Sponges, Skyscrapers, and Bridges

Sponges, Skyscrapers and Bridges
Venus’ Flower Basket Sponge

As we have said many times, examining design in the natural world can lead to solutions for human problems. We have mentioned that Velcro came about by studying burdock plant seeds. Spider webs have taught us how to make stronger fibers. Now there is a connection between sponges, skyscrapers, and bridges.

Researchers at Harvard University and the National Science Foundation have published the results of the study of a sponge called Venus’ Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum). It’s a deep water glass sponge that has a lot to teach engineers about building bridges and skyscrapers.

This sponge employs two sets of parallel diagonal skeletal struts that intersect and are fused to an underlying square grid creating a checkerboard-like pattern. Research shows that this design has a significantly higher strength-to-weight ratio than the traditional lattice designs used to construct buildings and bridges for centuries.

Matheus Fernandes, who is the first author of the research paper, says, “We found that the sponge’s diagonal reinforcement strategy achieves the highest buckling resistance for a given amount of material, which means we can build stronger and more resilient structures by rearranging existing material in the structure.”

These sponges have used this structure from the beginning of life on Earth. Peter Anderson, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research, says, “The structures of marine sponges inspire not only skyscrapers and bridges, but have the potential to accelerate the discovery and development of lightweight, porous materials with superior mechanical properties.”

Romans 1:20 speaks of being able to see God’s wisdom and design “from the creation of the world.” From burdocks and Velcro to sponges, skyscrapers, and bridges, wherever we look in nature, we see that a wonder-working hand has gone before.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: nsf.gov

Slingshot Spiders and G Forces

Slingshot Spiders and G Forces
Slingshot Spider waiting for prey

Scientists have so far named around 35,000 species of spiders. Arachnids have been designed to survive in so many different ways that they keep biologists busy researching them. Just trying to understand all the different devices that spiders use to capture prey is a challenge. The National Science Foundation just announced a new study from researchers at Georgia Tech of a spider family known as slingshot spiders.

Scientists have known about slingshot spiders since the 1930s, but this is the first study of the kinematic energy, velocity, and acceleration of these Peruvian arachnids. They build a web and then stretch it with a piece of silk to create a three-dimensional spring. They store enough energy in that web spring to produce an acceleration 100 times that of a cheetah. The acceleration creates the force of roughly 130 G’s. That’s more than ten times what fighter pilots can withstand without blacking out.

Slingshot spiders make a web and a tension line as tools to catch their prey. When the target comes within striking distance, the spider releases the tension line and rides the web at ultrafast speed to capture it. This creates the fastest full-bodied motion of any spider. What’s more, it doesn’t involve muscles which frogs, crickets, or grasshoppers use to launch themselves. Every night, the spider creates this complex, three-dimensional spring with vastly more power and energy density than nanotubes or other synthetic materials created by humans.

Researchers are interested in the technique slingshot spiders use to store energy in web silk because engineers could use it to power tiny robots or similar devices. Once again, we have a situation where something found in nature can lead to new materials or processes for humans. When God designs something applying the engineering to make it work, we can study it and use the principles to create useful tools. The lesson of history is that the creation is full of wisdom and design that we can apply for our benefit.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Relationship Between Fruits and Birds

Relationship Between Fruits and Birds demonstrated in Viburnum tinus fruits
Viburnum tinus Fruit

There is an essential relationship between fruits and birds. We all know that birds eat fruits, but we may not be aware of the system’s complexity and how it varies from place to place.

Here in Michigan, we struggle with poison ivy, and I am very sensitive to it. When I moved into my present house, the property was covered with a great deal of poison ivy. I spent most of our first summer eradicating it. The following spring, I found new poison ivy plants coming up in places where there were none the year before. One of my biology teacher friends informed me that birds eat the berries of poison ivy, and they plant many of the seeds resulting in a new crop. That makes it hard to eradicate.

An August 17, 2020, report by the National Science Foundation told about a study of an evergreen shrub found in the U.K. and most of Europe. This plant, called Viburnum tinus, stores fat in the cells of its fruit, making it an ideal food for birds’ survival success. The fruit also contains a large number of seeds. The fat, or lipids, in the fruit’s cells, give it structural color, making it a very bright blue. Structural color is not made from pigments, but it is produced by internal cell structures interacting with light. The feathers of many birds, including peacocks, and the wings of butterflies have structural color, but it is very rare in plants.

