal models have elucidated the herb’s neuroprotective effects. As a result, Gingko has been studied repeatedly in treating Alzheimer’s disease due to its antioxidant and antiapoptotic properties. Numerous studies have also cited its safety in humans with cognitive impairment, where the nootropic induced inhibition against caspase-3 activation and amyloid-β-aggregation in Alzheimer’s disease. The list of human studies proving the benefits of Ginkgo Biloba in healthy volunteers is extensive, with no safety issues noted. However, as with other cognitive enhancers, contrasting studies contradict these positive findings suggesting that all trials should employ neuroimaging.

The most salient factor to note here is that all of the above nootropics are proven in human or clinical studies – severely lacking with the majority of cognitive enhancers currently on the market today. A simple search on the PubMed database will tell you which nootropics have been trialed in humans and list any safety issues. Another excellent way to navigate the minefield of false advertising by some nootropics manufacturers is to use established brands.

Similarly, it’s also crucial to check whether mixing nootropics with alcohol or other drugs are safe. Firstly, always approach a medical professional before mixing drugs or alcohol with prescription medicine. Secondly, over-the-counter (OTC) medication bought in pharmacies should come with safety leaflets advising whether it is safe to take with medications, other supplements, or alcohol. Unfortunately, not all OTC remedies contain safety information as they are mostly unregulated. And while there are many papers on the use of caffeine with alcohol, most OTC nootropics haven’t been tested with other drugs. Experts advise: if you begin to mix or stack OTC medicines and start to feel ill, you should stop your drug regime and see a medical professional right away – this includes the stacking of nootropics.

I’m confused. Just how many types of nootropics are there?!

With a tsunami of potions and powders on the market, it can be challenging to take brain boosters responsibly. The first thing to know is that nootropics can either be synthetic or natural where they’re manufactured like prescription drugs or occur in plants and food. Likewise, dietary supplements or OTC drugs can contain natural and synthesized products – with prescription drugs being purely synthetic in structure.

Synthetic nootropics are composed of artificial chemicals rather than natural ingredients – being heavily laden with synthesized chemicals designed to mimic natural neurotransmitters. For instance, caffeine is found naturally in coffee beans and synthesized for bulk manufacturing. The synthetic version, found in many energy drinks, possesses a higher absorption rate into the body than its natural counterpart, causing significantly more side effects. Meaning, the raw version of caffeine is far less severe on the human body than its synthetic counterpart.

Notably, the only proven nootropics to make an immediate, marked difference in cognition are prescription drugs prescribed by your doctor. Specifically, drugs designed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Adderall and Ritalin, as well as the anti-narcoleptic modafinil, show demonstrable effects on healthy people’s concentration, attention, and alertness. And even though their impact on cognitive enhancement is questionable in healthy people, their off-label use is still on the rise despite numerous health risks, including dependence, tolerance, and cardiovascular, neurologic, and psychological disorders.

Prescription nootropics primarily consist of stimulants comprising methylphenidate, amphetamine, and dextroamphetamine- designed to counteract ADHD. And although these work well for many people with this condition, these pharmaceuticals aren’t proven safe for healthy people who want to improve their focus and attention. Many college students acquire this medication nefariously, and while they appear to help in the short term, there are dangerous risks.

Yet, modafinil, a novel stimulant FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and shift work disorder, has several remarkable features distinguishing it from other medications. Unlike amphetamines, for example, modafinil is reported to have minimal side effects at the correct therapeutic doses. It also appears to have low abuse potential, with some studies suggesting that it may help with learning and memory in healthy people. 

Carrying on in the vein of synthetic nootropics, the biggest OTC nootropic in this class is the racetam family. An alleged cognitive enhancer designed to improve memory and suppress anxiety and based on a native brain-derived neurotrophic factor modulator. Racetam products are mainly derivative of Pyrrolidinone, a colorless, organic compound that supposedly enhances the learning process, diminishes impaired cognition, and protects against brain damage. Several pyrrolidine derivatives are commercially available, including piracetam, oxiracetam, aniracetam, noopept, and pramiracetam. However, in reality, research on their effectiveness in healthy adults is non-existent.

In contrast, human studies categorically link naturally occurring nootropics with healthy brain function. Explicitly, past studies have shown that food-derived nutrients such as unsaturated fat, vitamins, caffeine, minerals, various proteins, glucosinolates, and antioxidants can boost brain function. Despite this, the evidence backing the psychological benefits of their diet supplementary doppelgangers is weak. A fact that will shock many whose morning ritual involves the intake of supplements bought over-the-counter or online.

To compound this, a 2015 review of various dietary supplements found no convincing evidence of improvements in cognitive performance, even in unhealthy participants. Dr. David Hogan, the lead author of the review, feels nutritional supplements don’t provide the same benefits as food. “While plausible mechanisms link food-sourced nutrients to better brain function. Data showed that supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits.” However, he concedes that: “None of this rules out the potential for some OTC nootropics to improve cognition. Still, there isn’t much compelling evidence to support these claims.” Suggesting there is still much conjecture when it comes to dietary supplements as an aid to cognitive enhancement.

These findings make complete sense as all nutrients and fuel for our bodies come from our diet – proven to act as vasodilators against the small arteries and veins in the brain. When introduced into our system, these healthy foods increase blood circulation, vital nutrients, energy, and oxygen flow towards the brain. They also counteract inflammatory responses in the brain, modulating neurotransmitter concentration. For this reason, experts will always state that a healthy balanced diet is their preferred mode of treatment for healthy cognitive function – at least for now.

How do nootropics work?

Coffee — one of the most popular nootropics.

A recurring critical theme in many whitepapers covering the subject is that unless you’re deficient in a nootropic chemical, it’s unlikely taking more of it will help to enhance your brain processes. Officially, cognitive enhancement works by strengthening the components of the memory/learning circuits — dopamine, glutamate, or norepinephrine to improve brain function in healthy individuals beyond their baseline functioning.

Most experts state that nearly all OTC and dietary supplements lose their potency and thus stop working over time. Moreover, scores of non-prescription drug effects (if present at all) seem to be temporary, lasting until their metabolism and elimination. Meaning you may have to take more for any noticeable benefit if there is one. The author’s general advice is to ensure that the brand is well-established and trusted, avoiding prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. 

In an interview with InsiderDavid A. Merrill, MD, director of the Pacific Brain Health Center, states that nootropics likely won’t benefit you much if you’re not already experiencing symptoms such as trouble focusing or poor memory.

Indeed, as nootropic intake is also rising amongst gamers, Dr. Migliore adds in her interview with PC Gamer, ingesting these compounds is unlikely to help you if your body isn’t deficient in any of them. Adding “If you spend 10-15 minutes outside every day and eat a balanced diet, your vitamin D levels are most likely normal”. She then goes on to ask: “Will taking a supplement of vitamin D do anything for you? Probably not. On the other hand, if you avoid the sunlight and don’t eat meat, your vitamin D levels may be low. For those people, a vitamin D supplement might lead to increased energy.”  

Is Dr. Migliore, licensed clinician, and world-famous gamer, hinting that sun-deprived gamers may benefit from smart drugs? Also, how will I know when I’m deficient in a specific nutrient? I can only glean my ‘deficient behavior.’ Would it not, therefore, make sense to take cognitive enhancers where a nutritional inadequacy is suspected? 

Despite how logical this sounds, all experts agree that a sensible diet, social interaction, and regular exercise help boost cognition, with many naturally occurring nootropics found in food shown to improve mental faculties.  

So should we use nootropics then?

There are numerous ethical arguments concerning the ongoing nootropics debate, with a slew of countries hurriedly adapting their laws to this ever-expanding field. Side effects and false advertising aside, there is no doubt that nootropics exist that work. And if there are nootropics that work, more smart drugs will soon be developed that work even better with increased functionality. And this is where ethical problems arise concerning the point at which treating disorders becomes a form of enhancement, where patients become super-humans. Should resources be spent trying to turn ordinary people into more brilliant and better performing versions of themselves in the first place?

I mean, how should we classify, condone or condemn a drug that improves human performance in the absence of pre-existing cognitive impairment once proven efficacious? Are we in danger of producing ‘synthetic’ geniuses? And even worse, will they be better than the real thing? Approximately 95% of elite athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs to compare doping in competitive sports here. If brain doping becomes acceptable in working life and education, will the same go for sports? Will we see separate competitions for these synthetic geniuses to level the playing field? Governmental bodies must address these urgent issues. 

And even though the use of nootropics has risen over the past years with such drugs broadly perceived as improving academic and professional performances – not enough empirical evidence supports the assumption that these brain boosters give rise to cognitive enhancement in healthy users. Married with a deluge of reports on the unwanted, and sometimes dangerous, side effects of these drugs, the case for their use is fragile.

For example, the non-medical use of prescription stimulants such as methylphenidates for cognitive enhancement has recently increased among teens and young adults in schools and college campuses. Accordingly, memory enhancement dominated the market with more than 30% share in 2018. However, this enhancement likely comes with a neuronal, as well as ethical, cost. 

