Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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8 Elul 5764 - August 25, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

Observations: Nature Still Beats Industry
by Yated Ne'eman Staff

An ocean sponge living in the deep sea grows thin glass fibers capable of transmitting light better than industrial fiber optic cables that are now used for telecommunication. The natural glass fibers are also more flexible than manufactured fiber optic cable that cracks if bent too far.

"You can actually tie a knot in these natural biological fibers and they will not break -- it's really quite amazing," said Joanna Aizenberg, who led the research at Bell Laboratories.

The glassy sponge, nicknamed the "Venus flower basket," grows the flexible fibers at cold temperatures, using natural materials, a process materials scientists hope to duplicate in order to avoid the problems created by current fiber optic manufacturing methods that require high temperatures and produce relatively brittle cable.

The sponge also is able to add traces of sodium to the fibers which increase their ability to conduct light, something that cannot be done to glass fibers at the high temperatures needed for commercial manufacturing, Aizenberg said.

"One of the challenges of technology is doping the glass structure with additives that improve optical properties," she said. "If we understand exactly how we can deposit sodium in glass fibers at low temperatures as nature does, we can control all the properties."

The sponge grows in deep water in the tropics. It is about a foot and a half tall with an intricate silica mesh skeleton that also serves as a home for shrimp. The glass fibers form a crown at its base that appear to help anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. The fibers are about 2 to 7 inches long and each is about the thickness of a human hair.

The study, which appeared in the journal Nature, details one of the latest discoveries in the emerging field of biomimetics -- the effort to understand how biological systems are engineered and apply the principles to technology.

"We can draw it on paper and think about engineering it but we're in the Stone Age compared to nature," said one scientist.

Discoveries in recent years include an enzyme that improves laundry detergent, taken from bacteria that breaks down fats in cold water; a glowing protein from jellyfish that allows surgeons to illuminate cancerous tissue while they operate to remove it; and another enzyme that improves DNA testing, drawn from bacteria that live near hydrothermal vents at the ocean bottom.

The sponge study follows an earlier discovery by Aizenberg that a starfish called the brittlestar is coated with tiny lenses that act as a collective "eye," offering engineers a model for creating sensors and guidance systems. Both discoveries show how valuable life in the ocean can be to society and how much of the ocean remains to be explored.


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