bugging out

Rice University buzzes with discovery of new Houston-area insect

Houston, we have a new bug. Image courtesy of Rice University

One thing Houston isn’t lacking is bugs, but just our luck: a new species of insect has been discovered by biologists at Rice University.

Discovering a new life form entitles an entity to naming rights, thus this new insect — a nearly microscopic wasp — is dubbed Neuroterus (noo-ROH’-teh-rus) valhalla by Rice’s researchers. (If the “Valhalla” name rings a bell, that’s the legendary Rice pub.)

Graduate student Pedro Brandão-Dias, lead author of the paper on the species, first collected N. valhalla from the branches of a massive live oak tree near the campus bar in spring 2018. Years of research and study finally led to official discovery and naming this year.

Barely a millimeter long and spending 11 months of the year in a “crypt,” the valhalla wasp and other gall wasps, as they are known, trick their host tree into feeding and sheltering their young, Rice reports.

Fittingly, these wasps lay a biochemical cocktail along with their eggs (a Valhalla move, indeed). These chemicals coax the tree to form a crypt, or gall, around the egg. The gall shelters the egg and feeds larvae that hatch from it, Rice research adds. “Once they emerge, they only live three or four days,” Brandão said of the tiny insects in a statement. “They don’t eat. Their only purpose is to mate and lay eggs.”

More research is needed to determine how the February 2021 freeze affected these insects, and if global climate change will affect them further.

For now, Houston now has a new bug, one with memorable nomenclature. “It would have been a missed opportunity to not call it something related to Rice or Valhalla,” said Brandão.


This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston


Houston-based Melax Tech has developed multiple Natural language processing tools that are used by more than 650 health care and life science organizations. Photo via MelaxTech.com

Melax Tech Partners, a leader in natural language technology processing, announced a new partnership with the University of California at Irvine that will help researchers derive insights from the UCI Health Data Science Platform’s electronic health records system and improve patient care.

Melax will implement its signature text annotation tool LANN to pull information from clinical notes, and its CLAMP product to develop natural language processing customizations through the use of AI, according to a statement from the company.

“There has been a strong desire among UCI researchers to have the capability to analyze free-text clinical narrative data using cutting-edge NLP technologies," Kai Zheng, chief research information officer at UCI Health Affairs, says in a statement. "We are delighted to have this opportunity to work with Melax Tech to deploy their AI-driven annotation and analytics tools to help our researchers advance their research agenda by leveraging the vast amount of free-text data that our health system has accumulated in the past two decades.”

Natural language processing, or NLP, allows organizations and healthcare groups to sift through and analyze massive amounts of data at a rapid rate through the use of machine learning and AI. Houston-based Melax Tech, founded in 2017, has developed multiple NLP tools that are used by more than 650 health care and life science organizations, according to its website.

In addition to the recent partnership with UC Irvine, Melax has also recently partnered with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of Western Pennsylvania on similar clinical projects.

Melax has also used its platforms to pull vital information from datasets relating to COVID-19, in both medical and social settings.

In March 2022, it was awarded a Phase 1 NIH Award, valued at $300,000, to develop informatics tools based on COVID-19 datasets with the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego. The tool aims to help researchers better understand vast amounts of virus-related data and connect findings with other similar results.

In August, Melax also received another $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop NLP-based algorithms that will "model, extract and synthesize vaccine misinformation from multiple popular social media sources," according to a statement. Melax will also develop a visualization that presents its findings on the misinformation into a compressible format.

"This is a very real topic affecting culture at present," Andre Pontin, CEO at Melax Tech, says in a statement. "And shows that we as a collective business and group of experts continue to be on the cutting-edge of science in the NLP and AI domain."

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