Tag Archives: insects

Nanoparticles and the gut health of major living species of animals

A July 27, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into gut health described as seminal (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of scientists has completed the first ever study into the potential impact of naturally occurring and man-made nanoparticles on the health of all types of the major living species of animals.

Conceived by researchers at the University of Plymouth, as part of the EU [European Union] Nanofase project, the study assessed how the guts of species from honey bees to humans could protect against the bioaccumulation and toxicological effects of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) found within the environment.

A July 27, 2020 University of Plymouth press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It showed that the digestive systems of many species have evolved to act as a barrier guarding against the absorption of potentially damaging particles.

However, invertebrates such as earthworms also have roving cells within their guts, which can take up ENMs and transfer them to the gut wall.

This represents an additional risk for many invertebrate species where the particles can be absorbed via these roving cells, with consequent effects on internal organs having the potential to cause lasting damage.

Fortunately, this process is not replicated in humans and other vertebrate animals, however there is still the potential for nanomaterials to have a negative impact through the food chain.

The study, published in the July [2020] edition of Environmental Science: Nano, involved scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Portugal and focused on particles measuring up to 100 nanometres (around 1/10 millionth of a metre).

It combined existing and new research into species including insects and other invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals, as well as identifying knowledge gaps on reptiles and amphibians. The study provides the first comprehensive overview of how differences in gut structure can affect the impact of ENMs across the animal kingdom.

Richard Handy, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Plymouth and the study’s senior author, said:

“This is a seminal piece work that combines nearly 100 years of zoology research with our current understanding of nanotechnology.

“The threats posed by engineered nanomaterials are becoming better known, but this study provides the first comprehensive and species-level assessment of how they might pose current and future threats. It should set the foundations for understanding the dietary hazard in the animal kingdom.”

Nanomaterials come in three forms – naturally occurring, incidentally occurring from human activities, and deliberately manufactured – and their use has increased exponentially in the last decade.

They have consistently found new applications in a wide variety of industrial sectors, including electrical appliances, medicines, cleaning products and textiles.

Professor Handy, who has advised organisations including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, added:

“Nanoparticles are far too small for the human eye to see but that doesn’t mean they cannot cause harm to living species. The review element of this study has shown they have actually been written about for many decades, but it is only recently that we have begun to understand the various ways they occur and now the extent to which they can be taken up. Our new EU project, NanoHarmony, looks to build on that knowledge and we are currently working with Public Health England and others to expand our method for detecting nanomaterials in tissues for food safety and other public health matters.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The gut barrier and the fate of engineered nanomaterials: a view from comparative physiology by Meike van der Zande, Anita Jemec Kokalj, David J. Spurgeon, Susana Loureiro, Patrícia V. Silva, Zahra Khodaparast, Damjana Drobne, Nathaniel J. Clark, Nico W. van den Brink, Marta Baccaro, Cornelis A. M. van Gestel, Hans Bouwmeester and Richard D. Handy. Environmental Science: Nano, Issue 7 (July 2020) DOI: 10.1039/D0EN00174K First published 27 Apr 2020

This article is open access.

If you’re curious about Nanofase (Nanomaterial FAte and Speciation in the Environment), there’s more here and there’s more about NanoHarmony here.

Filmmaking beetles wearing teeny, tiny wireless cameras

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny camera that can ride aboard an insect. Here a Pinacate beetle explores the UW campus with the camera on its back. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Scientists at Washington University have created a removable wireless camera backpack for beetles and for tiny robots resembling beetles. I’m embedding a video shot by a beetle later in this post with a citation and link for the paper, near the end of this post where you’ll also find links to my other posts on insects and technology.

As for the latest on insects and technology, there’s a July 15, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

In the movie “Ant-Man,” the title character can shrink in size and travel by soaring on the back of an insect. Now researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny wireless steerable camera that can also ride aboard an insect, giving everyone a chance to see an Ant-Man view of the world.

The camera, which streams video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second, sits on a mechanical arm that can pivot 60 degrees. This allows a viewer to capture a high-resolution, panoramic shot or track a moving object while expending a minimal amount of energy. To demonstrate the versatility of this system, which weighs about 250 milligrams — about one-tenth the weight of a playing card — the team mounted it on top of live beetles and insect-sized robots.

A July 15, 2020 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail (although I still have a few questions) about the work,

“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”

Typical small cameras, such as those used in smartphones, use a lot of power to capture wide-angle, high-resolution photos, and that doesn’t work at the insect scale. While the cameras themselves are lightweight, the batteries they need to support them make the overall system too big and heavy for insects — or insect-sized robots — to lug around. So the team took a lesson from biology.

