NASA/Ames
NASA/Ames

This Earth-Friendly Drone Is Made From Biodegradable Fungus

NASA/Ames
NASA/Ames

Drones can make useful tools for learning more about the environment, but in some cases they can upset the same ecosystems they’re being used to study. Now, a new type of drone is being made from biodegradable, eco-friendly materials.

The "biodrone" was designed by a team of students from Brown, Spelman, and Stanford Universities in collaboration with NASA’s Ames Research Center. The group’s leader, NASA biologist Lynn Rothschild, recently spoke with Discover magazine about the project. She says she got the idea from a previous drone crash that nearly yielded disastrous results: The 400-pound research device went missing off the Alaskan coast in 2013, but was luckily discovered by fisherman with its fuel tank still intact. Future incidents may not end so uneventfully, which is why Rothschild helped develop a drone that can crash with little environmental impact.

To construct the prototype, the team worked with the material science company Ecovative. The biodrone's frame is composed of a fungal root material called mycelium, which was placed in a mold where it consumed leaf and grass cuttings until it had completely filled out the mold's shape. The mycelium was then dried out at 180 to 200°F, leaving a lightweight chassis. That chassis was coated with cellulose acetate, which was then itself coated with a hydrophobic protein found in paper wasp saliva to make it waterproof. The propellers were molded from the same plastic found in biodegradable forks and knives. According to Discover, while a 100 percent biodegradable motor is still theoretical, one future possibility is a bacterial fuel cell used to provide electricity and power the propeller motors. Another potential addition is a camera made with ultra-thin silicon that dissolves in water, or electronics printed on sheets of cellulose acetate in dissolvable silver nanoparticle ink.

According to WIRED, these biodrones could also have applications on missions to Mars. By biogenerating a drone on Mars from a sample of cells, NASA would be saving both space and money on the trip there. Such a drone's biogenerative properties could also open up the possibility for one-way research missions, since there's no concern about retrieving toxic materials—instead of harming whatever environment it lands in, the drone could provide a fungus-flavored treat to creatures nearby. 

[h/t: Discover]

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This Self-Cloning Tick is Terrorizing More States
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iStock

Few arachnids are as demonized in the summer months as ticks, the parasitic little nuisances that can spread disease in humans and pets. That's not likely to change now that there's a exotic new species that can not only self-replicate, but is also poised to attack animals like a colony of swarming fire ants.

This super-tick is Haemaphysalis longicornis, or the longhorned tick, native to East Asia and imported to the U.S. by unknown means. The first North American sighting took place in August 2017 in New Jersey when a farmer walked into a county health office covered in nearly 1000 ticks after shearing a pet sheep that had been infested. The insect was then spotted in Virginia, West Virginia, and Arkansas, with caution advised in Maryland. As of this week, it’s now a confirmed resident of North Carolina, The Charlotte Observer reports.

H. longicornis invites more dread than a conventional tick for several reasons. It can “clone” itself, with females laying up to 2000 genetically identical eggs without any assistance from a male, a process called parthenogenesis. Reproduction is faster, with offspring appearing in just six months compared to two years for common deer ticks. It’s also an aggressive biter, nibbling on any animal flesh it can latch on to, and is able to transfer a host of diseases in the process—some of them fatal. In addition to Lyme, longhorned ticks can transmit the flu-like ehrlichiosis bacteria and the rare Powassan virus, which can cause brain inflammation.

The news isn’t much better for livestock. Given enough opportunity, the ticks can siphon enough blood from an animal to kill it, a process known as exsanguination. The attack can become so concentrated that pets have been spotted with ticks hanging from them like bunches of grapes.

New Jersey officials have confirmed the tick has survived the winter by burrowing underground, a somewhat ominous sign that the invasive species might be durable enough to become a widespread problem. Experts recommend taking all the regular precautions, including wearing long pants when outdoors, using repellent, and examining yourself and your pets for ticks. While the longhorned tick hadn’t yet displayed a taste for human flesh, it’s better to be safe than sorry. As for the sheep: following a chemical treatment, she made a full recovery.

[h/t Charlotte Observer]

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10 "Udderly" Fascinating Facts About Cows
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iStock

Cows dot fields and pastures across many countries, and cow products are valued and consumed worldwide because their production of milk and meat isn't seasonal, as crops usually are. Cow products can also be preserved for extended use, such as butter, cheese, and smoked or cured meats. And, scientists are still finding new uses for the roughly 80 pounds of manure that a dairy cow produces daily. Chew the cud over these 10 facts about bovines. 

1. COWS ARE KILLERS.

Cow looking at a camera.
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An ABC News report cited a 2012 study, published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, which found that cattle cause an average of 22 deaths per year. Sharks, on the other hand, kill about six people per year. It sounds like SyFy should have made Cownado instead.

