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Slime design

Engineers mimic God’s design in sticky snail secretions

A snail slimes a leaf

Slime design

Researchers have again discovered God’s design is best, and this time, scientists had to look no further than a tiny mollusk. Engineers at Penn State University just created a super-strong-yet-reversible adhesive inspired by snail slime.

The secret to developing the perfect adhesive has eluded industrial researchers for decades. As anyone who has ever accidentally superglued two things together knows, strong adhesives are nearly impossible to unstick. But adhesives that are less sticky, while making it easier to fix mistakes, tend to lose their grip far too easily.

Snail slime seems to offer a happy medium. Snails secrete a wet, gooey substance that on a dry day works its way into microscopic pores on even smooth surfaces, where it hardens. It cements the snail in place and creates a seal that prevents the creature from drying out. At night, when the environment becomes wetter and therefore safer for the snail, the substance softens and allows the mollusk to move freely.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers developed a substance called polyhydroxyethylmethacrylate (PHEMA) that mimics the ability of snail goo to conform to even the invisible, microscopic pores of a seemingly smooth wall. Unlike other adhesives that shrink when they solidify, PHEMA hardens into the cavities of a surface and doesn’t pop out even when it becomes dry and rigid.

A patch of PHEMA the size of a postage stamp could hold the entire weight of one of the researchers suspended by a harness but still easily release its grip when wet.

Study leader Shu Yang sees applications for the new hydrogel in household products, robotics, automobile manufacture, and industrial assembly. But no one wants a car that falls apart as soon as it rains, so the researchers hope to refine the substance so that it reverses its hold in response to a change in pH, specific chemicals, light, heat, or electricity instead of water.

A field of wheat

A field of wheat iStock/Татьяна Санина

Celiac-friendly wheat

There is good news for people with celiac disease: An international team of researchers are in the early stages of developing a new form of genetically engineered wheat with specialized enzymes that break down gluten. The modified grain may allow people suffering from the illness to enjoy things like bread and pasta again.

About 1 percent of people worldwide, including more than 3 million Americans, suffer from celiac disease. For people with celiac, the protein gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley triggers an immune response that, over time, damages the small intestine. While most people easily excrete the indigestible protein, the body of a person with celiac treats it as a foreign invader. It triggers an inflammatory immune response that can lead to digestive difficulties and an inability to absorb nutrients from foods. The new variety of wheat releases enzymes that become active when consumed and break down gluten in the small intestine, preventing an immune response.

The new grain, however, has some skeptics. Chantelle Kern, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, fears genetically modified foods may cause harmful side effects. “If I was able to eat wheat again I think I would be skeptical, as the food would be genetically modified and that is a very controversial subject,” she told the Genetic Literacy Project. —J.B.

A field of wheat

A field of wheat iStock/Татьяна Санина

How octopus arms think

Octopuses can think with their arms as well as their brains, according to research conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Using video observation and a computer program, scientists studied the information flow among an octopus’s suckers, arms, and brains as the cephalopods explored cinder blocks, textured rocks, Legos, and elaborate mazes with food inside.

Dominic Sivitilli, one of the graduate researchers, likened it to a bottom-up decision mechanism rather than the brain-down mechanism of vertebrates like humans. A ring of nerve cells on each of the octopus’s arms bypass the brain and allow the appendages to send information to each other without the brain’s involvement.

“So while the brain isn’t quite sure where the arms are in space, the arms know where each other are and this allows the arms to coordinate during actions like crawling locomotion,” Sivitilli said in a statement.

Processing information in the arms allows an octopus to react faster, much like parallel processors in a computer. —J.B.

A field of wheat

A field of wheat iStock/Татьяна Санина

Ancient Egyptian watermelon

Along with Fourth of July parades and firework displays, millions of Americans are celebrating their country’s independence by eating watermelon. Now, a new DNA study just revealed that ancient Egyptians likely enjoyed the same luscious treat more than 3,500 years ago. That’s approximately 200 years before many Bible scholars believe Moses led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

In the study, described on the preprint server bioRxiv, researchers performed a DNA analysis of a 3,560-year-old watermelon leaf found 200 years ago in an Egyptian Pharaoh’s tomb. Ancient, wild watermelons closest to our modern-day fruit had sweet, white flesh. But the DNA analysis of the Egyptian watermelon showed that it possessed a sweet, red pulp very much like those of today, indicating the 18th dynasty Egyptians knew how to cultivate domesticated watermelons. 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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