Get ready for an whale-sized asteroid coming your way the day after tomorrow. If it doesn’t change course, NASA predicts that asteroid 2021 GT2 will pass within a couple million miles of Earth traveling at 16,000 miles per hour. Meanwhile, read on for electronic skin, crazed hamsters, and self-medicating dolphins.
For the first time, scientists have made a time crystal by cooling superfluid helium to nearly absolute zero. The atoms of the time crystal keep oscillating first in one direction, then the other, with no input from outside.
Gene-editing turns hamsters into fuzzy balls of rage
Neuroscientists at Georgia State University got a surprise when studying the effects of the hormone vasopressin on mammal social behavior. Vasopressin is known to play a role in social communication, as well as dominance behaviors when mammals defend territories. So, the researchers hypothesized that stopping the vasopressin pathway would have the opposite effect of mellowing out a mammal.
Using CRISPR gene editing technology, they turned off the vasopressin receptors (called Avpr1a) in Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), those fuzzy creatures sold at pet stores. Rather than reducing aggression, the blocking of vasopressin’s action turned the hamster into an angry fuzzball. Both male and female hamsters began attacking each other.
Said lead author H. Elliott Albers, “Even though we know that vasopressin increases social behaviors by acting within a number of brain regions, it is possible that the more global effects of the Avpr1a receptor are inhibitory. We don’t understand this system as well as we thought we did.” So, you might want to hold off on buying that gene-edited hamster.
New robotic skin can detect COVID, explosives, and more
The pandemic motivated a new training program for dogs, to sniff out people with COVID-19 virus passing through airports. Studies show that dogs can detect coronavirus with more than 90% accuracy and have been deployed in Miami airport, among others. But will dogs be able to compete with a new artificial intelligence–powered multimodal robotic sensing system (M-Bot)?
A new study announces a printable skin that has physicochemical sensing abilities, including detecting viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. The flexible electronic skin is embedded with chemical sensors that each pick up a unique stimulus, whether a hazardous chemical or a pathogen. The skin has been used on a boat, for example, to find the source of an underwater chemical leakage.
“Robotic physicochemical sensing has broad applications in agriculture, security, environmental protection, and public health, especially when operating in extreme and hazardous environments,” says chemical engineer and lead study author Wei Gao. The robotic skin may have a future not only in airports, but in chemical warfare, sewage treatment plants, and food production facilities.
Always in the last place you lase
Archaeologists using lasers uncover new views of ancient Amazonian civilization
Mounds (“lomas”) scattered throughout the Amazon were thought to be heaps of debris left over from ancient peoples. Humans have lived in the Amazon for about 10,000 years, and the Casarabe culture of 500-1400 AD were assumed to be nomadic. Now, an archaeological study has uncovered the unexpected truth about these early peoples.
During a flyover, the mounds were bombarded with pulsed lasers using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). When vegetation was digitally removed, the remaining LiDAR images revealed a complex network of human settlements that included platforms, pyramids, canals, and causeways.
Clearly, these early Amazonians were living in a stable civilization. Says archaeologist Heiko Prümers, “Nobody expected that kind of society in that region …All those data combined showed that the society itself was more complex than anyone had supposed before.” Preconceptions about nomadic pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the Amazon have been debunked.
We already know that dolphins are clever with big, complex brains comparable to ours. It was nevertheless surprising for researchers to find in a recent study that dolphins are administering their own medicine in the wild. They line up and take turns rubbing their bodies against certain species of invertebrates — corals and sponges — that are natural dispensaries.
“I hadn't seen this coral rubbing behavior described before, and it was clear that the dolphins knew exactly which coral they wanted to use,” said Angela Ziltener, study author and wildlife biologist at the University of Zurich.
Apparently, the invertebrate dispensaries contain bioactive compounds that get released in a mucus when rubbed; like an antiobiotic lotion, the mucus protects dolphins’ skin from infections. (Watch dolphins self-medicating HERE; we might learn a thing or two about keeping a queue and taking our medications regularly.)
Dolphins also take care of their friends, thanks to a more sophisticated limbic system — which regulates emotions — than ours! Says neuroscientist Lori Marino, “a dolphin alone is not really a dolphin; being a dolphin means being embedded in a complex social network…even more so than with humans.”
Being social requires that you recognize your friends and acquaintances, and a new study shows that dolphins do so by tasting each other’s urine in the water or, like dogs, by pressing their noses to each other’s rumps. If a dolphin recognizes another dolphin, it will keep its mouth open for longer to sample its friend’s urine.
Now that you're feeling familiar with dolphins (except for maybe the urine thing), beware that, despite how friendly they are with each other and most humans, they can also be dangerous.
A NOAA news story issued on June 3 warns people swimming near North Padre Island, Texas, of an aggressive dolphin that is following people and separating kids from parents in the water. Apparently, if a dolphin gets too habituated to attention from humans, it starts treating humans like dolphins, which means being friendly, playful, and …aggressive.
Next time we’ll be looking inward at how our brains process ideas, show socioeconomic status, and change after COVID-19.
Written by Devin Reese, Edited by Jake Currie
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