Science Gentleman's Friday

Training my worms to like the bumpy.

I make fun of scientists here from time to time but I want to make it very clear that I love them, and I respect what they do. I respect their quest for knowledge, and their dedication to systematically and fearlessly interrogating our beliefs for truth or falsehood. But I also respect the way they’ve managed to cultivate an image as sober authorities in conservative white lab coats, while in fact being the most maniacal little freaks on Beyoncé’s green Earth. They even made up the redundant phrase “mad scientist,” with its cleverly misleading implication that there is any other kind. Ask any scientist to name five things they did this week and three of them will be “applied for grants” and the other two will be the most bonkers shit you’ve ever heard in your life.

Hunter Thompson once wrote “There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge,” which is how you know Hunter Thompson never met a scientist. It’s an entire profession that had to be made subject to Institutional Review Boards because if we just let them do anything they want, there would be no end to the horrors. The foundational questions of modern science include things like “what happens if you open the dog?” and “if I put a stick in my eye, will I see God’s secret colors?”

I say all this by way of introducing Rowan Jacobsen’s long and fascinating Scientific American feature on the work of Michael Levin, a biologist from Tufts University who is, even by scientist standards, unusually At It. Levin is interested in “basal cognition,” the idea that thought, memory, and learning isn’t just located in what we traditionally consider the brain. He designed an experiment to test this using planarians, a type of flatworm that when cut in half will regenerate whatever parts each half needs to become two whole worms.

In their natural state planaria prefer the smooth and sheltered to the rough and open. Put them in a dish with a corrugated bottom, and they will huddle against the rim. But in his laboratory, about a decade ago, Levin trained some planaria to expect yummy bits of liver puree that he dripped into the middle of a ridged dish. They soon lost all fear of the rough patch, eagerly crossing the divide to get the treats. He trained other worms in the same way but in smooth dishes. Then he decapitated them all.

Levin discarded the head ends and waited two weeks while the tail ends regrew new heads. Next he placed the regenerated worms in corrugated dishes and dripped liver into the center. Worms that had lived in a smooth dish in their previous incarnation were reluctant to move. But worms regenerated from tails that had lived in rough dishes learned to go for the food more quickly. Somehow, despite the total loss of their brains, those planaria had retained the memory of the liver reward. But how? Where?

Ok, fascinating! Also at some point someone asked Levin what he was up to and he had to reply “training my worms to like the bumpy.” As we’ll see this is the most normal answer anyone ever got from Levin to that question, because like a four year old with access to unlimited postgrad labor, a true scientist will never stop asking “but why?

Investigating this “why” led researchers to dig into the electrical signals mediating plant activity, like the touch-me-not, whose “feathery leaves normally fold and wilt when touched,” but which, writes Jacobsen, “when a team of scientists at the University of Western Australia and the University of Firenze in Italy conditioned the plant by jostling it throughout the day without harming it… quickly learned to ignore the stimulus.” Plant jostling. Mmm-hmm. What else you got?

Wire a flytrap to a touch-me-not, and you can make the entire touch-me-not collapse by touching a sensory hair on the flytrap. And these and other plants can be knocked out by anesthetic gas. Their electric activity flatlines, and they stop responding as if unconscious.

Now we’re “wiring” plants together (what does that even mean?) and then putting these Frankenplants to sleep with anesthesia. Normal stuff! But back to Levin, he wondered if the electrical currents found throughout living cells in everything from slime molds to mammals could be storing and reproducing information.

To find out whether voltage changes really altered the ways that cells passed information to one another, Levin turned to his planaria farm. In the 2000s he designed a way to measure the voltage at any point on a planarian and found different voltages on the head and tail ends. When he used drugs to change the voltage of the tail to that normally found in the head, the worm was unfazed. But then he cut the planarian in two, and the head end regrew a second head instead of a tail. Remarkably, when Levin cut the new worm in half, both heads grew new heads. Although the worms were genetically identical to normal planaria, the one-time change in voltage resulted in a permanent two-headed state.

“What are you working on Mike?”

“Oh you know, same old. Made a permanent two headed worm.”

But he kept going:

For more confirmation that bioelectricity could control body shape and growth, Levin turned to African clawed frogs, common lab animals that quickly metamorphose from egg to tadpole to adult. He found that he could trigger the creation of a working eye anywhere on a tadpole by inducing a particular voltage in that spot. By simply applying the right bioelectric signature to a wound for 24 hours, he could induce regeneration of a functional leg. The cells took it from there.

In case you were skimming let me draw your attention very specifically to the phrase: “He found that he could trigger the creation of A WORKING EYE anywhere on a tadpole.” There’s no mention of it but I’m putting the odds that Levin at some point grew a Biblically accurate tadpole with a hundred eyes and sixteen legs in a circle at a cool one hundred percent.

