August 26, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

How Did Primitive Organisms Learn Physics?

Inspiring cases of ballistics, civil engineering and architecture can be found in some of the simplest of living organisms.

Fungus ballistics. When people say, “There’s a fungus among us,” they don’t usually mean it as a compliment. Perhaps they would if they watched the cannons they build to launch their spores. New Scientist says they have a really cool method of triggering their cannons: raindrops. Leah Crane reports that the secret has eluded a complete explanation for a century, till recently scientists at the University of North Carolina figured it out.

Amazing FactsBiologists have long known that the mechanism involved two drops of water interacting with the half-egg shape of spores launched in this way: an elongated drop that forms on its flat side, and a small spherical drop called a Buller’s drop that sits near the rounded base of the spore….

When the drops merge, the loss in surface area releases some of the energy that was maintaining surface tension in the original drops. That is converted into the kinetic energy required to launch the spore away from its parent fungus.

The secret might find application in creating self-cleaning surfaces, Crane writes. Another fungal secret was revealed on Phys.org. How do wood rot fungi consume wood, when no other organism has figured out how to tap into that energy source?  They use a “biomass conversion too” that basically uses chemistry, not enzymes (although enzymes are made and used in the process). Chelators get into the cell wall and disrupt it so that the fungi can get to the good stuff and eat it. Janet Lathrop shares how important fungi are to the forest ecosystem.

Venus Flower Basket, Credit: Kesari Lab/Brown University

Sponge civil engineering. Sea sponges seem like the last things you would go to for inspiration about engineering, but Phys.org suggests we take a new look in an article titled, “Learning new tricks from sea sponges, nature’s most unlikely civil engineers.” Taken from Michael A. Mon’s piece at The Conversation, this article explains how sponges achieve a desirable trade-off between strength and light weight.

Unlike a soft, squishy kitchen sponge, the marine sponge that I study, Euplectella aspergillum, is stiff and strong. It has an amazingly complex skeleton that consists of an intricate assembly of fibers, known as spicules, no larger than a human hair. Their structural function is much like that of the thousands of beams that make up the Eiffel Tower.

Given the praise he heaps on what simple sponges can do, it seems odd he takes time out to preach a sermon on natural selection: “through natural selection, organisms with better designs often outlive those with worse ones and hand off the blueprints of those designs to their offspring through genetic inheritance.” Maybe he is emphasizing it because readers wouldn’t believe it.

Protein architects. Proteins are only parts of cells within organisms, but they are master architects. They build clathrin cages in nerve cells, and viruses (not even organisms) pack DNA tightly in icosahedral containers. A paper in PNAS, “Beyond icosahedral symmetry in packings of proteins in spherical shells,” explains the significance of learning how these miniature machines achieve what they do:

The design and construction of man-made structures at microscopic scales are one of the key goals of modern nanotechnology. With nature as inspiration, synthetic biological building blocks have recently been designed that self-assemble into quasi-spherical shells or cages. Whereas many natural protein building blocks self-assemble into highly symmetric ordered shells (e.g., viruses), our study shows that surprisingly even a small amount of (unavoidable) flexibility in the synthetic building blocks leads to stable disordered configurations. Our work provides a new design paradigm: Modulating the flexibilities of the components, one can control the regularity of the packing and, consequently, the surface properties of a synthetic cage.

The authors find that “optimizing those flexibilities can be a possible design strategy to obtain regular synthetic cages with full control over their surface properties.”

How did the simplest of living things come up with technologies our top scientists cannot yet duplicate? Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of intelligent design.

 

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