2. COW TIPPING IS JUST A MYTH.

Cow sleeping with its head on the rock.
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It might be funny to imagine a sleeping cow falling over with just a gentle shove, but cow tipping isn't that easy. Actually, it's nearly impossible. Cows sleep lying down and are generally wary of approaching humans, so they're never really blissed-out enough to allow a stranger to get close enough to touch them. But the bigger obstacle is their sheer size. Cows are massive—on average 1500 pounds—and balance their weight on all four legs.

3. COWS HAVE COMPLICATED DIGESTIVE SYSTEMS.

Cows eating hay in a row.
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Cows' stomachs are made up of four pouches—the reticulum, the rumen, the omasum, and the abomasum—each serving a specific purpose. Cows barely chew their food before it enters the first and largest part of the stomach called the rumen. Once the rumen is full, the cow lies down and the reticulum—which is made of muscle and is connected to the rumen so food and water can easily pass back and forth—pushes the unchewed food back up the esophagus and into the mouth. After re-chewing, or rumination, the food eventually passes through the omasum. The omasum filters out the water and gives the bacteria in the rumen more time to break down the food and take in more nutrients. Finally, the food enters the abomasum, which functions similar to a human stomach.

4. THERE ARE SURROGATE COWS.

Pregnant cow in a field.
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Transferring embryos from a genetically superior cow to a merely adequate cow is becoming more common. The procedure—known as embryo transfer (ET)—involves injecting a superior cow with hormones so she produces multiple eggs. Her eggs then need to be fertilized, either naturally or through artificial insemination. When the eggs are fertilized, a vet performs an "embryo flush" to remove them. That generally results in six to seven usable embryos, but can produce as many as 80 or 90. Without hormone treatment, a cow can only produce one embryo.

There are a number of reasons to perform ET—genetically superior cows produce genetically superior eggs. When they're transferred to surrogates, herds gain more powerful and efficient cows, instead of the offspring the surrogates might produce on their own. Embryos are also easily sent overseas to improve the bovine gene pool elsewhere, supplying more (and more efficient) milk-producing cows to countries that lack enough resources to meet demand. (For more on the cow surrogacy process, check out this story from NPR's Abby Wendle.)

5. THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD CATTLE STEMS FROM THE WORD FOR PERSONAL PROPERTY.

Cattle in a field.
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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the origin of cattle is chatel, the Anglo-French word for personal property. Chatel comes from the Medieval Latin term capitale.

6. A COW IS TECHNICALLY A FEMALE WHO HAS GIVEN BIRTH TO AT LEAST ONE CALF.

Mother cow licking a baby calf.
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There are specific terms for bovines depending on their age, sex, and purpose. For example, a "bull" is a mature, male bovine used for breeding, while a "steer" is a male that's been castrated and is used for its beef. A "heifer" is a female bovine that has yet to have calves, and a "bred heifer" is a pregnant heifer. There are a number of additional terms that farmers use to describe members of their herd.

7. BULLS CAN'T SEE RED.

A matador in the arena with a bull.
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A bullfighter could just as easily wave a pink or purple flag to get a bull to charge. The bull isn't angered by the color—all bovines are red/green colorblind. Instead, it's the movement of the cloth that gets it all riled up. The real reason matadors wear red: to hide the bull's blood.

8. COWS WITH NAMES PRODUCE MORE MILK.

A cow being milked.
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If farmers have a good relationship with their cows—meaning they give them names and show enough affection—they can produce more milk than their lonely counterparts. A 2009 study from Newcastle University found that cows who are more comfortable around humans are less stressed when milked. When cows are stressed, they produce cortisol, a hormone that inhibits milk production.  Another plus side of a happy cow-human relationship: farmers are less likely to get injured on the job (see fact #1).

9. INTO THE WOODS USED A REAL COW.

James Corden on stage in a white jacket
Kevin Winter, Getty Images for NARAS

For the 2014 film, director Rob Marshall wanted to use a real, live cow instead of depending on CGI. James Corden, who played the Baker and spent plenty of time with his bovine costar, admitted that things didn't always go smoothly: "You just don't know what it's like when you're doing a scene, and Meryl Streep is giving a phenomenal performance in only the way she can and it's scuppered by just 'Moooooooo,'" he recalled, adding, "That cow was the biggest diva on this set."

10. COWS PRODUCE METHANE, BUT DON'T BLAME THEM FOR GLOBAL WARMING.

Cows in a rounded milking station.
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Even though cattle produce plenty of methane during digestion, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still considers the animals' contribution to global warming our fault, "because humans raise these animals for food and other products." In other words, this is a classic case of "He who smelt it, dealt it."

This story originally ran in 2015.

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