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Immunology Study Suggests the Appendix Has a Use After All

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The appendix has long had a reputation as a redundant organ with no real function. Doctors often remove it even in mild cases of appendicitis to prevent future infection and rupture, which may not always be necessary. But new research on the way innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) protect against infection in people with compromised immune systems may redeem this misunderstood organ. 

“Our study was to investigate the innate lymphoid cells in the gut [of mice] and how they might contribute to the function and protection of the gut,” Gabrielle Belz, of Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, tells mental_floss. “At the same time, we were interested to know how different immune cells impacted the different parts of the gut.”

ILCs can be found “underlying all the body’s surfaces, including the skin, the lungs, the gut, and the reproductive tract, and play a very important and broad role in protecting the body from infections and responses to environmental insults,” says Belz.  

Belz’s team worked in collaboration with a team headed by Eric Vivier at the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy, France. Together, they set out to explore how ILC3s (one group of ILCs) function during and after a gut infection—particularly how they altered immune protection.

The study, published in Nature Immunology, found that in mice, gut infections begin in the cecum, a small pouch that is considered to be the beginning of the large intestine, and which contains a large patch of ILC3s near its tip. The team infected mice with the murine pathogen Citrobacter rodentium, which establishes first in the cecum. Then they removed the ILC3s, which caused shrinkage of the cecum and inflammation in the colon. Moreover, they uncovered a “layered contribution” of each of the different types of immune cells in the cecum.

“Thus, surprisingly, altering the balance of immune cells significantly affected what was happening in the cecum, suggesting that a similar effect might occur in humans in the appendix,” Belz says. “This highlights that simply disposing of this organ may not always be in our best interests.” 

While the appendix is not required for digestive functions in humans, Belz tells mental_floss, “It does house symbiotic bacteria proposed by Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker at Duke University to be important for overall gut health, but particularly when we get a gut infection resulting in diarrhea.”

Infections of this kind clear the gut not only of fluids and nutrients but also good bacteria. Their research suggests that those ILCs housed in the appendix may be there as a reserve to repopulate the gut with good bacteria after a gut infection.

ILCs are hardier than other immune cells, and thus vital to fighting bacterial infections in people with compromised immune systems, such as those in cancer treatment; they are some of the few immune cells that can survive chemotherapy. 

Belz says that changing the way the appendix is regarded—from vestigial to integral—may also help prevent unnecessary appendix operations. In non-emergency cases of appendicitis, for instance, non-surgical treatments such as antibiotics “can be used to endeavor to calm the inflammation down in the cecum and appendix,” she says. And a healthy appendix may be helping to keep your gut microbiome balanced: Belz has conducted prior research that shows that diet, particularly leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, may help produce ILCs as well. 

More study can also help understand how ILCs play a role in allergic diseases such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis. At the very least, Belz says, “It seems likely that [the appendix] is an integral part of the immune system.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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