Again, this is stupendous science, but also just nuts on its face. Speaking of nuts on its face, Levin also “electrically scrambled the normal development of frog embryos to create tadpoles with eyes, nostrils and mouths in all the wrong places. Levin dubbed them “Picasso tadpoles,” and they truly looked the part.” Yeah you thought that was gonna be even worse, huh? But it’s still pretty wild. Don’t worry, they grew into regular frogs. No harm done! Ignore the crazed laughter.

This is where I started to break down, because my memory of the rest of the story is a kind of grotesque organic haze. Levin teamed up with another researcher to make little robots? Out of like, frog heart cells?? And human lungs??? How far down the rabbit hole are you when you have to keep visitors out of your lab so they don’t step on the human lung robots crawling around?

The last part of a graphic from the SciAm article is captioned “Going Live: Using microsurgery, scientists at Tufts University took frog skin (ectoderm) stem cells and heart stem cells and arranged them to mimic the most effective computer design. Those cells began to coordinate contraction and expanion to move in a dish.” It shows an abstract diagram of a “xenobot” design made of these cells, and then a more realistic example of how it would move, kind of like a little crawling blob of disembodied frog bits.

“Credit: Brown Bird Design; Source: “A Scalable Pipeline for Designing Reconfigurable Organisms,” by Sam Kriegman et al., in PNAS, Vol. 117; January 2020 (reference)” via Scientific American.

“Everything you see that's alive is doing this amazing thing,” [University of Adelaide’s Pamela] Lyon points out. “If an airplane could do that, it would be bringing in its fuel and raw materials from the outside world while manufacturing not just its components but also the machines it needs to make those components and doing repairs, all while it's flying! What we do is nothing short of a miracle.”

While Lyon surely meant this to be a metaphor, I suspect Michael Levin is already starting work on a Cronenbergian bio-airplane made of, I don’t know, horseshoe crab eyeball cells or something, which does exactly that. And if you apply the correct voltage, it will grow an emergency escape orifice anywhere.

Also Today in Science: Scientists from the zoo suspect the Chicago rat hole is actually a Chicago squirrel hole. Canadian researchers find no correlation between police spending and crime levels. Whoms’t could have predicted. “Scientists created a ‘giant quantum vortex’ that mimics a black hole.” Of course they did. And not exactly about science but not exactly not about science: Philip Bump writes that “Doing your own research is a good way to end up being wrong.” Unless your own research is creating a Biblically accurate tadpole I guess. If that’s wrong, baby, I don’t want to be right.

Today in Etc.: Jude Doyle has been on an absolute streak, here he is with another banger on “Saltburn” and the “Saltburn” Discourse.

Fennell is a cold, hard, misanthropic storyteller. As a director, she repudiates the female burden of being nice. There’s a cynicism to her vision, a viciousness, that I think people instinctively read as threatening. It makes them feel small and seen-through; it causes the specter of the Bad Mommy to rise from the abyss.

A couple weeks ago, this middle aged woman in cat-eye glasses was all over my Tiktok saying something impenetrable about aliens at a Miami mall. I scrolled but Miles Klee figured out what her whole, like, deal is (it’s basically the wellness-to-conspiracy pipeline in action).

Dan Kois gave some good advice about how to balance a desire to have kids with the tsunami of online content claiming it will be impossible and you’ll screw it up:

But I’ve got a secret for you. You can just straight-up ignore all that shit.

As a general rule of thumb, the more Online you get about something, the more miserable that thing will make you.


Chad facing. Bijan: imagine if ninja got a low taper fade. Jackson Lamb, Yoga Instructor. And in Last Week’s New Yorker Review Sam Circle perfectly roasted that excerpt from Leslie Jamison’s forthcoming memoir which I didn’t write about in Tabs because it would have been at least as long as today’s first segment but mean-spirited and unfun. Anyway I also thought it was bad.

And Finally: Did you know Ello just died? Andy Baio dropped a 2014 to 2024 retrospective and assessment of the idealistic social media network’s life and death, and where it went wrong. Was it “taking VC money” like Andy said it would be all the way back in 2014 before it even officially launched? I guess you’ll have to read the story and find out!

Today’s Song: Soulwax, “NY Excuse (fast Version)”

Happy Science Gentleman’s Friday, and I ❤️ U, scientists. Thanks to Music Intern Sam, who sent me today’s song with the message “I'm driving sorry,” so uh, be careful Sam!

Tomorrow is Tabs poetry corner and an open thread, if you’re a paid subscriber. I will be sending it via a disconcertingly moist and organic Posting Robot made of frog cells because I’m headed off to the woods for the weekend, so behave yourselves.