“Similar to cameras, vision in animals requires a lot of power,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s less of a big deal in larger creatures like humans, but flies are using 10 to 20% of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing. To help cut the cost, some flies have a small, high-resolution region of their compound eyes. They turn their heads to steer where they want to see with extra clarity, such as for chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”

To mimic an animal’s vision, the researchers used a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera that can sweep across a field of view with the help of a mechanical arm. The arm moves when the team applies a high voltage, which makes the material bend and move the camera to the desired position. Unless the team applies more power, the arm stays at that angle for about a minute before relaxing back to its original position. This is similar to how people can keep their head turned in one direction for only a short period of time before returning to a more neutral position.

“One advantage to being able to move the camera is that you can get a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “We can track a moving object without having to spend the energy to move a whole robot. These images are also at a higher resolution than if we used a wide-angle lens, which would create an image with the same number of pixels divided up over a much larger area.”

The camera and arm are controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone from a distance up to 120 meters away, just a little longer than a football field.

The researchers attached their removable system to the backs of two different types of beetles — a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle. Similar beetles have been known to be able to carry loads heavier than half a gram, the researchers said.

“We made sure the beetles could still move properly when they were carrying our system,” said co-lead author Ali Najafi, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “They were able to navigate freely across gravel, up a slope and even climb trees.”

The beetles also lived for at least a year after the experiment ended. [emphasis mine]

“We added a small accelerometer to our system to be able to detect when the beetle moves. Then it only captures images during that time,” Iyer said. “If the camera is just continuously streaming without this accelerometer, we could record one to two hours before the battery died. With the accelerometer, we could record for six hours or more, depending on the beetle’s activity level.”

The researchers also used their camera system to design the world’s smallest terrestrial, power-autonomous robot with wireless vision. This insect-sized robot uses vibrations to move and consumes almost the same power as low-power Bluetooth radios need to operate.

The team found, however, that the vibrations shook the camera and produced distorted images. The researchers solved this issue by having the robot stop momentarily, take a picture and then resume its journey. With this strategy, the system was still able to move about 2 to 3 centimeters per second — faster than any other tiny robot that uses vibrations to move — and had a battery life of about 90 minutes.

While the team is excited about the potential for lightweight and low-power mobile cameras, the researchers acknowledge that this technology comes with a new set of privacy risks.

“As researchers we strongly believe that it’s really important to put things in the public domain so people are aware of the risks and so people can start coming up with solutions to address them,” Gollakota said.

Applications could range from biology to exploring novel environments, the researchers said. The team hopes that future versions of the camera will require even less power and be battery free, potentially solar-powered.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a first-person view from the back of a beetle while it’s walking around. There are so many questions you could explore, such as how does the beetle respond to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?” Iyer said. “But also, insects can traverse rocky environments, which is really challenging for robots to do at this scale. So this system can also help us out by letting us see or collect samples from hard-to-navigate spaces.”

###

Johannes James, a UW mechanical engineering doctoral student, is also a co-author on this paper. This research was funded by a Microsoft fellowship and the National Science Foundation.

I’m surprised there’s no funding from a military agency as the military and covert operation applications seem like an obvious pairing. In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wireless steerable vision for live insects and insect-scale robots by Vikram Iyer, Ali Najafi, Johannes James, Sawyer Fuller, and Shyamnath Gollakota. Science Robotics 15 Jul 2020: Vol. 5, Issue 44, eabb0839 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abb0839

This paper is behind a paywall.

Video and links

As promised, here’s the video the scientists have released,

These posts feature some fairly ruthless uses of the insects.

  1. The first mention of insects and technology here is in a July 27, 2009 posting titled: Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 4. The mention is in the second to last paragraph of the post. Then,.
  2. A November 23, 2011 post titled: Cyborg insects and trust,
  3. A January 9, 2012 post titled: Controlling cyborg insects,
  4. A June 26, 2013 post titled: Steering cockroaches in the lab and in your backyard—cutting edge neuroscience, and, finally,
  5. An April 11, 2014 post titled: Computerized cockroaches as precursors to new healing techniques.

As for my questions (how do you put the backpacks on the beetles? is there a strap, is it glue, is it something else? how heavy is the backpack and camera? how old are the beetles you use for this experiment? where did you get the beetles from? do you have your own beetle farm where you breed them?), I’ll see if I can get some answers.

