News Column

The New Review: Discover: LAB NOTES: Dispatches from the world of science

July 6, 2014

Abi Hayward

We are the biobots. . .

A 1cm-long, slug-like robot has been produced by scientists at the University of Illinois using a mix of bioengineering and 3D printing. Nicknamed "biobots", these miniature robots can "walk" across a surface powered by electrical stimulation of skeletal muscle cells. Rashid Bashir and his team had previously made advances using living heart cells. However, these robots couldn't be turned off due to the heart cells' constant beating. Bashir and his team turned to skeletal muscle, with positive results, as the team could manipulate the speed of movement by changing the frequency of electrical pulses. The team aim to guide the "biobot" using light or chemicals for even greater control over locomotion.

The claustrum? It's a turn-off

A new study has shown that it is actually possible to turn consciousness off by stimulating an area deep within the brain, known as the claustrum. The claustrum had previously been proposed by Francis Crick (left) and Christof Koch to integrate the information that forms consciousness. Crick likened the claustrum to a musical conductor in this respect. The present study by Mohamad Koubeissi and colleagues at the George Washington University in Washington DC demonstrates that zapping the claustrum with electrical impulses causes a person to lose consciousness, supporting Crick and Koch's initial idea. These results are a big step towards understanding consciousness and, even more intriguing, who possesses it.

Who are you calling cute?

Fluffiness is usually associated with cuteness. The opposite is true in the rare tufted ground squirrel, a bizarre, seldom-seen creature from Borneo. Despite having the fluffiest tail of any mammal relative to body size, this squirrel is a monster. It has reportedly developed a taste for blood, with local folklore asserting that the squirrel kills and then disembowels larger animals such as tusked deer. Whether this is truly the case remains to be seen, but it has been calculated from motion sensor data that the squirrel's magnificent tail is 30% larger than its body volume. This data was accumulated over several years by the Meijaards, a family of researchers, who propose that the evolutionary explanation for the presumably costly tail is for predator defence.

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Source: Observer (UK)

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