Unleashing Curiosity, Igniting Discovery - The Science Fusion

The organism being held through two micropipettes to elongate the “neck”

Elliot Flaum and Manu Prakash/Stanford College

Think about in case your neck was so extendible that your head may attain your native store whilst you sat on the couch. That might be the human equal of what one single-celled predator can do – and now the long-standing thriller of the way it can prolong its “neck” greater than 30 instances the size of its “physique” has been solved.

The cell membrane of this organism is folded up right into a collection of pleats that may solely unfold and refold in a method, Eliott Flaum at Stanford College and her colleague Manu Prakash have found, permitting it to increase and refold with out ending up in a tangled mess. “We figured most of this out by taking part in with a chunk of paper,” says Prakash.


Lacrymaria olor is a single-celled organism, or protist, that lives in contemporary water and hunts its prey with its terribly extendible neck-like protrusion. Its title means “tear of a swan”, after its swan-like neck and tear-shaped physique.

Whereas cell membranes are extremely versatile, they aren’t elastic and can’t stretch. So how L. olor extends its neck to such an important size has been a thriller because it was first seen beneath a microscope within the sixteenth century. “We in contrast this to many different organisms, and it’s orders of magnitude bigger on this extension,” says Prakash. “That’s the puzzle.”

He and Flaum turned intrigued after they noticed L. olor in samples they collected from a swamp six or seven years in the past, and so they got down to resolve the thriller. Flaum used quite a lot of totally different methods to picture the outer construction of L. olor and its inside cytoskeleton, product of constructions known as microtubules. “We tried many alternative methods of it to know what was occurring,” she says.

This revealed that the cell membrane of L. olor is folded into 15 pleats, and every pleat spirals across the cell, forming a helical construction. Prakash calls this folding sample “curved crease origami”, or “Lacrigami”.

However how does L. olor unfold and refold this large space of cell membrane with out getting right into a tangle? What Prakash and Flaum labored out is that due to the way in which the pleats are stabilised by bands of microtubules linked to them, a complete crease can’t unfold abruptly. As a substitute, just one level of a crease can unfold or refold at any time.

As these factors transfer in parallel up every of the 15 creases, the cell membrane unfolds in an orderly method, extending the neck. Reversing the method shortens the neck.

“As a substitute of randomly folding, like in case you have been to crumple paper, it has a guiding rail for it to fold again in the identical means each time,” says Flaum.

The folding and unfolding is powered by the beating hairs, or cilia, that cowl all the floor of the cell, says Prakash. It requires power to unfold in addition to refold, not like a spring, however wants little or no as a result of cell membranes bend simply.

So far as he is aware of, nobody has found this folding sample earlier than. “Once we figured this out, I’d all the time thought that anyone taking part in with paper would have found this origami,” says Prakash. “It’s fairly easy.” Anybody could make it with a chunk of paper and little bit of tape, he says.

“The intelligent origami design of its neck makes cilia efficient for high-speed, long-range searching,” write Leonardo Gordillo and Enrique Cerda on the College of Santiago in Chile in an accompanying article. “The origami-like protrusion mechanism recognized by Flaum and Prakash has the potential to encourage new methods in soft-matter engineering.”

Certainly, Prakash and Flaum at the moment are engaged on creating medical robots primarily based on “Lacrigami”. “In case you had a small micro-robot in a really small area, and it may all of a sudden prolong, that may be massively helpful in microsurgeries,” he says. “However we did this work as a result of it’s simply lovely and a thriller to unravel. We had no considered it being helpful in any means.”

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