Scientists discover way to fight drug-resistant bacteria using light

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have found a new way to fight drug-resistant bacteria using light-activated nanoparticles.

Bacterial infections are usually treated easily with antibiotics, but some bacteria, known as “superbugs,” can adapt to survive the efforts of drugs like penicillin. According to the CDC, superbugs affect around 2 million people and kill around 23,000 people in the United States every year. The problem is that with each new form of antibiotic that is developed, bacteria quickly adapt to be able to survive whatever new attack is thrown at them.

Researches have now begun to utilize extremely small particles (22,000 times smaller than a human hair) to target and kill infected cells. Previous research has shown some success with using nanoparticles to fight infections, but relied on particles made from metals, which kill all cells rather than just those infected. This new approach uses semiconductor-like particles, which are only activated when exposed to light, making them able to target and kill individual cells. The light-activation property of these particles also allows scientists to tinker with their function and stay one step ahead of bacteria. In short, these nanoparticles are promising because they don’t kill healthy cells and they can adapt just as quickly as the bacteria they are fighting: two things which can’t be said of traditional antibiotics. And these nanoparticles are proving effective, killing 92 percent of drug-resistant bacteria in a lab-grown culture.

Antibiotics are not only baseline treatment for infections like Staphylococcus, E. Coli, and Salmonella, but are also used to treat HIV and cancer, which makes clear how consequential these findings could be.

Man-Made Meteor Showers May Happen by 2020

shutterstock_253324477With Tokyo, Japan set to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the race to outdo previous hosting cities has already begun. The opening ceremony is set to make history not just for its caliber of athletes, but also through a project called Sky Canvas. The project is sponsored by the start-up company Star-ALE.

By recreating the makeup of a shooting star, the Japanese research company is creating pellets that are designed to be released from an orbiting satellite. The man made meteor shower should burn while entering the earth’s atmosphere, about 40 miles above the site of the Olympic games. The company has constructed these pyrotechnics to burn slower and longer than the typical shooting star, and have used materials in the pellets that create a plethora of colors.

While this may have you thinking fireworks will become a thing of the past, the hefty price tag may prove otherwise. To create the desired effect, the satellite will release hundreds of pellets, each of which cost about $8,100 in US dollars. The satellite itself along with launch equipment will also add to the expenses. So, if you were planning on purchasing a meteor shower for your 4th of July party, you may want to stick to sparklers.

Though the company claims the display is safe, others in the astronomical community fear for their own equipment, hoping the fake shower will not collide with other satellites in orbit. If the project does prove to be safe, there is potential for academic growth. The company hopes that along with entertaining spectators, they will also walk away with a vast amount of research covering topics like environmental changes, further space exploration, and meteor composition.

Microbots Inspired by Ants and Geckos

shutterstock_380496043A group of scientists at Stanford University just developed microbots, which they named μ Tugs, that are capable of moving incredibly heavy objects. For instance, 6 of the tiny bots were able to move an entire car. In order to pack strength and function into such a small robot, researchers looked to nature for inspiration. For strength, they studied ants, and for grip, they studied geckos.

Ants have the ability to move things, such as food, that significantly outweigh the ant’s body weight. Mechanical engineers working on the project produced a body that was similar to an ants, which allowed the μ Tugs to not be crushed by heavy objects. Then, the engineers encountered another problem, which was how to give the bots enough traction to do their jobs. Ants release a sticky substance from their foot pads, allowing them to find traction on the slipperiest surfaces. While this works for ants, creating a sticky substance for the bots would be messy, expensive, and impractical.

After ruling out the secretion of sticky gel, the team switched their focus to another animal with great grip: the gecko. Geckos have foot pads covered in microscopic hairs, and the pads of their feet spread apart with each step. The spreading creates a suction effect, and a small electrical force keeps the gecko connected to the wall its climbing. Physicists recreated a gecko like foot on the bots, by making small hairs out of silicone and using grooved rubber to create the foot pad. The resulting feet allow the bots to get a good grip on a surface, while also being able to release the suction with the help of their spring like legs.

The μ Tugs have truly incredible strength. At just over an inch long, half a dozen can tow wheeled vehicles, or carry up to 298 lbs. These specific bots outperformed many others that are also being developed. Their creators hope that the bots can aid rescuers in times of disaster by searching rubble and removing it, possibly saving lives. They also have the ability to open doors and open or close safety valves, which is an extremely useful trait in rescue situations.

