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Zombie Cockroaches

Zombie Cockroaches
By Lance Gritton MAEd
Normally I try to be clever with my titles to invite the curious to read, but this week as we say in the lab “it is what it is” and nothing more. We’re talking zombie cockroaches, and it’s not even the Election er Halloween yet!
A few years ago, some engineering students put tiny side thrusting rockets on a Madagascar Hissing cockroach, a rather large insect. The engineering aspects were to track how stable a six legged robot could be even when rockets were trying to move it off course. In reality, some grad student said “Rockets on a cockroach? Yeh!” Ok. Maybe not, but I would have. A six legged all terrain robot could handle odd stresses and carry more varied weapons and instruments than a two or four legged robot could. So by measuring how well the roach could walk in a straight line with sideways rockets blasting, it showed just that.
Tiny insect sized sensors have been around for a decade, including a camera that could be mounted on a roach as well. Now some of you are asking, why cockroaches and not some cuddly other insect. Well cockroaches are big, strong and breed like…roaches, so they are used quite a bit in the miniature world. Roaches are also social insects, with a society just as complex as many wasp species. Young roaches that are raises alone, have trouble when put in a social nest they normally would grow up in. We find similar behavior in rats and apes. And roaches groom themselves often, making them a clean species (except they defecate everywhere to mark nest mates paths, and that’s efficient for roaches, but yuck for us).
One thing scientists and engineers look for inspiration is evolution. A gorgeous creature is an electric emerald green with some red accents…a beauty by any standards. This is the emerald cockroach wasp. She is about 1/50th the size of the roaches she hunts, and could never carry one or even drag one off like her cousin the tarantula hawk. But she needs to get a cockroach to her den so she can lay an egg on it. To do so, she is a micro-surgeon with wings.
She has a long flexible stinger and special venom. When she spots a victim (a cockroach in case you haven’t been keeping up), she stings it in its ganglion, or nerve bunch that is kind of like a brain. This makes the cockroach immediately start to groom itself, and then it gets a little groggy, and the front legs stop working. She then stings it again, and chews off half of each of the roaches antennae. Some scientists think she does this to replenish the proteins needed for more venom. Whatever the case, she then grasps the antennae and leads the now zombie cockroach along with its antenna acting like a leash, and walks it to her nest. She then lays a single egg and the roach lays down and waits to be eaten skillfully from the inside out; the larva avoids all organs until last and then pupates and emerges in about a week as a new zombie maker. (That is so cool!)
A couple of engineers at NC State wanted to try something, less chemical, and nerdier. Using magnets and medical grade glue, they affixed back pack like integrated circuits, with electrodes glued on to the roach’s antennae. Using a wireless transmitter, they were able to “buzz” the roach’s antennae, right or left or both. They were able to drive the insect along a track and make it move just like an RC car. Now if you’re wondering why this is not just a do it yourself Frankenstein kit, there are real reasons for this wireless roach research (cool band name), read on.
A few years ago, an invention called Brain Port came out to allow blind people to see using the senses on the tongue. A sensor was clipped to the tongue, and the wires sent down to a control pack held in the hand. The next generation that came around was muscle controlled prosthetic limbs, which evolved into limbs that could be controlled with thought. But these are very cool experiments that really work on the nervous system. What about the brain itself?
Scientists have implanted chips into animal brains, with the most recent a monkey that allow neural connections to be made. They wired up the cerebral cortex, and stimulated the connection as the monkey was learning new patterns and shapes. By stimulating these two layers they found the monkeys learned and remembered things at an increase of up to 75%. This might be the steps to finding a cure for dementia and other brain maladies.
I’ll take two please…
Later Ya’ll


