Floral-Scented Pesticide Lures Mosquitoes to Their Death

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iStock

There are those who argue that mosquitoes serve a purpose, that their droning, blood-gorging presence represents an important link in a fragile food chain. Then there's Agenor Mafra-Neto, who mostly just wants them to die. The chemical ecologist and his colleagues presented their new strategy for mosquito control at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Irritating though they are, mosquitoes are much more than just pests; they're also vectors of deadly diseases that claim millions of lives every year. While some scientists race to develop and administer vaccines against these viruses, others are tackling the problem from the other end, hoping to block the bloodsuckers before they ever pierce a person's skin.

Today's most common chemical mosquito-protection measures are effective, but nonspecific. The same insecticide that takes out a mosquito can kill a bee or poison a dog or a baby. Pesticide runoff can contaminate the water supply. It also can't eliminate all the mosquitoes, and the survivors reproduce, thereby increasing their resistance to the chemicals.

In other words: There's room for improvement. So Mafra-Neto, founder of the pest management laboratory ISCA Technologies, teamed up with researchers from other universities to create something better.

First, they gathered piles of mosquitoes' favorite nectar-producing plants and analyzed the chemical makeup of each flower's fragrance. They exposed mosquitoes to individual elements of each fragrance to find out which ones got their attention, then eliminated any scent that also brought bees to the yard. The final result was an intoxicating perfume of sugars and proteins that no mosquito could refuse.

The researchers mixed this special blend with a highly concentrated, slow-release pesticide called Vectrax, which can be sprayed or spread onto plants and buildings. The pesticide solidifies in teeny droplets and will not spread to other surfaces, but it will spread in the bodies of the mosquitoes who come to taste it.

And taste it they do.

"The blend of chemicals that we use to attract mosquitoes is so powerful that they will ignore natural plant odors and attractants in order to get to our formulation," Mafra-Neto said in a statement. "From a mosquito's point of view, it's like having an irresistible chocolate shop on every corner. The product is so seductive that they will feed on it almost exclusively, even when it contains lethal doses of insecticide."

Mafra-Neto and his colleagues are currently conducting field tests in malaria-vulnerable villages of Tanzania. Their early results suggest that their product can cut mosquito populations by two-thirds in the first two weeks alone, and may be able to eliminate the pests entirely. Mafra-Neto wouldn't be sorry to see them go.

"I truly hate mosquitoes and ticks," he says. "Imagine: Maybe one day we will be able to go into our backyards or parks and not have to worry about being bothered by either of them."

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

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iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

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iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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