SciTech Now Episode 512

In this episode of SciTech Now, discover the birth of Queen Bees; a look at the similarities between the telegraph and the tweet; the study of X-Rays; and searching for a super drug to combat superbugs.



[ Theme music plays ] ♪♪

Coming up, the biology of the beehive...

There's still a lot of mystery in terms of what's turning a bumblebee larva into a queen.

From the telegraph to Twitter...

The telegraph also made people use very short sentences.

X-ray science...

You have electrons come out of a source, and then they get zoomed around a ring really quickly.

Super drugs to combat superbugs...

We've killed almost 100 different bugs and superbugs to combat those things that antibiotics cannot do right now.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

When bumblebees aren't buzzing around, they're working to procreate.

In this segment, we discover why researchers at the University of California, Riverside are studying the unique way bumblebees feed their future queens.

Our partner, Science Friday, has the story.

In things that live in societies or have close social bonds, you have these situations where you're feeding from another individual, so in mammals, they're producing milk, but in the case of bees, bumblebees feed larvae by opening the wax envelope that the larvae are housed in.

You can see the abdomen contract and scrunch up, and you can actually see them then barf.

You have some individuals foregoing reproduction and instead helping give you food so that you can survive and grow, and there's something really special about that.

My name is Hollis Woodard.

I'm an assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside, and my group works on bumblebee biology.

We're studying bumblebee behavior, physiology.

In particular, we're working on queen bumblebees, trying to understand how they're different from workers and some of the special challenges that they face.

They're basic questions about sort of the fundamental biology of bumblebees, but they're driven by this need to try to save them.

All queen bumblebees start life as an egg in a colony, so the eggs develop into larvae, and at some point in larval development, a female larva will develop into either a worker or a queen.

If she's a queen larva, she grows really large, and then she'll turn into a pupa.

That's when you can tell that it's a queen, and the queens themselves are much larger than the workers, and then she chews her way out of her pupal casing, her cocoon, and then when she's about a week old, she'll leave her colony, and she'll go off and mate, so these queens will find nesting spots, and they will excavate them, and they will lay eggs in them, and the reason why we're collecting them right now is, this is the only time you'll really see these queens flying around because, once they start their nest and they have workers emerge, the queens don't go out and forage anymore.

The workers do that for her, so the queens are out right now.

We can collect them, so it's this very special, like, window of time that we have right now.

So the species we're going to be collecting today, Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced bumblebee, they're really beautiful coloration.

We catch bumblebees with nets usually.

I hear one.

So we will go to patches of flowers where we think the bumblebees will want to visit, and we just wait for them.


I hear you.

[ Bees buzzing ] Typically, we'll swing a net, and then you have to swing it back and forth and sort of loop, flip the net over itself so you catch the bee.



And then we stick your hand into the net with a vial and try to catch them.

We caught one.


You're so big.

Hi, pretty.

Now that we have the queens in the lab, they will start laying eggs usually within a few weeks.

It's actually quite easy to keep a bumblebee in the lab, a queen, so you can put her in a pretty small box.

We give them all the food they could want, so we give them pollen and nectar, and then we keep them in a room that is dark or is under red light so which they can't see.

So we have a whole set of experiments designed that we'll be using these colonies for.

They all have to do with either how they all collectively partition the work in the nest, or they have to do with larval development.

So, there's still a lot of mystery there in terms of what's turning a bumblebee larva into a queen.

So in honeybees, the workers will feed the larvae royal jelly, and female larvae that eat this protein complex, they will develop into a queen.

Bumblebees don't have royal jelly.

They have some other mechanism that they're using to produce queens.

So there is some evidence in bumblebees that the way you make a queen is, you feed a larva more pollen and nectar when they're developing, but it looks like there are other factors, too.

So when a bee comes along and feeds, she'll regurgitate, and we actually don't know that much about what's even in the bee barf.

You collect the bee barf two different fundamental ways, so one way is, you can squeeze a bee, sort of force it to regurgitate.

It's just a gentle squeezing, but one of the issues with that is, when they're actually feeding brood, they're probably also adding other things from the head glands, so the second way that you can collect the regurgitate is, you sit and wait for a feeding event to happen, but you immediately pipette out the regurgitate.

One of the things that is in the bee regurgitate are large proteins, so we're looking at those, trying to figure out what they are, and then we're also going to be looking at small RNAs, these micro-RNAs.

They can control gene expression in the individual that consumes the regurgitate.

For people that want to know how we can more effectively rear bumblebees and use them for pollination services, there's a benefit to knowing what sorts of things actually turn a larva into a queen versus a worker, knowing something about how development actually happens.

