Science Buzz: 3-D printers, untraditional tongues and very resilient beetles


Robert Starr

Editor’s note: In this recurring column, science writer Robert Starr rounds up the previous week's top science stories. Have a suggestion? Send a tweet to @RobertKStarr, and your link might appear in next week's Science Buzz. 

3-D printers used to print objects at a rate of a few millimeters per hour, but a new system, described in the journal Science, speeds up the process over 100-fold. The old processes involved applying liquid to an object one layer at a time. The new process — continuous liquid interface production — produces a “dead zone” of liquid material at the base of the item that remains there throughout the printing. This ensures that the object remains in contact with liquid that hardens to become part of the object. It still takes a few minutes to print small items, but this is a huge improvement over previous methods that could take days.

So, Terminator fans, how long would it take to print Robert Patrick?

Most vertebrate land animals have tongues — and most water-dwelling animals do not. This is fine for most fish, which take water into their mouths and use suction feeding to swallow their food. It would require too much force to do that in air, so land-dwelling creatures evolved tongues to do similar work. But what about transitional species, such as mudskippers, which somehow feed on land without a tongue?

A new study looked at the fish using X-rays and high speed cameras and determined that mudskippers do have water in their mouth when they grab their prey. They suck the liquid back down, taking the prey with it. This allows them to swallow without needing to return to the water. It is a neat trick and one that might be worth trying next time you want to impress a date at a fancy restaurant.

But how do they kiss?

White and gold? Blue and black? The dress has made it all the way through the Internet and back to become yesterday’s news, but the scientific exploration behind the phenomenon is just getting started. 23andMe, a private company that provides its customers information about their genes in exchange for $99 and a little saliva, attempted to find a link between people’s genes and which colors they saw on the infamous dress. 

The company could not find a clear genetic component to the discrepancy. Anecdotal evidence — from identical twins, for example — suggest that the effect is not related to genetics, but there are traits that do correlate with what colors people see, including age and the environment in which they grew up. Nobody has yet to publish any peer-reviewed papers on the dress, but these questions mark the first step to understanding the baffling phenomenon.

So I guess genes really don’t go with that dress.

Evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, musing on God, once reportedly said, “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” With over 380,000 different named species of beetle — and likely many more that remain undiscovered — it’s difficult to argue his point. A new study also finds that while individual species of beetles may go extinct, taxonomic families tend to prove more extinction-resistant. A paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B notes that, of the 214 families of beetles to crawl this earth over 318 million years, 179 are still around today.

The researchers attribute this to beetles’ ability to move readily in response to climate change, although they acknowledge that this is only the beginning of our understanding of beetles’ resilience. 

Beetlemania just won’t die.

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