New study shows dogs’ minds are more like humans’ than we thought

shutterstock_250345732It turns out that humans might not be that much smarter than our dogs. In a new study, researchers found that the cognitive structure of a dog’s brain might be similar to that of humans. The study tested 68 border collies on various intelligence tests and found that dogs that performed better on one test than other dogs tended to also do well on other tests. For example, a dog that was able to complete an obstacle course well also showed an ability to choose the larger of two food portions.

These findings correlate with the general human cognitive structure—meaning that if you are good at one, it usually correlates with being good at another similar activity. The study also showed that, essentially, some dogs were smarter than others and showed a range of intelligence, in the same way that children and adults show in the classroom and throughout life. This study could hold a promising future in being able to learn about human intelligence through studying the intelligence of dogs, such as findings of whether intelligence is related to life span or the effects of dementia on the brain.

However, this isn’t the first study that revealed that dogs may be smarter than we ever thought—previous tests showed that certain breeds were capable of deception as well as predicting the actions of others. Researchers are optimistic about the future of studies such as these and are looking to perform similar intelligence tests on other breeds. Maybe the phrase about dogs being a man’s best friend weren’t that far off after all….

FDA approves genetically modified chicken

shutterstock_179491004While genetically modified animals are usually looked at as being a bad thing, the United States government has just approved a type of genetically modified chicken that will supposedly improve the health of individuals.  These engineered chickens would make the drug Kanuma in their eggs, which is said to be a treatment for people with lysosomal acid lipase deficiency.  The rare condition prevents people’s bodies from breaking down fatty molecules inside cells but Kanuma works to replace this faulty enzyme.  The disease can be potentially fatal, especially when acquired by infants.

In order to collect the protein, researchers would have to purify the whites of the chickens’ egg.  This means the chicken would have the protein throughout their entire body, making it unsafe to eat.  Researchers have said, however, that because the chickens are raised indoors, it is highly unlikely that they would ever enter the food supply.  The FDA is still looking into whether altering the chickens’ DNA would harm the animal and if the modification could be passed onto future generations.

This isn’t the first time a transgenic animal modified to produce a drug has been approved—six years ago, genetically modified goats that could produce a drug in their milk that would prevent blood clots were approved —and researchers hope it isn’t the last. So why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe the actual answer was always to make a potentially life-saving drug for countless Americans in their eggs????

Robot Baby Fever

Babies are some of the fastest learners on Earth. This is in large part due to the low development of their prefrontal shutterstock_275149358cortexes. Unlike adults with fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, children are able to perceive things through sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight that are not hindered by preconceived notions. For example: if an adult were given a stick, they would see a stick because that is what prior knowledge and experience tells them. A child could see a sword, a javelin, or flag pole to mark their new fort. What if we could teach robots to see and think as children do, learning new skills and having abstract ideas just as easily as a human baby?

There is a problem within robot and artificial intelligence programs that seek to teach robots what to do rather than tell robots what to do. Currently, programmers have to specifically code sequences that robots can use to work through problems and perform tasks. By creating a robot that can learn like a human does, the robot is no longer inhibited by its programming and can problem solve on its own. Computer scientists at the University of Washington saw an opportunity here and partnered with university developmental psychologists to help teach baby robots just like we teach baby humans.

The team of scientists and researchers published their theory in PLOS One. The overarching goal of the project is to have robots learn through their own experiences. By using infant research studies, they were able to build algorithms that mimic learning models. In the first experiment, they used gaze-based simulations to have a robot learn from a human purely based on sight. First, the baby bot watched a human move his head back and forth until the baby bot was imitating the human and looking at the same object as the human. The second part of the experiment involved the baby bot learning about blindfolds and that they stop humans from seeing. The robot learned not to look at where the blindfolded human was looking because it understood that the researcher could not see.

A mission of the project is for baby bots to learn more complicated functions or ideas from humans through experience. There will be other experiments based on other senses, such as touch and hearing that may be able to teach these robots faster and more effectively than traditional programming. Who knows, this could lead to the friendly and capable robots like R2D2, C-3PO, or the new BB-8.

Tapeworm transmits cancer to Colombia man

shutterstock_183701153Anyone who has ever had, or even heard about, a tapeworm probably agrees that they are just the worst thing ever for numerous reasons. But a man from Colombia had a nasty tapeworm with an even worse side effect than usual. In January 2013, a 41-year-old man visited a local hospital complaining of fatigue, fever, cough, and weight loss that had lasted over several months. The man, who had tested positive for HIV in 2006, had not taken his medication and was open to serious infection, which resulted in countless dwarf tapeworms taking up residency in his body.