Miranda Sinnot-Armstrong of Yale University says that they used electron microscopy to study the Viburnum tinus fruits’ cell walls. She said they “found a structure unlike anything we’d ever seen before: layer after layer of small lipid droplets.” Because of the lipids, these plants supply the fats that birds need. Their shiny metallic color signals the birds to lead them to this nutritive source.

The more we study the natural world around us, the more we see incredibly complex structures to allow life to exist. This is not an accident but a complex set of systems to provide diversity in the natural world. The relationship between fruits and birds is designed to give the birds a way to find nourishment and to support their food sources in a symbiotic relationship. It’s another example of God’s design for life.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Viruses Are Critical Agents for Life

Viruses Are Critical Agents for Life
Emiliania huxleyi bloom in English Channel

The pandemic has made many people think that viruses are a bad thing. However recent research has shown that viruses are critical agents for life. They convert energy and organic matter at the bottom of the food chain into a form that provides us with what we need to live on Earth.

An algae called Emiliania huxleyi uses sunlight and nutrients from the ocean to produce massive algae blooms in the ocean. If it stopped there, the presence of the algae would be detrimental to ocean life. We all know about the “red tide” that afflicts coastal areas of Florida where algae are destructive.

But there is more to the story of Emiliania huxleyi. A virus called coccolithovirus infects the algae, killing it and produing organic matter that is the base of the ocean food chain supporting higher forms of life. Kay Bidle of Rutgers University is the chief author of the study. She says that this relationship is likely to apply to other virus-algae interactions in the ocean.

This new discovery is related to changes in the ocean observed from the International Space Station. The magnitude of this process is huge, and may provide a solution to some of our biggest environmental problems.

The National Science Foundation has reported on this discovery at nsf.gov. Mike Sieracki who is a program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences says, “We are just beginning to understand how these incredibly complex microscopic interactions can affect global processes such as the carbon cycle.”

Viruses are critical agents for life. They are tools that God has built into the creation to provide the food and energy we need. Like all viral interactions, the virus works with other created things, in this case algae, to accomplish its provision for life’s existence.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Alien Life Without Water

Is Alien Life Without Water Possible?
For all of my life, there have been articles, videos, and public presentations claiming that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. Now that we know there are thousands of planets in the creation, we see attempts to maintain that with so many planets there must be life somewhere. Scientists are even speculating alien life without water.

We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t say that this is the only planet where God created life, so this is not a biblical issue. The latest attempts to expand the window of what life is has rejuvenated the need to show the design built into the development of life. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The National Science Foundation has just funded a three-year program at Saint Louis University to explore what building blocks might be used to make a different kind of life. The chemicals they are considering are hexane, ethers, and chloroform. There is particular interest in whether these materials can form membranes that could be considered life.

The first problem is the definition of life. Life has traditionally been defined as “that which can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli and reproduce.” An extraordinary chemistry is necessary to meet all of these criteria. Water is the basic substance of life on Earth. The water molecule is polar, meaning that one end of the molecule is negative and the other end is positive. Oxygen is the negative end. Oxygen’s bonding orbitals allow the attachment of two hydrogen atoms making that end positive. This polarity allows water to dissolve other molecules. Salt, for example, is made up of sodium which is positive and chlorine which is negative. When you put salt in water, the sodium is attracted to the oxygen end of the water molecule, and the chlorine is attracted to the hydrogen end of the molecule because unlike charges attract each other. This pulls the salt molecule apart and allows the salt to dissolve. Alien life without water seems impossible.

Hydrocarbons like methane have four hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atom symmetrically. That makes the molecule non-polar and unable to dissolve salt. Numerous experiments are underway to circumvent this problem including the use of vinyl cyanide (also called acrylonitrile) which has been found in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Coming up with a formula for alien life without water will be difficult. How a substitute for oxidation would work has not even been publicized, so respiration would be an equally great challenge.

Chris Butch, a chemist of the Earth Life Institute, says “It’s like trying to build a car in your backyard out of lawnmower parts, versus having the Maserati factory build a supercar.” As science looks for something that can be called life elsewhere in the solar system, we should be impressed with the wisdom involved in the original building of life on planet Earth.
–John N. Clayton © 2019

Reference: Astronomy magazine, February 2019, page 29-35.