Tiny six-legged animals

I noticed a fun little Twitter trend today under the hash tag #UpGoerFive. Inspired by Randal Munroe’s xkcd comic on the Saturn V rocket entitled Up Goer Five, which explained the workings of the rocket using only the “ten-hundred words people use the most often,” parasitologist Theo Sanderson built the wonderful Up-goer Five Text Editor. The Up-goer Five Text Editor is a simple, but fun site built around a textbox that warns you when you type into it an uncommon word. Sanderson explains more about what went into its creation here on his blog.

Scientists, who are stereotypically inept at making their work accessible to less specialized audiences, have jumped all over this and used it to talk about their research. There is even a new Tumblr page dedicated to these research summaries. The following is my attempt to explain what we do in my lab and why we do it using only the 1000 most common English words. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be quite tricky.

We are interested in how little animals with six legs smell things. Our favorite little six-legged animals are tiny flies who love sweets that have grown a bit old. Instead of giving our tiny flies the food they like, we sometimes like to give them bad food that changes the way their babies turn out. When we find fly babies that act different than their parents, we look inside their heads and noses to see what has changed. This work helps us understand how flies smell things. You must be asking yourself why anyone would want to understand that. Well, you might be surprised.

Just ask the people who grow our food what they think of most little six-legged animals. I am sure they will tell you they hate them very much. You see, those little six-legged animals are always eating food that was being grown for people, and that means the people who grow our food are always losing lots of money. Do you know how those six-legged animals find our food? That is right, they smell it. Think of how much money we could save if we could stop those little jerks from smelling our food!

There are also bigger flies that like the smell of people instead of the smell of old sweets. In fact, they like the smell of people so much that they follow their nose to find us. And when they find us, those annoying little things just love to bite us and suck our blood. Isn’t that crazy? But just wait, it gets worse … Some blood-sucking flies have even tinier little animals in their mouths that get inside the person the fly is biting. Once those tiniest little animals are inside a person, they can make that person very sick. And no one wants to be sick.

This is why we are working so hard to better understand how tiny, sweet-loving flies smell things. We hope that a better understanding of how these flies smell will help us stop all the other even more annoying six-legged animals from eating our food, sucking our blood, and giving us the tiniest little animals that make us sick.

I will be happy if my work helps people, but I also just find it cool that these tiny noses and the tiny brains they talk to can recognize hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of different smells. Aren’t brains cool?

Update (2013-01-23): Sanderson has one-upped himself (pun absolutely intended) and released Up-Goer 6, which color-codes your words based on how commonly used they are in modern English. Keep up the awesome work!

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