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Beauty and function

Research uncovers the amazing structures of butterfly wings

A Melanargia galathea butterfly iStock.com/NATALYA DRALOVA

Beauty and function

Scientists once thought butterfly wings were just a pair of lifeless membranes. But now researchers from Columbia and Harvard universities have discovered a complex system of living structures hidden beneath the insect’s colorful scales. Their study, published Jan. 28 in Nature Communications, illustrates the divine design in the wings’ dainty flutter.

Just under the scales of the wings, the researchers found veins and scent pads made of living cells. In some species, the wings even had a heartlike structure that beat a few dozen times per minute to pump the butterfly’s blood in one direction through the scent pad. These living portions of the wings are extremely sensitive to heat and cold and can only function properly within a specific temperature range.

The delicate wings can overheat within 10 seconds when the butterfly is in temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Tiny temperature sensors on the wings allow the butterfly to detect the location and strength of sunlight (its major source of warmth) without using its eyes. The insect then responds quickly with fine-tuned reactions designed to regulate the wings’ temperature.

If the wing sensors determine the temperature is too warm, the butterfly will turn away from the light and bask in the sun with its wings closed. This allows it to warm up its midsection while preventing its wings from overheating. Conversely, in cooler regions, butterflies turn toward the sun with their wings partially or fully open to sufficiently warm the wings, as well as the body.

The scientists hope their discovery will inspire researchers to develop thermodynamic materials that can maintain temperatures even in excessive heat.


CRISPR for cancer

A technique to use a patient’s own modified immune cells to treat cancer just cleared the first U.S. human safety trial.

In the study, published in Science on Feb. 6, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center and Stanford University took immune cells from three cancer patients, turbocharged their cancer-detecting sensors, and used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to modify the cells to make them more effective against the disease. Then they infused the cells back into the patients. The experiment marks the first time scientists have attempted to make three gene edits at the same time.

None of the patients showed any adverse effects from the treatment. The edited immune cells migrated to the intended locations and still circulated in the patients’ blood up to nine months later.

The test only measured safety, not effectiveness. Clinically, the patients suffered no dangerous side effects from the therapy, but they didn’t respond to it either. Cancer claimed the life of one of the patients, and it progressed in the other two. But passing the safety trial gives researchers a green light for more tests using CRISPR to treat cancer.

“Previous studies have shown these cells lose function within days, so the fact that the CRISPR-edited cells in this study retained anti-tumor function for a significantly longer period of time after a single infusion is very encouraging,” lead researcher Carl June said. —J.B.


Driverless robotic vehicle gets a boost

Federal regulators just granted the first special exemption from safety requirements to a driverless vehicle. Nuro, a startup company, can now produce the delivery vehicles, which aren’t meant for human drivers or passengers.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards require manufacturers to equip driverless vehicles with basic human controls like steering wheels, pedals, and sideview mirrors before they can sell them in the United States. An autonomous vehicle company can apply for an exemption, but, until now, regulators have not granted any. Now, after securing the first exemption, Nuro can begin using its R2 driverless delivery vehicle on public roads.

The stubby, egg-shaped vehicle with a maximum speed of 25 mph lacks a steering wheel or pedals. Eliminating side-view mirrors gives it a narrower profile so other cars and bicyclists can pass it more easily, and temperature controls ensure the vehicle can keep perishables fresh. —J.B.


Ancient dates

Researchers just grew tiny date plants from seeds originating around the time Jesus walked on Earth. Archaeologists excavated the seeds from ancient caves and fortresses in the Middle East, including Masada, a mountaintop fortress partially built by King Herod that sits on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They published their study in Science Advances on Feb. 5.

The scientists plan to pollinate the female plants and allow them to bear fruit. They hope to use traits from the ancient fruit such as sweetness, size, and resistance to modern pests to improve modern date varieties, study co-author Frédérique Aberlenc told Science.

Dates grown in southern Israel in ancient times gained renown for their large size, sweet taste, medicinal properties, and long storage life. Israelite farmers of that era grew many of the date palms on plantations around Jericho and the Dead Sea. Several classical writers, including Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus, described the delectable treats as growing longer than 4 inches in length, much larger than modern varieties. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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