Glacier Mice

Ice Mice
By Lance Gritton MAEd
Riddle me this: When is a mouse not a mouse and an insect not an insect? When it’s winter on a glacier! (Hey I know it’s not a good riddle, but then you’re probably not a good Batman either). I know it’s one of the hottest summers on record and why am I talking about winter stuff? It keeps me cool that’s why. But glacier mice are all about keeping warm.
Glaciers are long rivers of ice made of packed snow that flow down a mountain. They are a year round water supply for millions of people around the world. Most contain some algae of some sort, and the ice and rocks that flow carve out smooth passes in the mountains, and boulders are relocated in a slow steady transit. For hundreds of years, it was assumed nothing could live on this bleak cold patch, but that’s what is so cool about science; it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. Winds blow across these flat open areas and organic material is deposited on the surface. Now, anyone who cooks knows that the bane of tomatoes and fresh bread is mold. It’s everywhere, and it doesn’t care the season or if you refrigerate or leave it on the counter, it still grows if the food is left alone. Same thing happens on glaciers.
Molds are a member of the Fungi kingdom; a large kingdom of life with about 1.5 million species, so it’s not surprising that it can attack our produce no matter how we store it. It only needs water, and something to eat to live, and that can be just about anything that is alive or once was alive (like that organic material found blowing on and around glacier ice). Fungi are often confused with plants, and for a time, were thought to be plants. But they have no chloroplasts, the green little organs in plants that allow them to take the energy of the Sun and build complex sugar and protein molecules. Fungi are called reducers, because the break down complex molecules into simpler ones that it can eat. And plants store their food they make in starches; fungi store their food in glycogen, the same molecule we store it in for short term energy.
Now as certain species of fungi, that love cold, are blown across the glaciers, they start to grow on those organic molecules and get bigger. Now if you clean house like I do, from time to time, you might find bits of dust and hair clinging to together to make what one might call a dust bunny. Not a very good name, but the fluffiness makes one think of a bunny. (I think dust sheep was a better name but I digress). The fungi blowing across the ice do the same thing. They pick up bits of organic matter and inorganic stuff like dirt and dust and they get matted together in the long strands of the fungi (called hyphae, but that’s not important.) As they blow and grow, they roll around and form a sort of ball of fungi and dirt. These things get pretty big, about 7-8 centimeters (3-3.5 inches). Explorers of all nationalities have found these since they started, well exploring glaciers. (Too bad hacky sacks hadn’t been invented; they might have given some explorers something to do but watch slow ice move).
These balls of fungi were given the name glacier mice (maybe snipe hunting was just a little too far to go on open ice, so these were given that colorful name). Now these things like I said have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They were blowing in the wind and few thought much about them. But then some curious folk decided to look more closely at them; where else, but Iceland.
Drs. Steve Coulson an Arctic biologist form Norway, and Nicholas Midgley from Nottingham Trent University, England, thought that these glacial tumbleweeds must pick up a large bit of dust and moisture on the travels being blown across the glacial surface. What they didn’t know was if the inside of this glacier mouse was warmer and maybe even more hospitable than the ice itself, so they took some from various glaciers and dissected them.
Inside the glacier mice, a pocket of dirt and water (read that organic life type stuff) was found along with a few unusual critters. Collembola, or spring tails are a common winter animal. I say animal because they have been kicked out of the insect phylum, and put in a phylum of their own, but I digress. These winter denizens can be found worldwide along with tardigrada, or water bears, and a few nematodes or worms were found living in these fungal balls.
I’m glad someone else studies that.
Later Ya’ll

This is a very cool post. I can’t tell you the number of times I roll my eyes at someone who was bitten by a brown recluse. Check out this blog here



Seven Minutes of Terror

No this is not about taking your teen out to drive for the first time; the title for this week’s column is also the title of the best movie made this year. On Monday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will try and successfully land the Universes first chemistry lab on Mars. The Curiosity Rover started its journey to the red planet on November 26, 2011, and will endure 7 minutes of the most intense landing sequence ever known. Those of us who grew up with the Apollo missions, found that a capsule just has to hit the ocean, and the Shuttle missions were dangerous, as witnessed by the loss of two Shuttles and crew, could land as a supersonic glider. But nothing is the same on Mars.

NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were small rovers whose main experiment was to see if we could crash land a robot using giant air bags. They both survived the landing and started moving and broadcasting the most important images and data we have ever had on an extraterrestrial body that we didn’t land people on. They found evidence of water, of geologic activity and intriguing areas where we could look for the evidence of life. They had machinery on board to grind away a layer of rock and do analysis of the minerals beneath. But they were limited (hey remember we just wanted to crash them on the planet, everything else is a bonus) due to size. They just didn’t have the room to take larger and more complex robots along in them. Now Moore’s law states that every two years we double the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, so every new generation of rovers/robots should be better.

The biggest problem of the twin rovers was sunlight. Both were solar powered and had to shut down during the Martian winter and dust storms as well as when the weak Sun set. Curiosity will be powered by a small nuclear battery, allowing it to function without regard to the Sun or wind and can keep the experiments heated and no large “wings” of solar cells so it is more compact. This allows for more experimental modules. And they are out of this world.

Curiosity has one main job: to find evidence of past life on the Martian surface. Mars has water, and that is the main ingredient for life. Mars had a lot of water, and probably a water vapor atmosphere at one time, and Curiosity will look for evidence of that, as well as evidence for microbial life in the Martian soil. Curiosity has ten different experiments. My favorite has to do with the past holiday we had. Fireworks are evidence that electrons jump when we energize them (with black powder in the case of fireworks). Curiosity has no explosives on it (awww, I just lost all the 14 year old boys), but wait! It has a laser cannon! (They’re back) This laser can blast the surface of a rock and as the molecules vaporize, a spectrophotometer [spek-troh-foh-tom-i-ter] will read the electron emission and tell exactly what the rock is made of. It will look at things like elements necessary for life. SPONCH is the acronym I teach. It stands for sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen. The letters are also in reverse order of amounts found in life on Earth; more hydrogen than carbon etc.

