Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nature wins by a hair

When I first started doing lab work, I found all the specialized equipment quite glamorous. Especially the cold room—basically a walk-in fridge—which always billowed out fog when you opened the door and reminded me very much of the embryo storage room in Jurassic Park. In my lab, we’ve got centrifuges large and small, precision pipettors for measuring out droplets of chemicals, and lots of vials and beakers. In fact, there are whole companies focused on providing labs like ours with expensive, specialized equipment.

But if you look closely in every lab, you’ll find very normal items pressed into scientific service. After all, we scientists are in the business of innovation. In fact, some tools are actually the result of Mother Nature’s innovation, not ours. My favorite examples of nature-made scientific tools are cat whiskers and human eyelashes.

Some scientists study proteins by crystallizing them. One of the challenges of this approach can be getting BIG crystals to form. So sometimes big crystals are formed by micro-seeding a solution with smaller crystals. This requires a very small implement to pick up that small crystal (seed crystal). To this day, scientists sometimes use cat whiskers for the task. They are fine enough to grab a small crystal as you drag the whisker through the solution.

Another set of researchers works on the tiny nematode (worm-like creature) Caenorhabditis elegans. When your research subject is the about the size and length of an eyelash, how do you poke, prod, and transfer such a creature? With a human eyelash, that’s how.

It is a bit humbling that, despite all the sophisticated lab equipment available, sometimes the best tool for the job is something nature created!

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