CLOSE
Original image

Extremophiles: Life on the Edge

Original image

The possibility of life on Mars and other planets and moons has been debated for as long as we have known about those planets. Now that water has been found on the Mars, that possibility is more believable than ever. Sure, conditions are fierce on Mars, but research here on planet Earth reveals that life forms can be tough. In fact, wherever it was once thought that no life could exist, more and more organisms are being found that not only live, but thrive and evolve.

Hot Springs

The boiling waters of Yellowstone National Park and other extreme thermal environments have species of thermophiles, or organisms that thrive in temperatures that would kill most living things. These thermophiles have specialized enzymes that keep their DNA from unraveling the way other life forms would. Chemicals from various thermophile species are used for a range of biochemical applications, such as DNA fingerprinting technology. Image by Flickr user v1ctory_1s_m1ne.

The Dead Sea

530deadsea

The Dead Sea has such a high saline content that pillars of salt form on its banks. Yet Halobacterium salinarum lives in its waters. Halobacterium is one of the most ancient of microbes, and depends more on light for survival than on oxygen. It adjusts its own needs according to the available light and oxygen. Image by Flickr user CharlesFred.

Toxic Sludge

550euglena

A copper mine in Montana was abandoned in 1983. As water filled the remaining hole known as the Berkeley Pit, minerals and metals leeched out and made it extremely acidic and poisonous. No fish or plants survived in the toxic water. It was thought to be completely dead until 1995 when a scientist recovered a slime that contained Euglena mutabilis, This protozoan manipulated its immediate environment to make it more livable! Researchers eventually found over 160 different species of microorganisms in the polluted water, some of which are being studied for use in cancer treatment. There is hope that Euglena mutabilis will eventually clean up the toxic water. Image by Linda Amaral Zettler and David Patterson.

Beneath the Great Lakes

550_purplecyanobacteria

Sinkholes deep beneath the Great Lakes have a very different chemical makeup from the water above. These pockets are filled with salt, acid, and sulfur, but have purple cyanobacteria that use sulfur instead of oxygen for photosynthesis. Other species that live too deep for sunlight to penetrate live on sulfur without photosynthesis.

Sea Floor Volcanos

550volcanicvent

In the depths of the Pacific ocean, volcanic vents support life too far down to take advantage of any sunlight at all. Tubeworms and giant clams thrive in volcanic environments by feeding on smaller species that survive only on chemicals without the advantage of photosynthesis. Image credit: NOAA.

High-altitude Volcanos

550_andes

The Socompa volcano is 20,000 feet high in the Andes mountains. Conditions there include little oxygen, lack of water, ultraviolet radiation, and methane. But scientists have found moss, algae, and over a hundred species of bacteria living in the shadow of Socompa. The area has been compared to Mars in its ability to sustain life.

In the Clouds

320icenucleators

Bacteria even live in the clouds! These microbes act as particles that ice form around and fall as snow or rain. They are called biological ice nucleators. Nucleators are found in plants and soil and are thought to ride on pollen as it is blown into the atmosphere. The part of the bacterial life cycle spent on vegetation may sustain an ice nucleator during its ride in the clouds, and the cloud seeding may be a mechanism for spreading it to distant parts of the earth.

Space

432tardigrade

No look at extremophiles would be complete without tardigrades, or water bears. These tiny animals are found in various extreme conditions on earth. They can survive hot and cold temperatures, radiation, lack of food and water, and even in a vacuum. The European Space Agency sent tardigrades into orbit in 2008, where they were exposed to cosmic radiation, solar radiation, and vacuum pressure. The space tardigrades were in a dormant state during the flight, which means their metabolism was slowed down considerably -a method they use to weather extreme conditions on earth. After returning from their adventure, they lived and even reproduced! Image by Flickr user Goldstein lab - tardigrades.

Beneath Antarctica?

350_Vostok

Two miles beneath the ice of Vostok Research Station in Antarctica, a huge freshwater lake has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. The water is below freezing temperature, but stays liquid because of the pressure from the ice above. Researchers have not yet broken through to the water, but samples of ice just above the lake reveal the presence of microbe fossils. The lake is saturated with oxygen due to the temperature and pressure, and has been compared with the environments of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. There are plans to send down a probe called a cryobot, but extreme care will be taken to preserve the pristine conditions of the isolated lake.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image
iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES