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world’s first living, self-healing robots

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Named xenobots after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which they take their stem cells, the machines are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide — small enough to travel inside human bodies. They can walk and swim, survive for weeks without food, and work together in groups.
These are “entirely new life-forms,” said the University of Vermont, which conducted the research with Tufts University.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types. The researchers scraped living stem cells from frog embryos, and left them to incubate. Then, the cells were cut and reshaped into specific “body forms” designed by a supercomputer — forms “never seen in nature,” according to a news release from the University of Vermont.
A xenobot with large hind limbs and smaller forelimbs, layered with red heart muscle.
The cells then began to work on their own — skin cells bonded to form structure, while pulsing heart muscle cells allowed the robot to move on its own. Xenobots even have self-healing capabilities; when the scientists sliced into one robot, it healed by itself and kept moving.
“These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, one of the lead researchers at the University of Vermont, in the news release. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
Xenobots don’t look like traditional robots — they have no shiny gears or robotic arms. Instead, they look more like a tiny blob of moving pink flesh. The researchers say this is deliberate — this “biological machine” can achieve things typical robots of steel and plastic cannot.
Some xenobots had holes in their center -- which could potentially be used to transport drugs or medicines.Some xenobots had holes in their center -- which could potentially be used to transport drugs or medicines.
Traditional robots “degrade over time and can produce harmful ecological and health side effects,” researchers said in the study, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As biological machines, xenobots are more environmentally friendly and safer for human health, the study said.
The xenobots could potentially be used toward a host of tasks, according to the study, which was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use.
Xenobots could be used to clean up radioactive waste, collect microplastics in the oceans, carry medicine inside human bodies, or even travel into our arteries to scrape out plaque. The xenobots can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks — making them suitable for internal drug delivery.
Aside from these immediate practical tasks, the xenobots could also help researchers to learn more about cell biology — opening the doors to future advancement in human health and longevity.
“If we could make 3D biological form on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumors into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging,” said the researchers’ website. This research could have “a massive impact on regenerative medicine (building body parts and inducing regeneration.)”
It may all sound like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie, but the researchers say there is no need for alarm.
The organisms come pre-loaded with their own food source of lipid and protein deposits, allowing them to live for a little over a week — but they can’t reproduce or evolve. However, their lifespan can increase to several weeks in nutrient-rich environments.
And although the supercomputer — a powerful piece of artificial intelligence — plays a big role in building these robots, it’s “unlikely” that the AI could have evil intentions.
“At the moment though it is difficult to see how an AI could create harmful organisms any easier than a talented biologist with bad intentions could,” said the researchers’ website.

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Fastest-Growing Black Hole as Big as 34 Billion Suns – Nerdist

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The fastest-growing black hole ever observed has been given an approximate weight, and it tips the scale at 34 billion times the mass of the Sun. The researchers who’ve estimated its weight also say it continues to grow, devouring a Sun’s worth of matter per day. On top of claiming those mondo stats, the gorging monster may also help to unlock some key mysteries of the early universe.

European Southern Observatory 

The “ultramassive black hole” (that’s literally a class of black hole), dubbed J2157-3602, was discovered in 2018 and given an initial weight of 20 billion solar masses—a solar mass is a unit of mass equivalent to the mass of the Sun. Since then, researchers have gone back and taken new measurements using the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. (Pictured immediately below.)

J2157 is “about 8,000 times bigger than the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way,” astronomer Christopher Onken of Australian National University told Science Alert. He added that “If the Milky Way’s black hole wanted to grow that fat, it would have to swallow two thirds of all the stars in our galaxy.”

The fastest-growing black hole in the universe has been pegged at 34 billion solar masses.

ESO/H.H. Heyer

Onken and others described these new measurements in a paper recently published in the journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical SocietyIn the paper, which comes via ZME Science, the researchers say that the ultramassive black hole is, on top of being gargantuan, also the most luminous quasar in the known universe. A quasar—pictured at top—is essentially a black hole that’s actively pulling in gas and dust from a surrounding accretion disk. In other words, a “feeding” black hole.

Although J2157 is huge beyond imagination, it isn’t the most massive black hole we’ve ever observed. That title belongs to an ultramassive black hole powering the quasar known as TON 618, which is about 10.4 billion light-years away from Earth. That indescribably large light-swallowing beast weighs in at 66 billion solar masses. Below, for visual reference, is a comparison of all the differently sized black holes.

Like TON 618, J2157 is also astoundingly far from Earth. According to Science Alert, J2157 is some billions of light-years away. However, the measurement isn’t as exact as that for TON 618. J2157 can still help to illuminate the very early universe, however, when it was younger than 1 billion years old. Especially when it comes to gleaning information about the galaxy in which it resides.

[embedded content]

“Is this galaxy one of the behemoths of the early Universe, or did the black hole just swallow up an extraordinary amount of its surroundings?” Onken asked rhetorically. Depending on the answer to that question, cosmological models explaining how the universe has grown over time could be altered. Right now, astronomers are still just trying to figure out how black holes can grow to be as massive as J2157 so early on in the universe’s existence.

What do you think about J2157 and its ability to swallow a Sun’s worth of mass every single day? Do you have any ideas as to how the ultramassive hole will change our understanding of the early universe? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: European Southern Observatory 

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'Very little risk' that pets can infect owners with COVID-19: WHO – Edmonton Sun

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GENEVA — There is ‘very little risk’ that pets can infect their owners with COVID-19, the chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, told a Geneva news conference that felines, ferrets and “even tigers” have been infected with the disease.

“There is very little risk from domestic animals because there was some concern about domestic animals becoming a source of infection,” she said.

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Canadian sparrows changing their tune – Bangkok Post

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The white-throated sparrow of North America, whose singing preferences are the subject of a new study.

WASHINGTON: 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.

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