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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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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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