CLOSE
Original image
iStock

Scientists Track Microbe Transmission from Mother to Infant

Original image
iStock

There's strong evidence that babies inherit their gut microbiomes from their mothers, but it's been unclear if the microbiome transmission takes place in the womb, at birth, or after birth; there are likely multiple paths of transmission unfolding over time. Microbial diversity is crucial to building up many functions, including the immune system, digestion, and even combating complex diseases. Recent research has found a connection between our gut microbiomes and our mental health as well.

However, studying the direct transmission of these microbes and identifying the strains of bacteria has been difficult until recently. Now researchers at the Centre for Integrative Biology at the University of Trento (UoT), Italy, have developed methods to track this microbial “vertical transmission,” as it’s called, and made some new discoveries in their methodological study, published in mSystems, an open access journal from the American Society for Microbiology.

“We know the infant increases [its] microbial diversity after birth and will continue doing so until being an adult,” senior study author Nicola Segata, an assistant professor at UoT, tells mental_floss. “We needed to understand from where microbes are coming in the first place.”

Many microbes are likely transmitted from mother to infant at birth and just after birth through direct contact with the birth canal, the skin, and through breast milk, but they had not yet done thorough investigations of the strains of bacteria to corroborate this. This is also important in the case of identifying the transmission of microbes that are dangerous to the infant’s health, such as Group B Streptococcus, which can cause an infection, and even death, in infants.

Segata explains, “Our contribution is really tracking which bacteria are moving from mother to infant. It was already known that certain microbes were present in the mother and infant but each had a different strain of, say, E. coli or Bifidobacterium. We looked to see if mothers and infants had the same strain of E. coli, or if it was a different strain from other infants and mothers.”

Taking fecal and breast milk samples from five mother-infant pairs when the infants were 3 months, 10 months, and, for one pair, at 16 months of age, Segata and his team used a technique called shotgun metagenomic sequencing of 24 microbiome samples of either fecal or breastmilk samples to determine which microbes were present. (This technique makes it possible to sample genes from all organisms in a sample.) Then they used another method known as metatranscriptomics to study RNA in fecal samples to identify active microbes.

“Each mother and infant pair had different strains of bacteria, but when you match each mother and her infant, they have the same strain, so this is strong evidence of the strain coming from the mother,” Segata says.

Another important discovery, Segata says, is that “these strains acquired from the mother are also active in the infant gut, they are alive. It’s important that the strains moving from mother to infant are active, colonizing.”

While this study allowed them to say confidently, “We can track microbe transmission from mother to infant,” Segata says their next study will allow them to identify which microbes, and whether they will survive in the infant gut.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
© Nintendo
arrow
fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES