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The Puking Robot That Helps Scientists Study Infectious Noroviruses

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Wikimedia Commons

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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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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iStock
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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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