White-spotted sawyers can bite, but won’t if you don’t bug them
Forget gleaming metal droids — the robots of the future may have more in common with the average amphibian than with R2D2.
A team of scientists have found a way to not just program a living organism, but to build brand new life-forms from scratch using cells, creating what researchers are calling “xenobots.”
Tiny in size, but vast in potential, these millimetre-sized bots could potentially be programmed to help in medical procedures, ocean cleanup and investigating dangerous compounds, among other things.
“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” said researcher Joshua Bongard in a news release. “It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
In the introduction for the research published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) on Monday, researchers point out that the traditional building blocks we’ve used for robots and tech — steel, plastic, chemicals, etc. — all “degrade over time and can produce harmful ecological and health side-effects.”
After realizing that the best “self-renewing and biocompatible materials” would be “living systems themselves,” researchers decided to create a method “that designs completely biological machines from the ground up.”
The bots are made out of stem cells taken from frog embryos — specifically, an African clawed frog called “xenopus laevis,” which supplied the inspiration for the name “xenobot.” To design the xenobots, the possible configurations of different cells were first modeled on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont.
The designs then went to Tufts University, where the embryonic cells were collected and separated to develop into more specialized cells. Then, like sculptors (if sculptors used microsurgery forceps and electrodes), biologists manually shaped the cells into clumps that matched the computer designs.
Different structures were sketched out by the computer in accordance with the scientists’ goal for each xenobot.
For example, one xenobot was designed to be able to move purposely in a specific direction. To achieve this, researchers put cardiac cells on the bottom of the xenobot. These cells naturally contract and expand on their own, meaning that they could serve as the xenobots’ engine, or legs, and help move the rest of the organism, which was built out of more static skin cells.
In order to test if the living robots were truly moving the way they were designed to, and not just randomly, researchers performed a test that has stumped many a living creature.
They flipped the robot on its back. And just like a capsized turtle, it could no longer move.
When researchers created further designs for the bots, they found that they could design them to push microscopic objects, and even carry objects through a pouch.
“It’s a step toward using computer-designed organisms for intelligent drug delivery,” says Bongard.
The possible uses for these tiny robots are numerous, researchers say.
“In biomedical settings, one could envision such biobots (made from the patient’s own cells) removing plaque from artery walls, identifying cancer, or settling down to differentiate or control events in locations of disease,” the research paper suggests.
A robot made out of metal or steel generally has to be repaired by human hands if it sustains damage. One major benefit that researchers found of creating these robots out of living cells was how they reacted to physical damage.
A video taken by the researchers showed that when one of their organisms was cut almost in half by metal tweezers, the two sides of the wound simply stitched itself back together.
These living robots, researchers realized, could repair themselves automatically, “something you can’t do with typical machines,” Bongard said.
Because they are living cells, they are also naturally biodegradable, Bongard pointed out. Once they’ve fulfilled their purpose, “they’re just dead skin cells,” making them even more optimal for usage in medical or environmental research.
Although scientists have been increasingly manipulating genetics and biology, this is the first time that a programmable organism has been created from scratch, researchers say.
This new research takes scientists a step closer to answering just how different cells work together to execute all of the complex processes that occur every day in animals and humans.
“The big question in biology is to understand the algorithms that determine form and function,” said co-leader Michael Levin in the press release. He directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts.
“What actually determines the anatomy towards which cells co-operate?” he asked. “You look at the cells we’ve been building our xenobots with, and, genomically, they’re frogs. It’s 100 per cent frog DNA — but these are not frogs. Then you ask, well, what else are these cells capable of building? As we’ve shown, these frog cells can be coaxed to make interesting living forms that are completely different from what their default anatomy would be.”
Of course, a biological organism created and programmed by humans which is capable of healing itself might sound a little alarming. After all, one of the sponsors of the research is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is affiliated with the U.S. military.
Researchers acknowledged in the press release that the implications around such technological and biological advancements can be worrying at times.