In that respect, a 2017 study involving 898 undergraduates, who were not diagnosed with ADHD, reported that off-label prescription nootropics did not increase the grade point average or advantage of any healthy volunteers. Further confirmation that research on nootropics still appears to be inconclusive in terms of clarifying and defining how such drugs act as mind stimulants even where proven medication is involved. 

Just how safe are these nootropic ‘supplements’?

The problems relating to the safety of nootropics are linked directly to the adverse events reporting systems. Concentrating on the United States, even the FDA, usually a benchmark for drug regulation globally, is uncharacteristically vague about smart drugs. Most nootropics are sold as OTC supplements, meaning there are no figures for side effects associated with OTC nootropics in the USA. For this reason, only adverse events linked to indistinct dietary supplements are compiled in unprocessed data sets – meaning there is no analytics available. Historically, adverse events associated with dietary supplements are difficult to monitor in the USA because the manufacturer doesn’t register such products before a sale. Thus, little information about their content and safety is available, with no way to know if a supplement contains what producers claim or to glean the long-term effects. Compounding the reason to use only well-known, trusted brands found at reputable pharmacies.

To enumerate, the official FDA system that records adverse events for dietary supplements, the CFSAN Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS), covers foods, nutritional supplements, and cosmetics and only provides raw data. The reported adverse events document serious events, including death and hospitalization, and minor events, including taste, coloring, or packaging. Unbelievably, even though CAERS includes severe medical incidents, the names of up to 35% of all side effects in this database are redacted under Exemption 4. A regulation that exempts manufacturers from disclosing information that constitutes “trade secrets and commercial information obtained from a person which is confidential.” Companies whose products have caused death are also allowed to purge their brand name and products from the FDA database using this privilege.

Hence, it’s challenging to gain statistics for the number of adverse events related to dietary supplements, making tracking dangerous supplements that have used the Exemption 4 clause unfeasible. Accordingly, most studies covering adverse events attributed to OTC supplements explore predictive statistics, signs, or signals that could roughly approximate the number of hospitalizations, doctor’s visits, or deaths that may happen that year. Many studies rely on multiple sources to assess the number of adverse events related to dietary supplements. Even then, it can prove impossible to track one brand. In general, knowledge regarding the safety of OTC supplements is limited, with many studies finding that CAERS underrepresent adverse events associated with OTC drugs. To give readers an idea of the enormity of the problem, among the 1,300 supplements labeled Exemption 4 in the CAERS database, more than one-third involved deaths or hospitalizations.  

Another emerging safety issue, OTC drugs can also cause hospitalization even where prescription drug regimes have ended – particularly with patients with a history of psychiatric illness. Posing the question, does this show a loss of plasticity as these psychopharmaceuticals permanently reroute and lay down brain circuitry and tracts. Thus, we have a false opposition in terms here – how can these prescription stimulants be viewed as nootropics, which are temporary by their very nature?

In short, this suggests that healthcare providers, specifically those in the mental health and substance abuse fields, should keep in mind that nootropic use is an under-recognized and evolving problem that can cause severe episodes, particularly amongst those with pre-existing mental disorders or illnesses. 

 Have other nootropics been elucidated in human trials?

Yes, numerous nootropics have been through human trials, with significantly more natural cognitive enhancers trialed instead of synthetic drugs. Making sense as foodstuffs are part of our everyday diets, needed to fuel our whole body.

First on the list is Bacopa monnieri, a herb found throughout the Indian subcontinent in marshy areas, used for centuries in ayurvedic medicine to improve brain function.  Human studies reveal consistent cognitive enhancement resulting from Bacopa monnieri administration across young, old and impaired adult populations. The most robust effects of Bacopa monnieri are memory performance, including positive effects on learning and consolidation of target stimuli, delayed recall, visual retention of information, and working memory. 

In adults aged 55 and over, Bacopa monnieri has shown improvements in executive functioning and mental control. Clinical studies have also revealed that it may boost brain function and alleviate anxiety and stress, possessing numerous antioxidant properties – a class of potent compounds called bacosides present in the herb thought to be responsible for this. 

Surprisingly, despite its addiction liability and undesired adverse effects, preclinical and clinical studies have demonstrated that nicotine has cognitive-enhancing effects. Functions like attention, working memory, fine motor skills, and episodic memory are all susceptible to nicotine’s effects. There may also be a link between dementia and this nootropic with nicotinic receptor activity observed in Alzheimer’s disease patients. Despite this, experts agree that nicotine use is only justified to quit smoking and is, therefore, avoided as a smart drug.

One of the most popular drugs for cognitive enhancement is methylphenidate, otherwise known as Ritalin – a commonly prescribed medication for treating ADHD. Users should note that a large proportion of literature on the safety and efficacy of this drug comes from studies performed on normal, healthy adult animals, as there is currently no sufficiently reliable animal model for ADHD.

Methylphenidate is a stimulant closely related to amphetamine and cocaine that works by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. For healthy users, most studies on its cognitive effects involved adult animals or humans. In studies on healthy volunteers, higher doses increased movement and impaired attention and performance in prefrontal cortex-dependent cognitive tasks – lower doses improved mental performance and reduced locomotor activity. Nevertheless, long-term use of stimulants like Ritalin can lead to attention-based side effects, hyperactivity, being distracted easily, and poor impulse control – also seen in patients who use the medication for ADHD.

Many reports discuss the role of Panax ginseng, a herb used in Chinese medicine, in improving the cognition function of Alzheimer’s disease patients due to its antioxidant properties, claimed to suppress Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Over the last decade, several studies have revealed that single doses of Panax ginseng can modulate aspects of brain activity measured by electroencephalography and peripheral blood glucose concentrations in healthy young volunteers. The same studies have also indicated that the herb enhances aspects of working memory, improves mental arithmetic performance, and speeds attentional processes.

Another natural nootropic, Rhodiola rosea, known as golden root, is a flowering plant that improves cognitive function. It’s mainly known for its ability to counteract physical and mental fatigue, with numerous human studies hosted on the subject. Sharing the same property with Bacopa monnieri and Panax ginseng, it is considered an “adaptogen,” a substance that enhances endurance, resistance and protects against stressful situations. Human studies show that Rhodiola rosea may also protect the nervous system against oxidative damage, thus lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Research on nootropics indicates that the big hope appears to be modafinil. This prescription drug is considered first-line therapy for excessive daytime sleepiness associated with narcolepsy in adults. However, clinicians need to be cautious with younger users because of reports of side effects involving tachycardia, insomnia, agitation, dizziness, and anxiety. Nevertheless, modafinil is FDA-approved for use in children over age 16 years. 

The efficacy of the drug modafinil in improving alertness and consciousness in non-sleep-deprived, healthy individuals has led to the military trialing the drug as a cognitive enhancer. Pointedly, a 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, including alertness, energy, focus, and decision-making. In non-sleep-deprived adults, this also includes improvements in pattern recognition accuracy and the reaction-based stop-signal trial. 

Furthermore, modafinil improved the accuracy of an executive planning task and faster reaction times, with one study even listing increased digit span. Side effects are also dampened, with numerous cognitive functions remaining unaffected by modafinil. These include trail making, mathematical processing, spatial working memory, logical memory, associative learning, and verbal fluency.

As can be seen, cognitive enhancement is genuine, with human studies available to verify this exciting field’s mode of action and mechanisms.

Recommendations for smart drug usage

Nootropics and smart drugs are on the rise in today’s society, but more research involving neuroimaging is needed to understand their benefits better. However, there is no doubt that nootropics fulfilling Giurgea’s original criteria exist, particularly in their natural form.

In addition to these considerations, it’s always important to highlight that an active lifestyle with regular mental and physical activity, social interaction, and high-quality nutrition shows protective-preventive effects on various diseases and positively impacts brain health. Many experts are only willing to recommend these factors for cognitive enhancement. In particular, exercise increases dendrite length and the density of dendrite thorns and promotes the expression of synaptic proteins. An increase in the availability of growth factors and increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus also occurs, conversely decreasing beta-amyloid levels. No other nootropic currently has been so extensively studied or proven.

But the medical community can not ignore the many contrasting views of natural and synthetic nootropics; there’s growing evidence that some of these pills and powders can boost cognitive function, albeit temporarily. To date, Ginkgo biloba is the most studied and established herb for cognitive enhancement. In contrast, despite the vast number of studies on the subject, no prescription drug is officially recommended for non-medical use, despite evidence that they may provide cognitive enhancement for healthy people.

As we have seen, smart drugs exist; the main point to cover is safety. Experts recommend you only use trusted brands, checking the CAERS database for every new supplement or drug you use. They also state that if you become ill when using any prescription, OTC drugs, or dietary supplements, stop using them immediately and see a medical professional. Don’t forget to check the PubMed database for human trials and safety data regarding any cognitive enhancers you’re taking. It’s also an excellent place to double-check the credibility of any brands you may want to try. If they’re not involved in any studies, the chances are their products may be unsuitable for academic trials.

