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Gizmorama - December 13, 2017

Good Morning,

Who knew that cockroaches could do more for us that giving us the heebie-jeebies? They are actually helping to train robots. No, seriously!

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Speedy cockroaches help researchers train robots to walk --*

Scientists have identified a shift in the gaits of speedy cockroaches as the insects kick it into high gear. The discovery could help engineers train robots to walk more stably and efficiently.

The latest research -- published this week in the journal Frontiers in Zoology -- shows a mid-speed change in the biomechanics of a cockroach's gait characterizes its acceleration from scurry to sprint. The shift recalls those made by other animals, including horses, which famously transition from a trot to a gallop.

"I was particularly surprised that a change in mechanisms stabilizing the animal's movement goes hand in hand with a change in leg coordination," Tom Weihmann, a zoologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, said in a news release.

When crawling at a slow pace, a cockroach always has three of its six legs moving in coordination. This technique, combined with the insect's low center of gravity, provides for excellent stabilization. But how does the cockroach maintain control of its legs and body at higher speeds?

Researchers found cockroaches utilize a gait technique known as dynamic stabilization at high speeds and on slippery surfaces. The method sacrifices synchronization and coordination for speed and helps the cockroach achieve high energy efficiency without requiring input from the central nervous system.

"This discovery not only has far-reaching implications regarding the behavior and ecology of insects and other arthropodes," said Weihmann. "Our results can also contribute to solving some problems we still have with the movement of robots."

Robots with legs can traverse a greater range of landscapes and surface contours than those with wheels. But managing the movement of legs requires a large amount of energy. Researchers think their analysis of the cockroach's dynamic stabilization approach could help engineers manage a robot's gait more efficiently.

"Robots with legs that can be used here on Earth after disasters, or on Mars or other planets, are often modeled on insects," said Weihmann. "Adapting the coordination patterns of robot legs to those of fast-running cockroaches can help the robot use energy more efficiently and hence increase its endurance in an inhospitable environment."

*--- CRISPR breakthrough may enable treatment for genetic diseases ---*

Scientists have modified the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology to edit genes without creating gaps in the genetic code. The breakthrough could pave the way for use of the technology to treat human diseases like diabetes, kidney disease and muscular dystrophy.

CRISPR/Cas9 technology relies on the creation of double-strand breaks, or DSBs, in the genomic regions targeted for manipulation. Scientists have used the technology to augment the genes of a variety of species, but most scientists have voiced opposition to creating such breaks in the human genome.

In a new proof-of-concept study, detailed this week in the journal Cell, researchers with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies showed they could use CRISPR technology to treat human diseases in mice without causing DSBs.

"Although many studies have demonstrated that CRISPR/Cas9 can be applied as a powerful tool for gene therapy, there are growing concerns regarding unwanted mutations generated by the double-strand breaks through this technology," lead study author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory, said in a news release. "We were able to get around that concern."

As an alternative to the live version of the enzyme Cas9, which is used with guide RNAs to create breaks in the genome, scientists developed a "dead" form of Cas9, dubbed dCas9. The new enzyme allows scientists to target regions of the genome for editing, but without creating a gap in the code.

Instead of cutting and splicing DNA, dCas9 is coupled with the molecular switches, called transcriptional activation domains, that turn DNA on and off.

Adeno-associated viruses are typically used to carry Cas9 to the gene-editing target, but AAVs do a poor job of shepherding dCas9 because the enzyme is too big and bulky.

To develop a new technique for clinical trials, scientists combined parts of the old and new CRISPR/Cas9 methods. Scientists combined Cas9 or dCas9 into one AAV, and packaged molecular switches and guide RNAs in the other.

"The components all work together in the organism to influence endogenous genes," said study co-author Hsin-Kai "Ken" Liao, a staff researcher in the Izpisua Belmonte lab.

Scientists demonstrated their new technology in mice. Researchers targeted genes controlling insulin-producing cells in mice with type 1 diabetes. They also targeted genes controlling kidney function and encouraged the expression of genes linked with the reversal of muscular dystrophy symptoms.

"We were very excited when we saw the results in mice," said co-author Fumiyuki Hatanaka, a research associate in the lab. "We can induce gene activation and at the same time see physiological changes."


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