New Uses for 5 Old Pests

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Doctors, criminologists and even manicurists have been busy putting smaller, less cuddly members of the animal kingdom to work. From monitoring the water supply to treating callused feet, here are some examples.

1. Bluegill Fish Enlisted in War on Terror

During a meeting in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley presented Japanese Emperor Akihito with bluegill fish. It was a gift the Japanese people wish they never received. Since its induction to Japanese fisheries, the bluegill bred rapidly and killed native species. What's worse, the Japanese generally find its taste repugnant. [Image courtesy of Earthling.]

While it's marginally more popular in the United States, it's still not the freshwater fish of choice of foodies. But it is the fish of choice for the U.S. Army. Researchers created IAC 1090 Intelligent Aquatic Biomonitoring System, which uses eight juvenile bluegills to detect change in the water. Each fish resides in its own stall about the width of a mail slot. Sensors monitor the fishes' breathing and send the data to computer program, which analyzes the results. If six of the eight show abnormalities, the computer pages a technician. Officials swap out bluegills—perfectly matched for the task because they are sedentary and sensitive to contaminants—so the fish aren't affected by their duties for long periods of time. Currently New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco use the fish to protect the water sources—the fish in New York alerted officials to a diesel leak before it became calamitous. [Note: Some might claim that fish aren't pests, but my definition of pests is rather inclusive.]

2. Release the Wasp Hounds!

Training dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs, or chemicals takes months and costs thousands of dollars. But University of Georgia researcher Glen Rains and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Joe Lewis discovered that wasps could easily replace dogs to detect bombs, chemicals, and drugs. The researchers created a handheld device called the "Wasp Hound," which is a 15-inch cylinder with a vent at one end and a camera connected to a computer. When the wasps—a parasitic variety called Microplitis croceipes—smell their target they congregate at the vent, alerting the humans. Rains and Lewis claim the wasps can also sniff out food toxins, crop fungus, bodies, drugs, and even 2,4-DNT, a volatile component in dynamite that dogs struggle to smell.

The wasps only cost $100 per unit and take about a half hour to train. Using basic Pavlovian methods, researchers associate the target smell, such as a crop fungus, with food so the wasps want to locate the fungus. However, they only work for 48 hours before researchers release them.

3. They're Gonna Suck that Pain Right out of Your Knee

leeches.jpgHippocrates believed that bloodletting controlled the blood humour, reducing illness and preventing death. Until the 19th century, physicians used leeches to bleed patients and cure diseases such as acne, cholera, the plague, the flu, smallpox, gangrene and hemorrhaging (I know, it sounds counterintuitive to cure excessive bleeding by bleeding someone.) In modern medicine, bloodletting with leeches has little use other than reducing blood pressure and healing bed sores—though most doctors feel modern prescriptions are just as effective (and less icky). [Image courtesy of Antiquescientifica.com.]

However, researchers from Germany's Essen-Mitte Clinic discovered leeches sooth achy joints. Slap four leeches on your knee and after 80 minutes, the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis melts away. Of the 16 patients in the trial, the 10 who received leech therapy felt instant relief after application, and the comfort lasted for four weeks. The control patients continued experiencing pain. Researchers claim the leeches' saliva works as an anti-inflammatory.

4. Crime-fighting Bees

When Nigel Raine decided to study how serial killers track their victims, he placed tiny RFID chips on honeybees. Raine hypothesized that serial killers forage for victims much like predatory animals, such as sharks, or pollinators, such as bees. The RFID chips showed that bees pollinate plants near their hive, but not too close. It appeared the insects created a buffer zone between the hive and their feeding grounds—this protected the hive from predators and parasites. In the same way, serial killers feel comfortable preying in their neighborhoods, but not too close to their homes.

So how will the police use this to find their serial killers? By creating a model of hunting, which criminologists can use to understand how serial killers work and geographically profile them. The model might help police track serial killers from crime scenes back to their homes.

5. Feed Your Feet to Fish

doctorfish.jpgRemoving tough foot calluses has never been easy. Manicurists use files and razors to shave off dead skin. John Ho—owner of Yvonne Hair, Nail and Tan Salon—spent $40,000 to stock his Northern Virginian spa with 1,000 doctor fish or Garra rufa, which are tiny and toothless. For 15 to 30 minutes, patrons soak their feet in warm water while about 100 doctor fish nibble at their dry skin. Some compare the tingling sensation to the feeling of a foot falling asleep. After the fish feast on calluses, a manicurist massages and rubs lotions into the feet just like a regular pedicure. [Image courtesy of Doctor Fish Massage, Inc.]

Detractors think that most people will shy away from a fish pedicure because letting fish eat your feet is widely considered gross. But Ho has sold about 5,000 doctor fish pedicures, and spas in Turkey and throughout Asia offer the unique treatment to an increasing number of consumers. Ho hopes to offer full body doctor fish treatments to help people suffering from skin ailments and plans on selling franchising rights to his doctor fish pedicures.

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August 26, 2008 - 12:29pm
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