Well we made it! We’re at the final week of the BYB Fellowship! We faced many challenges throughout this project and had to pivot in order to get results, but we are happy where it ended.
To give updates on our progress, let’s first start where we left off 3 weeks ago. Using a blue light, we took one picture of the slime mold every minute over 24 hours. This allowed us to string the pictures together and make some great time lapse videos! After this, we were able to analyze the videos using a program in Python and create a special kind of video which converts yellow slime branches into lines of directed growth – skeletonized growth video. This was really helpful for understanding how the slime mold grows, explores new areas, and creates a network. But we also think that there’s more to it, and that behavioral analysis opens a lot of questions in the field of biophysics and is a project for itself.
We were very excited to get this imaging. However, we then made the decision to keep the rest of our experiments in the dark and in that manner reduce the amount of imaging done. Slime mold prefers to grow in the dark, and we wanted to make sure light wasn’t inhibiting growth in our experiments.
This means we were more focused on quantifying decision making rather than behavior. We set up a series of three types of experiments and ran many, many tests. (The order of explaining them isn’t coordinated with the chronological order of our work, but makes more sense this way!)
1. Solving Mazes
We wanted to test the ability of slime molds to choose a path that leads them to food, so we set up the easiest of mazes – a Y maze where there was food on one side of the Y and nothing on the other side of the Y (see photo above). Slime molds showed us that they have no intentions of staying hungry and that they’re doing just fine when it comes to finding the food source.
Then we wanted to make things more complicated for them, so we constructed a specific T maze – one side of the letter T was longer and had a food source, and the other was a lot shorter and had an object as a mechanical stimulus (we’ll get more into the mechanical stimulation in a bit). The idea was to check if they can see the difference between the food and something that isn’t food and if they are gonna choose the shorter path towards the no-food region. So, we tried to confuse them, but failed at it – they knew where the food was and grew in that direction almost every time!
We are all familiar with the Pinocchio story, right? A wooden boy whose nose would grow every time he lied. What if I told you that, with the right equipment, you could feel like Pinocchio in a just few minutes?
All you need is a massager (>50 Hz frequency and >1mm amplitude), either a blindfold or willpower to keep your eyes closed, and someone to help you conduct the whole thing (aka the experimentator).
Firstly, you will have to contract your arm muscle so that the experimentator can find your biceps tendon.
Close your eyes (or put on the blinfold) and position your arms, as shown in the illustration above.
It’s time for the experimentator to turn on the massager and position it on the biceps tendon of your contracted arm!
After aproximatelly one minute of the stimulation you should start feeling as if your arm is extending forward and taking the nose with it so that it feels like it’s getting longer. The more you stimulate, the more vivid the illusion becomes!
And that’s it – in just a few minutes, you can understand how Pinocchio felt like while lying. Unlike with Pinocchio, however, this illusion can occur without you having to lie to anyone’s face!
We could be living through the 6th mass extinction, but there’s encouraging news: the preservation of insect biodiversity begins in our backyards. And it doesn’t need all of us to be Jane Goodalls. All we need is a cheap ERG bioamplifier, a smartphone, some patience, and as little (or as much!) scientific training as we can stomach!
This idea is the basis of the new, peer-reviewed Open Citizen Science research that recently got out in the Resarch Idas and Outcomes (RIO) journal in a collab with Wikimedia Fellowship. The paper’s two-pronged approach first takes the scientific expertise possessed by the few, kicks it off the ivory tower and diffuses among community members, teaching them how to capture insect electroretinograms (ERGs) across their local species using our open-source ERG SpikerBox, which doesn’t exist yet as its prototyping is part of this project. A mobile app is also being developed to help with data collection.
These newly empowered citizen scientists will then collect data on insect populations, catalog it and turn it into open, universally accessible knowledge that’s going to be curated on Wikimedia. It’s our motto extended: neuroscience for everyone, by everyone!
But what’s the link between the electrical activity of insect eyes and preservation of their biodiversity?
By studying insect ERGs and other parameters, we can learn about the health of their environment, impacts of global climate change and local pollution. “ERG signals can be used as a readout for insect health as well as a physiological fingerprint of the insect,” explains Étienne Serbe-Kamp, the paper’s first author and our very own Senior Scientist.
He harbors much hope for the project. “Thanks to Backyard Brains, I was given the opportunity to get exposed to Citizen Science in all its facets and possibilities. Prototyping ERGo! was a wonderful process and I think we learned a lot from this first phase and hope that it will turn into a broader scale Citizen Science movement,” he tells us. The project’s short-term importance is for these newly blossomed citizen scientists to understand the scientific rationale and method. In the long run, we’d all get the world’s biggest ERG library for many insects worldwide.
Openness and democratization is one side of the project. The other is inclusion! The goal is to help not only raise awareness but also increase participation on the local level, among communities that are traditionally underrepresented in science yet are among the first to directly feel the impact of environmental catastrophe. To test the feasibility of non-scientists doing ERG experiments, the team worked with students of the Pasadena Unified School District High School.
While working on the pilot, the paper’s co-author Dan Pollak, a PhD student from Caltech and our Senior Fellow, felt a particularly acute aspect of what inclusion means and just how much it’s needed in a community. Right next to Caltech, there’s the PCC (Pasadena City College), a community college with a host of highly dedicated and talented educators and students. Caltech has it all: a stellar international reputation complemented with generous amounts of grant money every year.
And yet, many locals look at the PCC as their own, an institution that is more accessible and that uplifts them. “My main goal with this project was to give some students from public high schools an excuse to stand out in their applications to college and beyond by doing one simple thing: putting the word Caltech on their resume. I see this initiative and this publication as a trial run for more more community building, more substantial initiatives, and hopefully more impact in my community,” Dan tells us.
In a way, he made it his mission to address academic exclusion, operating at the point where neuroscience meets the humanities and begins to tackle societal justice, rendering itself political. As any other huge and complex aim, it begins with baby steps that often only require redistribution of existing resources, as well as someone to connect a few dots and make it happen. For example, the Pasadena high school participants didn’t have laptops they needed to do experiments. But someone, somewhere had them, and someone else was able and willing to pay for them. Dan turned a couple of stones and found cheap, unused laptops on the Caltech Marketplace, and it turned out that Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach was happy to pay for them. And so the students got their laptops, along with Backyard Brains kits customized for each of their projects!
He also highlights the role of two more people who were crucial to the efforts: Dr. Zeynep Turan, who helped with media and documentation, as well as Jahel Guardado, graduate student at NYU and a Pasadena local whose perspective as a woman of color in STEM was and will remain invaluable for the participants.
Bottom line, “There’s a bug on your phone” just got a whole new meaning! And thanks to this bug, citizen scientists, nature enthusiasts or merely engaged members of any local community around the globe can help conserve biodiversity, of which bugs and insects in general are a vital aspect.