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Scientists created a vomiting robot to study how disease spreads

Behold: NC State's human vomit simulation machine.
Behold: NC State's human vomit simulation machine.
(Grace Tung-Thompson)

Scientists have long suspected that people infected with norovirus — a virus that often causes food poisoning — can spread the disease via one of its characteristic symptoms: projectile vomiting. The act of throwing up, the thinking went, could cause virus particles to go airborne, helping it infect tens of millions of Americans each year.

But for years, no one knew for sure whether this could actually happen. So to test the idea, researchers at NC State University, led by Lee-Ann Jaykus, built a vomiting machine.

The device includes a quarter-scale replica of a human stomach, esophagus, and mouth. A nozzle shoots out a vomit-like substance — which included a harmless virus standing in for norovirus — inside a sealed Plexiglas box. Then a sensor detects the number of airborne virus particles.

Here's the vomit machine in action, set to a viscosity and pressure that mimics what the researchers call "post-vomit retches":

The vomiting machine

(NoroCORE)

The group's new paper on the research, published yesterday in PLOS One, found that projectile vomiting indeed launched thousands of viruses into the air — and that more viscous simulated vomit made for more virus particles.

There are many other machines that replicate disgusting human bodily functions

The NC State vomit machine follows in the footsteps of a proud tradition of machines that simulate the activities of the human body as faithfully as possible.

In 2013, British researchers created "Vomiting Larry" — a device that showed how far projectile vomit could spread, part of earlier research into norovirus.

A photo of Vomiting Larry

(UK Health and Safety Laboratory)

Though it didn't simulate the precise pressure of vomit or allow scientists to measure concentrations of airborne virus particles, it was pretty impressive in its own right:

The SynDaver company, meanwhile, has a created a series of simulated human bodies intended to replace cadavers in medical research and education. They can breathe, bleed, and react to getting cut or experiencing pain — and start at $40,000.

The SynDaver human model.

(SynDaver)

Finally, there's the "Cloaca machine." Though not strictly made for scientific purposes — it was created by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye for "no purpose at all" — it is a biologically accurate model of the human digestive system.

A close-up of Delvoye's cloaca machine.

Artificial feces produced by the "Cloaca" machine.

(Wim Delvoye)

Food gets passed through a series of tanks, which grind it, break it up with digestive juices, and eventually push it out in a feces-like state — much like you do.