Test Pilot Geese, Planetary Wrecking Balls and Super AI Vision: The Week’s Best Science GIFs

You probably know the GIF as the perfect vehicle for sharing memes and reactions. We believe the format can go further, that it has real power to capture science and explain research in short, digestible loops.

So each Friday, we’ll round up the week’s most GIF-able science. Enjoy and loop on.

Geese in a Wind Tunnel

If Icarus had been a bar-headed goose, he might have made it. These birds have been recorded flying four and a half miles above the earth’s surface, and mountaineers claim to have seen them over Mount Everest.

To figure out how the geese do it, some researchers had to, in effect, become them. That is, the scientists had to let a flock of goslings imprint on them so that when the birds matured, the humans could lead them into a wind tunnel and fit them with monitoring equipment. One of the lead researchers, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, played Mother Goose to the goslings during her graduate studies so she could understand how the birds dealt with such extreme oxygen deprivation at high altitudes. Handy knowledge for someone shortly on her way to space.

The AIs Have It

Machine learning is exploding across the study of medicine. Got a nasty superbug? Use machine learning. Need to find a new drug? Use machine learning. Want to know how proteins hug? Use machine learning.

And now researchers have used it to augment an already powerful technology for imaging tissues, called optical coherence tomography (OCT). OCT has been used for nearly 30 years to image everything from eyeballs to tadpoles. It projects light on a sample and detects all the direct reflections that return to it. Some of the light penetrates the surface before being reflected back, so the technique is great at seeing deeply into tissue. But because the sample is a different medium than air, some of the projected light bends when coming into and back out of it. This light bending, or refraction, degrades the quality of the image, especially to the left and right of the scanner’s light source.

The researchers used machine learning to make a map of those bendy reflections. Then they rotated the sample in front of the scanner, correcting the image for refraction. The result is shown in the right panel above (you’re looking at a mouse vas deferens, by the way). The scientists hope to bring the artificial intelligence–improved technique to all kinds of clinical applications, including live imaging of the human eye. 

A New Planet Came in like a Wrecking Ball

Researchers have discovered a planet three times the mass of Jupiter with a strangely elliptical orbit. Dubbed HR 5183 b, it spends most of its time in the outer reaches of its star system. But as it nears the center, as shown above, it speeds up and tightly slingshots around its star. 

To find HR 5183 b, researchers at the California Planet Search used the radial velocity method—a common planet-seeking technique that observes how a star “wobbles” because of the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet. Typically, scientists watch these stellar wobbles from a planet’s entire orbit before confirming its discovery. This makes it hard, however, to identify worlds with orbits that last decades—such as HR 5183 b, which circles its star every 45 to 100 years—or even centuries. And yet this planet’s speedy slingshot caused its star to wobble so distinctly that researchers have confidently identified it well before it finishes its loop.

But where did it get its strange orbit? The planet probably got its start like any other—from a disk of space crud orbiting a star. Once the world formed, researchers think it had a nearly circular orbit. But when a similar planet got a little too close, HR 5183 b knocked its neighbor out of the solar system and settled into a new oblong orbit. “This newfound planet basically would have come in like a wrecking ball,” says Andrew W. Howard, leader of the California Planet Search, “knocking anything in its way out of the system.”

The Mother of All Tracing Jobs

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “rat’s-nest wiring” before? It describes what happens when electrical wiring is tangled and unlabeled. New research is tackling a kind of biological rat’s nest—one that involves a mouse and brain “wires”—not the kind electricians use.

Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus have devised an efficient, if painstaking, way to untangle a riot of more than 1,000 long neurons inside a mouse’s head. The wiring diagram they have come up with is both daunting and beautiful. The group first released a set of 300 traced neurons in 2017. So their new study shows good progress for two years, but finishing the job might take a while yet. The mouse brain has about 75 million neurons; there is only 99.99 percent of the brain left to trace.

Finding a Rhythm

You are watching one of the first cycles of life: the rhythm of oscillating genes. In early embryo growth, these genes cyclically turn on and off to initiate new stages of development. The GIF above displays human stem cells that have been edited to illuminate each time one of these genes, called HES7, switches on. Researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research have found that it does so every five hours like clockwork.

Yet when the scientists introduced a genetic mutation into HES7 that can cause spondylocostal dysostosis (SCDO)—a group of conditions in which vertebrae form abnormally—this pristine rhythm disappeared. The researchers had re-created the conditions that cause SCDO, albeit in a vastly simplified model of embryo development. Their work demonstrates a new way for scientists to study the earliest rhythms of life.

Organs Materialize Out of Thin Gel

This printer is probably unlike any you’ve seen. It makes biomaterials from a vat of spinning hydrogel, a goopy mass of water and long-chain polymers. Laser light projects an image on the gel, hardening light-sensitive polymers into the shape of an artificial organ. And the gel is saturated with stem cells to help seed actual cell growth. The spinning creates weaved strands in the growing organ, adding more strength. 

Researchers from Switzerland and the Netherlands have used this printer to create synthetic bone and cartilage. They hope their device might one day rapidly generate tissue in real time for many clinical purposes, from drug trials to open-heart surgery. 

Body Architects

Even a fruit fly, an organism we consider “simple” as compared with ourselves, is vastly complex. Just witness this mesmerizing flurry of cells as they organize into a living creature. Researchers at Pablo de Olavide University in Spain created this time lapse of a developing fruit fly larva under a confocal microscope, each cell illuminated by a fluorescent protein. 

The scientists are studying how special DNA segments called Hox genes govern the fly’s complicated development. They stumbled on one stretch of DNA that appears across a developing fruit fly’s body and that all of its eight Hox genes regulate. By manipulating this segment, the researchers believe they can decipher how Hox genes help bodies grow in fruit flies and beyond.

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