If we know those things, then we can potentially help control it.

So something that we really want to be able to do is create a system where we can feed larvae what we want to feed them so we can experimentally figure out the factors that influence their development.

Bumblebees are our nation's single most economically important native pollinator.

In many places, it's getting hotter.

There's less food around, so understanding the thermal biology of bumblebees and the nutritional biology, that's really driving a lot of the research.

♪♪ [ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She's the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss the similarities between the telegraph and the tweet.

So was telegraph -- was that the first Twitter in...

I think it's the precursor to Twitter.

For the same reasons that Twitter only has 140 characters or 280 characters, the telegraph also only made people use very short sentences.

They're very short.

Because it was expensive.

It was expensive, but the reason why it was expensive is because you could only send one message on the line, so they tried to make sure that the line wasn't tied up.


Give me an idea of how it actually works.

What happened when a telegraph message was sent and received?

Okay, so Samuel Morse created the telegraph, and what it is, is it's an electrical signal.

If you hear a short pulse, that's a dot.

If you hear a long pulse, that's a dash.

Morse code.

Morse code, that's right, exactly, exactly.

And so when you see different dashes and dots collected in certain ways, those become a code that can mean a letter, or it could mean a word, and so messages were very short.

They would say something like, 'Come home. Dad is sick,' something like that.


And you knew that you had to get to where you were going instead of long, 'Hey, I just wanted to let you know our father has been ill,' none of that, no time for that.

Is there kind of a lasting impact that the telegraph has had on society?

I mean, did it help us figure out how to right shorthand, how to write concisely?

Couple of things -- SCOTUS, POTUS, OK.

That's all from the telegraph.

Also, America was trying to separate itself from England, and one of the ways that we did that was with language.

So, we wanted to have shorter sentences to begin with, but the telegraph also inspired that because newspapers were also one of the biggest customers of telegraph, and so anything you read in the newspaper would also have short sentences, but the most lasting impact was Hemingway.

Hemingway was a reporter at a newspaper.

He loved that short, sparse style that we were all encouraged to follow.


And so Hemingway's style is a result of the telegraph.

Now when we think about Twitter or all these other different kind of mediums that are coming on, these are self-expressions.


But really the telegraph was one of the first ways that I guess we were expressing what is the most important and urgent in the briefest amount of letters and words.

Right, right, right.

Well, you know, we have to think about the time.

People wrote long letters, and the telegraph was sort of like this cool thing, like, they did, but their primary way of communicating was actually the long letter.

Now we have an assortment of different ways of communicating, and we mostly use shorter means of communicating, and so now linguists actually having... They express some concern, not solely for language.

They're not worried about the health of the Oxford comma.

They said that, you know, we can code-switch between different types of writing, but it's the instant communication that's giving rise to another problem, and that's that we're losing our way in terms of being human.

We aren't picking up empathy because we're so busy using emojis to communicate emotion where we're not picking it up from someone's face, and that's what we do as humans, so that's the thing that most scientists and people who study language are really concerned about, not so much the health of language.

Language always changes.

Technology is one of the forces that changes it, but it's also that we're losing some of our human skills.

All right.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.


Fifty years ago, NASA began lofting parachutes to altitudes and speeds meant to simulate the conditions of Mars' entry.

Those early tests demonstrated the challenges of inflating lightweight materials in a 1,500-mile-an-hour wind and having them survive well enough to help enable a safe landing on the red planet.

Today, as our missions become ever more daring, we need new parachutes capable of surviving those strenuous environments, and we need ways of testing them at loads higher than ever before.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to develop a new test technique.

The Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiments, or ASPIRE project, uses a two-stage Black Brant 9 sounding rocket to carry its payload to the conditions needed to stress the parachute.

The rocket is launched out over the Atlantic Ocean and ascends to altitudes where the atmosphere of Earth mimics the atmosphere near the surface of Mars.

The third and final ASPIRE test launched on September 7th.

The parachute was deployed at nearly twice the speed of sound.

In less than half a second, 200 pounds of nylon, Kevlar and Technora go from a small drum-sized bag with the density of wood to an inflated parachute with a volume of a large house, generating nearly 70,000 pounds of drag.

In slow-motion images, you can see the rapid emergence of the parachute as it begins generating the drag crucial for deceleration at Mars.

These images give us amazing insights into the physics and early behaviors of a supersonic parachute inflation.

The apparent ease of the unfurling and unfolding in the parachute belies the severity of the extreme environment in which this occurs.

