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This week in science: Cellular 'robots,' sleeping penguins and a rediscovered echidna

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Time now for our regular science news roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast. That would be Aaron Scott and Regina Barber. Welcome, welcome.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey.

AARON SCOTT, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

KELLY: All right, so alert listeners will know that how this works is that you two have brought us three science stories that caught your attention this week. So what are they?

SCOTT: Yeah. We've got a story about tiny biological robots that are made from human cells.

BARBER: And we have a story about a penguin that takes tiny little naps - like, thousands of them each day.

SCOTT: And finally, another animal that was thought to be extinct but is very much alive.

KELLY: All three are intriguing. I'm going to go in the order you just laid them out. So let's start with tiny robots made from human cells. Is that what you just said? I don't even think I understand what that means.

BARBER: (Laughter).

SCOTT: Yeah. So it's one human cell that has been reprogrammed to grow into a little multicellular ball. And what's new about these balls is they can move around on their own and actually help heal human tissue. The researchers are calling them anthrobots.

KELLY: Anthrobots - OK. And how did - how does this work? How do they make them?

SCOTT: Yeah. So they started with cells from an adult trachea - you know, the windpipe - because these cells have these little hairlike things called cilia on one side, and that's what kind of waves around and pushes out particles and germs and ultimately allows us to expel the gunk of, you know, when we cough or clear our throats.

BARBER: And they figured out a way to grow single trachea cells into multicellular balls with cilia on the outside. So the cilia acts like oars, pushing them along. And some of these anthrobots went in a straight line. Others moved in circles. Some wiggled in place.

KELLY: They wiggled (laughter)? That's kind of cute. But more importantly, you said they can actually - they can heal cells?

BARBER: Yeah. That was the surprise. So just to explore, they took layers of neurons, which notoriously are cells that don't heal well, and they scratched a gap through it to mimic a wound. And then they put some of the anthrobots in that gap.

SCOTT: And some of the bots, simply just by bridging that gap, actually helped the neural tissue heal, and the gap closed. The researchers don't quite understand why this happened, especially since these cells aren't genetically modified to heal or anything. So this was really kind of an exciting, unexpected finding.

KELLY: Yeah. And how would this be used in medicine?

SCOTT: Yeah. So I talked with the lead researcher, Gizem Gumuskaya, who published this study this week in the journal Advanced Science. And she says, in the future, these anthrobots could be programmed to do everything from patrol the body looking for tumors to treating arteries clogged with plaque.

GIZEM GUMUSKAYA: So maybe, you know, as the anthrobot is moving through the artery, it encounters this plaque. And then in return, it turns on its cilia sort of at a much faster rate to bulldoze through that plaque and then clear it in that way.

BARBER: Yeah. And one of the key things is that the anthrobots could be made from the patient's own cells. So in theory, there's a lot fewer side effects than drugs or other forms of therapy.

KELLY: Got it. OK That's fascinating.

OK. From microscopic robots to the next story about micronapping - this is a penguin that takes thousands of little naps every day. I love this story so much already.

BARBER: Yeah, actually 10,000 times - that's how many times they're kind of having this microsleep. So a study published in Science this past week found that chinstrap penguins, during breeding season, utilize microsleep, which is seconds long, to get over 11 hours of sleep a day. This is while living in a super noisy, hectic nesting colony.

SCOTT: And this is the first time a species has been shown to have this extremely fragmented sleep over long periods of time, which is necessary for penguins because one parent goes out feeding in the ocean for days and leaves the other parent to protect the eggs from predatory birds. And so that means that remaining parent needs to be constantly vigilant, and it seems like it does that by hacking naps.

KELLY: Totally. I would love to do this. I would love to take thousands of micronaps all day long. So what about humans? Can we learn anything from the chinstrap penguin?

SCOTT: Yeah. So there is research in humans that shows that micronaps can help with memory and that midday naps might be great for young, healthy people. But those human naps are all being measured in minutes, while these penguins - we are talking about just a few seconds.

BARBER: Right. And I talked to one of the study researchers, Paul-Antoine Libourel, and he wants us to be very cautious about making these human comparisons.

PAUL-ANTOINE LIBOUREL: This is not related to human physiology, and this won't tell us more about the function of sleep.

KELLY: Sorry, sorry - nodded off for a second there, a little micronap.

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: Do not pull a penguin on us, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Back with you fully now, and I do want to ask...

BARBER: We can't sustain those, you know?

KELLY: Indeed, sadly. How did they figure this out? How do you go about collecting data to figure out the penguins are napping so many times a day?

SCOTT: So they built these little sleep logger devices that would measure the penguins' brainwaves, and this was actually only supposed to be a trial run for the devices. But Paul-Antoine said that catching the penguins and putting on the devices and then retrieving them went so well that they were able to gather enough data to publish this paper.

BARBER: Yeah, and they did all of this in the penguins' natural habitat, which is a big deal because what little we know about sleep is from controlled settings. But how an animal sleeps in a lab doesn't tell us how it sleeps in the wild - like, where sleep evolved. This study really advances sleep research, even if it doesn't help us humans with our sleep for now.

KELLY: Let's roll, wide awake, into the third and final story you have brought us. This is another animal - one that was thought to be extinct for decades by scientists. However, it was recently filmed for the first time by researchers at Oxford University. Tell all.

BARBER: Yeah, and the animal is - drumroll...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMROLL)

BARBER: ...The Attenborough's long-beaked echidna.

KELLY: The Attenborough's - OK, I'm going to guess that's David Attenborough, the famous British naturalist.

BARBER: Yeah.

KELLY: And then what was the rest of the name?

BARBER: Echidna.

SCOTT: Yeah. And I would encourage you to Google one. They look like a cross between an anteater and a porcupine. And there's a few different types of echidnas, but this one - Attenborough's long-beaked echidna - was rediscovered by scientists on an expedition this past summer in the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea.

BARBER: Yeah. Our colleague Emma Bowman wrote about this discovery for NPR. It really is something. Like, scientists on this expedition set up 80 different cameras for a month in an area where they've seen clues of the echidna. Here's the biologist who led the expedition, James Kempton.

JAMES KEMPTON: It was the very last images from the final camera that we collected on the final day of the last ascent of the expedition. Those were the images of the echidna. And I ran into the living room of base camp and shouted, we found it. We found it.

BARBER: And that was the first proof of the animal anyone had seen since 1961.

KELLY: Since 1961 - you can hear the excitement in his voice.

BARBER: Yeah.

KELLY: I mean, I'm excited. I've never heard of this animal, but I'm excited. Why is this so exciting for scientists?

SCOTT: Yeah, well, to start out, I'm going to tell you why this is so exciting to me, and it's because a baby echidna is called a puggle, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Aww (ph).

SCOTT: A puggle.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK.

BARBER: OK. But a big reason this animal is exciting to scientists is that this long-beak echidna is part of a small subgroup of mammals that include platypuses - that lay eggs.

SCOTT: So they represent this evolutionary split that occurred more than 200 million years ago, when they diverged from the common ancestors of other mammals. Here's James Kempton again.

KEMPTON: And that's why it's so important because it's another guardian of this unique and fragile evolutionary history, which, if it were to be lost, would be an absolute tragedy.

KELLY: Oh, so tragedy averted. Aaron, Regina, thank you.

BARBER: Thank you.

SCOTT: Thank you.

KELLY: Regina Barber and Aaron Scott from NPR's science podcast, Short Wave, where you can learn about new discoveries and everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines, including micronaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
Aaron Scott
Aaron Scott (he/him) is co-host of NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The show is a curiosity-fueled voyage through new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the personal stories behind the science.