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Talk nerdy to me

This week we explore the miracle of your microbiome, one million microscopic robots, the mental magic of a body swap, tech solutions to road rage, and new information about how the Earth came to have so much water.

Moving microscopic materials

<strong>No bigger than a paramecium.</strong> These microscopic robots walk on legs connected to solar cells on their backs that bend in response to laser light. Courtesy Miskin, et al. Microscopic robots could one day deliver drugs to specific body parts or fix delicate electronic devices, but right now they’re not very good at moving around. That’s because the actuators needed to move their tiny legs are hard to mass-produce. But a recent development from a team at Cornell University may have solved that problem. 

The scientists have discovered a way to create micro-meter scale actuators out of very thin platinum. Solar cells on the robots react to laser light and transfer this energy to the legs, which are then able to move the robot where it needs to go. The team was able to produce more than one million microbots and are now developing the capabilities for them to work as a swarm. 

Little helpers

<strong>Getting the gut right. </strong>The bacteria, fungi, and viruses that make up our gut microbiome may hold the key to more successful treatments for some kinds of cancer. Courtesy National Institutes of Health/NHGRI.Speaking of the microscopic scale, when was the last time you thought about your microbiome? You know, all those tiny bacteria, fungi, and viruses living on or inside your body. You may not enjoy contemplating their abundance, but the genes of your microbiome outnumber your own genes 200:1. What’s more, scientists are now pretty sure these little helpers play a role in attacking cancerous tumors.

Researchers from the University of Calgary have discovered that some kinds of gut bacteria can help your body fight off cancer. They found that combining immunotherapy with specific beneficial bacteria increased the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells in some kinds of melanoma, bladder, and colorectal cancers. Without the bacteria, the immunotherapy had no effect on the cancers. 

Where water comes from

There are 326 quintrillion gallons of water on Earth, making up 70% of our planet’s exposed surface. Even our own bodies are about 60% water, and we need to drink about three quarts of the wet stuff each day. But where did all this water come from?

<strong>Our planet is over 70% water</strong>, but where did it all come from? Examination of a rare type of meteorite suggests the H2O has been here all along.For a long time scientists thought that asteroids and comets from much farther away deposited water here after the Earth was formed. However, new research from France’s Centre de Recherches Pétrographiques et Géochimiques suggests that our water may have come from the same stuff Earth is made of.  

A rare type of meteorite, known as enstatite chondrites, is made of materials similar to those present in the early Earth. And though these meteorites appear ‘dry,' they contain enough hydrogen to create the water in Earth’s oceans three times over.

Stay calm and drive on

Autonomous vehicles are coming, but no one’s quite sure how long it will be before they take over our highways. Until then, humans will be pushing pedals and turning wheels—and cursing out other drivers. 

<strong>How tightly are you gripping that wheel? </strong>New technologies could make driving safer by intervening when we get stressed out. Driving is stressful, but some autonomous systems may be able to help us stay calm until fully self-driving cars arrive. These technologies include an AI that intervenes when it senses road rage coming on, a dashboard clock that counts down the seconds until a red light turns green, and guided breathing exercises that coincide with a vibrating seatback.

However, some researchers caution that technological fixes like these may just distract from having necessary conversations about urban planning, mass transit, and growing inequality.

Freaky Friday with a friend  

If the classic body-swapping film Freaky Friday teaches us anything, it’s that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you understand their perspective. It also suggests we should put some research into the power of fortune cookies, but that’s a different story.

<strong>Change your perspective.</strong> When friends swapped bodies in a perceptual illusion, participants beliefs about their own personalities were altered. This ability to influence self-perception could someday lead to new treatments for depression. Along the line of personal perspective, researchers from the Brain, Body, and Self Laboratory have published work that shows how personal beliefs can change via a simple swap in perspective.

Pairs of friends wore goggles that transmitted their own view to the other person while displaying their partner’s view. The illusion was so effective that when the friend’s body was threatened with a knife, the viewing participant broke into a sweat as if they had been threatened. 

After a brief period of body-swapping, the pairs of friends generally rated their own personality type as more similar to their friend’s. The findings of this study hold promise for treating disorders like depression. By swapping the view with someone they feel positive about, these individuals may be able to alter or release rigid and negative self-beliefs.

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