Finally, an underground movement is happening in the nootropics field, a faction demanding to be better, demanding their forced evolution, desperate to be good as the next person, terrified of being left behind. The next generation of smart drugs (and they are coming) will either advance humanity as a whole or divide us irrevocably. Will these synthetic geniuses, who feel so inferior they’ll risk their health to win the race, show us the same kindness afforded them? The answer awaits us all.

Turns out, some plants are also night owls

Just like people, plants also have diurnal variations, and some aren’t really fans of mornings.

Is it morning already? Image credits: Markus Spiske.

As we’ve all undoubtedly seen, some people we know are morning persons, while others, well, are not. This circadian clock is directed by a molecular metronome which guides our organisms through day and night like an internal cockadoodledoo that gets us up in the morning. It’s not just a morning or afternoon preference, many bodily processes are directed by this rhythm.

Researchers have known for a time that plants also seem to have this type of rhythm, and a team of researchers at the Earlham Institute and John Innes Centre in Norwich set out to explore what makes plants’ internal clocks tick, especially as understanding plant rhythms could enable farmers to optimize what they grow.

“A plant’s overall health is heavily influenced by how closely its circadian clock is synchronised to the length of each day and the passing of seasons. An accurate body clock can give it an edge over competitors, predators and pathogens,” says Dr. Hannah Rees, a postdoctoral researcher at the Earlham Institute and author of the paper.

The team examined Swedish Arabidopsis plants (Arabidopsis is the botanical version of the fruit fly — routinely used in experiments) to identify which genes direct these circadian shifts and how they influence plant activity. Swedish plants were also a good testing ground, Rees adds.

“We were interested to see how plant circadian clocks would be affected in Sweden; a country that experiences extreme variations in daylight hours and climate. Understanding the genetics behind body clock variation and adaptation could help us breed more climate-resilient crops in other regions.”

The team studied the genes of 191 varieties of Arabidopsis gathered from around Sweden, looking for minute genetic differences that could be tied to circadian function. Ultimately, their analysis found that a single DNA base-pair in one gene (COR28) made plants flower later and for a longer period. In other words, COR28 seems to direct the plants’ circadian rhythm.

“It’s amazing that just one base-pair change within the sequence of a single gene can influence how quickly the clock ticks,” explained Dr. Rees.

There was a difference of over 10 hours between the plants that ‘woke up’ and started activity earliest and the ones that started latest. It’s almost as if plants were working different shifts, researchers say.

Now, the team is looking at how what they’ve learned could be applied for plants of economic importance.

“Our findings highlight some interesting genes that might present targets for crop breeders, and provide a platform for future research. Our delayed fluorescence imaging system can be used on any green photosynthetic material, making it applicable to a wide range of plants. The next step will be to apply these findings to key agricultural crops, including brassicas and wheat.”

The study was published in the journal Plants, Cell & Environment.

Darwin’s century-old prediction about flightless insect seems to be on point

Insects are an incredibly varied and diverse group, making up more than half of all known life, with more than a million described species. Many are social, while others are solitary.

Most can fly, while some had this ability but lost it at some point in the past, especially on islands. When Charles Darwin noticed this trend, he speculated that this happens for a very simple reason: so that the insects don’t get blown out into the sea. Those that fly a lot are more likely to get blown, so evolution favors those who don’t.

Many biologists contradicted Darwin’s simplistic assumption. Now, a new study suggests that he might have been right after all — at least partially.

Image credits: Cedric VT.

Flies walk, moths crawl

In between the Antarctic and Australia, a few islands called the Southern Ocean Islands host almost exclusively flightless insects. It’s an extremely peculiar thing, since so many insects fly, and it’s a trend that is also present on many other islands.

“Of course, Charles Darwin knew about this wing loss habit of island insects,” says Ph.D. candidate Rachel Leihy, from the Monash University School of Biological Sciences.

“He and the famous botanist Joseph Hooker had a substantial argument about why this happens. Darwin’s position was deceptively simple. If you fly, you get blown out to sea. Those left on land to produce the next generation are those most reluctant to fly, and eventually, evolution does the rest. Voilà.”

But Hooker, who was an accomplished explorer himself, had different ideas — and Hooker’s own travels to the Antarctic only cemented his ideas. As time passed, biologists seemed to side with Hooker rather than Darwin. Surely there must be some other mechanism at work, most believed. But there seemed to be no clear pattern to explain this. Island size is a poor predictor of flightlessness and climate is also hard to correlate with this.

But few thought to test the idea in the Southern Ocean Islands (SOIs). Leihy and colleagues believe the sub-Antarctic SOIs are an excellent testbed for these hypotheses. They’re pretty cold, food is scarce, and most importantly, they’re some of the windiest places on Earth.

“If Darwin really got it wrong, then wind would not in any way explain why so many insects have lost their ability to fly on these islands,” said Leihy.

They found that out of the indigenous SOI insects, 47% are flightless, compared to 8% for Arctic species, and the 5% global average. In other words, the windier the island, the likelier it is for the insects to ditch flying — essentially making Darwin right.

However, the researchers gave a new spin to Darwin’s idea. Wind is indeed a deterrent to flying, but it’s maybe not because the insects get blown out to sea, but rather because it expends more energy.

Flying is very taxing, it takes a lot of energy to do it. The reason why so many insects can fly is that they’re generally light, which works very well with flying. But if you’re battling a lot of wind, you need to spend more energy than you normally would, which leaves less energy for other things like reproduction. Less reproduction means you’re less likely to spread your genes, and voilà.

Instead, insects on windy islands can choose to redirect the energy for wings and flying muscles to other activities, which seems to be a viable strategy for many species.

It’s remarkable that the ideas of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, can turn out to be so valuable to this day.

“It’s remarkable that after 160 years, Darwin’s ideas continue to bring insight to ecology,” concludes Leihy, the lead author of the paper.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library made over 150,000 illustrations and 55 million pages of research free to download

The world’s “largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives” has made 55 million pages of literature and at least 150,000 illustrations open for the public to enjoy.

Illustration from the Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, 1911.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Do you like life, science, cool art, or all three? Then the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BIH) has a treat for you. The BIH pools together diagrams, sketches, studies, and data pertaining to life on Earth from hundreds of thousands of journals and libraries, some of them from as far back as the 15th century. You can see it all, and download it all, without paying a dime.

Science for all

“To document Earth’s species and understand the complexities of swiftly-changing ecosystems in the midst of a major extinction crisis and widespread climate change, researchers need something that no single library can provide – access to the world’s collective knowledge about biodiversity,” the Library’s about page explains.

“Scientists have long considered this lack of access to biodiversity literature as a major impediment to the efficiency of scientific research.”

The sheer wealth of information that the BIH contains is staggering. However, this is a goldmine even if you’re not too keen on learning biology, even if you don’t need some citations for your degree paper — there is a lot of beauty to be found here. Illustrations of plants, animals, and the biological mechanisms that keep them going abound. They’re analyzed in hand-drawn diagrams, detailed in bright watercolors, and celebrated in dazzling lithography.

From “Report on the work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia, pt. 2 – zoology, London: Dulau, 1896.”
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “Beiträge zur Pflanzenkunde des Russischen Reiches. Lf. 10 (1857)”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Among the works in the BIH is a digitized copy of Joseph Wolf’s 19th-century The Zoological Sketches, two volumes totaling around 100 lithographs of wild animals kept in London’s Regent’s Park (which are drop-dead gorgeous). Dig around deep enough and you will find a DIY taxidermy guide, full with illustrated guides, published in 1833. Weird, but cool. One of my personal favorites is Osteographia, or the Anatomy of the Bones, a body of sketches published in London, 1733, looking at the human skeleton and its afflictions. Die Cephalopoden by one G. Fischer and Margaret Scott’s British sea-weeds could easily pass for surrealist artwork in my book. The striking yet translucent watercolors of The genus Iris make for an almost otherworldly look at the family of flowers.

From “Die Cephalopoden T.2”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “British sea-weeds, v. 1”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.
From “The genus Iris”.
Image credits Biodiversity Heritage Library / Flickr.

Still, this is, when you get down to it, a resource aimed at scientists. As such, it comes with a wide range of tools to help navigation and assist research: these include features to monitor online conversations related to books and articles in the archive or to find works related to a particular species. But, if all you want to do is look at the pretty pictures (I don’t blame you), the BIH also has an Instagram and Flickr account that you can check out.

“Through Flickr, BHL provides access to over 150,000 illustrations, enabling greater discovery and expanding its audience to the worlds of art and design. BHL also supports a variety of citizen science projects that encourage volunteers to help enhance collection data,” the Library’s about page adds. “Since its launch in 2006, BHL has served over 8 million people in over 240 countries and territories around the world.”

“Through ongoing collaboration, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to open access, the Biodiversity Heritage Library will continue to transform research on a global scale and ensure that everyone, everywhere has the information and tools they need to study, explore and conserve life on Earth.”

That’s definitely a goal I can get behind.

New heart rate measurements suggest that blue whales are about as large as animals can get

Researchers at Stanford University have made the first recording of a wild blue whale’s heart rate to date. The data suggests that the animals’ hearts are operating close to their maximum capacity, which may act as a hard cap on their maximum possible size.