It will do this with an x-ray diffraction and fluorescence scope to find out what the Martian soil is made of. It also has some cool optics. The arm contains a microscope to see the formation of minerals, evidence of water, evidence of ice and a close up of the granules. In fact it can image things smaller than the width of a human hair. Plus it can focus on items out past the arm; the arm can then look into crevasses or other structures that the cart may get stuck in (like Spirit, it fell into a crater and was lost). More importantly, it can look for evidence of microbial life, like concretions and chalk deposits and other structures made by microscopic animals.

A mast mounted high resolution visual camera will be able to film, store and analyze video of the Martian landscape. It will also help analyze the laser cannon ablation. The cannon can fire and the data can be picked up by the camera almost 3 meters away. (Take that Dr. No!)

The landing will be broadcast on Discovery channel, on line and if you have an XBox  Connect, you can down load a free Lander game. The game is out now and free for download at the Microsoft Marketplace. It requires the Xbox 360 console and Kinect controller to play.Watch the movie, play the game and eat the sandwich! But a sandwich named Curiosity might not sell too well.

Later Yall


National Moth Week July 23-29, 2012

Hey get your light traps out and sample the local moth community for science! -G

Nothing Matters or Zero is my Hero

Full Resolution Image Single HST ACS COSMOS Tile

I often joke about how the most important inventions to civilization (civilization I define as culture, not just survival) are fire, you need it to cook, drive off enemies, harden spear tips etc. Second is agriculture; it provides for a permanent settlement and the division of labor. Now instead of each person trying to gather enough to survive, now a basket maker can trade for grain, meat and protection from the farmer and warrior. Agriculture also refined the concept of an economy, and from that you need math. The third is printing, a method to pass down this information, and ideas. No longer would one have to apprentice himself to a master craftsman, but could read about how to do something. This also allowed for philosophy and ideas that had little in the way of actual hands on; it allowed for things that couldn’t be touched like codifying religion and laws, and it allowed for the invention of the periodic table, fourth on my list.

But it’s this concept of math that I’m going to talk about. A great friend and mentor of mine says when he gets to the final reward in Heaven, he will be on the front row asking “How does math work anyway?”  It goes with an old joke, physicists only defer to mathematicians, and mathematicians only defer to God. Since I am a biochemist, math is a tool to me; biochemists count as our earliest ancestors did: one, (monomer), two (dimer), and many (polymer). But as an Indian comic Russell Peters jokes: “1,2,3…none of these is what I want to pay!”  He says his people’s culture and cheapness invented nothing, or zero, and he might be right!

In Western civilization, Greece and Rome became the inspiration for our culture. These two civilizations were the only ones allowed to be studies by the early Christian Church, and the Renaissance, or rebirth, was the intense study of just that. But it took some very special explorers that were businessmen, missionaries, diplomats and just plain brave folk to open up trade with Asia (think Marco Polo types).  Due to this trade, Arabic-Indian numerals were brought to the West during the middle ages. This was good because Roman numerals were difficult to use, especially when you got into large numbers. And the Romans didn’t have a concept of an empty basket. There was no number for that, as evidenced by our time line, going from 1 BCE and jumping to 1 CE. There was no year zero; in fact there was no number zero.

The Babylonians with their cuneiform writing had the first known use of zero. It became a place holder to denote the differences of 1 to 10 to 100. It made the Roman numerals more useful, allowing you to write 101 instead of 100 and 1. However you needed to know the context the numbers were being used for or you might think it was ten and one, or eleven. (Our politicians have the same argument of context today; a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, pretty soon we’re talking real money!) In this case the zero was kind of like a comma, it was merely a place holder, and it wasn’t a real number yet. This placeholder was also invented completely separate by the Mayans in the new world.

Now in spite of our comic, there is real argument whether the number zero (the concept of an empty basket or nothing in your checking account) came either from Babylon or India. We took our current numbers from Babylon, so we have a bit of prejudice in thinking zero came over from there. But the Indian concept is a little more fun to look at. Much of Indian science was written down, but also memorized in the form of a poem or song. We do the same with Primary songs, hymns and carols to illustrate simple religious concepts. The Indians had several different concepts of zero. The Void, the Sky, the atmosphere all were things not tangible, and had a value of zero each, but each was a different zero.  The chant viya dambar akasasa sunya yama rama veda is a number as well as a chant.  Viya is the sky, dambar is atmospere, adasasa is empty space, aksasa is the Viod .The Primordial Couple (yama) was two, rama was three and veda was four. So this chant was a number, and you read it last to first, or if you will right to left, so the numbers 0,0,0,0,2,3,4 was the number 4,320,000. Finally we have zero as a concept of nothing like the void, and as a placeholder too.

The unfortunate use of this number however is where politicians keep adding zeros to the end of all numbers, especially bills.

Later Ya’ll



Well for those of my friends that don’t get to read my G-Wiz column, here is a place I will repost some of them; for those of you who already read them, but don’t get the blessing of hearing me rant, here will be ranting as well. And look for other blogs I follow and maybe some music later as I get a bit better.

Thanks Ya’ll