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Virus study infects humanity with a 'vomiting machine'

Researchers create a machine that vomits to study how virus particles emitted when someone throws up can spread through the air and infect others. They had us at "a machine that vomits."

Thanks to science, we finally have a vomiting machine. You're welcome, society. North Carolina State University

Scientific experiments have brought mankind all sorts of great inventions, like the lightbulb, the telephone and the four-slice toaster. Another experiment has brought the world something it didn't know it wanted: a vomiting machine.

North Carolina researchers joined forces to create just such an insane-sounding device as part of a study that found that virus particles such as those from the fast-spreading human norovirus, which causes acute gastroenteritis, can leave the body of a person who vomits and then hang in the air and infect others.

Researchers from North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem created a batch of fake vomit that they infected with the MS2 bacteriophage virus, a type of norovirus that isn't harmful to humans and is commonly used in similar simulated demonstrations. They sprayed the vomit through the machine, which features a throat-like tube encased in a one-quarter-scale clay model of a human face in a plexiglass box.

Grace Tung-Thompson

Then they waited to see how much of the virus aerosolized in the air in the form of particles after the simulated person lost its simulated lunch, according to the study, which appeared in the journal PLOS ONE Wednesday.

Only a small percentage of the virus particles hung around in the air, but "in absolute terms, it is a lot compared to the amount of virus needed to cause infection," Francis de los Reyes, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering and an associate faculty member of microbiology at North Carolina State, said in a statement.

He also notes that just .02 percent of the virus aersolized but that's "more than enough to infect other people."

If you're grossed out already, brace yourself, because it gets even grosser. These particles can land in a person's mouth and cause an infection if they are swallowed, says Lee-Ann Jaykus, a North Carolina State professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences.

"But those airborne particles could also land on nearby surfaces like tables and door handles, causing environmental contamination," Jaykus said. "And norovirus can hang around for weeks, so anyone that touches that table and then puts their hand to their mouth could be at risk for infection."

This isn't the first time scientists have built something that vomits to show how diseases can spread. Back in 2013, scientists at the Health & Safety Laboratory in the UK built a barfing robot nicknamed that also showed how the norovirus, which causes nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea and abdominal pain, can spread to other people when victims blow chunks.

North Carolina State also released a video of its achievement in simulated barfing. You really shouldn't watch it if you're eating anything, although I probably should have said that at the very beginning of this story.