“That fear is not unreasonable,” Levin said. However, he believes that in order to move forward with science, we should not hold back from complex questions. “This study is a direct contribution to getting a handle on what people are afraid of, which is unintended consequences.
“I think it’s an absolute necessity for society going forward to get a better handle on systems where the outcome is very complex,” Levin says. “A first step towards doing that is to explore: how do living systems decide what an overall behavior should be and how do we manipulate the pieces to get the behaviors we want?”
Beetle abundance attributed to forest fires – The Sudbury Star
Beetle-mania seems to be gripping Sudbury lately as numerous black bugs with hard wings and long antennae make their presence known — and occasionally felt.
These insects — casually referred to as pine or longhorned beetles, but properly known as white-spotted sawyers — are capable of delivering a nip, although it’s not really their nature to go looking for a fight, according to a forest entomologist.
“It’s not that they are aggressive and attacking people,” says Taylor Scarr, research director of integrated pest management with the Great Lakes Forestry Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.
“If you are a beetle on the side of a tree and a bird comes along to pick you off, the natural defence is to try to hold on with your feet and those strong mandibles,” he says. “So if you pick one up like a bird tries to pick them up, they grab your skin because that’s what they’re on, and to them they are on the trunk of a tree.”
Scarr says the beetles, distinguished by a white spot at the back of their necks, are native to Ontario and appear every year, but may be more conspicuous in Sudbury right now because of events that occurred a couple of years ago.
“Adults lay their eggs under the bark of recently dead or dying trees, and the grubs tunnel in there and come out two years afterwards,” he said. “So what we’re seeing now in the Sudbury area, I think, is all the beetles that have come out of trees that were killed in the Temagami and Parry Sound fires two years ago.”
He says beetles can travel a couple hundred kilometres to find a new food source, and those that emerged from the burnt-over areas would be quite plentiful, as the fires created a lot of good beetle habitat.
Sudburians might also be more aware of the beetles this year simply because “people are at home more” due to COVID-19, he suggests. “So they are seeing more.”
The adult beetles are about three-quarters of an inch long, sometimes as long as an inch, with antennae that can be three times as long as their bodies.
At this time of year the adults would be mating and dining on the bark of twigs in preparation for egg-laying.
“Before they lay their eggs, they do what is called maturation feeding, so they feed on the twigs of conifer trees,” says Scarr. “They need to feed on live twigs to mature the eggs.”
The bugs are awkward flyers, he notes, as they have two sets of wings. “They have hard wings that cover the abdomen and underneath that are the membraneous wings they actually fly with, so for that beetle to fly they have to lift the hard wings,” he says. “They’re cumbersome and it takes a lot of energy to fly, but they can certainly do it.”
Females have a more mottled appearance than the males, but “both have a single white spot at the base of the hard wings on the back, behind the head.”
People will sometimes confuse a female sawyer with an invasive Asian beetle, says Scarr, as both have long antennae and speckled backs, but the invader is “a bigger, more robust insect, with white markings that are much sharper.”
In China, the Asian beetle is sometimes called a “starry sky beetle,” he says, for its constellation of white spots.
Scarr says the intruder can hitchhike on wooden pallets and has been documented twice in Ontario — in the Toronto/Vaughn area in 2003, and a decade later in the Toronto/Mississauga area — but in both cases the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched an aggressive eradication program and just last week announced that this strategy has proven successful.
Ontarians are still urged to keep an eye out for the foreign critters, however, as they can wreak much more havoc on local tree species.
“It’s a very serious pest because it likes hardwoods, and unlike the white-spotted sawyer beetle, it can attack and kill healthy trees,” says Scarr. “It has a real preference for maples, so if it were to get out and spread, it would devastate not only the hardwood industry but the maple syrup industry.”
Examples of the invasive beetle have been found recently in South Carolina, and it’s taken root in a few other U.S. states, as well as Europe, he notes.
