Your smart phone is a triumph of miniaturization. The first computers were room-filling monstrosities; now, you can hold more computing power than a Univac in the palm of your hand. In the living world, we should’t despise small creatures. They can pack a lot of technology into a small space. Here are some record-setting examples of living miniatures reported recently.
Migratory mini-champ: You’re an aerospace engineer, and your job is to design an aircraft that can fly across the world. There’s a catch; the weight limit is one ounce. Odds are, you could never come up with a machine that could compete with the Northern Wheateater (Oenanthe oenanthe) – a humble little bird that flies 18,000 miles from the Arctic to Africa on its annual migration, though weighing less than two tablespoons of sugar (0.9 ounce). Scientists who tracked them with geolocators were stunned at their endurance. “They are incredible migratory journeys, particularly for a bird this size,” reported PhysOrg. “Scaled for body size, this is one of the longest round-trip migratory journey of any bird in the world and raises questions about how a bird of this size is able to successfully undertake such physically demanding journeys twice a year, particularly for inexperienced juveniles migrating on their own.”
Micro-frogs: Imagine having to sift through leaf litter to find out what’s making a high-pitched clicking noise. That’s what Chris Austin and team did in New Guinea (see video on Live Science) to discover the world’s tiniest vertebrate: a frog named Paedophryne amauensis. This little croaker makes a dime look like a large lilypad (photo on New Scientist).
Micro-chameleon: If a frog on a dime is amazing, imagine seeing a tiny chameleon, wandering eyes and all, perched on the tip of a matchstick. Look at National Geographic News and wonder. “The extreme miniaturization of these dwarf reptiles might be accompanied by numerous specializations of the body plan,” a German zoologist said.
Micro-wasp: Can a multicelled animal with wings, a digestive system, muscles, nerves and a brain be smaller than a single cell? It sounds unbelievable, but a picture on Science Now shows the fairy wasp competing with an amoeba and a paramecium for size. Science Daily shows how these tiny flying machines crawl around the faces of other insects hitchhiking rides and licking the mouth parts for nourishment. But these tiny wasps don’t need to hitchhike; they have fully functioning wings. In fact, it took Flight Artists, a film company in the Netherlands, a camera running 22,000 frames per second to show the wings flapping in detail. The wings flap at 300 times per second in these tiny creatures and, though they are not the most graceful of flyers (see video on YouTube), they get where they need to go. How can an animal made of cells get so small? PhysOrg reported that scientists found that many of the cells, including more than 95% of its 7,400 neurons, have no nucleus. Apparently the cells lose their nuclei during development.
Micro-survivors: We already know that cells are tiny. Microbes reported by Live Science, though, get along by living underneath one of the driest, saltiest, most life-unfriendly spots on Earth: the Atacama Desert of Chile. Hidden within salt crystals just under the pavement-like surface are bacteria and archaea with factories of molecular machines carrying on the normal life processes of reproduction, motility, growth, signal processing and respiration, as if they have a paradise of their own. Whether similar organisms are thriving on Mars, as the article suggests, is a separate question.
It’s unsettling to hear scientists say that long-held beliefs might be wrong, but that’s the nature of science. Scientific “findings” are tentative, not absolute. Some see this as a strength of science, but unless actual progress is demonstrated, that strength is called into question. Recent news casts doubt on various beliefs that had been trusted for a long time.
1. We were wrong about Neanderthal Man: For well nigh a century or more, Neanderthals were thought too brutish to make art. Not any more. Cave paintings alleged to have been created by Neanderthals have been discovered in Spain, New Scientist reported. Dating tests are still being done on the figures, which appear to be representations of seals. The correctives are more serious, though. The article also pointed out that dating of other cave art is uncertain. Paul Pettitt from the University of Sheffield let that cat out of the bag: “Even some sites we think we understand very well such as the Grotte Chauvet in France are very problematic in terms of how old they are.”
I have a bunch of short little movies that would be appropriate now...