Nanomechanics for deciphering beetle exoskeletons

Beetles carry remarkably light yet strong armor in the form of their exoskeletons and a research team at Northwestern University (US) is looking to those beetle exoskeletons for inspiration according to a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

What can a beetle tell us about good design principles? Quite a lot, actually.

Many insects and crustaceans possess hard, armor-like exoskeletons that, in theory, should weigh the creatures down. But, instead, the exoskeletons are surprisingly light — even allowing the armor-wearing insects, like the beetle, to fly.

Northwestern Engineering’s Horacio D. Espinosa and his group are working to understand the underlying design principles and mechanical properties that result in structures with these unique, ideal properties. This work could ultimately uncover information that could guide the design and manufacturing of new and improved artificial materials by emulating these time-tested natural patterns, a process known as bio-mimicry.

Supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), the research was featured on the cover of Advanced Functional Materials. Postdoctoral fellows Ruiguo Yang and Wei Gao and graduate student Alireza Zaheri, all members of Espinosa’s laboratory, were co-first authors of the paper. Cheryl Hayashi, professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, was also a co-author.

A Jan. 11, 2017 Northwestern University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Though there are more than a million species of beetles, the team is first studying the exoskeleton of the Cotinis mutabilis, a field crop pest beetle native to the western United States. Like all insects and crustaceans, its exoskeleton is composed of twisted plywood structures, known as Bouligand structures, which help protect against predators. Fibers in this Bouligand structure are bundles of chitin polymer chains wrapped with proteins. In this chain structure, each fiber has a higher density along the length than along the transverse.

“It is very challenging to characterize the properties of such fibers given that they are directionally dependent and have a small diameter of just 20 nanometers,” said Espinosa, the James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “We had to develop a novel characterization method by taking advantage of the spatial distribution of fibers in the Bouligand structure.”

To meet this challenge, Espinosa and his team employed a creative way to identify the geometry and material properties of the fibers that comprise the exoskeleton. They cut the Bouligand structure along a plane, resulting in a surface composed of closely packed cross-sections of fibers with different orientations. They were then able to analyze the mechanics of the fibers.

“With more than a million species, which greatly vary from each other in taxomic relatedness, size, and ecology, the beetle is the largest group of insects,” Hayashi said. “What makes this research exciting is that the methods applied to the Cotinis mutabilis beetle exoskeleton can be extended to other beetle species.”

By correlating the mechanical properties with the exoskeleton geometries from diverse beetle species, Espinosa and his team plan to gain insight into natural selection and better understand structure-function-properties relationships.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

AFM Identification of Beetle Exocuticle: Bouligand Structure and Nanofiber Anisotropic Elastic Properties by Ruiguo Yang, Alireza Zaheri, Wei Gao, Cheryl Hayashi, and Horacio D. Espinosa. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201603993 Version of Record online: 27 DEC 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artists classified the animal kingdom?

Where taxonomy and biology are concerned, my knowledge begins and end with Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who ushered in modern taxonomy. It was with some surprise that I find out artists also helped develop the field. From a June 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries artists were fascinated by how the animal kingdom was classified. They were in some instances ahead of natural historians.

This is one of the findings of art historian Marrigje Rikken. She will defend her PhD on 23 June [2016] on animal images in visual art. In recent years she has studied how images of animals between 1550 and 1630 became an art genre in themselves. ‘The close relationship between science and art at that time was remarkable,’ Rikken comments. ‘Artists tried to bring some order to the animal kingdom, just as biologists did.’

A June 21, 2016 Universiteit Leiden (Leiden University, Netherlands) press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In some cases the artists were ahead of their times. They became interested in insects, for example, before they attracted the attention of natural historians. It was artist Joris Hoefnagel who in 1575 made the first miniatures featuring beetles, butterflies and dragonflies, indicating how they were related to one another. In his four albums Hoefnagel divided the animal species according to the elements of fire, water, air and earth, but within these classifications he grouped animals on the basis of shared characteristics.

Courtesy: Universiteit Leiden

Beetles, butterflies, and dragonflies by Joris Hoefnagel. Courtesy: Universiteit Leiden

The press release goes on,

Other illustrators, print-makers and painters tried to bring some cohesion to the animal kingdom.  Some of them used an alphabetical system but artist Marcus Gheeraerts  published a print as early as 1583 [visible below, Ed.] in which grouped even-toed ungulates together. The giraffe and sheep – both visible on Gheeraerts’ print – belong to this species of animals. This doesn’t apply to all Gheeraerts’ animals. The mythical unicorn, which was featured by Gheeraerts, no longer appears in contemporary biology books.