Our homegrown sawyer beetle, meanwhile, is feared in Europe and Asia, as it carries a parasitic worm that can cause a wilt disease in their trees.
Here in Ontario, however, the sawyer doesn’t pose a big problem, although crews working in wildfire zones are not too keen on them. “They can drop down your shirt or coveralls while fighting a forest fire and be quite a nuisance,” notes Scarr.
In rare cases, they can also create an unpleasant shock for a homeowner who utilized air-dried lumber to frame their building.
“If the wood isn’t kiln-treated, sometimes the grubs will survive,” says Scarr. “I’ve had five or six reports where, three to four years after someone built their home, they had the beetles come out through the drywall.”
They can also be a problem at times for lumber companies if they infest trees intended for sawmills.
For the most part, though, the beetles are simply going about their business in the bush, contributing to regeneration by hastening the decomposition process.
“If a forest fire kills the trees, they can’t stand up forever and occupy the site,” says Scarr. “So the beetles come in and start to chew on the trees; fungi and other insects invade them; and eventually they rot and fall down and get replaced by something else.”
They also provide food to birds and other critters. Pileated woodpeckers, especially, seem to have a good nose — or more to the point, ear — for the grubs.
“They can hear them when they are inside a tree, just like we can, making a chewing noise,” the forest pest expert says.
The species in fact got its name for the grinding racket its teeth can make, like that of a saw passing through wood. (Sawyer, by the way, is pronounced like Tom Sawyer, the famous Mark Twain character.)
While many find the wood borers unappealing, Scarr encourages residents to try to “ignore them,” or at least tolerate them, as it won’t be long before they are done their mating and egg laying, at which point the adults begin to die off.
“You usually seem them around this time, in June and early July, but later in the summer you might just see the odd one,” he says.
In the meantime, “they don’t harm anything,” he says. “They’re just a natural part of the ecosystem.”
Anyone who has experienced the sensation of mandibles on skin may, of course, protest that “harm” is indeed something that can be inflicted by a sawyer beetle.
But even this isn’t apt to happen too often, Scarr maintains.
“I’ve handled lots and I have never been bitten,” he says. “You just have to grab them behind the head.”
New cadence : Going viral: Why Canadian sparrows have changed their tune – RTL Today
Members of a Canadian sparrow species famous for their jaunty signature song are changing their tune, a curious example of a “viral phenomenon” in the animal kingdom, a study showed Thursday.
Bird enthusiasts first recorded the white-throated sparrow’s original song, with its distinctive triplet hook, in the 1950s.
Canadians even invented lyrics to accompany the ditty: “Oh my sweet, Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da.”
But starting from the late 20th century, biologists began noticing that members of the species in western Canada were innovating.
Instead of a triplet, the new song ended in a doublet and a new syncopation pattern. The new ending sounded like “Ca-na, Ca-na, Ca-na.”
Over the course of the next two decades, this new cadence became a big hit, moving eastward and conquering Alberta, then Ontario. It began entering Quebec last year.
It’s now the dominant version across more than 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) of territory, in an extremely rare example of the total replacement of historic bird dialect by another.
Scientist Ken Otter at the University of Northern British Columbia, and his colleague Scott Ramsay from Wilfrid Laurier University, described the dizzying pace of this transformation in the journal Current Biology.
“What we’re seeing is like somebody moving from Quebec to Paris, and all the people around them saying, ‘Wow, that’s a cool accent’ and start adopting a Quebec accent,” Otter told AFP.
Their work was based on 1,785 recordings between 2000 and 2019, the majority made by them but with contributions from citizen-scientists, who posted the files on specialist sites like xeno-canto.org.
In the western province of Alberta, about half of the recorded songs ended with the triplet in 2004; ten years later, all the males had adopted the doublet.
In 2015, half of western Canada had converted to the doublet version, and by last year, the new song had been well established on the western tip of eastern Quebec province.
At this rate, the historic triplet version may soon exist only in tape recordings.