4. Rethinking evolution: Since the discovery of DNA’s structure and function as the carrier of genetic information in the 1950s, most evolutionary work has concerned mutations and natural selection on DNA alone. A major new monkey wrench has come into focus in the last decade: Epigenetics – heritable information and processes that lie beyond DNA (see new book by Woodward and Gills, The Mysterious Epigenome). One of the few papers to rewrite evolutionary history with epigenetics in mind is a paper in Current Biology,3 “Epigenetics: What News for Evolution?” The news is that there is little news – yet. They don’t even know the questions, let alone the answers. The authors wrote, “Having a formal body of evolutionary theory that incorporates epigenetics, as well as developing a clearer quantification of the connection between epigenetic variation and phenotypes will allow us to more rigorously ask whether or how epigenetics plays an important role in adaptive evolution.”
1. Stumpf and Porter, “Mathematics: Critical Truths about Power Laws.” Science 10 February 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6069 pp. 665–666, doi:10.1126/science.1216142.
2. Andrew M. Walker, “Earth Science: Limits of the power law,” Nature 481, (12 January 2012), pp. 153–154, doi:10.1038/481153a.
3. Ben Hunter, Jesse D. Hollister, Kirsten Bomblies, “Epigenetic Inheritance: What News for Evolution?” Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 2, R54-R56, 24 January 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.054.
Published: 4 February 2012(GMT+10)Shanna N., from the United States, wrote in response to ATP synthase: majestic molecular machine made by a mastermind:
But some anaerobic bacteria do not contain the enzyme ATP synthase, so it is not a requirement for life at all. They produce their ATP via glycolysis only, and use fermentation in place of cellular respiration. And thus it is perfectly understandable how simpler proteins in these primitive cells could have evolved into the complex molecular motor we know and love …Brian Thomas, author of the article, responds:
Thanks for reading our article on the design of ATP synthase. Also, thanks for submitting your comment, which provides me the opportunity to clarify both the science and the semantics of my original article.
First, this wording appears to assume that my article asserted that ATP synthase is a requirement for all life. My wording did not go this far, but it could have! Here is the first line of my article: “Life depends on an incredible enzyme called ATP synthase, the world’s tiniest rotary motor.” I did not write, “All life depends … ,” but in fact all life does depend on ATPase. Here is why:
Obligate anaerobes may not use ATP synthase to manufacture ATP, but they do use it to pump protons out of their cytoplasm. They would die otherwise. All cells have ATP synthase, because all cells need it. As evidence, consider a 1986 technical paper in the Journal of Bacteriology, wherein the authors took electron micrographs of F1-ATPase in the anaerobic Clostridium bacteria.1
A recent paper by biochemist Douglas Axe put it this way: “Various forms of this ingenious device are found in all forms of life.”2
Thus, your statement, “But some anaerobic bacteria do not contain the enzyme ATP synthase” is apparently incorrect. If any bacterium is discovered without it, I would like to know about it.
In sum, all life depends on ATPase, but not all life depends on it for ATP production. Anaerobic bacteria use it to maintain pH balance instead. So ATPase must have been present in the very first cell. No known natural process could have built it up piece-by-piece, as you have suggested, because without the entire apparatus, there is no living cell and therefore no evolution, even in theory.
Since evolution by natural selection requires reproduction, and since reproduction requires life, which requires ATPase, the enzyme is therefore a prerequisite for evolution. But with evolution out of order until ATPase ‘appears’, evolution is not even in the running as a model to explain the origin of the molecular motor.
Incidentally, Axe also expressed the gist of my ATPase article by stating, “That is, there is no general principle of physics or chemistry by which ATP synthesis and proton fluxes have anything to do with each other. From an engineering perspective, however, it is often possible and desirable to design devices that force a relation upon otherwise unrelated processes. Of particular interest in this regard are devices like solar cells and turbines that harness energy from an available source in order to accomplish useful tasks that require energy. Life likewise crucially depends on many such devises, one of which provides highly efficient energetic coupling of the above two processes. This coupler, the proton-translocating ATP synthase, is a rotary engine built from eight or more protein types, some of which are used multiple times to form symmetric substructures.”2
Additionally, the necessity of engineering ATPase is actually just the tip of the iceberg. One amazingly revealing 2010 study in the journal Nature demonstrated how not only ATPase, but the entire electron transport chain apparatus and in fact whole mitochondria were absolutely essential to the ‘first’ eukaryote.
