What engineers can learn from animals

tumblr n48splYPpp1rjatglo1 500 What engineers can learn from animals

Ghenghis Khan bathed in sherbert ice cream.

This is how The Oatmeal described the violent AND beautiful mantis shrimp in their comic: “Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal.

These little guys, along with 20 other animals, will serve as inspiration for a team of engineers and researchers –– led by UC Riverside’s David Kisailus.  Of particular interest is the mantis shrimp’s clubs (or “murder sticks” as they’re referred to in the comic), which it uses to kill prey and break apart oysters, crabs, and mollusks.

Working with biologists and chemists, these engineers will study their biological systems and cellular structures to see if they can use those insights to develop stronger, tougher materials. Natural structures like shells, beaks and antlers are particularly interesting because they are composed of relatively simple materials (aka not industrial strength), yet display incredible strength and mechanical performance.

This multidisciplinary research will highlight the value in biologically-inspired materials allowing the next generation of materials development to take advantage of what nature has known for millennia.

Do spoilers really ruin stories?

gameofthrones14 45 Do spoilers really ruin stories?

Spoilers give away endings before stories begin and the conventional wisdom is that they diminish suspense and ruin a story, but here’s the twist…

Research by UC San Diego psychologists find that spoilers make reading stories more enjoyable (Story spoilers don’t spoil stories).

How they tested it: Participants in the study were given a series of short stories that they hadn’t read before (covering a variety of genres: an ironic-twist story, a mystery, and a more evocative literary story).  Some participants were given a story with a paragraph that spoiled the story, while others were not.  They then rated the story in terms of enjoyment.

It turns out that most of the people for whom the story was “spoiled” reported enjoying it more than those who read it unprepared.

This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end (e.g., that the condemned man’s daring escape is just a fantasy as the rope snaps taut around his neck) or solved the crime (e.g., Poirot discovers that the apparent target of attempted murder was in fact the perpetrator). It was also true when the spoiler was more poetic.

What it means: Spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading — which is consistent with the idea that we can re-watch a movie or re-read a book and still enjoy it.

Read more about the research at NPR

Building a better cup of coffee

tumblr n4edhiAYnW1rjatglo1 1280 Building a better cup of coffee

The brave new world of coffee? Think genetics.

UC Davis geneticist Juan Medrano is known for his research on the genetics of milk (and the effect it has on humans), but recently has turned his research efforts towards coffee.

The goal is to understand the variability of coffee genes at the DNA level. This would allow Medrano and others to accurately identify genetic forces that contribute to certain flavors as well as the crucial factor of disease resistance.

The key is to identify the gene regulators that are related to flavor and other qualities, such as how coffee feels in the mouth. Gene regulators are involved in controlling the expression of other genes.

Other variables, like altitude, can be crucial in coffee growing. Coffee flavor and aromas change significantly with changes in altitude, as temperature and microclimates vary greatly. The higher-altitude coffees are generally of better cupping quality, Medrano explains.

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The Frog of War

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When biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that a top-selling herbicide messes with sex hormones, its manufacturer went into battle mode:

In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”

Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.

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Herding cells…with electricity!

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Researchers at UC Berkeley have managed to use an electric field to herd a flock of cells.

At the moment, It’s still a very blunt tool, but the scientists hope it can be refined and used to help wounds heal. This is an exciting step in the direction of “smart bandages” — using an electrical stimulation to help heal wounds. (The researchers used the epithelial cells, the same cells that bind together to form skin, kidneys and other organs.)

Electricity has been used before to direct individual cells (the technical term for this is galvanotaxis), but how it influences the collective motion of cells was still unclear.

“The ability to govern the movement of a mass of cells has great utility as a scientific tool in tissue engineering,” said study senior author Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Instead of manipulating one cell at a time, we could develop a few simple design rules that would provide a global cue to control a collection of cells.”

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The riddle of zebras’ stripes

tumblr n3h1h3HqkZ1rjatglo1 500 The riddle of zebras’ stripes

Why zebras have black and white stripes is a question that has intrigued scientists and spectators for centuries. A research team led by UC Davis, has now examined this riddle (in a very systematic way).

Many hypotheses for zebra stripes have been proposed since Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin debated the problem 120 years ago. These include:

  • A form of camouflage
  • Disrupting predatory attack by visually confusing carnivores
  • A mechanism of heat management
  • Having a social function
  • Avoiding ectoparasite attack, such as from biting flies

After analyzing the five hypotheses, the scientists ruled out all but one: avoiding blood-sucking flies. The scientists found that biting flies (such as horseflies and tsetse flies) are the evolutionary driver for zebra stripes.

Why would zebras evolve to have stripes whereas other hooved mammals did not? The study found that, unlike other African hooved mammals living in the same areas as zebras, zebra hair is shorter than the mouthpart length of biting flies, so zebras may be particularly susceptible to annoyance by biting flies.

Yet in science, one solved riddle begets another: Why do biting flies avoid striped surfaces?

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Building robots to land on Saturn’s moons

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Landing an unmanned robot on another planet can be quite a feat and can end up being quite a complex process.  Scientists want to make this process easier but also allow us to explore worlds that are currently too difficult to land on.

UC Berkeley professor Alice Agogino is working with doctoral students to build what are known as tensegrity robots.  Essentially, these are robots built with a series of rods and tension wires that protect the delicate scientific instruments in the middle.

The structure allows for both flexibility and strength while navigating a rugged environment — for example, landing on a planet’s rocky surface. These robots can explore places that are currently inaccessible to wheeled rovers such as rocky cliffs, which are rich in geological data due to the exposed rock.

Currently, NASA researchers are working on a prototype to one day land on places such as Titan – one of Saturn’s moons.  Scientists are interested in this moon because it has a thick atmosphere with flowing liquids on the surface and is often referred to being the most earthlike world in our solar system.

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