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Crawling Machine Is Half Animal, Half 3D-Printed Robot

Let’s face it: We’re all cyborgs these days. Our phones have become extensions of our bodies, and we wear devices to track our vital signs, movement, and sleep. We even embed microchips in our pets. Yet none of us have gone quite as far as one research team's new sea slug robot. The researchers will discuss their progress on the minuscule half-animal, half-machine invention at the 2016 Living Machines conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We know what you’re thinking: Why? Is this just one of those things scientists do to see if they can? Nope. As it turns out, the biohybrid robot, as it’s called, has been designed for a very practical purpose: combing the floors of oceans and ponds to look for lost objects (like a downed airplane's black box) and chemical disturbances. By combining an aquatic creature’s beautifully evolved seaworthiness with the control and customization of a machine, the team has produced features and capabilities that neither robot nor animal could accomplish on its own.

Project lead Victoria Webster is a Ph.D. student at Case Western University. To conceptualize, build, and test the two-inch-long robot, Webster teamed up with an impressive team of biologists, engineers, robotics researchers, and fabrication experts from across her university. "We want the robots to be compliant, to interact with the environment," Webster said in a press statement.

First, they had to find the right animal. They settled on the California sea hare (Aplysia californica), a hefty sea slug found in coastal waters from northern California into Mexico. Despite its soft appearance, A. californica is a rugged beast, with durable muscles and cells packed with defensive toxins and colored ink.

Genny Anderson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The animal parts of the robot, as shown in the photo up top, are engineered from the sea hare’s mouth muscles. The current iteration of the robot is dependent on an external electrical input, but the researchers say that future versions will incorporate the sea hare’s own muscle-powering ganglia and brain cells.

"With the ganglia, the muscle is capable of much more complex movement, compared to using a manmade control, and it's capable of learning," Webster said.

The next step was integrating robotic pieces with the sea slug’s mouth parts. The team used the mouth’s weird natural shape, which already had two arm-like appendages. Around these appendages they attached a 3D-printed shell. In the future, they hope to do away with the artificial pieces altogether, replacing them with a supportive scaffolding engineered from living sea slug collagen. They note that, unlike machines made of metal or plastic, an all-organic robot that wandered off would naturally break down or be eaten, rather than adding to the harmful litter on the sea floor.

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science
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.

1. SHE WAS BORN TO, AND FOR, GREATNESS.

A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.

2. HER PARENTS' MARRIAGE WAS A MODEL FOR HER OWN.

Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

3. SHE AND HER HUSBAND WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE PAIR.

Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

4. THEY FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE.

The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.

5. SHE WAS NOT CONTENT WITH THE STATUS QUO.

Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.

6. SHE WORKED HERSELF TO DEATH.

Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like Delivery.com or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with Delivery.com or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]

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