IBM Needs Your Help Studying the Human Microbiome

iStock
iStock

Humans have been to the Moon and the deepest part of the ocean, but when it comes to understanding what goes on in our own bodies, there's much that still needs to be explored. The human microbiome, for instance, is made of up of trillions of microscopic organisms that dictate everything from our gut health to certain chronic diseases. Now, Boston Magazine reports that IBM is attempting to study the human microbiome like it's never been studied before, and they're calling on the public to help with the effort.

The goal of the initiative, dubbed the Microbiome Immunity Project, is to decode the genomes of the many bacteria living inside the human body. Scientists know that the micobiome is linked to some diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. By analyzing the proteins these bacteria produce, researchers hope to get a better understanding of how these diseases happen and how to treat them at the microbial level.

To do this, scientists plan to study the proteins related to the 3 million unique bacterial genes of the human microbiome. For comparison, more than 20,000 genes were mapped for the Human Genome Project, and that undertaking lasted 13 years.

Technology has come a long way since that project was completed in 2003, but IBM will still need all the help they can get to make the Microbiome Immunity Project happen. In addition to collaborating with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, University of California-San Diego, and the Flatiron Institute, IBM is calling on members of the public to donate their surplus computing power.

If you're interested in contributing to the citizen science project, you can sign up to join IBM's World Community Grid. From there, you'll be able to download a software program that detects when your computer has extra processing power to offer and uses it to run virtual experiments for the project. "Had World Community Grid not existed, we wouldn't have even contemplated this project," Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC-San Diego, said in a press statement. "By harnessing the efforts of volunteers, we can do something that exceeds the scale of what we have access to by a factor of thousands. For the first time, we're bringing a comprehensive structural biology picture to the whole microbiome, rather than solving structures one at a time in a piecemeal fashion."

IBM's software won't be able to access anything on your computer other than its processing power, and the company assures users that the system will be tested regularly for vulnerabilities. The crowdsourced computing program has been used to conduct research in areas such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, Zika, clean water, and renewable energy in the past. If IBM can get enough people to take part this time around, they plan to share their data publicly with other scientists working to study the microbiome's role in disease.

[h/t Boston Magazine]

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Dracula Ant's Jaws Snap at 200 Mph—Making It the Fastest Animal Appendage on the Planet

Ant Lab, YouTube
Ant Lab, YouTube

As if Florida’s “skull-collecting” ants weren’t terrifying enough, we’re now going to be having nightmares about Dracula ants. A new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that a species of Dracula ant (Mystrium camillae), which is found in Australia and Southeast Asia, can snap its jaws shut at speeds of 90 meters per second—or the rough equivalent of 200 mph. This makes their jaws the fastest part of any animal on the planet, researchers said in a statement.

These findings come from a team of three researchers that includes Adrian Smith, who has also studied the gruesome ways that the skull-collecting ants (Formica archboldi) dismember trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the fastest ants on record. But with jaw speeds of just over 100 miles per hour, they’re no match for this Dracula ant. (Fun fact: The Dracula ant subfamily is named after their habit of drinking the blood of their young through a process called "nondestructive cannibalism." Yikes.)

Senior author Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois, said the anatomy of this Dracula ant’s jaw is unusual. Instead of closing their jaws from an open position, which is what trap-jaw ants do, they use a spring-loading technique. The ants “press the tips of their mandibles together to build potential energy that is released when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap,” researchers write.

They use this maneuver to smack other arthropods or push them away. Once they’re stunned, they can be dragged back to the Dracula ant’s nest, where the unlucky victims will be fed to Dracula ant larvae, Suarez said.

Researchers used X-ray imaging to observe the ants’ anatomy in three dimensions. High-speed cameras were also used to record their jaws snapping at remarkable speeds, which measure 5000 times faster than the blink of a human eye. Check out the ants in slow-motion in the video below.

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