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Cellular Floundpper

Days in May pass so quickly (well maybe not the part in the office…but the part when I got home and was supposed to write my blog).  Instead of writing an essay I am going to put up one of my flounder pictures for you.  This one is a cellular flounder–a reminder that whenever we look at a living thing it is made up of much smaller individual living things.  It is a truth which is hiding in plain sight (like the flounder) but it is continuously astonishing to me.  This amoeba flounder reminds to think on the microscopic level too, as we contemplate the world.

Microbeads through a Microscope

Microbeads through a Microscope

Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution.  In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers.  Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads.  These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort.  Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers.  What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry.  The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.

Ahh...consumer goods!

Ahh…consumer goods!

Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems.  This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels.  So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads?  First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur.  This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.

New-Yorks-attorney-general-wants-microbead-ban

More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system.   There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best.  This seems dangerously misguided.  The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory.  We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens).  If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

Grains of Pollen Photographed by an Electron Microscope

In continuing celebration of spring, I’m returning to the microscopic world to appreciate the beauty of pollen grains.  Ancient shamans intuited the generative nature of pollen and used it for ceremonial purposes: bright yellow pollen powder is still popular in Native American rituals today. However it was only with the advent of microscopy that we began to understand true range and beauty of pollen grains.

Acacia Pollen

Pollen grains contain male gametophytes which are ultimately meant to alight upon the proper carpel to unite with the female gametophyte cell and ultimately germinate into a genetically different offspring (my apologies to any impressionable readers out there).  Spring is such a difficult time for allergy sufferers because many common trees and grasses utilize this time of year for pollination: flowers are unblocked by mature leaves and a whole growing season stretches ahead.  It boggles the mind to imagine the immense community of tiny plant sex cells flying through the air around us and clinging to our bodies.

Himalayan Iris Pollen

Most of our favorite flowers and fruit have pollen which is entomophilous (i.e.carried by animals) and designed to stick to the leg of a bee or moth or some other pollinator.  Such grains tend to be like burs, with all sorts of strange miniscule hooks and spikes (they thus pose less of a problem for allergy sufferers–since they never make it to the nasal cavity).  Other plants literally cast their hopes upon the wind.  These anemophilous pollens are lightweight explorers produced in vast quantities and they get everywhere (to the misery of those with hay fever).

Pollen Nestling in the Cilia which Lines Your Upper Respiratory Tract

A Grain of Lavender Pollen Lying on a Lavendar Petal

Of course pollen is only one component of the microscopic jungle around us.  Right now you are sitting amidst an immense collection of fungal spores, infinitesimal mites, decaying skin cells, animal hair, bacteria, viruses, and even more esoteric flora and fauna.  Just imagine the coming world of nanotechnology where these various biological entities will be joined by infinitesimal man-made objects…

Insect Scales, Pollen, Hair, Manmade Fibers, Fungal Spores, and Dander

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