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Robot jellyfish could save the world’s coral reefs

The world’s coral reefs are in dire need of some love. Global warming and ocean temperature spikes have left massive stretches of vital coral reefs damaged, possibly beyond all repair, and if we don’t do something to stop the continuing damage it’s going to cost mankind dearly. But studying coral is no easy task, so researchers from the US Office of Naval Research and Florida Atlantic University have come up with a solution.

The issue at hand is the fragility of coral itself. It’s incredibly hard to monitor reef habitats and the health of the reef ecosystem using human divers or bulky equipment which could cause damage. The solution? Soft-bodied robotic jellyfish.

Using the moon jellyfish as inspiration, the scientists built prototypes to test the feasibility of using a simple hydraulic movement system to allow their creation to move around in the water with very little effort. The work paid off, and the result is a small robot that can move effortlessly along a coral reef without risking any damage. A research paper based on the work was published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

“A main application of the robot is exploring and monitoring delicate ecosystems, so we chose soft hydraulic network actuators to prevent inadvertent damage,” Dr. Erik Engeberg of Florida Atlantic University said in a statement. “Additionally, live jellyfish have neutral buoyancy. To mimic this, we used water to inflate the hydraulic network actuators while swimming.”

The soft exterior of the robot, which is made of a rubbery silicon material, allows it to squeeze through tiny gaps. A future iteration of the robot could even incorporate a sonar sensor to gauge the size of openings before muscling through them, Dr. Engeberg noted.

In the future, robotic jellyfish like these could be outfitted with any number of sensors to monitor water temperature and quality or even relay images of various parts of the reef to scientists on shore. These eyes-in-the-sea, so to speak, could be vital to monitoring ongoing reef recovery efforts worldwide.

You think your neighbors can drive energy conservation

Beliefs about neighbors’ environmental attitudes might trump your own.

To truly stop the spread of malaria, we might have to treat mosquitoes instead of ourselves

Malaria is an incredibly devastating disease that regularly infects hundreds of millions of people every year, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. In tropical areas, the disease runs rampant as infected mosquitoes spread the parasite from person to person.

The most common preventative measures to curb the spread are mosquito nets and pesticides to keep the insects away from human hosts, but a new study suggests there may be a better way, and it involves treating the actual mosquitoes that are spreading the disease in the first place.

The research, which was published in Nature Communications, focused on finding a way to prevent humans from infecting mosquitoes. That might sound backwards, but it’s actually a pretty smart approach once you understand how malaria parasites spread.

You see, when a person is infected with malaria and then successfully treated, their symptoms disappear but the parasites are actually still in the person’s body. That dormant form of the parasite lies in wait for a mosquito to bite the person once more. When that happens, the parasites enter the mosquito’s body and begin reproducing, and when the mosquito bites another person the disease begins wreaking havoc once again.

A team of scientists led by Jake Baum of Imperial College London tested tens of thousands of compounds to see how they affected the malaria parasites’ ability to reproduce inside mosquitoes and subsequently infect humans. From a pool of over 70,000 compounds, six potential candidates were discovered.

“What we propose is antimalarial drugs that protect mosquitoes, blocking the parasites from continuing their infectious journey,” Baum said in a statement. “By combining such a drug with a conventional antimalarial, we not only cure the individual person, but protect the community as well.”

“At the level of the individual person, fighting malaria is a constant battle as parasites become resistant to antimalarial drugs. Since transmission occurs in the mosquito, drugs targeting this process have the added benefit of being naturally much more resistance-proof, which could be essential for eliminating malaria.”

The team simulated what the inside of a mosquito’s body is like in order to test the reaction of the malaria parasites to the various compounds. The preparation was tedious and it took “several years” to set up the system to test the compounds. Once that was completed, the researchers were able to screen over 10,000 different compounds per week, which is quite impressive.

The compounds the team identified will need further testing, but they are thought to be both safe for humans and active against the parasite’s typical life cycle. If a previously infected person were treated with a drug based on one of these compounds, and then bitten by a mosquito, it could actually treat the insect and prevent it from spreading the disease in the future. Could we be watching the fight against malaria finally being won? We might not have to wait long to find out.

Ice volcanoes have likely been erupting for billions of years on Ceres

The one cryovolcano we can see now is joined by dozens of extinct ones.

The math of why it’s so hard to build a spherical Death Star in space

In his book Math With Bad Drawings, Ben Orlin connects abstract math with reality.