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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 15 January 2009
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 15 January 2009
Picture caption: Ponerine ants marked with coloured spots so researchers could track their complex interactions. Photo: Bert Hölldobler
Ponerine ants marked with coloured spots so researchers could track their complex interactions.
Photo: Bert Hölldobler.

Medical Micro Machines

In the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a motley crew of medics and glamorous assistants jumped aboard the submarine Proteus before being miniaturised and sent off into the body of Jan Benes.

Their mission was to remove a potentially fatal blood clot from his brain, and the idea of treating people with mini machines has been in our collective psyche ever since.

Despite being unable to shrink either people or submarines, researchers are successfully combining biology with mechanics and electronics.

Professor Tony Turner from Cranfield University joins Quentin Cooper to discuss the world of biosensors – where special molecules read the make up of our bodily fluids and pass the information to electronic devices.

But to keep all these devices running, we need more power.

So project leader Martin McHugh and researchers from Southampton University have developed a battery that’s powered by the heart.

Both guests discuss this new frontier in medicine – including where it’s going, safety issues, and the public response to fusing man and machine.

The Superorganism

Ants are remarkable examples of miniaturisation.

In computer terms, they pack a surprising processing power into a small space.

But as animals go, they are still quite simple, relying on instinctive, repetitive behaviours.

But an ant colony is very different and can display complex behaviour and what looks like planning and even creativity far beyond the knowledge and capacity of any individual ant.

According to biologists E.O.Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, writing in a new book, an ant colony is an example of a ‘superorganism’.

Altruistic cooperation, complex communication and division of labour all contribute to the biological organisation that transforms a colony of individuals into a superorganism.

Research into the superorganism provides a deep look into a part of the living world hitherto glimpsed by only a few.

Ants, termites, bees all make the transformation to superorganism.

Could human society be going the same way?

Quentin is joined by Bert Hölldobler from Arizona State University and Charlotte Sleigh from the University of Kent, author of ‘Ant’ and ‘Six Legs Better’ and an expert on the history of the study of these fascinating creatures.

Next week on Material World - getting to grips with spider silk.

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