As the doctors began to run tests, they noticed extremely tiny, human-like tumors that lined the man’s lymph nodes.  Further tests showed cancer cells were present in the man’s body, but were not human.  As they ran more and more tests in the coming months, they found that the tapeworms had transmitted their own cancer to the man. Scientists were baffled by the findings, as they didn’t know that tapeworms could develop tumors in the first place, calling it one of the strangest cases they have seen.  Unfortunately, the man passed away before proper treatment could take place.

Doctors who worked on the case warn other medical professionals around the world to be on the lookout for strange medical occurrences such as this one. It seems like tapeworms are disgusting and terrible for even more reasons than we previously thought possible.

Scientists recreate functional vocal cords

shutterstock_128575862In a breakthrough study, scientists have grown and recreated functional vocal cords in a lab.  Scientists were able to reconstruct almost 170 vocal cords by using vocal tissue from four patients who had their larynxes removed and used cells from vocal folds to create the new vocal cords.  The cells were able to grow the vocal cords in the lab by themselves over the course of just 14 days.  When scientists tested the vocal cords, they found that blowing air through them made the same humming noise that isolated vocal cords in humans make.

While the study is still in the early stages, the scientists hope that it will help the over 20 million people across the United States who suffer vocal cord damage or have lost their voice all together.  These individuals include Julie Andrews, who lost her singing voice fully in 1997, Adele, and John Mayer.   They believe that through this discovery, they will eventually be able to grow damaged parts of vocal cords and implant them surgically. Tests also indicated that the immune system was surprisingly tolerant to the recreated vocal cords, something that have not seen in many other tests involving recreated organs.

Scientists hope to continue experiments on other animals to confirm that the vocal cords would be safe for use in humans. But I think we can all agree that any medical experiment that may be able to help Julie Andrews sing again is a winner in our eyes.

Ice-Spewing Volcanoes Discovered on Pluto’s Surface

shutterstock_50105569Although Pluto might be small and was officially kicked out of the “planet club,” it still has quite a lot of activity taking place on its tiny surface.  New photos transmitted back to NASA have shown two ice-spewing volcanos on the surface of Pluto, baffling scientists.  NASA first made a record pass by Pluto on July 14th with the New Horizon’s Spacecraft, which is still continuing to transmit photos back to those involved in the project.  Among the pictures the Spacecraft is expected to report back before the week is over, one of the most interesting shows two mountains which each measure 100 miles in diameter and are several miles tall.

However, instead of spewing lava, these mountains release ice and other frozen materials such as nitrogen, ammonia, and methane.  Scientists report having never seen anything like this in our outer solar system and are still investigating how these mountains and other depressions on the planet’s surface were created.  The New Horizon’s Spacecraft is expected to transmit even more information about the volcanoes, including measurements and additional pictures.  So even though Pluto didn’t quite make the cut to be a planet, it seems it will still be a major topic in science circles everywhere.

To the horror or everyone, it turns out cockroaches are actually pretty useful

shutterstock_180958520There are 4,500 known species of cockroach that live in a number of different environments all over the world. Sure, cockroaches that scurry around your kitchen are pretty gross and there is no real reason you shouldn’t just put your foot down on those little guys—but there are actually only four species of cockroach that are considered to really be pests. The other 4,496 species are about as diverse as you might expect, and have yielded some pretty useful applications for the scientific community.

All grossness aside, this photo-heavy spread in BBC Magazine looks at some of the most useful contributions that the biology of the cockroach has yet to make to humanity. As it turns out, the next generation of prosthetics will likely be based in part on the flexibility and springiness that is unique to roach legs—in particular, the mechanics of a roach leg may help researchers develop prosthetic hands that are more capable to gripping objects in the same way a human hand would.

Then there are the cybernetic roaches—live cockroaches implanted with miniature computers—that may be remotely operated to access places that would otherwise be difficult for people to access—think natural disaster areas. In fact, students from Shanghai Jiap Tong University have even gone so far as to demonstrate how human brain waves could be translated into electrical impulses that control one of these robo-roaches.

Perhaps one of the most promising areas of cockroach-inspired research—though it is not exactly new—is focused on the cockroach’s ability to synthesize relatively powerful antibiotics. It is hoped that this ability may help researchers develop new antibiotics capable of battling some of the most virulent bacteria known to humankind, including MRSA and E. coli.

Though it may be little consolation to you next time you surprise a cockroach that is roaming your countertops, you can rest assured that—somewhere and somehow—roaches may just end up making all our lives a little bit easier.