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This week we’re burying our head—not in the sand, but underwater. It’s a glorious place filled with calm robotic turtles, radioactive sharks, cancer-stopping sponges, and an AI sea captain.

Robo-turtles to the rescue

Thanks to supermarket scarcity and recipes for ‘pantry-cooking,' canned fish sales have surged. The salmon that ends up in these cans is often farmed in sea cages that hold up to 200,000 fish at a time.

Turtle-shaped robots can swim calmly amonst farmed salmon to monitor their health without upsetting the fish. Courtesy Maarja Kruusmaa.

Human divers and underwater vehicles monitor those cages, checking for structural damage, cleanliness, and parasites (fish get lice—who knew?). But those intruders upset the fish, leading to increased disease and poorer harvests.

The solution? Robotic turtles that swim through the cages and film the habitat. Originally designed to investigate shipwrecks, the robot’s small size and slow movements don’t stress the fish.

Radioactive whale sharks

Moving on to bigger fish, a whale shark can weigh up to 40 tons and may live as long as 50 years. But because their bodies don’t have the bony structures that scientists use to determine the age of other fish, it’s hard to know exactly how old they are.

<strong>Cold war nuclear testing</strong> left radioactive traces that may help determine the age of long-lived whale sharks. Courtesy NOAA.But now scientists at Rutgers University have figured out a new way to determine the age of a whale shark. Nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War temporarily doubled the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. This radioactive element was released by nuclear explosions and saturated the air and oceans in the 1950s and 60s. 

By testing carbon-14 levels in whale shark vertebrae, biologists were able to find out how old they were when they died. Understanding the whale shark’s longevity and slow growth rates sheds light on the species’ high susceptibility to deaths by human impacts, such as collisions with ships.

The healing power of nature

Fish aren’t the only creatures in the sea. Sponges have been inhabiting Earth’s oceans for at least 600 million years, but they still hold a few surprises.

<strong>Cancer crusher.</strong> Molecules from Indo-Pacific sponges have been found effective in stopping the growth of cervical cancer cells, without harming normal cells. Courtesy Samuel Chow. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/?ref=ccsearch'>(CC BY-NC 2.0)</a>A particular sponge (Acanthostronglyophora ingensfound near Indonesia makes a molecule that can stop the growth of cervical cancer cells. While HPV vaccination has decreased the number of cervical cancer deaths, it is still the fourth most common cancer in women. 

The sponge’s molecule, known as manzamine A, stopped cervical cancer cells from growing but didn’t affect noncancerous cells. The same molecule has also been effective against the parasite responsible for malaria.

Researcher Mark T. Hamann of the Medical University of South Carolina points out that natural products have led to the development of most of our antibiotics and anti-cancer therapies. It’s for this reason, he explains, that maintaining species diversity is vital, even in the face of climate change.

Take humans out of the picture – it’s probably for the best

You’ve probably heard about driverless cars, but what about driverless boats? At least two companies are building autonomous ships for long-distance routes. 

A robotic AI Captain will pilot the Mayflower Autonomous Ship when it recreates the 1620 voyage of the original Mayflower from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Courtesy IBM News.

A fleet of 15 full-size unmanned ships will begin mapping undersea terrain and telecommunications infrastructure by the end of this year. Designed to work in pairs, this Armada, as it’s known, will be able to cover designated areas more quickly than solo crewed ships normally do. While relying on pre-programmed mission plans, humans will still oversee these voyages from land-based control centers.  

But the Mayflower Autonmous Ship (MAS) will be truly going it alone. This 49-foot-long trimaran will retrace the 1620 voyage of the original Mayflower from England to Massachusetts. Powered by solar energy, diesel fuel, and sails, this completely uncrewed ship will rely solely on an artificially intelligent robotic captain.   

You know we had to mention coronavirus at least once 

By now, you’ve seen the ominous red-spiked ball that represents the COVID-19 virus. But did you ever wonder where it came from?

<strong>Grabbing the public’s attention.</strong> Medical illustrator Alissa Eckert created the familiar 'beauty shot' of the coronavirus, now seen around the world. Courtesy Alissa Eckert/CDC.  According to the New York Times, artist Alissa Eckert had the job of bringing the microscopic particle into view. A medical illustrator for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), she has previously depicted birth defects and the bacteria that causes gonorrhea.

Her close-up ‘beauty shot’ of the novel coronavirus developed from consultation with scientists and a data bank of protein structures. Once she settled on a structure, visualization software allowed her to test different colors, textures, and lighting.

Illustrating unseen pathogens helps to grab the public’s attention. But as the pandemic has spread, so has Eckert’s illustration. Like the virus itself, the image is no longer confined to one spot but has spread into the wider world, popping up in knitting projects and cookie designs.

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