Image credits Thomas Kelley.

The team developed a sensor array which, through the use of four suction cups, can be secured near a whale’s left flipper. This device was used to record the heart rate of a wild blue whale, and offer an explanation as to why they are the largest animal we’ve ever found. The recording points to some unusual features that help whale hearts pump enough blood.

Studying animals that operate “at physiological extremes” can help us better understand biological limits on size, the team explains. Furthermore, such species may also be “particularly susceptible” to environmental changes that disrupt their food supply, since large animals need large meals. All in all, the team hopes that their research will help us design new and better conservation and management schemes for endangered species like blue whales.

Big-hearted

“We had no idea that this would work and we were skeptical even when we saw the initial data. With a very keen eye, Paul Ponganis — our collaborator from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography [Ed. Note also a co-authror of this study] — found the first heart beats,” said Jeremy Goldbogen, assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities Sciences at Stanford and lead author of the paper.

“There were a lot of high fives and victory laps around the lab.”

The current study draws its roots in some of Goldbogen’s and Ponganis’ previous research, in which they measured the heart rates of diving emperor penguins in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The duo wanted to do the same with a blue whale, but there were several issues to overcome: “finding a blue whale, getting the tag in just the right location on the whale, good contact with the whale’s skin and, of course, making sure the tag is working and recording data,” said Goldbogen.

They first tested their sensors on smaller, captive whales, to make sure the technology is sound. However, they didn’t accurately reflect the behavior of wild whales — which aren’t, for example, trained to flip belly-up for a human caretaker. Blue whales also have a wrinkly structure to the skin on their underside that expands during feeding; this could mechanically dislodge the sensor array.

“We had to put these tags out without really knowing whether or not they were going to work,” recalled David Cade, a recent graduate of the Goldbogen Lab who is a co-author of the paper and who placed the tag on the whale.

“The only way to do it was to try it. So we did our best.”

Despite all this, everything went swimmingly with the wild whales, the team reports. Cade managed to fix the tag on his first attempt near the flipper (where it could pick up on signals from the heart).

The recordings showed that when the whale dives, its heart rate slows down to an average of about 4 to 8 beats per minute, although the team did see activity drop down to just 2 beats per minute. At the lowest point of their foraging dives — when the whale needs to swim upwards and catch its prey — heart rate rose to 2.5 times above this minimum value, and then slowly decreased. The highest heart rate was recorded at the surface, between 25 to 37 beats per minute, while the whale was breathing and replenishing its oxygen stocks.

All in all, the team says the findings are very surprising. The upper limit of heart rate was faster than expected, and the lowest ones were about 30-50% slower. The lower-end heart rates seen can be explained by the whale’s elastic aortic arch, which slowly contracts and keeps blood flowing to the body between heartbeats. The highest heart rates seen are likely made possible by small features of the heart’s shape and movement which prevent pressure waves generated during contraction from disrupting blood flow, the team adds.

The blue whale’s heart likely operates near or at the limit of its capacity. The team believes that the energy needs of a larger body would simply outpace the ability of a heart to pump blood, which would explain why no animal has ever outgrown them.

Currently, the team working on improving their sensor array and plan to expand their research to other species such as fin whales, humpbacks and minke whales.

The paper “Extreme bradycardia and tachycardia in the world’s largest animal” has been published in the journal PNAS.

What is biodiversity

A shorthand of the terms ‘biological diversity’, biodiversity refers to the variety of life, in all its forms and all its levels, on Earth. But why do we need biodiversity? Can’t we just have a planet populated solely with humans and those few plants and animals that are tasty?

We probably could, for a few days — then everything would grind to a halt (i.e. everything dies). Let’s see why.

Levels of biodiversity

In general, biodiversity is considered at three (progressively-wider) levels: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity.

Genetic diversity refers to the level of genetic variety within a single species. While individuals of the same species are very similar from a genetic point of view, there’s also surprising variation between them. Individuals can show genetic differences between one another, as well as whole groups or populations. For example, two sparrows in New York will be a little different, genetically speaking. The differences between a sparrow in London and one in New York, however, would be much more pronounced.

Not all groups have the same degree of genetic diversity. For example, kangaroos come from a relatively recent evolutionary line, and are thus pretty similar from a genetic standpoint. Dasyurids, a group of carnivorous marsupials that includes the Tasmanian Devil, the Numbat, and quolls, come from a more ancient lineage and are far more diverse (as they’ve had more time to develop).

Image via Pixabay.

Species diversity refers to the number of different species that live in a particular area or habitat. Some habitats harbor a lot of species diversity — mountain ranges or coral reefs come to mind. Others, such as salt flats or heavily polluted areas that aren’t very nice places to live in, have very poor diversity.

The world might seem to be bursting at the seams with life, but it’s actually not that diverse a place; unless you count invertebrates. Invertebrates are animals that lack a spine and make up about 99% of all animal species. The group includes crabs, snails, worms, corals, and sea stars, but is overwhelmingly represented by insects. The good news, however, is that insects are surprisingly adaptable and versatile and end up fulfilling many vital ecosystem roles (more on that later).

Ecosystem diversity represents the variety of different ecosystems in a given area. An easy way to think of ecosystems is to imagine them as natural, local ‘economies’ that are affected by factors pertaining to their physical environment (local climate, precipitation levels, soil composition, etc) and the make-up and interaction of the species that live in said environment. An ecosystem is the product of the organisms interacting with the environment.

What has biodiversity ever done for us?

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems out there.
Image via Pixabay.

You’d literally be dead without it.

One of the things you start to notice when studying biology is that life has a very interesting way of enabling life (the “Gaia hypothesis“). To help you get an idea of what I mean, let’s take a look at early life on Earth.

The first things to ever live around here were simple, microscopic things — bacteria, basically. The first direct evidence of life on Earth hails from around 3.5 billion years ago (fossilized microorganisms found in Apex chert rocks in the Pilbara Craton, Australia), but life likely evolved a bit earlier. It probably wasn’t very easy to make a living on Earth back in the day, however; these organisms likely lived in colonies around hydrothermal vents. These vents put out heat and chemical compounds, which the bacteria could capture to eke out energy from. This type of metabolism, which is known as chemolithoautotrophic (which means “self-feeding on chemicals and rocks), generates very little energy compared to oxygen respiration.

Homey!
Image credits Schmidt Ocean Institute via USGS.

Humans can exist in the form we have today because, unlike those early bacteria, we have ample access to oxygen to breathe. That oxygen, however, wasn’t always there — bacteria and plants released it into the atmosphere over the course of geological time. In other words, we can exist as we do today because life, over millions and billions of years, worked to create the conditions we live in.

But… that’s just life doing its thing, right? How does biodiversity fit into this story? Well, the short of it is that biodiversity is what keeps life and ecosystems going — life as we know it today requires a baseline of biodiversity to work.

Why biodiversity is the spice of life

Image via Pixabay.

Diversity is life’s insurance policy. As a rule of thumb, the more genetically-diverse a species is, the better its chances of not going extinct; ecosystems with greater species diversity are more resilient to shocks such as invasive species, climate shifts, or meteorites. Areas with greater ecosystem diversity can take more ‘damage’ (lose more ecosystems) before things break down completely. Let’s expand on each of those points independently.

First, consider the banana. Chances are that every banana you’ve even gulped down is, on a genetic level, exactly the same as every other banana you’ve ever eaten. That’s because the banana cultivar you’re overwhelmingly likely to encounter is a Cavendish banana (95% of all commercially-available bananas). All Cavendish bananas are clones of one another. The plants are propagated through the use of suckers, lateral offshoots of a parent plant that are cut and planted in the soil.

The reason Cavendish is so prominent today is that the original (and better-tasting) banana cultivar, the Gros Michel, was virtually wiped clean away from South America by the Panama disease. Why did this fungus-driven disease have such an easy time destroying the Gros Michel? Well, just like the Cavendish, Gros Michel bananas were basically clones of one another — so a pathogen that could infect and kill one plant could infect and kill all its species. The only reason the Gros Michel variety isn’t extinct right now is that some cultures survived in other areas of the world where the Panama disease hasn’t (as of now) reached. This example illustrates why insufficient genetic diversity can spell doom for a species.

Koa e Kea variety of banana afflicted by Fusarium wilt (Panama disease).
Image credits Scot Nelson / Flickr.

To understand why species diversity matters, we have to talk about ecological niches. Just like you have a job (if not, good luck), your neighbor has a job, and so on, each species has a ‘job’ it performs for the ecosystem. We call these jobs ‘ecological niches’. If the job doesn’t get done, the whole thing starts to crack. If enough jobs don’t get done, the local economy (ecosystem) collapses completely.

Let’s take pollinators as an example. They zip this way and that carrying pollen, thus fertilizing plants and crops, and indirectly helping to grow things for everyone to eat. If a single species is performing this role, and it gets wiped out for some reason, a critical ecosystem ‘service’ or ‘function’ (pollination) won’t be performed. Some, like plants, act as suppliers of food; herbivores harvest and concentrate nutrients and energy from plants, and carnivores keep herbivore numbers in check so they don’t overwhelm the plants. Bacteria and fungi make sure all that food keeps being recirculated in the ecosystems through decomposition (rot).