After three successful tests of ASPIRE, NASA has now tested their new parachute at loads and conditions exceeding any large supersonic parachute before it and 40% higher than the highest load expected for the Mars 2020 mission.

Our parachute is now certified for flight at Mars.

X-rays used to be a tool for doctors only.

Now, scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, are using X-rays to figure out how grapes can survive New York winters and still produce tasty wines in the fall.

Here is the story.

The first thing most people experience when they walk in the door is, they're just completely overwhelmed by the number of blinking lights, wires and the amount of equipment all over the place, and I still love it.

After all these years coming in, come down, you actually... You walk in.

You say, 'Hey, science is done here.'

♪♪ I'm Joel Brock.

I'm the director of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source.

We go by the name CHESS.

CHESS is a large X-ray machine, not so different from what you might find in your dentist's office in some respects, but it's much, much brighter, so if you compare the analogy to a candle to the lights in a football stadium, your dentist office is the candle.

We're the football-stadium lights.

You do not want to be in this room when you have X-rays going down.

When your chest is getting X-rayed, yes, you can be in the room but not in this room.

You're going to have significant radiation poisoning.

And it's those X-rays that we use for our studies of everything from the structure of viruses for new drugs to how the metal in plane wings cracks to an uptake of minerals in plants, bioremediation, all the way out to reading ancient manuscripts, scrolls and so on that you can't unwind, and you want to read the text on the inside.

We got to go under?

Yeah, and it gets harder every year.


The synchrotron itself is 3/4 kilometer in circumference.

We go around.

It lives five stories underneath the athletic playing fields on the Cornell University campus.

It's actually a fascinating thing to go inside the tunnel and see it, and there's this very interesting psychological effect, that it just keeps repeating as you go around the corner, keep leaning around, hoping to see what's going to happen.

You keep walking.

It looks just the same, so it's kind of like a hamster wheel on its side as you go around.

You just keep on going.

You can see the curvature of the tunnel.

On the inside is the synchrotron.

On the outside is the storage ring.

For lots of people, the word 'synchrotron' is kind of mysterious.

What it really is, is a circular accelerator, particle accelerator.

So you have electrons come out of a source, and then they get zoomed around a ring really quickly.

And, of course, we have electrons going one way and positrons going the other, so there's a lot of breathing and wiggling going on, and that has to be controlled.

The convenient idea of a storage ring or a synchrotron is, if you go in a circle, you can go around many times and go faster and faster and faster.

When we're done, the particles are all going essentially the speed of light, and as they go around, they radiate X-rays.

The radiation pattern gets focused forward, so as the electrons go around, if you have a mental image of a car going around a track with its headlights on, the radiation is focused forward just like the headlights on the car, so as the particles go around and around, you can think of the little beams of light shooting forward.

We can actually do experiments where we measure the separation of atoms, so now we're talking about things which are angstroms apart.

An angstrom is 1/10th of a nanometer, so we're now 10,000 times smaller than your human hair.

♪♪ Scientists from all over the world come to use our facilities, oh, and they study things ranging from fundamental structure of biomolecules and viruses and so on to fatigue-crack growth to uptake of nutrients in plants.

So we get to learn about what other people are using X-rays for, so then that helps the whole community, so the techniques that one beamline scientist might develop for one material is useful for another beamline scientist, as well.

So it's a very collaborative environment, and everybody learns from everybody.

We can look in 3-D while we're stressing or straining these materials, and that allows us to be able to watch them as they evolve so that we can build up better models of how they work.

[ Beeping ]

We're well past the point of taking static images.

We're now watching how things happen and the processes inside of life, of manufacturing.

Yeah, the other...

So my background is in civil engineering.

I focus on developing new cement-based materials.

Over here, what I'm doing at CHESS is to understand, how does cement actually behave under compression?

This is, you know, increasingly important, and one of the... There was a major disaster a few years ago, the Deepwater Horizon, and actually, there was an explosion, and part of the contributing causes was a failure of the cement down in the shaft.

I am in material science and engineering, and my focus is in metallurgy, so I study how metals behave.

Metals specifically are one of the first materials that we actually engineered, but we don't fully understand why things break or how they're going to respond in certain environments.

How do metals behave under repeated stress?

And so the example is that everybody is familiar.

If you take a paper clip, and you bend it a few times, and the first couple of times, it's still a paper clip, but if you keep going, it just breaks in half.

Those same processes occur in all metals.

In particular, if you think about an airplane wing, every time you take on, it flexes just a little bit, and so the clear thing you don't want to have happen when you're on that airplane is to become the paper clip.

There is no other technique besides using a synchrotron X-ray to be able to probe in 3-D, in real time, how a material is evolving.

There's several similar machines around the world that we're one of five worldwide and two in the United States, and question is, why would you travel all the way to Ithaca, you know, that there are easier places to get to?

One of the things which distinguishes us is our ability to create new experiments and develop techniques into new fields.

[ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Microbiologists are on the search for drugs to kill bacteria, and after many experiments, a super drug has been developed to do what antibiotics cannot.

Here's the story.

These are the bad bugs.

Actually, all of the bugs are in here.


So we've got, you know, relatively bad bugs, and then we've got the really bad bugs.

And microbiologist Rebecca McDonald is searching for a drug that kills all of them.

So you can't go past the yellow and black line without wearing personal protective equipment.

These are bacteria that are growing, and they've got replicates.

Here is one drug candidate.

Here is another drug candidate, and if it's orange, it means that the bacteria are growing and respiring happily, and if it's blue, they've been killed.

Killing bad bugs is a goal for McDonald and the other researchers at Vast Therapeutics in Research Triangle Park, and after thousands of experiments, they believe they have found a super drug to kill superbugs.

We've killed almost 100 different bugs and superbugs, pathogens, bacteria on our way to, you know, rolling this out and to helping combat those things that antibiotics cannot do right now.

The key ingredient is a simple molecule, nitric oxide.

Your body already makes and uses this chemical compound as part of the natural immune system.

Nitric oxide has been made by your body for forever, so it makes lots of it per day.

It just doesn't put it in those places which might be the area of need.

So, if you have an infection in your lungs, say you're a cystic-fibrosis patient, and you've got mucus buildup.

You got biofilm.

You know, it's a really nasty environment.

Then you have bacteria colonizing on that.

Now you've got to get in there and penetrate through that layer of mucus or biofilm and get to the infection and actually do your job.

Nitric oxide can do that.

Trouble is, nitric oxide is a gas.

Scientists have found a way to dissolve the gas into a solution.

Then large amounts of nitric oxide are delivered into the body to fight infections.

Because where your delivering it is where it will end up acting and do so in a manner that does not negatively impact healthy cells and tissues.

It turns nitric oxide into a kind of natural smart bomb, attacking and then destroying bacterial cells in multiple ways.

This is an atomic-force-microscope image of a bacteria or a few bacteria before NO exposure and then after NO exposure.

What you'll see is that they don't look like that anymore.

You have essentially broken apart their exterior membrane.

Using nitric oxide as medicine isn't new.

Because it's naturally in the body, there's less chance of the body rejecting it as well as negative side effects.

Sometimes, the simplest explanation, the simplest idea, is the best idea.

You don't need to overcomplicate it.

But the challenge has been how best to deliver large amounts of nitric oxide into the body.

The discovery of how to put the gas into a solution is the first step.

The beauty of what we've got here is that we can link it to a solid molecule, that backbone, and deliver it that way, and then the gas releases over time, and so that's kind of gotten over that hurdle.

So our different drug candidates have a different carrier molecule.

They have different profiles, different solubilities.

So for different indications, one molecule might be better than another, and we're also just kind of playing with which molecules... Until you try it, you don't know.

So the particles that are being generated by this device are in the size of 1 micron to 10 microns, and to give you an idea of what that size is, a human hair is typically, say, 40 to 100 microns in diameter, so the particles this is generating are really quite small.

And I'm assuming that's important.

You need that small.

That's critical because we want these particles to go in and treat the disease inside the lungs, and so to get into the lungs, to get that deep penetration, we need the particles to be in the range of 10 to 1 micron.

So, you need a small particle, you need the right mass, and if you can control those two factors and you have the right velocity of the person breathing, a typical breathing pattern, then you can get good lung penetration, and we can get the medicine into the lungs to treat the infection.

Other methods to deliver the drug will be tried later.

These are two plates of Pseudomonas aeruginosa growing, and on the left is a plate that's about 1 day old, but after a time, they start producing this yellow pigment, which is called pyocyanin.

For now, McDonald's battle against superbugs continues, but she believes she has a powerful weapon.

We want to find out which bacterial pathogens do our different drug candidates... What are they effective against?

Is it broad range?

Is it a narrow spectrum?

You know, where are we?

So I went in, and I tested, you know, my favorite pathogen first, for example.

I'm like, 'Whoa! It kills it, you know, really well, so that's great,' and then, you know, next week, I'll go in, and I'll try another pathogen, and it killed it again, so that was fun, and that kind of went on and on to the point that we thought, 'We really got something here.'

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