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Introducing Impolite Science News

The latest from the world of science including swapping bacteria when French kissing, are robot teams the future of planetary exploration? & reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s

Photo courtesy of Micropia


Love Me, Love My Bacteria: What’s in a Kiss?


Scientists in the Netherlands have found that couples who kiss frequently for at least 10 seconds each time share around 80 million bacteria in the process.


The study – carried out by The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) – involved 21 couples who filled out questionnaires about their kissing behaviour. The scientists also took samples of their saliva and from their tongues before and after a 10-second kiss. One half of each couple drank a probiotic yoghurt drink (to use as marker bacteria) prior to a second intimate kiss, in order to quantify the number of bacteria exchanged.


So what evolutionary purpose do these findings serve? Lead author of the research (published in the journal Microbiome), Prof Remco Kort says, “There are different theories on how French kissing evolved – sexual arousal is not the main reason. It’s a form of mate assessment – important for bonding and choosing the right partner. Some of the bacteria present in semen are the same as in saliva, so kissing helps us immunise against viruses before conception.”


It seems that frequent and recent bacterial exchange – at least 9 full-on kisses a day –  is needed for the shared bacteria to continue, so the more intimate the couple, the better. “My study is about transfer and what happens to the bacteria,” Kort continues. “Saliva is in a dynamic environment, which is stimulated during a kiss, then swallowed. Some bacteria are successful and colonise in the mouth. This helps train our immune system, forming a layer in the mouth that keeps bad bacteria away.”


Kort’s study has been in collaboration with Micropia, the world’s first museum of microbes, in Amsterdam. He is keen to promote the positive side to micro-organisms: “We tend to associate them with food spoilage and disease, but they are important and useful,” he says.


If you are in (or planning to visit) Amsterdam with a partner, check out  Micropia: you can try out the ‘Kiss-o-meter’ and find out how many bugs you share!


Photo (c) Dr. Wolfgang Fink & Mark Tarbell,Visual & Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory Caltech and University of Arizona


Safety in Numbers: How Robot Teams Could be the Future of Planetary Exploration


Missions to explore planets and other bodies in our solar system have met with varying success over the years – from the Beagle 2 lander going AWOL on deployment to Mars 11 years ago, to Rosetta’s amazing rendezvous with a comet last month. What ideas are scientists coming up with to ensure future successes?


Last month, Dr Wolfgang Fink and his team from the University of Arizona (UA) showcased what they see as the next generation of planetary rovers at a shopping mall in the US. Fink, an associate professor in the college's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, brought four robotic vehicles from his Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research lab. The demonstrators commanded the rovers using a wireless connection from iPods. Equipped with a camera, LIDAR (a sensor that uses a scanning laser to inform the rover about what's in front of it), a computer, batteries and motors, the rovers navigated around onlookers, avoided obstacles and climbed kerbs.


While the prototypes still depend on us, the goal is to make them completely independent of human control. Fink envisions rovers that could be as effective as a human field geologist.


“My rovers are prototypes that allow for the development of software algorithms for autonomous operations, ie operations with no humans in the loop,” says Fink. These algorithms would give the rovers the ability to identify interesting scientific targets — for example, unusual rock formations on Mars — all by themselves, without human programming. Therefore, they would possess their own sense of curiosity. ”While these particular rovers are not the ones going to Mars, the software algorithms developed might, and the operational lessons learned may inform future missions,” he continues.


“The concept of autonomous rovers has been around for a while. However, my research laboratory defines ‘autonomous’ in the sense of ‘synthetic reasoning’, meaning the rover digests sensor data, determines areas, objects or targets of interest, develops plans to explore these up-close, and navigates to them - all by itself.”


Although self-preservation is an important function in rovers exploring Mars now, Fink believes we need to move away from the idea of relying on single rovers for each mission. “They pose a potential single point of failure,” he says “If the rover gets stuck or becomes dysfunctional, the mission is irreversibly over.”


Fink believes that smaller, smarter teams of rovers could overcome this problem. He and his team came up with the idea of ‘Tier-Scalable Reconnaissance’, which is basically deploying equipment via hierarchical levels: for example, the orbiter above the planet or moon is level 1, communicating with airborne blimps at level 2 near the surface, which in turn communicate with the level 3 ground-based rovers.


The team has also designed a ‘lake lander’, which could explore liquid environments such as the methane lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan.


“The rovers and the robotic lake landers are components of this overarching multi-agent autonomous system architecture,” Fink says. “As such, we can afford to have smaller, more simplified, yet more robust and redundant rovers to be part of such a novel exploration paradigm: If a few rovers get lost while deployed in scientifically relevant but challenging areas, there are still others that will make it and thus have a chance to contribute significant findings. This is a significant departure from currently deployed missions that focus on single, non-redundant, very complex and large rover systems.”


Watch Fink’s rovers in action: 

Robotic Rovers

Robotic Lake Lander



New Research May Bring Us a Step Closer to Reducing the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s


A study, published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, suggests that a protein that stimulates the brain to wake up may be a target for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.


The new research, in mice, demonstrates that eliminating that protein - called orexin - made mice sleep for longer periods of time and strongly slowed the production of brain plaques. Low orexin levels are associated with narcolepsy, a rare sleep disorder that affects the brain’s ability to regulate the normal sleep/wake cycle.


Brain plaques, which are made up of a protein called amyloid beta, are characteristic of Alzheimer’s - in a healthy brain they are broken down naturally, but in Alzheimer’s they become hard and insoluble. As they accumulate in the brain, symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, personality changes and disorientation can occur. They continue to collect as the disease progresses. When affected brain tissue is observed under the microscope, the plaques appear as fuzzy clusters between the nerve cells. Scientists think that slowing or stopping this build-up could slow or stop the disease.


In the study, the researchers worked with mice genetically engineered to develop a build-up of amyloid in the brain. When they bred these mice with ones lacking the gene for orexin, their offspring slept longer and developed only half as many Alzheimer's plaques, compared with the mice that had the orexin protein.


When they reversed the experiment, artificially increasing orexin levels throughout the brain, the mice stayed awake longer and developed more Alzheimer's-like plaques. But when orexin levels were changed only in part of the brain - not affecting the amount of time mice slept - plaque levels were unaffected.


The mice with no orexin typically slept an extra hour or more during the 12-hour period when mice with orexin became more active. According to Prof David Holtzman, neurology expert and senior author of the paper, if you stimulate orexin production in sleeping mice, they wake up immediately.


Holtzman is very interested in exploring orexin’s potential for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, but the fact that it only affects plaque levels when it also affects sleep (i.e. when sleep is disturbed) will make trials involving humans difficult. “The issue is that if you are going to increase sleep one needs to be careful not to do it too much and also that the method (eg, drug treatment) is safe,” he says. “One type of new drug just approved to increase sleep is called Suvorexant (produced by Merck). It is an orexin receptor antagonist.  It may increase sleep without the side effects seen with other sleep enhancing drugs currently available.  I could imagine there may be non-pharmacological methods to improve sleep as well that might be tested.”


Holtzman is optimistic that there will be effective treatments that can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in the future. “We are currently studying the relationship between sleep problems in humans and Alzheimer’s disease changes in the brain.  We hope to move to a future trial based on the data we are collecting,” he says.


Source: The above story is based on an article written by Michael C Purdy, published on the Washington University School of Medicine’s website.

Journal Reference: David M. Holtzman, MD et al. Potential role of orexin and sleep modulation in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, November 2014 DOI: 10.1084/jem.20141788 

Sarah Barnett

About the Writer

Sarah is Impolite Conversation's science editor.


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