In ecosystems with high species diversity, several species compete or complement each other over the same niche. So if one pollinator species can’t perform the task, another one is there to pick up the slack. This makes the ecosystem as a whole more stable and resilient.

Crop fieds are a type of artificial ecosystem, but they’re much less robust than natural ones.
Image via Pixabay.

The next level is ecosystem diversity. Just like different species intermingle in an ecosystem and have particular roles, ecosystems interact with one another. If you think of the Earth as a huge ecosystem, then the sum of each of these ‘local’ ecosystems needs to perform a certain threshold of jobs (ecosystem services) for the whole system to be viable. For example, if there aren’t enough net-oxygen-generating ecosystems to supply all the demand for the gas, animals will start dying left and right. If there aren’t enough ecosystems to filter water, recycle nutrients, suck up carbon dioxide or other pollutants, and everything else that life needs, then the Earth will be downsizing on said life.

Where climate warming comes in

Species go extinct all the time, that’s just how life rolls. Generally, however, this natural or baseline rate of extinction is easily absorbed by ecosystems at large. Existing species cover now-free niches, or new species altogether evolve to exploit the opportunity.

From a biodiversity point of view, the issue with climate change is how fast it’s driving species extinct. Species go extinct when they fail to adapt to their environment or their competition. While natural processes can drive pretty fast and dramatic changes (think of how a meteorite impact killed the dinos and made mammals reign), most of the time they’re pretty gradual, which gives species some time to adapt or evolve to suit the present conditions. Natural changes, in general, also tend to impact a relatively limited area.

Global mean temperature anomalies (with 1951-1980 mean temperatures as baseline) between 1850-2017 as reported by Berkeley Earth, a California-based non-profit research organization.
Image credits Berkeley Earth.

Man-made climate warming is very fast — blisteringly fast from a geological point of view. The root of the issue is that our emissions are changing environments (this is the thing life needs to adapt to) way, way, way faster than biological evolution works. It also impacts the Earth in its entirety, affecting all ecosystems at the same time — so there aren’t any ‘unburdened’ ones to pick up the slack for those that are struggling since they’re all struggling.

To push the metaphor full circle, we’re closing the jobs in manufacturing and opening up new ones only in programming in the equivalent of a few hours, but programming school takes a few years to complete and very few people already know how to do it. Our way of life is driving the global economy — all of it — into a deep recession. The risk is that, by the time we take action to stop it, all the species that know how to manufacture the things we need to survive will be dead.

Hopefully, this handy guide helps you get a better idea of what biodiversity is and why it’s important. The world is a beautiful place, but we need to understand that it’s built on very complex and often fragile relationships. We need to make room and opportunity for these relationships to unfold, or we risk the world adapting to us — and wake up in a world that we’re no longer adapted for.

And we all know what nature likes to do to the species that can’t adapt, don’t we?

These spiders have super-black patches to help their other parts vibrant and colorful

Spiders aren’t the prettiest bunch of creatures out there, but you have to admire the peacock spider. With a vibrant display of blue, red, and orange spots, male peacock spiders go to great lengths to attract female partners, showcasing their brilliant colors through elaborate dances.

But how are the colors so vibrant in the first place?

Extreme mating competition may have produced these bright patches, as well as the dark colors that accentuate them. Image credits: Jurgen Otto.

To get to the bottom of this, Harvard researchers analyzed microscopic bumps on the spiders’ exoskeleton, finding that the key is actually an optical illusion: they have ultra-dark patches that help accentuate the other colors.

The two species of peacock spiders analyzed (Maratus speciosus and M. karrie) have naturally black patches, but they also use another trick: tiny, tightly-packed bumps called microlenses. These microlenses are so effective at absorbing light that they only reflect 0.5% of the light they receive, rivaling the darkest materials ever created by humans.

These microstructures are behind the super-black patches.Credits: McCoy et al, 2019.

The tiny bumps bounce light around so that very little of it is reflected back, and the vast majority is diffracted outside of the field of view of an onlooker (say, an interested female). Surprisingly, this type of structure is very similar to that of human-made solar panels, scientists note. These super-black patches are also seen in a number of other creatures, including birds-of-paradise, leaving researchers to wonder if this is an example of convergent evolution (the independent evolution of the same feature by multiple creatures). Just like the spiders, birds-of-paradise blend pitch-dark surfaces with dazzling colors and elaborate mating dances.

“The microlenses of super black cuticle in peacock spiders bear a striking resemblance to anti-reflective surface ornamentation that enhances absorption and reduces specular reflectance in other organisms—including flower petals, tropical shade plant leaves, light-sensitive brittlestar arms and ommatidea in moth eyes,” write Harvard University evolutionary biologist Dakota McCoy and colleagues in the new study.

“We hypothesize that super black evolved in peacock spiders and birds of paradise convergently through a shared sensory bias intrinsic to colour perception.”

Brilliant colors in peacock spiders (a–g), and a closely related shiny black spider (h). Credits: McCoy et al, 2019.

While not unique, this is a very rare type of structure, researchers explain.

“In most organisms, melanin pigments produce normal black colour with white, specular highlights (e.g. glossy hair). By contrast, structural super black in peacock spiders—as well as birds, butterflies, snakes, and human-made materials —creates a featureless black surface with no highlights.”

Whether or not this is really an example of convergent evolution remains to be further studied. In the particular case of the spider, researchers hypothesize that the extreme competition between male peacock spiders is responsible for producing these extremely bright colors and the light-absorbing structures that further accentuate them.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Circuit.

New bio-synthetic circuits can teach old cells new tricks — such as killing cancer

New research at Caltech paves the way for programmable cells.

Circuit.

Image via Pixabay.

The research team has developed a biological toolkit of proteins which can be mixed and matched to create circuits that program new behaviors into cells. As a proof-of-concept, the team designed and built such a circuit and added it to human cells growing in culture in the lab. The mechanism is meant to detect the activation of a certain cancer-causing gene — in which case it causes the cell to self-destruct.

Cellcuits

One goal of synthetic biology is to enable living cells to learn new tricks, ranging from relatively simple ones, such as emitting light in certain conditions, to the more complex — for example, detecting and responding to disease. The most common way of doing this is by altering a cell’s genome. However, such alterations are permanent and will be passed on by the cell to its daughters, which is undesirable in several applications.

So, a lot of effort has been spent in synthetic biology laboratories across the world to develop less-permanent solutions, says Michael Elowitz, coauthor of the new paper, a professor of biology and biological engineering, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Such changes should be removable, he adds, or last only a certain time; they would be administered, carry out their intended function, then allow the cell to revert to its original state. Ideally, they should also be highly targeted: instead of affecting all cells indiscriminately, they could detect when something goes wrong on the cellular level and fix it accordingly.

Led by postdoctoral fellow Xiaojing Gao and graduate student Lucy Chong, the Caltech team developed a set of protein building blocks that they hope will enable synthetic biology to shift its paradigm towards these temporary changes.

The proteins can be assembled in various combinations to produce biological circuits that can sense their environments and act if required. Just like electronic transistors can be linked to create the huge range of circuits today, the proteins can form systems that handle everything from signal processing to logical computation.

“One of the biggest challenges in biomedicine is specificity: How do you make a therapeutic that will affect only a particular type of cell? Then, how do you respond by modifying that cell in a very specific way?” says Elowitz.

“These tasks are challenging for drugs, but biological circuits could excel at them. Protein circuits can be programmed to sense many types of information, process it, and respond in different ways. In fact, the reason our cells usually work as well as they do is the incredible power of our natural biological circuitry.”

To prove that their approach works, the team constructed a biological circuit that can detect whether cells in a culture bear a cancerous gene and if so, destroy them. This circuit remained inactive when presented with healthy cells.

“This work is simply a proof of principle and we haven’t demonstrated these functions in animals yet,” Gao adds. “However, this framework could help us transition to using programmable, cell-based therapies as medicines.”

The work was enabled by the team’s efforts to engineer proteins that regulate (interact with) one another in similar ways, allowing them to act as interchangeable building blocks in the same mechanism.

The paper “Programmable protein circuits in living cells” has been published in the journal Science.

Roundworms brought back to life after spending 42,000 years iced in permafrost

These creatures have set a new record for cryogenic survival.

The nematodes isolated from permafrost deposits of the Kolyma River Lowland. Image credits: Shatilovich et al.

The Kolyma River in north-eastern Siberia flows along over 2,129 kilometers (1,323 miles) before ultimately emptying into a part of the Arctic Ocean. For the most part (about 250 days each year), the Kolyma is frozen to depths of several meters. Similarly, most of the path it flows along is surrounded by thick ice — after all, this is the permafrost land we’re talking about.

A while back, Russian biologists dug up more than 300 samples of frozen soil from the area. They found that the samples are teeming with microscopic life: single-celled cyanobacteria, green algae, and yeasts. But among these samples, they also found some macroscopic organisms — namely, some nematodes (Panagrolaimus aff. detritophagus and Plectus aff. parvus) — or, as most people would call them, roundworms.

Some were found in what was likely a ground squirrel burrow some 32,000 years ago, but had since caved in and frozen over. The others were found in a bore sample at a depth of around 3.5 meters (about 11.5 feet). They were carbon dated and found to be 42,000 years old. There’s still the off chance of contamination, but researchers have detailed their strict practices, and peer-review also confirmed the sterility procedures.

After identifying the worms, biologists placed them in a room kept at a mellow temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). It didn’t take long before they started showing signs of life. Within weeks, they were moving around and eating, setting a new record for how long animals can survive frozen in ice.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Longest survival” footer=””]In 2000, scientists found bacteria spores inside 250 million-year-old salt crystals, and after careful processing, were able to bring them back to life.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the tricks bacteria pull off to survive so long cannot be applied to macroscopic creatures, which are much more complex. Roundworms are remarkably sturdy creatures (related to tardigrades), but they don’t even come close to bacteria. Yet even tardigrades, these incredibly resilient creatures, have “only” been known to survive for decades after preservation.

[/panel]

Aside from the main story, — that the creatures survived for 42,000 years, frozen — there are two ways to look at this. The first is optimistic and upbeat: by studying the mechanisms which allowed them to survive, we can learn more about cryomedicine and how creatures (potentially, alien creatures) survive in extreme environments.

“It is obvious that this ability suggests that the Pleistocene nematodes have some adaptive mechanisms that may be of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology,” the researchers write in their study.

But there’s a darker side to the story. As global warming takes its course and much of the permafrost continues to melt, it could release a string of pathogens currently frozen. What the consequences will be is anyone’s guess.

This research was published in Doklady Biological Sciences.

Plants use underground networks to see when their neighbors are stressed

Plants have developed surprisingly complex communication networks which allow them to communicate with each other about what’s happening on the surface.

Graphical illustration of above ground interactions between neighboring plants by light touch and their effect on below-ground communication. Image credits: Elhakeem et al.

Graphical illustration of above ground interactions between neighboring plants by light touch and their effect on below-ground communication. Image credits: Elhakeem et al.

Despite their immobile lifestyle, plants are actually more active than you’d think. Aside from all the biochemical reactions that enable them to go about their day-to-day lives, plants can also communicate complex messages underground. Essentially, these messages take the form of chemicals secreted by roots into the soil which are then detected through the roots of nearby plants.

These chemical “messages in a bottle” can tell plants whether their neighbors are relatives or strangers and help them direct their growth accordingly.

Touch is one of the most common stimuli in higher plants and is well known to induce strong changes over time. Recent studies have demonstrated that brief touching among neighboring plants can be used to detect potential competitors. As plants grow in close proximity to other plants, they constantly monitor any cues that happen above ground — but they do the same below ground as well.

To better understand how this happens, as well as to learn more about the ways above ground factors influence what happens below the surface, a team of scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences “stressed” corn seedlings and then looked for growth changes in nearby plants. Essentially, they brushed the corn leaves to simulate the touch of a nearby plant leaf and then monitored what chemicals the plant root secreted. The team then took those chemicals and transferred them to other plants to see how they react. They found that plants exposed to the chemicals responded by directing their resources into growing more leaves and fewer roots than control plants.

Researchers write:

“Our study clearly shows that roots of very young maize seedlings pose an extraordinary capacity to quickly detect changes in cues vectored by growth solution directing roots away from neighbours exposed to brief mechano stimuli. In this way, roots may detect the changed physiological status of neighbours through the perception of cues they release, even if chemical analyzes did not show significant changes in metabolite composition.”

Basically, the team showed that what happens above ground influences what happens beneath the ground surface of a plant — and the way through which they communicate this is more complex than we thought. This makes a lot of sense since the ability of plants to rapidly detect and respond to changes in their surrounding environment is essential for determining their survival.

Lead author Velemir Ninkovic concludes:

“Our study demonstrated that changes induced by above ground mechanical contact between plants can affect below ground interactions, acting as cues in prediction of the future competitors.”

Journal Reference: Elhakeem A, Markovic D, Broberg A, Anten NPR, Ninkovic V (2018) Aboveground mechanical stimuli affect belowground plant-plant communication. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0195646. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195646

A hundred years later, Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition can offer important climate change insights

Samples retrieved by Captain Scott’s famous Discovery expedition (1901-1904) have been reanalyzed using modern technology, revealing how the Antarctic has changed in the past hundred years.

Antarctic expedition ship Discovery anchored to the ice, 1902.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott was a groundbreaking explorer and a celebrated hero, leading two expeditions into the Antarctic: the Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition (1910–1913). Scott brought home samples that provided the first glimpses into Antarctica’s geological history, turning the untouched continent into an active research interest.

Now, a new study analyzed the presence of cyanotoxins — the toxins produced by bacteria called cyanobacteria — in the samples taken from the pristine Antarctic of the early 1900s.

Cyanobacteria typically thrive in warmer, nutrient-rich water, and global warming has been shown to increase both the frequency and intensity of algal blooms. Therefore, they can be used as a proxy to study global warming and its effects.

Researcher and lead author Dr. Anne Jungblut, from the Natural History Museum in London, said:

“The results will help experts to study the effects of climate change on blue-green algae and their toxins in Antarctica, now and in the future. They also highlight the significant past, present, and future contributions of the scientists that were the backbone of Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition.”

“These historic samples from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and our work on them 100 years later, demonstrate the value and the ongoing importance of Captain R.F. Scott’s scientific legacy for current science challenges in Antarctica.”

Discovery herbarium cyanobacteria specimen NHM. Image credits: Jungblut et al.

The samples were kept in a herbarium. So far, the analysis has revealed that the samples are still intact and suitable for this type of investigation. Researchers were able to identify the cyanotoxins, demonstrating the potential for this type of study. It’s impressive that century-old samples can still yield valuable information, but it’s still not clear how useful this information will turn out to be.

“The ‘Discovery’ cyanobacterial mat samples represent the oldest polar cyanobacterial samples found to contain cyanotoxins to date and provide new baseline data for cyanotoxins in Antarctic freshwater cyanobacterial mats from prior to human activity in Antarctica, the development of the ozone hole and current levels of climatic change,” the study reads.

Journal Reference: Microcystins, BMAA and BMAA isomers in 100-year old Antarctic cyanobacterial mats collected during Captain R.F. Scott’s Discovery Expedition; Jungblut A.D., Wilbraham J., Banack, S.A., Metcalf J.S. Codd, G.A.; European Journal of Phycology; DOI: 10.1080/09670262.2018.1442587.

Liverwort.

Citizen science called upon to study liverworts and help quantify climate change

With too many plant photos to analyze, and too little time to do so, the Field Museum of Natural History is turning to citizen scientists for help.

Liverwort.

Conocephalum conicum (greater scented liverwort).
Image credits James St. John / Flickr.

The plants in question are liverworts (division Marchantiophyta), primitive but very successful plants whose rounded, liver-shaped leaves prompted the name. Because of their diminutive stature, liverworts usually don’t get much attention. But, according to Matt von Konrat, the collections manager of plants at the Field Museum, they have an important part to play in our efforts against climate change. These eyelash-sized plants are much more vulnerable to environmental shifts than larger organisms, so they can be used to monitor climate change.

Small, but far from inconsequential

“They’re like a canary in a coal mine,” says von Konrat, who’s also the lead author on a paper describing Microplants, the citizen science initiative.

However, we don’t really know that much about liverworts. Most pressingly, we don’t yet have a clear picture of all the species of liverwort out there, and differences between them are often only visible through a microscope. But, somehow, historically there hasn’t been a deluge of people wanting to look at hundreds of thousands of small leaves through a microscope. So what Konrat plans to do instead is to spread the workload to a lot of people — making it much easier and more interesting for all involved.

“It’s tedious for one individual to go through these photos for hours on end,” says von Konrat. “But if you get a hundred people to do it for five minutes each, it’s a lot easier.”

That ‘hundred people’ are average Joes and Janes like you and me; volunteers from all walks of life and from a wide variety of backgrounds who want to put their collective efforts in the service of science.

To meet them halfway, the team adapted the online platform Zooniverse, traditionally used for citizen science projects in astronomy. The team’s tweaks were meant to allow users to analyze the photos of liverworts and measure their primitive, leaflike structures.

Ricciocarpos Natans.

Rosette growth form of the liverwort Ricciocarpos natans.
Image credits Christian Fischer / Wikimedia.

Such observations will help scientists better determine the exact differences between species — which is important because different species can have different responses to climate change.

“The Microplants project is two-pronged: to help find differences between these species, and see if measurements can actually be done by lay people,” says co-author Kalman Strauss, a high school student and citizen scientist who has been volunteering with von Konrat at the Field Museum since 2014.

Throughout the course of the project, more than 11,000 users pitched in, analyzing liverwort photos, participating either remotely or through an in-person digital kiosk at the Field Museum’s various exhibitions. The results of the project are accurate enough to be used in research, Konrat says, and should play an active role in shaping policy.