Of course, bacteria are not eukaryotes. But similar reasoning dictates that the whole microbial cell membrane—complete with stabilizing proteins and well-organized lipids—is required to keep separate the protons that ATPase pumps. This means that ATPase and the machines and information required to build it, as well as membranes and the machines and information required to build them, must stand together at once or they do not stand at all. Realistically building these kinds of interdependent apparatuses is only feasible in the context of a real engineer. Please consider a summary of the Nature article, published in ICR News: Study Demonstrates Complex Cells Could Not Evolve from Bacteria.
But another ‘red flag’ presents itself. You wrote, “And thus it is perfectly understandable how simpler proteins in these primitive cells could have evolved into the complex molecular motor we know and love…” Please permit me to reflect my understanding of your argument, then consider its supportability.
This seems to be what you are saying:
Premise 1: Some cells do not require ATPase to phosphorylate ADP, an essential process for cellular life.
Premise 2: Such cells instead use simpler and more primitive proteins to phosphorylate ADP.
Conclusion: Thus, simpler proteins evolved into ATPase.
Assuming that I have not accidentally butchered your premises or conclusion, it is straightforward to show that this argument does not wash. First, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. If some cells do not use ATPase, and if those cells instead use other enzymes to phosphorylate ADP into ATP, then how would one logically distinguish between your conclusion that ATPase evolved, and the alternative idea that ATPase (as well as the “primitive” enzymes) was created?
The mere existence of both a motorized scooter and a sports car does not logically require that the former morphed into the latter. In fact, it is fully known that each was a separately intended creation from an intelligent and able (and real) engineer.
Another problem arises with Premise 2. What makes those critical glycolysis enzymes “simple” or “primitive?” Consider their structures, especially noting their precise three-dimensional shapes and hydrophobicity zones, their critically distributed electronegativities and assembly-line arrangement whereby the cell reaps no net ATP’s until ten specified enzymes all perform their appropriate duties. These are too complicated (i.e., the minimum system has too much specified complexity) for nature (physics and chemistry) to devise. This was described by Dr. Morton in this 1980 article: Glycolysis and Alcoholic Fermentation.
So no, it is not at all “perfectly understandable” how any proteins could have evolved into ATPase. This is because: 1. There is no example of this kind of molecular innovation occurring or having occurred in a lab (that is, it is not observed), 2. There is not even any realistic theoretical step-by-step mechanism that could invent any enzyme, let alone ATPase, and 3. Calculations and experiments show that innovating enzymes is not even possible3 (see also Searching for needles in a haystack).
I appreciate your considered and concisely worded feedback. I apologize for any ambiguity that my ATPase article’s wording may have caused. However, I believe that my original goal, to explain why ATPase must have originated from a super-intelligence, remains defensible and accurate.
Science Writer, Institute for Creation Research
Readers’ commentsPeter N., Australia, 4 February 2012
Thank you for an excellent article.
I have often used the argument that the ATP synthase motor was necessary for all life to make ATP. However that’s not quite correct: rather there is no known life form without ATP synthase:
Some life forms use it as a motor where proton flow (an electrical current in one direction) provides the energy to mechanically assemble ADP+P into ATP; and,
some life forms use it as a generator where ATP from another process disassociates into ADP+P via ATP-synthase running in the reverse direction, and so the ATP energy is used to generate a proton flow (an electrical current) in the opposite direction. So we still have no known life without the incredibly designed ATP synthase motor/generator!
Susan W., United States, 5 February 2012
Thank you for your inspiring article! You are being used by God for His glory, thank you for your willingness to be His servant. Your work has been a blessing to me.
- Mayer, F., Ivey, D.M. and Ljungdahl, L.G., Macromolecular organization of F1-ATPase isolated from Clostridium thermoaceticum as revealed by electron microscopy, Journal of Bacteriology 166(3):1128–1130, 1986. Return to text.
- Axe, D.D., The case against a Darwinian origin of protein folds, Bio-complexity 2010(1):1–12, 2010; bio-complexity.org/ojs/index.php/main/article/view/BIO-C.2010.1/BIO-C.2010.1. Return to text.
- Axe, D.D., Extreme functional sensitivity to conservative amino acid changes on enzyme exteriors, J. Mol. Biol. 301:585–595, 2000; citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.124.225&rep=rep1&type=pdf. Return to text.