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The Puking Robot That Helps Scientists Study Infectious Noroviruses

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Norovirus might be the perfect human pathogen. It hacks our DNA to create new noroviruses, gives us diarrhea, makes us puke so that the virus can spread to new hosts—and it spreads like wildfire. More than 1.1 million people in Britain have been infected so far this winter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus causes 21 million illnesses annually in the United States. Approximately 70,000 require hospitalization and around 800 die each year.

Norovirus first appeared in Norwalk, Ohio, in November 1968, but how the virus gets into our cells still isn't well understood. "It’s not even clear exactly which type of cell they invade once they reach the gut," Carl Zimmer writes at National Geographic. “Regardless of the type, they clearly know how to exploit their hosts. Noroviruses come roaring out of the infected cells in vast numbers. And then they come roaring out of the body. Within a day of infection, noroviruses have rewired our digestive system so that stuff comes flying out from both ends.”

The viruses, says Zimmer, alter our intestinal lining and cause the cells to dump fluids, which contain many noroviruses (5 billion per gram of feces, in fact). And they make us repeatedly projectile vomit by tapping into our nervous systems and making our nerves send signals that will quickly contract the muscle lining of the stomach. Again, how these viruses do it is a mystery, but some studies have shown that during a norovirus infection, the digestion of food is slowed down. “In other words,” Zimmer says, “they seem to load up the stomach in preparation for vomiting.” Once outside the body, the viruses float through the air and end up on counters, food, and any other surface you can think of. On hard surfaces, they can survive 12 hours; on contaminated fabrics, 12 days. They also survive freezing, heating, and bleaching.

According to Zimmer, scientists don’t have a good way to study noroviruses, because they haven’t figured out how to rear them in human cells in a lab environment. But they can look at how the viruses spread—and that’s where Vomiting Larry comes in.

Larry is a humanoid robot that projectile vomits puke laced with a fluorescent marker. This allows scientists at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, England, to study how far particles of vomit travel, become aerosolized, spread, and infect others. “That’s important,” says Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing (where the above video comes from), “because it explains one of the ways that viruses spread by vomiting manage to end up in everyday things like, say, frozen raspberries. Aerosolized vomit isn't something you can spot. It doesn't clean up easily. And even just a drop of it can pass on plenty of viruses.”

Right now, scientists have Larry rigged up to study noroviruses, which Ian Goodfellow, a professor of virology at the department of pathology at Britain's University of Cambridge, told Reuters is “one of the most infectious viruses of man. It takes fewer than 20 virus particles to infect someone. So each droplet of vomit or gram of feces from an infected person can contain enough virus to infect more than 100,000 people." Using Larry, they've determined that aerosolized vomit can travel about 10 feet away from the puker.

So what’s the easiest way to stay healthy? Use common sense: Avoid anyone with the symptoms of the virus, wash your hands with warm, soapy water (Goodfellow suggests counting to 15), and dry your hands thoroughly.

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Tracing Vladimir Nabokov's 1941 Cross-Country Road Trip, One Butterfly at a Time
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Vladimir Nabokov is most famous as a writer, but the Russian scribe was also an amateur—yet surprisingly accomplished—lepidopterist. Nabokov first began collecting butterflies as a child, and after moving to the U.S. in 1940 he began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History.

The following year, the author took a cross-country road trip, driving 4000 miles from Pennsylvania to California. Along the way, he stopped at kitschy roadside motels, which provided atmospheric fodder for his 1955 novel Lolita. Nabokov also collected hundreds of butterfly samples at these rest stops, most of which he ended up donating to the AMNH.

Nabokov would go on to publish multiple scientific papers on lepidoptery—including the definitive scholarly study of the genus Lycaeides, or the “blues”—and produce perhaps thousands of delicate butterfly drawings. Multiple butterfly species were also named after him, including Nabokov’s wood nymph.

In the AMNH’s 360-degree video below, you can trace the author's 1941 cross-country road trip state-by-state, see some of the specimens he collected, and learn how museum curators are using his westward journey to better understand things like species distribution and migration patterns.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design.

Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor.

Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies.

In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.)

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens.

"The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release.

The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking.

“When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure.

[h/t Fast Company]

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