Beyond its academic merits, The Microplants project is a prime example of the power of citizen science. It conforms to Next Generation Science Standards, has been involved in formal education (from kindergartens to college biology courses), and has improved public engagement with science — something I feel our societies desperately need.

“This project goes beyond the data,” says von Konrat. “It’s about breaking down barriers and showing that everyone can contribute to science. One key audience is students and younger generations — exposing them to museum collections and science, help them get excited about science.”

The paper “Using citizen science to bridge taxonomic discovery with education and outreach” has been published in the journal Applications in Plant Sciences.

Tentacle necklace.

8 Biology-inspired Gift Ideas for your Valentine!

What’s love if not biology in action? This Valentine’s, say “you flood my brain with feel-good chemicals” to that one special other with these biology-themed gifts.

Cards, cards, cards!

All’s fair in love and war — especially the downright adorable, handmade cards from Tiny Bee Cards. Profess your love with the significant otter, let your S.O. know you’ll brave the rough seas of life together with this purposeful porpoise, or let your passionate side shine through with one very cuddly cuttlefish. Those are my favorite three, but their store is definitely worth investigating if you’re a fan of romance and puns — or if you’re looking to impress a foodie!

CuteCards.

Buy on Amazon

Dopamine and Oxytocin necklaces

Reinforce your loved one’s affections with a dopamine-shaped pendant, or tighten the bond even more with an extra shot of oxytocin (also handily forged into a necklace). It’s all hormones, people!

Oxytocin.

Buy on Amazon

Serotonin.

Buy on Amazon

Give ’em an STD they’ll love!

Just hear me out: PlushieSTD. Bouquet. All wrapped up in a cute, delightful bunch.

Done. You’ve just mastered Valentine’s.

STD bouquet.

Buy on Amazon

If you like the idea but you’re not sold on a plushie virus bouquet, they have a lot of other options.

Or at least some (rare, endangered) flowers

If romance rather than humor makes your better half melt, a more traditional bouquet might be in order. Cut flowers wilt and wither, however, and is that really the message you want to convey to your Valentine? Exactly.

So play the long game and show him or her that you two will only grow stronger with time, provided you stay hydrated — just like this Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), a beautiful turquoise bonsai plant from the jungles of the Philippines, that you two will nurture together.

This isn’t any old flower — it’s a highly endangered, at risk plant. With its native jungles being cut down alarmingly fast, the love between you two could be what saves the species from complete extinction. It doesn’t really get more romantic than that. You get 10 seeds.
Jade Vine.

Buy on Amazon.

Organic chemistry scarf

Look closely enough and biology becomes chemistry. If your Valentine is hard at work studying in the field, this organic chemistry scarf will definitely let them show off their passion while staying comfy, warm, and stylish.

Biochem scarf.

Buy on Amazon.

Tardigrades for him and her

Also known as water bears, tardigrades are ridiculously resilient — just like the two of you.

Tardigrade tshirt.

Buy on Amazon.

Seriously, these micro-animals have been found everywhere: from mountaintops to the deep sea; from mud volcanoes in tropical rain forests to the Antarctic, surviving in extreme temperatures, extreme pressures (both high and low), air deprivation, radiation, dehydration, and starvation. Now, you can wear them on your shirt, or even better — on your feet.

Tardigrade slippers.

Buy on Amazon

Unleash the love-ken!

Stick to your partner’s heart and never let go with one of these cup-covered tentacles! The Kraken-themed ring or necklace will make sure your loved one never goes away from your tentacles, I mean arms.Tentacle necklace.

Buy on Amazon

Tentacle ring.

 Buy on Amazon.

A hearty Valentine

We’re all used to the round, two-lobed heart as a symbol of love. Everybody will be generously slathering it in chats, messages, and cards for their Valentines when the special day comes. Let me ask you this, however: will any of those hearts have aortas popping out?

No! But yours will. Because you will show your love the right way, with this more anatomically-correct plush from I Heart Guts. If your significant other is into *ahem* correct biology, they will definitely appreciate it!

I heart guts.

 Buy on Amazon

 


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Robot Brain.

Biology can help patch the flaws in our robots, metastudy reports

Cyborgs might still be a ways away, but “biohybrid” bots might be closer than you think, according to an international team of researchers.

Robot Brain.

Image via midnightinthedesert.

The term cyborg refers to any biomechanical entity that was born organic and later received mechanical augmentations, either to restore lost functionality or to enhance its abilities. It’s possible that cyborgs will become commonplace in the future, as people turn to robotic prosthetics to replace lost limbs, explore whole new senses through mechanical augmentation, or by plugging into a Neuralink-like artificial mind.

But there’s also a reverse to the cyborg coin, the biohybrids — robots enhanced with living cells or tissues to make them more lifelike. Biological systems can bring a lot to the biohybrid table, such as muscle cell augmentations to help the bots perform subtle movements, or bacterial add-ons to help them navigate through living organisms — and unlike cyborgs, biohybrids are coming on-line today, according to a new metastudy.

Meatbots

The paper, penned by an international group of scientists and engineers, aims to get an accurate picture of the state of biohybrid robotics today. The field, they report, is entering a “deep revolution in both [the] design principles and constitutive elements” it employs.

“You can consider this the counterpart of cyborg-related concepts,” said lead author Leonardo Ricotti, of the BioRobotics Institute at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, in Pisa, Italy. “In this view, we exploit the functions of living cells in artificial robots to optimize their performances.”

In recent years we’ve seen robots of all shapes and sizes bringing increasing complexity to bear in both software and hardware. They’re on assembly lines moving and welding heavy metal pieces, and sub-millimeter robots are being developed to kill cancer cells or heal wounds from within the body.

One thing robots haven’t quite gotten right in all this time, however, is fine movement. Actuation, the coordination of movements, proved itself to be a persistent thorn in the side of robotics, the team writes. Robots can handle huge weights with impressive ease and fluidity. Alternatively, they can operate a laser cutter with perfect accuracy each and every time. But they have difficulty coordinating subtler actions, such as cracking an egg cleanly into a bowl, or caressing. Unlike animal movements, which start gently on a micro scale and lead up to large-scale motion, robots’ initial movements are jerky.

Another shortcoming, according to Ricotti, is that our bots are quite power hungry. They can’t hold a candle to the sheer energy efficiency of biological systems, refined by evolution almost to its limits over millions of years — a problem that’s particularly relevant in micro-robots, whose power banks are routinely larger than the robot itself.

Mixing living ‘parts’ into robots can solve these problems, she adds.

The team writes that muscles can provide the fine accuracy actuation and steady movement that robots currently lack. For example, they showcase a group led by Barry Trimmer of Tufts University (Trimmer is also a co-author of the metastudy), that developed worm-like biohybrid robots powered by the contraction of insect muscle cells.

Co-author Sylvain Martel, of Polytechnique Montréal, is trying to solve the energy issue by outfitting his bots with bacterial treads. His work used magnetotactic bacteria, which move along magnetic field lines, to transport medicine to cancer cells. The method allows Martel’s team to guide the bacteria using external magnets, allowing them to target tumors or cells that have proven elusive in the face of traditional treatments.

Steel and sinew

Biohybrid robotics comes with its own set of drawbacks, however. Biological systems are notoriously more fragile than metal-borne robots, and they prove to be the weakest link in hybrid systems. Biohybrids can only operate in temperature ranges suitable for life (so no extreme heat or cold), are more vulnerable to chemical or physical damage, and so on. In general, if a living organism wouldn’t last too long in a certain place, neither would a biohybrid.

Finally, living cells need to be nourished, and that’s something we haven’t really learned how to do well in robots yet — so as of now, our biohybrids tend to be rather short-lived. But for all their shortcomings, biohybrid robots have a lot of promise. When talking about a manta-ray-like biobot developed by a team at Harvard last year, Adam Feinberg, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, said that “by using living cells they were able to build this robot in a way that you just couldn’t replicate with any other material.”

“You shine a light, and it triggers the muscles to swim. You couldn’t replicate this movement with on-board electronics and actuators while keeping it lightweight and maneuverable.”

The paper Biohybrid actuators for robotics: A review of devices actuated by living cells has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

 

“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

Celebrating life one awesome picture at a time: the Welcome Image Awards 2016

Medical research charity Welcome Trust has been bringing together some of the most spectacular images in biomedical research under their yearly Welcome Image Awards. They aim to “recognise the creators of the most informative, striking and technically excellent images that communicate significant aspects of biomedical science.” And the submissions certainly are all of those things — combing trough the entries of this 19-edition long contest, I can’t help but be slack-jawed in amazement at how beautiful life is.

This year is no different. Capturing images from the very tiny all the way to a heart as big as your head, the entries are a veritable celebration of life. So here are some highlights of this year’s winner’s gallery — sit back, and enjoy.

Our thanks to the Welcome Image Awards team for providing the pictures.

Cryogenic scanning electron micrograph of a single human stem cell. Image credits Sílvia A Ferreira, Cristina Lopo, Eileen Gentleman / King’s College London.

