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For Your Post-Holiday Enjoyment, Healthy ID Snacks

Evolution News

Yesterday, Evolution News offered appetizers for 2020. But maybe you are bothered already by overeating during the recent holidays. No problem. Here are healthy nuggets with an ID flavor to snack on. 

Better Suction Cups

Those plastic suction cups we use on glass fall off after a while. One would never think of getting them to stick to uneven rock. How about fastening them to rock underwater in a strong current? Impossible? The aquatic larvae of the net-winged midge do it. To the amazement of biologists from the University of Cambridge, these larvae even move around the rocks without losing their grip while subjected to “absolutely enormous” forces trying to pull them off, reports Phys.org.

The larvae have the ability to quickly detach and reattach to underwater rocks in torrential alpine rivers that can flow as fast as three metres per second. Their highly specialised suction organs are so strong that only forces over 600 times their body weight can detach them. [Emphasis added.]

The investigators had difficulty balancing while standing knee deep in the river, but they found the larvae “grazing on the underwater rocks, apparently oblivious to the torrents bearing down on them.” The larvae possess the highest attachment strength ever recorded in insects. What’s their secret?

The researchers found that a central piston, controlled by specific muscles, is used to create the suction and enable each larva to form a very tight seal with the surface of the rock. A dense array of tiny hairs come into contact with the rock surface, helping to keep the larva in place. When it needs to move, other muscles control a tiny slit on the suction disc, pulling the disc open to allow the suction organ to detach. This is the first time such an active detachment mechanism has been seen in any biological system.

Engineers could imitate this mechanism for numerous applications in industry and medicine.

Lights by Intelligent Design

The design inference is at work in the Astrophysical Journal. Astronomers are wondering about lights that appear and disappear in deep space. About a hundred anomalous sources have been detected. The New York Post says that scientists “aren’t ruling out” extraterrestrial intelligences as the cause. But of course, ID’s design filter requires eliminating chance or nature first.

They say the blinking lights are most likely derived from “natural, if somewhat extreme astrophysical sources,” adding that the finding could change the study of astrophysics forever.

“The implications of finding such objects extend from traditional astrophysics fields to the more exotic searches for evidence of technologically advanced civilizations,” the authors write in their report, recently published in the Astronomical Journal.

They’re not supernovae or any other known phenomena. So while intelligent design is barred from most journals, it remains useful. In fact, the researchers are “very excited” about looking for intelligent causes.

Another Flagellum

Archaea constitute a separate domain of life from bacteria, yet they, too, have outboard motors that help them swim. Phys.org describes their place in the living world:

Archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes are what biologists call the three domains of life. Of these three, archaea form an important link within the evolutionary theory. They are the direct ancestors of eukaryotes, but resemble bacteria in structure and organization. Archaea can colonize hot sulphur springs or extremely saline lakes, but can also be found in the ocean or in the human intestine and on the skin. Unlike bacteria, archaea have been relatively little researched — because no pathogenic forms have been identified so far.

The outboard motor of some archaea is so different from the bacterial flagellum, it is called an “archaellum” instead. Like the flagellum, the archaellum appears to be irreducible complex. A paper in Nature Microbiology describes what happens when one part of this “unique nanomachine” is removed:

In Archaea, motility is mediated by the archaellum, a rotating type IV pilus-like structure that is a unique nanomachine for swimming motility in nature….

Strikingly, Sulfolobus cells that lack the S-layer component bound by FlaF assemble archaella but cannot swim. These collective results support a model where a FlaG filament capped by a FlaG–FlaF complex anchors the archaellum to the S-layer to allow motility.

The authors note that “Motility structures are vital in all three domains of life,” and yet each type of machine is unique from those in the other domains. Phys.org adds:

It is important for microorganisms to be able to move actively — so that if their environment deteriorates they can seek better living conditions. Bacteria use what is known as the flagellum, a complex structure requiring up to 50 proteins that assemble according to a strict timetable. Scientists assumed that archaea used the same structure as bacteria to “swim” from one place to another. But after sequencing the first archaeal genomes, the researchers discovered that archaea did not possess flagella operons. Instead, archaea swim using a structure called an archaellum. It consists of only seven subunits in the model organism Sulfolobus acidocaldarius used by Albers, which lives in highly acidic hydrothermal springs. “Nevertheless, this relatively simple structure can perform the same functions as the bacterial flagellum,” she explains.

The archaellum cannot be an ancestor of the flagellum, though, because it’s in a different domain of life, and uses different parts. If five parts in a mousetrap confirm intelligent design, seven subunits in the archaellum make an even stronger case. Undoubtedly the subunits have even more constituent parts. 

So here, the most “primitive” microbes come already equipped with rotary outboard motors, and these tiny cells also live in some of the most extreme environments on the planet — including hot springs at the boiling point. See our “Archaea Have Their Own Rotary Propellers“ for more about the amazing archaellum that is “profoundly different” from the bacterial flagellum yet performs a similar function. Incidentally, it is also “highly conserved” in all archaeal species.

Tidbits

You’ve had some ID cookies. Now here are some small candy pieces. Don’t worry about the calories. They’re all in your head!

The “ultimate non-stick coating” developed at McMaster University was inspired by the lotus leaf. Made into a plastic wrap, it stops dangerous superbugs in hospitals and food packaging.

Penn State announced a “New, slippery toilet coating provides cleaner flushing, saves water.” This biomimetic research has already led to products you can buy from SpotLESS Materials. The spray coating was inspired by the pitcher plant. Watch the video to see how well it works on glass and ceramics.

Soil has been called “that thin layer on the planet that stands between us and starvation.” Phys.org reported on work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that “shows how bacteria can degrade solid bedrock, jump-starting a long process of alteration that creates the mineral portion of soil.” Bacteria speed up redox reactions that let them “eat” the rock because of a “biological invention” of a protein that allows cells to make electrical contact with minerals. Moreover, the bacteria couple the oxidation of iron to make ATP, the energy molecule in all forms of life. The way bacteria metabolize rock to begin soil formation “has been going on basically forever, but unknown to us.”

Better desalination machines and water filtration methods could be coming, thanks to mechanisms inspired by our own body cells. Aquaporins are “essential membrane proteins that serve as water channels in the cells of our eyes, kidneys and other watery organs. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin couldn’t mimic aquaporins exactly, but found a way to create “water wires” that work a thousand times better than existing desalination systems.

“It is difficult to even effectively mimic the complexities of how the human body works, especially at the molecular level,” he said. “This time, however, nature was the starting point for an even greater discovery than we could have ever hoped for.”

Happy ID snacking… all meat and no fat!

Image: Special repellent properties of the lotus leaf inspired the “ultimate non-stick coating”; by William Thielicke (more images here), [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.