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Life Is Smarter Than We Know

How can toads calculate?  How can cells without a brain or central nervous system figure out a balanced diet?  How can bugs navigate the wind for optimum flight time?  These are some of the questions that can arise from observations of the living world.  The more we learn about life, the more we find unexpected […]

Life Masters Physics

Living things, especially cells, have mastered the forces of advanced physics in ingenious ways.  This ingenuity sometimes inspires physicists to try to copy it.  Here are some recent examples: Photosynthesis and quantum mechanics:  Nature reported that plants take advantage of quantum mechanics in photosynthesis.1  “The photosynthetic apparatus of cryptophyte algae is odd – its pigments […]

Spider Webs Are Precision Dew Collectors

Photographs of dew drops on spider webs are favorite targets for nature photographers, because they resemble strings of pearls on fine jewelry (example 1, example 2).  But did you know the reason dewdrops bead up so well on webs is due to the fine microstructure of the spider silk?  A team of Chinese scientists studied […]

Building a Cell: Staggering Complexity

“The living cell is a self-organizing, self-replicating, environmentally responsive machine of staggering complexity.”  Thus began a special section on “Building a Cell” in Nature last week.1  The section with five papers explores what is known about gene regulation, cell organization and signalling.  It’s an opportunity, as well, to see what scientists think about what they […]

Barefoot Is Better

Who do we wear shoes?  It seems obvious; we expect that they help us avoid injuries and provide comfort.  Maybe we should think of the injuries we are getting by wearing them.     The image of the barefoot person is usually of someone poor, deprived, lower-class, hick, unclean, redneck or something else unattractive.  Shoes […]

Molecular Machines Use Moving Parts

Research papers into the processes of molecular machines continue to reveal moving parts: “fingers” that open and close, ratchets that lock into place, and feet that move along tracks.  Here are a few samples from the voluminous literature that continues to pour from biophysics labs. DNA Polymerase I:  Scientific papers tend to be reserved in […]

Arctic Tern Maintains World Record Title

The arctic tern makes a marathoner look like a wimp.  This little bird has been confirmed as the migratory bird with the longest route, flying annually from pole to pole.  A team of international scientists obtained the results by using an implanted geolocator on several birds, and tracking their actual path.  The story is told […]

To Advance Technology, Make Like Nature

Scientists and engineers continue to find the most elegant solutions to practical problems by looking at plants and animals.  Here are a few of the recent examples. Wet computing:  Cells and brains do a superior job of complex processing, so why are our current computers singing how dry I am?  Not for much longer.  Science […]

Best Look Ever at Life’s Smallest Rotary Motor

All cells trade in energy currency called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).  The molecular energy pellets are produced in profusion by molecular machines with rotary engines.  The engines contain all the standard parts: rotor, stator, energy input, and torque production.  They are embedded in the membranes of mitochondria and run on proton motive force.  We’ve reported many […]

It Takes More than Eyes to See

We think of eyes as objects that see, but vision requires a whole system of parts.  One of the most important is the brain.  Without your thalamus, vision would be a hopeless jumble of jerky signals, reported scientists from the National Eye Institute.     Writing in PNAS,1 Ostendorf, Liebermann and Ploner found that the […]

DNA Repair Requires Teamwork

As if the genetic code itself was’t incredible enough, researchers have been finding systems that repair it.  There are numerous pathways the cell can embark on to fix DNA errors.  Two key players were recently described in more detail in the journal Science.1     A damaged genetic code is worse than a book with […]

Simplest Microbes More Complex than Thought

The smallest, simplest cells are prokaryotes.  These are the bacteria and archaea that lack a nucleus and are usually considered primitive.  Scientists are finding, though, that they know many of the same tricks as the more complex nucleus-bearing eukaryotes.     PhysOrg reported that a species of Mycoplasma, among the smallest independent-living bacteria, is more […]

Clever Animals Inspire Lookers – And Engineers

Incredible animals provide endless delights with their antics.  Even microorganisms are capable of amazing feats.  Sometimes these living things inspire inventors, too. Coconut octopus:  Tool use was supposed to be a late marker of primate intelligence as chimpanzees were evolving upward to manhood.  That’s so 1890.  Now that we know crows can use tools (05/26/2009), […]

Microscopy’s Golden Age Is At Hand

Like test pilots breaking the sound barrier, microscope makers are breaking a light barrier some said was physically impossible: the diffraction limit.  Within the next 5 to 10 years, we may see more and more images of phenomena at the molecular scale – not with electron microscopes, but with light microscopes in real time.  What […]

Taking Inspiration from Nature

In the previous entry, Darwin inspired some geologists, even though he was wrong.  Here are some news stories showing nature inspiring engineers with wonders right under their noses. Aerodynamic seed:  A plant in Java has seeds that are perfect gliders.  The BBC News said of the Alsomitra vine: “The seeds, which are produced by a […]
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