Mention “bugs” in the same breath as “technology” and the first thing that comes to mind is that something is wrong with your computer. But insects from the earthworm to the termite are contributing to technological advances in many ways and enough so that we may have to think twice about calling the earthworm “lowly.”
1. Earthworm Alchemy: Their Guts Can Make Nanoparticles
Scientists have found that earthworms’ digestive systems are an unlikely site for manufacturing nanoparticles. These beyond-minuscule semiconductors called quantum dots that, as John Timmer explains in Ars Technica, can be used for tiny lasers and LEDs with potential applications in detecting diseases, anti-counterfeit devices and much more.
An earthworm’s digestive tract is surrounded by chloragogenous tissue, an organ that Timmer describes as “the worm’s rough equivalent of the liver.” The researchers put cadmium chloride and sodium tellurite into soil, left earthworms in it for eleven days and found “visible dots — present at the edges of the chloragogenous tissue” that, when examined, “glowed at the characteristic wavelengths associated with CdTe [cadmium chloride] quantum dots.”
Next, researchers hope to see what other substances can be “processed” via earthworms’ guts into useful materials.
2. Termites Lead the Way to Gold
As they burrow under the ground, termites gather bits of precious metals and store them in their mounds. Their “discoveries” often indicate that larger deposits could be underneath. Entomologists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have found that, in West Australia, termite mounds contain high concentrations of gold, as well as zinc, magnesium and iron.
The termite “miners” are especially valuable as they can burrow far under the layer of eroded material that now covers more and more of the Australian landscape.
3. Bumblebees Reveal Why Pavement Isn’t Preferable
The more paved roads and buildings in a landscape, the lower the number of of ground-nesting bumblebees, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of California at Berkeley. Since bumbleebees are important native pollinators, we are “potentially in a pollinator crisis” with so much of our urban and suburban under concrete says Shalene Jha, assistant professor of biology at the University of Texas at Austin. The study of the bumblebees’ habits lends further reason for communities to insist that construction projects contain an ample amount of native plants (i.e., not acres of bright green grass).
4. Forager Ants Can Show Us How to Dispose of Toxic Waste
Studying the behavior of social insects is helping scientists, engineers and computer scientists figure out how to coordinate the tasks of robots who are to perform complex tasks such as space exploration or cleaning up toxic waste.
To devise a model for “cooperative manipulation and transport by robots,” researchers observed how, after one forager ant finds a “prey item that is too large to retrieve alone,” it proceeds to “[recruit]assistance from a team of workers that lifts and carries the item back to the nest over obstacle-laden terrain.” To develop algorithms to control teams of robots, the researchers are studying how the actions of individual ants translate into complex behavior and communication.
5. Honeybee Swarms Show How to Design Smart Lighting Systems
When honeybees swarm, colony members fly together for several miles to a chosen nest site of which most of them do not know the location. By studying their swarming behavior and, specifically, the “mechanisms underlying swarm guidance and cohesion,” Ohio State University researchers have found solutions for how to control energy efficient “smart lighting” systems.
Bugs in the machine can have their benefits.
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