Wealthy courtiers

According to Rikken, the so-called menageries played an important role historically in how animals were represented. These forerunners of today’s zoos were popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries particularly among wealthy rulers and courtiers. Unfamiliar exotic animals regularly arrived that were immediately committed to paper by artists. Rikken: ‘The toucan, for example, was immortalised in 1615 by Jan Brueghel the Elder, court painter in Brussels.’  [See the main image, Ed.].’

In the flesh

Rikken also discovered that the number of animals featured in a work gradually increased. ‘Artists from the 1570s generally included one or just a few animals per work. With the arrival of print series a decade later, each illustration tended to include more and more animals. This trend reached its peak in the lavish paintings produced around 1600.’ These paintings are also much more varied than the drawings and prints. Illustrators and print-makers often blindly copied one another’s motifs, even showing the animals in an identical pose. Artists had no hesitation in including the same animal in different positions. Rikken: ‘This allowed them to show that they had observed the animal in the flesh.’

Even-toed ungulates by Marcus Gheeraerts. Courtesy: Leiden Universiteit

Even-toed ungulates by Marcus Gheeraerts. Courtesy: Leiden Universiteit

Yet more proof or, at least, a very strong suggestion that art and science are tightly linked.

Sciences Goes to the Movies closes out season one with zombies and opens season two with nanotechnolgy

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s March 9, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for the latest about ‘Science Goes to the Movies’,

The 13th episode of Science Goes to the Movies is now available online, and showing some restraint, the show waited until the end of its first season to deal with zombies.

In other show news, the second season will premiere on CUNY [City University of New York] TV March 18th [2016].  It will focus on nanotechnology.

You can find the 13th episode (running time is almost 30 mins.) embedded in David’s post or you can go to the Science Goes to the Movies webpage on the City University of New York (CUNY) website for the latest video and more information about the episode,

In episode #113 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie talk with Mark Siddall – a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and President of the American Society of Parasitologists – about zombies!

… Siddall describes different types of parasites that manipulate behavior in a host in order to complete a life cycle or other essential task – including a type of “Dementor” wasp, named after the monster in Harry Potter books, that changes behavior in a cockroach by stinging it. Whether or not zombifying parasites have a taste for brains is also considered, with reference to a species that takes over the bodies of ants, replaces their brains, and uses the ant to complete its life cycle, and The Guinea Worm, a parasite that targets humans for their own reproduction. Siddall then distinguishes between parasites and viruses and explains their similarities.

The Haitian voodoo practice of ingesting neurotoxins to create the effect of “waking from the dead” provides the basis for the next part of the discussion. Dr. Berlin defines neurotoxins and how they work in the brain to block neurons from firing. Tetrodotoxin, in particular, is explained as having a zombifying effect on humans in that its overall paralysis doesn’t affect the brain or the heart, leaving a person fully conscious throughout.

The Wade Davis [emphasis mine] book, The Serpent and The Rainbow, is brought into the discussion, as well as a story about a man kept in a zombie state for two years by ingesting a combination of neurotoxins and hallucinogens. Dr. Berlin breaks down the plausibility of the story and introduces the idea of the “philosopher zombie,” whose zombie status is more conceptual in nature.

28 Days Later and World War Z are discussed as examples of zombie movies in which the cause of the apocalypse is a zombie infection, and Siddall shares news about a cancer with contagious qualities. A recent Centers for Disease Control ad campaign, warning people to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, is mentioned and the real-life potential for human zombies, given the creativity of evolution, makes for the final topic of the show. Before finishing, though, Dr. Berlin and Siddall each share an idea for an original zombie movie.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist who now teaches at the University of British Columbia.

Should you care to search, you will find a number of posts concerning zombies on this blog.

Controlling cyborg insects

After writing about cyborg insects and their possible use in emergency situations in my Nov. 23, 2011 posting, I started wondering how the insects could be made to dig down into the earth to find people trapped underground, etc. As it turns out, scientists have already been working on that problem, from the Jan. 6, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

An insect’s internal chemicals can be converted to electricity, potentially providing power for sensors, recording devices or to control the bug, a group of researchers at Case Western Reserve University report.

The finding is yet another in a growing list from universities across the country that could bring the creation of insect cyborgs – touted as possible first responders to super spies – out of science fiction and into reality. In this case, the power supply, while small, doesn’t rely on movement, light or batteries, just normal feeding.

