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Talk nerdy to me

Join us for some nerdy talk about living robots, thriving wildlife, and aging gracefully.

The robot revolution

The next phase of the robot revolution has begun. We tried to tell ourselves it could never really happen, but alas it has. Scientists have built the world’s first living robots.

An evolutionary algorithm generates random configurations of skin and heart cells and iterates the successes to find the best design. Scientists then created tiny lifeforms from frog embryos based on these designs. Courtesy Sam Kriegman.

Researchers at the University of Vermont and Tufts University have used cells from African clawed frogs to make tiny moving robots. Michael Levin, director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, says the robots are new lifeforms that have “never before existed on Earth.” 

The researchers used a supercomputer and an “evolutionary algorithm” to design the less than 1mm-long robots. The program firsts generates random 3D configurations of 500 to 1,000 skin and heart cells. The designs are then tested in a virtual environment. Top performers go on to create new designs.

The scientists scraped early-stage skin and heart cells from frog embryos. They then used tweezers and cauterizing tools to sculpt the cells. Let loose in dishes of water, the robots crawled in straight lines or joined up with their neighbors to move around.

Sam Kriegman, a Ph.D. student on the University of Vermont team believes the work raises ethical issues. Future versions of the robots might have nervous systems and the potential for cognitive capability. Policymakers and the public may soon need to make decisions about how to treat these hybrid beings.

The bricks are alive

What if buildings could detect and respond to toxins in the air? That’s one possible application for a living concrete developed by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB). A team led by Wil Srubar, head of UCB’s Living Materials Laboratory, combined sand and bacteria to create a material with both biological function and load-bearing capacity.

<strong>Living concrete.</strong> Green photosynthetic cyanobacteria growing and mineralizing in a sand-hydrogel framework. Bricks made from the low-resource material could be used in deserts or on other planets. Courtesy College of Engineering and Applied Science at Colorado University Boulder. The researchers first created a scaffold out of sand and a hydrogel. The hydrogel provides moisture and nutrients for the bacteria to proliferate and mineralize. Seashells in the ocean form in a similar way.

But by splitting the hydrogel brick in half, it reproduces. With the addition of extra sand and nutrients the halves can grow into two complete bricks. After three generations, one parent brick can reproduce up to eight bricks.

This living material offers a sustainable alternative to traditional concrete which is produced from cement. Cement production is responsible for six percent of CO2 emissions. And once created, concrete releases additional CO2. Even more exciting, the reproducing material could be used to build structures in places where resources are limited, such as the desert—or Mars.

Fewer humans equal more wildlife

In March of 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. It was the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986. 154,000 residents were evacuated from areas surrounding the plant due to rising levels of radiation.

People move out, animals move in. Nearly a decade after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, researchers captured abundant footage of wildlife in zones without human habitation. Courtesy University of Georgia.

But what about area wildlife? Researchers at the University of Georgia Athens (UGA) have found wild boar, Japanese hare, macaques, and other animals roaming in these areas with little or no human presence.

The researchers placed 106 cameras in three zones surrounding the plant: human excluded, human restricted, and human-inhabited. The cameras captured images of animals for 120 days. Over 46,000 images of wild boars were captured.

More than half the images were recorded in the uninhabited zone. Only 13,000 boar images were snapped in the zone where humans were allowed but restricted. 7,000 of the animals were photographed in the human-inhabited zone. Other species were also seen in higher numbers in zones with few or no humans.

James Beasley, a wildlife biologist at UGA, said that the study’s results show that species abundance had more to do with human activity, and factors like habitat and landscape attributes. Should we be offended that wildlife is more likely to avoid humans than radiation?

What’s your ageotype?

You’ve likely heard the story of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León and his search for the Fountain of Youth. If such a spring existed, there would be no need for researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine to study the human aging process.

<strong>Target your ageotype.</strong> New research reveals that most aging unfolds at different rates in different tissues. Most people fall into four distinct categories depending on which biology systems age fastest: metabolic, immune, hepatic, and nephrotic. The team of researchers led by Michael Snyder wanted to learn why individuals age at such drastically different rates. They profiled 43 healthy men and women aged 34-68 and measured their molecular biology at least five times over two years. The researchers used blood and other samples to track molecules such as proteins, metabolites, and lipids to see how the levels changed over time.

They found that people generally age along four pathways: metabolic, immune, hepatic (liver), and nephrotic (kidney). They found about ten molecules that differed significantly between the groups.

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