– Bird influencers –
The males of the species sing to mark their territory, and their songs all share a common structure. Usually, if a variation appears, it remains regional and doesn’t make headway in neighboring territories.
The study represents the first time scientists have been able to show this kind spread at huge geographic scale, said Otter.
So how did it happen?
Probably in the same way that children return from summer camp humming new tunes: songbirds from different parts of Canada winter in the same parts of the United States, then return to their own homes in spring.
The researchers verified this theory by tagging a few of the birds.
So it was that in the plains of Texas and Kansas, the new song’s first adopters from western Canada — avian influencers, if you will — popularized the trend among their eastern brethren.
Previous work has shown that young birds can pick up a foreign song after listening to a recording.
But to truly understand why the males were willing to abandon the old song that had once served them well, the scientists have to rely on theories.
Otter believes it may be because females were more attracted to the new song, so young males rushed to adopt it.
“There seems to be some advantage to adding novel elements into your song that make the song, not necessarily more attractive, but increases people’s attention to it,” said Otter.
Going back to the human example, it would be akin to “if all the French women in Paris thought that a Quebec accent sounded much more interesting than a Parisian accent, and so everybody starts adopting a Quebec accent.”
The hypothesis remains unverified.
Longhorn beetles spotted around Greater Sudbury – CBC.ca
With summer officially underway in the region, you’re likely spending more time outside. But with that extra time outdoors, you’re likely to be sharing it with a few insects.
Recently in Sudbury, large bugs have been spotted in people’s yards. In particular, a black bug about the length of a toonie with long legs and a large antennae has been seen by many.
That bug is actually a long-horn beetle, according to entomologist and coordinator for Earthcare Sudbury Initiatives with the City of Greater Sudbury, Jennifer Babin-Fenske.
“We do have several species of them,” she said. “Some are brown, some are black and some have different white markings.”
Babin-Fenske says that beetle is considered a “sun-loving” insect.”
“The females will lay their eggs on really hot summer days,” she said.
She adds they not only like the heat, but they’re also attracted to weakened or dead trees.
“They lay their eggs in the tree and then the larva eat their way around the wood,” she said.
“But they can be in there for about two years. Then when they emerge as adults, they still have the whole summer to kind of be adults. The life cycle for the adults is usually July and August.”
But why is the antennae on the bug so big? Babin-Fenske says that has to do with finding a mate.
“For a lot of males, the antennae are longer,” she said. “For a lot of insects, the antennae for males helps them sense the pheromones of the females.”
Babin-Fenske adds the insects have “huge jaws” to chew through wood.
“They can give a bit of a bite,” she cautioned. “But if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
MCCARTHY: DeChambeau wins golf tournament, loses personality contest – Toronto Sun
Sony factory assembles PS4 in 30 seconds, only four humans involved in process – TechSpot
US$1 trillion Asset Owner Platform launches solution for identifying SDG-investments – Canada NewsWire
Silver investment demand jumped 12% in 2019 – report – MINING.com
Iran anticipates renewed protests amid social media shutdown
Richmond BBQ spot speaks out about coronavirus rumours Vancouver Is Awesome
- Economy22 hours ago
World Economy That Took Elevator Down Faces Steep Stairs Back Up – Yahoo Canada Finance
- Media9 hours ago
Kamloops RCMP officer’s ‘black face’ social media posts under review
- Tech19 hours ago
Another COVID-19 case confirmed in Sarnia-Lambton – Sarnia Observer
- Real eState23 hours ago
LACKIE: Pandemic real estate hit costing city dearly – Toronto Sun
- Tech22 hours ago
Two top Ubisoft execs leave during sexual harassment probe – CTV News
- Media21 hours ago
Media Advisory – Prime Minister's itinerary for Sunday, July 5, 2020 – Benzinga
- Economy18 hours ago
World Economy That Took Elevator Down Faces Steep Stairs Back Up – BNN
- Economy20 hours ago
Canada should focus on boosting the economy even as debt climbs: analysts – Reuters