“It is virtually impossible to start from scratch and make something that works like an insect,” said Daniel Scherson, chemistry professor at Case Western Reserve and senior author of the paper.

“Using an insect is likely to prove far easier,” Scherson said. “For that, you need electrical energy to power sensors or to excite the neurons to make the insect do as you want, by generating enough power out of the insect itself.”

The key to converting the chemical energy is using enzymes in series at the anode.

The first enzyme breaks the sugar, trehalose, which a cockroach constantly produces from its food, into two simpler sugars, called monosaccharides. The second enzyme oxidizes the monosaccharides, releasing electrons.

The current flows as electrons are drawn to the cathode, where oxygen from air takes up the electrons and is reduced to water.

After testing the system using trehalose solutions, prototype electrodes were inserted in a blood sinus in the abdomen of a female cockroach, away from critical internal organs.

The researchers found the cockroaches suffered no long-term damage, which bodes well for long-term use.

More technical details are available in the news item although I notice there is no mention of ethics. I’m happy to see that there doesn’t seem to be any long-term damage to any of the beasties they’ve tested so far but should we really take control of them in this way?

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, science, and not taking sides

Linda Hooper-Bui is a professor in Louisiana who studies insects.She’s also one of the scientists who’s been denied access to freely available (usually) areas in the Gulf of Mexico wetlands. She and her students want to gather data for examination about the impact that the oil spill has had on the insect populations. BP Oil and the US federal government are going court over the oil spill and both sides want scientific evidence to buttress their respective cases. Scientists wanting access to areas controlled by either of the parties are required to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) by either BP Oil or the Natural Resource Damage Assessment federal agency. The NDA’s extend not just to the publication of data but also to informal sharing.

From the article by Hooper-Bui in The Scientist,

The ants, crickets, flies, bees, dragon flies, and spiders I study are important components of the coastal food web. They function as soil aerators, seed dispersers, pollinators, and food sources in complex ecosystems of the Gulf.

Insects were not a primary concern when oil was gushing into the Gulf, but now they may be the best indicator of stressor effects on the coastal northern Gulf of Mexico. Those stressors include oil, dispersants, and cleanup activities. If insect populations survive, then frogs, fish, and birds will survive. If frogs, fish, and birds are there, the fishermen and the birdwatchers will be there. The Gulf’s coastal communities will survive. But if the bugs suffer, so too will the people of the Gulf Coast.

This is why my continued research is important: to give us an idea of just how badly the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystems has been damaged and what, if anything, we can do to stave off a full-blown ecological collapse. But I am having trouble conducting my research without signing confidentiality agreements or agreeing to other conditions that restrict my ability to tell a robust and truthful scientific story.

I want to collect data to answer scientific questions absent a corporate or governmental agenda. I won’t collect data specifically to support the government’s lawsuit against BP nor will I collect data only to be used in BP’s defense. Whereas I think damage assessment is important, it’s my job to be independent — to tell an accurate, unbiased story. But because I choose not to work for BP’s consultants or NRDA, my job is difficult and access to study sites is limited.

Hooper-Bui goes on to describe a situation where she and her students had to surrender samples to a US Fish and Wildlife officer because their project (on public lands therefore they should have been freely accessible) had not been approved. Do read the article before it disappears behind a paywall but if you prefer. you can listen to a panel discussion with her and colleagues Christopher D’Elia and Cary Nelson on the US National Public Radio (NPR) website, here. One of the people who calls in to the show is another professor, this one from Texas, who has the same problem collecting data. He too refused to sign any NDAs. One group of nonaligned scientists has been able to get access and that’s largely because they acted before the bureaucracy snapped into place. They got permission (without having to sign NDAs) while the federal bureaucracy was still organizing itself in the early days of the spill.

These practices are antithetical to the practice of science. Meanwhile, the contrast between this situation and the move to increase access and make peer review a more open process (in my August 20, 2010 posting) could not be more glaring. Very simply, the institutions want more control while the grassroots science practitioners want a more open environment in which to work.

Hooper-Bui comments on NPR that she views her work as public service. It’s all that and more; it’s global public service.

What happens in the Gulf over the next decades will have a global impact. For example, there’s a huge colony of birds that make their way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec for the summer returning to the Gulf in the winter.  They should start making their way back in the next few months. Who knows what’s going to happen to that colony and the impact this will have on other ecosystems?

We need policies that protect scientists and ensure, as much as possible, that their work be conducted in the public interest.