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3D Printed Rats Make For Cheaper and More Ethical Dissections

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Rats, one can only assume, are big fans of Maryland couple Bart Taylor and Tara Whittle. The pair have launched a new startup that is hoping to eliminate the need for real rats to be sacrificed in the name of scientific education.

It all started when Taylor, a necropsy technician, bought a PrintrBot 3D printer. At first, the possibilities were so vast he didn't know what to print; he began with plastic toys for his toddler daughter. But he wanted something more useful. His wildlife biologist wife suggested he try to print animal models, and it all clicked.

In high school, Taylor had hated the part of biology class where he had to dissect the rats. The smell was noxious, the chemicals irritating, and it didn't even work—he ended up failing the anatomy test and feeling awful for the rat's wasted death. So he thought that if he could print accurate 3D models, it would eliminate many of the ethical and comfort issues surrounding classic dissections.

“We can print an animal and structure the layers so that they feel like real tissue, and make a model a person could dissect without ever having to wear gloves, use sharp tools or kill an animal,” Taylor told Smithsonian.com. Last month, he and his wife founded NecropSynth to put this idea into practice.

It's estimated that high school classrooms use 6 to 12 million rat specimens for dissections each year. In addition to this vast waste of animal life, the lessons are expensive. While it costs anywhere from $8 to $12 per rat from a biological supply company, NecropSynth estimates each of their printed rats—their prototype is called the SynthDawley, a nod to the Sprague Dawley rat used in most labs—could cost as little as $2 to $3. What's more, they're planning on making the schematics for the models free for download so anyone with a 3D printer can make their own.

“A few people just couldn’t believe it. We’re not looking to sell this,” Whittle said of his plan at the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C.

Right now, the model is still in the works. The couple is in the process of figuring out how to print "bones" and "muscle" of different material simultaneously and make the various internal systems hollow and translucent so they could be highlighted one at a time with a colored gel. But science teachers at the National Maker Faire were excited for the potential.

"Everyone loved our idea," Whittle said. "They all recognized the issues of budgeting and safety and non-standard models being used in classrooms."

[h/t treehugger]

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Animals
Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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