News from science never stops topping the weirdness charts, and there was plenty of it this week.
The Olympics has put a focus on world records, and the discovery of a new record in the animal kingdom drew it into the spotlight this week. BBC Nature and other news outlets picked up the story of the Greenland shark, which scientists have been studying through a process of tagging and tracking. Yuuki Watanabe and colleagues at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo discovered that the animals cruised through the water at the amazing speed of 0.34 meters per second, which means they clock in at just over 1.2 kilometers per hour – the slowest swimmers in the world. Since “average” human swimmers can swim several times this speed, at least over short stretches, you shouldn’t be alarmed if you’re being chased by a Greenland shark. You can take a break in the chase once in a while to enjoy a gin & tonic, then climb back in the water for the next leg of predator-evasion.
It’s just like being chased by zombies. Maybe Greenland sharks are zombie sharks.
Tip: learn to distinguish this species from other types of sharks first; otherwise you’ll be in for a nasty surprise. If you’re lucky enough to be chased by one that has been tagged, you can probably follow its progress on your iPhone.
The sluggish pace of the shark made scientists wonder how it catches any prey at all – the California Sea Lion, for example, can attain speeds of 40 miles per hour, which means it has time for several gins & tonics, and can still beat the shark even when completely drunk. Even walruses can achieve a speed ten times that of the shark. (They all seem to be drunk anyway.)
So how does the Greenland shark survive? Easy – it feeds on other animals while they sleep. Even if the prey wakes up from time to time, it will probably mistake the predator for something harmless and just drifing along: a clump of algae, a car tire, or the swim flipper I lost in a pool in the fifth grade.
(Note from the Political Correctness department: Please change “slow” to “speed-impaired.” And is calling a shark “sluggish” a racist comment?)
The next highlight concerns a report on a group at MIT (who else?) who have created artificial worms. If you want to be creeped out, check out the video of the project on the MIT website, where you can see one of the things dancing on the finger of a scientist. The worm’s body is a tube of mesh made of flexible metal. Around it is wrapped a wire that conducts electricity, causing phases of contraction and relaxation. A close study of the function of worm muscle revealed how this rippling movement, called paristalsis, moves it forward, and the process is imitated in the artificial version.
Inside the mesh you can see some pinkish, soft stuff whose function is not explained. That’s where the military comes in: presumably you could pack an artificial worm full of stuff (cameras, bombs, skunk-odor cannisters) and send it through tight spaces to places people can’t (and probably shouldn’t) go. You can step on them or hit them with a hammer and they don’t seem at all perturbed.
The soft stuff might also be undigested food: paristalsis is also the mode by which the human gastrointestinal tract moves waste from the stomach to its exit point. So the same technology could be used to create artificial intestines. I think this is going to be the next great fad: artistic, personalized, full-size renderings of your own intestine as it digests, for example, spaghetti bolognese. You could mount it on a stand in the dining room. To really impress your guests, you can take them down and hit them with a hammer and say, “See, it still works.”
My only advice to the military is not to release these “Terminator worms” into the ocean; they are veeeery slow, and would all be eaten by Greenland sharks.
I don’t know if the following is the best story of the week, but it will be the last for now. Artist Koby Barhad plans to make transgenic mice incorporating the genes of Elvis Presley. First step: buy some of Elvis’ hair on eBay (Barhad managed to get some for the astounding price of $22). Send it off to Genetech Biolabs for sequencing, and then to the inGenious Targeting Laboratory, which makes custom-designed mice whose genomes have been engineered to include foreign genes. Mate the mouse with a partner and you’ll soon have offspring that go on to become rock stars and drug addicts.
The experiment hasn’t been done yet; Barhad dreamed it up mainly to prompt ethical reflections on the kinds of experiments that might be done someday. (Note that Jeremy Rifkin beat him to the punch over a decade ago by trying to obtain a patent on species whose genomes combined the DNA of great apes and humans.) But Barhad’s thinking goes farther. He wants to create environments for the mice that will simulate steps in Elvis’ childhood development. This, perhaps, will lead the animals to develop some of his human characteristics. (Also not a terribly original idea, see The Boys from Brazil, by Ira Levin.) The ideal, I suppose, is to create a mouse with that unmistakeable croon, a lock of hair falling over its forehead, and a tendancy toward drug addiction.
And eventually, of course, the mouse will be kidnaped by aliens.