Plant Patterns Prolong Perplexity
July 11, 2011
Plants perform a wonder that has attracted the admiration of scholars from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome to modern times: the ability to reproduce mathematically perfect patterns. This ability, called phyllotaxis, can be described mathematically with the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Angle. The beautiful spirals in sunflowers, artichokes, cacti, dandelion heads and other plants continue to fascinate children and adults today, but those are not the only examples. Leaves on a stem can emerge in phyllotactic patterns like a spiral staircase, and depending on the environment, plants can switch patterns at different stages in development. Scientists have learned a lot about the players in the phyllotaxis game, but still do not understand the script. The details of how genes and proteins produce the patterns remain elusive.
Complex Arthropod Eyes Found in Early Cambrian
June 29, 2011
Complex eyes with modern optics from an unknown arthropod, more complex than trilobite eyes, have been discovered in early Cambrian strata from southern Australia. The exquisitely-preserved imprints of the eyes in shale were reported by Lee et al. in Nature. The abstract started by quoting Darwin and affirming evolution, but then revealed evidence that complex eyes go further back in the fossil record than previously thought possible.
Follow the Leader: Nature
June 21, 2011
Ever since biomimetics (the imitation of nature) gradually emerged around 2002 and really took off in 2005, it has not slowed down. Over 90 previous entries in these pages have reported teams all over the world seeking out natural designs for ideas. The reports have accelerated in recent years to the point where there is only space for short summaries that give a taste of the wide variety of engineering work taking inspiration from plants, animals, and even cells. You yourself might inspire some inventor. Here are a few more highlights from recent adventures in biomimetics.
Inner Ear Hair Cells Overcome Friction
June 19, 2011
The cochlea, that spiral-shaped structure in the inner ear, is filled with fluid. In this fluid, tiny hair cells called stereocilia are positioned in bundles along the length of the structure. These bundles sense vibrations transmitted into the fluid from the bony levers of the inner ear. The vibrations picked up by the hair cell bundles, each tuned to its own frequency, mechanically transduce the sound impulses by opening ion channels that set up electrical impulses in the auditory nerve, that travel to the brain. But motion in fluid creates friction known as viscous drag. How do the hair cell bundles overcome it? Scientists have figured out that the hair cells in the bundles are not only finely tuned to reduce viscous drag, but actually to employ it for even higher sensitivity to sound.
Appreciate Your Gifts
May 29, 2011
We like to showcase stories of amazing animals, but humans are special, too. What animal can boast some of the qualities that science has recently reported?
How They Do It: Amazing Organisms
May 27, 2011
The plants and animals around us seem so ordinary, but they all are so extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes ordinary simply because of their numbers. But if you expanded the sample space to include the entire solar system, what we have in earth’s biosphere should astonish everyone. Here are nine notable fellow creatures.
Small Animals Astound, Inspire
May 17, 2011
Elephants and great whales impress us with their bulk, but there are smaller critters that are no less impressive. Here are a few fantastic animals that come in very small packages. Bears in space: Here’s an animal so bizarre, so well-armed, so scary looking, if you knew they were in your back yard you would […]
Hummingbird Tongue More Clever Than Thought
May 8, 2011
Humans sip their nectar by tipping a glass and slurping, but how can a hummingbird pull liquid out of flowers with a tongue alone? Up until now, scientists thought that hummingbird tongues acted like capillary tubes. New research with high-speed cameras show that the action is much more clever – so clever it might lead […]
The Eyes Have It: Pro Software
May 5, 2011
You have a biological version of Photoshop in your eyes. That’s what Richard Robinson, a freelance science writer from Massachusetts, said in PLoS Biology.1 The eye is not a camera, and the retina is not a piece of film. Indeed, the retina might be better likened to a computer running Photoshop, given the extent of […]
Animal Tricks Inspire
April 26, 2011
Here we are in the millennium of science, and we are still trying to figure out how animals do such nifty things. Some of their nifty tricks we didn’t even know about till researchers took a look. With high-tech monitoring tools, we might even learn the tricks for our own good. Owl fowl: The flapping […]
Seeing Is Believing, or v.v.
April 4, 2011
What you see is not what is out there in the world – not exactly, at least. Scientists have shown that your brain is tweaking the light coming in from your eyes and making predictions about what you expect to see. The “blind spot” experiment is well known to students. That’s where it […]
Plants Generate Their Own Sunscreen
April 1, 2011
Ultraviolet radiation hits plants as well as humans, but plants can’t reach for a tube of sunscreen. Too much exposure can damage them; what do they do? They have a sensor that turns on production of their own brand of sunscreen and spreads it on their skin automatically. UV-B rays are the most […]
Plants Have Social Networks
March 31, 2011
Plants may be mostly stationary, but they have connections. They are so well connected, in fact, that they have both intranets, extranets and internets. Inside their own vessels, they communicate with proteins and RNA molecules from root to shoot (04/23/2010); outside, they have many social relationships with other organisms. They even “friend” their partners, just […]
Your DNA Repairman Is Handy as an Octopus
March 27, 2011
Some 10 times a day in a given cell, your DNA breaks on both strands. This is an emergency. Unless repaired quickly, serious diseases, like cancer, can develop. But no fear: the first responder is an octopus-shaped protein complex that rushes to the rescue, wraps around the damaged site, and brings in all the parts […]
Neurons Know What to Do
March 27, 2011
Neurons are among the most vital cells in the body: after all, your brain is largely composed of neurons. Neurons are transmission lines of information that keep a body in touch with itself and the world. None of the other body organs would work without neurons. The increasingly powerful tools of microscopy are allowing neuroscientists […]