Cryogenic scanning electron micrograph of a single human stem cell. It’s roughly 0.015 mm.
Image credits Sílvia A Ferreira, Cristina Lopo, Eileen Gentleman / King’s College London.

Stem cells are yet undifferentiated cells that can divide to produce almost any cells found in the human body. This particular cell was harvested from the hip bone of a healthy patient, who donated bone marrow to help those experiencing complications after receiving a transplant.

The cell is resting in a chemical mixture that mimics its natural environment inside the body so that the team can observe how it behaves in-vivo. To take the shot, researchers flash-froze the sample, then put it under an electron microscope.

Also, it kind of looks like an exploding star doesn’t it?

Maize leaves. Image credits Fernán Federici / Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile / University of Cambridge.

Maize (corn) leaves.
Image credits Fernán Federici / Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile / University of Cambridge.

Maize is one of the most widely grown cereal crops in the world, but not many people have ever seen it like this. The image is approximately 250 micrometres (0.25 mm) wide. It’s up close enough that you can see each individual cell and their nucleus — the green rectangular shapes and orange circles. It was taken in collaboration with Jim Haseloff and OpenPlant Cambridge.

Human liver grafted into a mouse starts growing. Image credits Chelsea Fortin, Kelly Stevens and Sangeeta Bhatia / Koch Institute, © MIT

A small piece of human liver grafted into a mouse with a damaged liver.
Image credits Chelsea Fortin, Kelly Stevens and Sangeeta Bhatia / Koch Institute, © MIT.

Human liver cells (red/orange) and human blood vessels (green) in the new liver have grouped together and started to grow using blood (white) from the mouse to help. Development of blood vessels in organs like the liver has previously been very difficult, which has been a major barrier to scaling up small implants like these for medical use. The liver can regenerate itself but certain types of damage are irreversible, and there is a growing shortage of replacement organs.

Researchers hope that one day, implants like this could be used to repair livers damaged by liver disease, cirrhosis or cancer. The image is 1.1 mm wide.

Swallowtail butterfly. Image credits Daniel Saftner / Macroscopic Solutions.

Close-up shot of a swallowtail butterfly.
Image credits Daniel Saftner / Macroscopic Solutions.

Butterflies have two large compound eyes to see quick movements and a pair of antennae which pick up smells. The proboscis (their long feeding tube) is curled up like a spring here, but it unrolls so the butterfly can use it like a straw to drink nectar from flowers. Swallowtail butterflies are widely distributed around the world and are often found in wetlands such as marshes and fens. They get their name from their characteristic hindwing extensions, which are reminiscent of a swallow’s tail. This image is 5 mm wide.

Cow Heart. Image credits Michael Frank / Royal Veterinary College

Cow Heart.
Image credits Michael Frank / Royal Veterinary College

The heart was preserved in formalin in a Perspex container and was photographed in the Anatomy Museum of the Royal Veterinary College in London. It measures 27 cm from top to bottom and is roughly four times the size of a human heart.

Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Wellcome Images

Moth scales.
Image credits Mark R Smith / Macroscopic Solutions.

Close-up shot of the scales on a Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus). This large colourful moth is most active during the day, unlike most other moths which are nocturnal. It is native to Madagascar and is often mistaken for a butterfly. As it flaps its wings during flight, they shimmer in the light and change colour, but these colours are an illusion. They come from light bouncing off the curved scales at different angles. The wings themselves hardly contain any colour pigment or dye. This image is 750 micrometres (0.75 mm) wide.

Cross section through an ebola virus. Image credits David S Goodsell / RCSB Protein Data Bank.

Cross section through an ebola virus.
Image credits David S Goodsell / RCSB Protein Data Bank.

Ebola was first discovered in mid-1970s Africa but has really found its way into the public’s attention following the tragic outbreaks we’ve seen a few years ago. It can cause severe illness and often proves fatal to the host. This watercolour and ink illustration takes a look inside an Ebola virus particle.

The pink/purple membrane surrounding it is stolen from an infected cell. The broccoli-like turquoise proteins on the membrane attach to the cells that the virus infects. A layer of proteins (blue) supports the membrane on the inside. Genetic information in the form of RNA (yellow) is stored in a cylinder called a nucleocapsid (green) in the centre of the virus. This whole virus is approximately 100 nanometres (0.0001 mm) wide, which is 200 times smaller than many of the cells that it infects.

This picture was selected as the overall winner of this year’s contest.

Clathrin cage. Image credits Maria Voigt / RCSB Protein Data Bank.

Clathrin cage.
Image credits Maria Voigt / RCSB Protein Data Bank.

These little babies are the cell’s forklifts — they’re cage-like structures made from the protein clathrin around small membrane sacs. They bring molecules into the cell and transport them from place to place as they’re being used. They’re also responsible for sorting through all the cargo, making sure each substance is taken where it’s needed. Certain toxins and germs can hijack these cages to attack cells.

When not carrying stuff or acting like unwilling trojan horses, the cages break up — each building block of the cage is a triskelion, a pattern of three bent legs (dark blue) joined together with three short rods (light blue.)

This digital illustration was created using scientific data about the sequence, shape, size and fit of these building blocks and how they assemble into cages. Cages can form in different sizes, usually less than 200 nanometres (0.0002 mm) across. This particular cage is approximately 50 nanometres (0.00005 mm) across.

 

 

The world’s tiniest game of Pac-Man is both awesome and educational

Studying microorganisms is hard work — and sometimes it can get a bit dull. To stave off the tedium of a day’s work in the lab, researchers from the Univeristy College of Southeast Norway now rely on watching games of Pac-Man, with a twist: the team re-created the iconic maze in tiny proportions to better understand the predator and prey behaviours of protozoans and rotifers.

Led by Professor Erik Andrew Johannessen of the Institute of Micro and Nano System Technology, a team of Norwegian scientists created the “Mikroskopisk Pacman” project, a nano-structure maze of under one millimeter in diameter. The role of Pac-Man is assumed by protozoans euglena and ciliate, with pseudocoelomate (in this case rotifers) acting as the Ghosts. While undeniably awesome, the project wasn’t put together for its fun factor alone, the team reports.

The maze forms a 3D environment that allows microorganisms to interact more naturally than the artificial medium of a 2D petri dish. The tiny canals inside the maze also resemble the structures these creatures navigate to in the wild.

To make it more accessible to the public, film director Adam Bartley lyslagt was brought in to create the Pac-Man themed map and film the “gameplay” between euglena and rotifers. Using micro scenography, Iyslagt captured the video above. The little creatures can be seen darting around for dear life — or a tasty meal.

The team behind the project says that it not only helped with their research but also with relaying their findings in a way people can understand better and are more engaged with, raising awareness of science. I’d say they hit the nail on the head here — I’m definitely engaged and aware.

We can also look forward to a sequel. The team said they’re focusing on creating more Pac-Man style levels in future projects, as well experiments based on other games.

I’m gonna need a smaller controller.

 

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Scientists make the smallest thermometer from programmable DNA

Around the time DNA was first discovered more than 60 years ago, scientists also found these miraculous molecules that hold the blueprint of life can unfold when heated. Now, a team at the University of Montreal used DNA switches to build a thermometer that is 20,000 times smaller than a strand of human hair. This remarkable research could open the doors for biological thermometers at the nanoscale which might tell us a thing or two about how our bodies function at the smallest level.

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Credit: Pixabay

Previously, scientists found that RNA and DNA act like the body’s nanothermometers triggering biological processes by folding and unfolding in the presence of temperature. This way, they act like molecular switches.

Prof. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle and colleagues devised their own DNA nanoswitches using the molecule’s simple chemistry to program them.

“Inspired by those natural nanothermometers, which are typically 20,000x smaller than a human hair, we have created various DNA structures that can fold and unfold at specifically defined temperatures,” Prof. Vallée-Bélisle said.

“DNA is made from four different monomer molecules called nucleotides: nucleotide A binds weakly to nucleotide T, whereas nucleotide C binds strongly to nucleotide G,” explains David Gareau, first author of the study published in the journal Nano Letters.

“Using these simple design rules we are able to create DNA structures that fold and unfold at a specifically desired temperature.”

“By adding optical reporters to these DNA structures, we can therefore create 5 nm-wide thermometers that produce an easily detectable signal as a function of temperature,” adds Arnaud Desrosiers, co-author of this study.

The DNA thermoswitches offer a precise ultrasensitive response over a desired, small temperature interval (±0.05 °C). Using a combination of thermoswitches of different stabilities, the researchers made extended thermometers that respond linearly up to 50 °C in temperature range. This is more than enough considering the human body is maintained at a constant temperature of 37 °C. However, it’s very likely that there are large temperature variations at the nanoscale within each cell. Nano-sized machines, switches, sensors or motors have been developed by nature over the course of billions of years worth of evolution. Soon, scientists will be using these mechanisms to explore the slightest variations in the smallest parts of our bodies. This way, we’ll learn how these small blocks work together to build a large structure — and also what happens when it comes crumbling down.