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Addictive Drugs That Are Actually Pesticides

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From coca leaves to coffee beans, people use plants to produce many of the most popular drugs in the world. But whether it’s your $5 morning latté or a line of coke, you might be surprised to learn why plants bother to build the molecules behind that buzz in the first place. Strangely enough, many plant-based drugs—such as caffeine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine—are all made for the exact same reason: to fight off insects. Why exactly do humans love ingesting insect repellent so much?

Caffeine, Cocaine, Nicotine and Morphine: Pleasurable Pesticides

According to Dr. David Kennedy, who studies plants and the human brain at Northumbria University, to understand what it is about nature’s pesticides that gets us so enjoyably high, it first helps to look at the world from a plant’s perspective. “Unlike animals, plants are rooted in where they live, and can’t really get away from any threats they might need to avoid,” Kennedy says. So to keep hungry herbivores at bay, he explains, many plants can manufacture a slew of defensive chemicals.

Now some plants, like the itchy poison ivy or poison oak, use brute force chemical weapons. But others—such as opium poppies and tobacco plants—take a more delicate approach. These plants still require some animals to get close enough to help them pollinate and breed, so rather than launching a full-scale toxic offensive, they’ll merely mess with a munching bug’s mind.

To do so, these plants produce neurotoxic drugs called alkaloids, which change the balance of chemicals in a bug’s brain. At high enough levels, these drugs can kill insects (and overdose humans) but small amounts will only send them on a bad trip.

Human and Insect Brains

Oddly enough, although these alkaloids evolved to interact with insect brains, “their effects on humans are often strangely similar,” says Kennedy. “For instance, if you give cocaine to bees, it will make them dance more. If you give caffeine or other amphetamines to flies, it will wake them up and make them more aroused. And if you give morphine to insects, it’ll have the same analgesic sort of effect.”

But Kennedy explains this isn’t all that surprising. “Humans have essentially the same brain as an insect. Ours are a little more complicated, but functionally they’re both very similar,” he says. For example, in both brains many of the chemicals that the neurons use to communicate—called neurotransmitters—have the same jobs.

But the mental effect of these drugs does differ in one huge way. “Insects don’t find these drugs addictive or pleasurable, they just find them repulsive,” says Kennedy. This is because human brains have a pleasure-causing reward system which is unlike anything found in the head of a bug—and is based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine. “In humans, by total chance, these drugs just hijack that reward system,” and can flood our brains with dopamine, says Kennedy.

This dopamine rush is what causes the pleasurable effect of these drugs—which can range from a perky disposition (caffeine) to gripping euphoria (cocaine)—and is also what makes these drugs so addictive. But bugs just feel crazed or twitchy, without the pleasure.

Marijuana and Psychedelics

Not all alkaloids or insect repellents in the plant world elicit such a big wave of pleasure in humans. In fact, drugs like cocaine and caffeine are only a tiny subset, and there are plenty of similar drugs out there that will make you little more than sick.

And Kennedy says that when speaking about these addictive drugs, it’s also worth mentioning a few other chemicals that plants produce to interact with the wildlife around them: psychedelic drugs like psilocin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and tetrahydrocannabinol (the active ingredient in marijuana).

Kennedy explains that these psychedelics are distinct from the addictive alkaloids—and this is because of both their chemical structure and the fact that they’re not used solely by plants as pesticides. Rather, these psychedelic drugs can have a large mix of jobs inside the plant, from fighting fungus and microbes to luring in pollinating insects. But just like the alkaloids, their insane effect on the human mind is entirely coincidental, says Kennedy.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]