What if we could design a super-small, versatile machine that could travel up blood vessels to deliver targeted medical aid?
Inspiration sometimes strikes from the most unlikely directions. Who knew that a well-known parasite might lead to the next major breakthrough in medical treatment?
A group of scientists at the University of Tennessee are leading the way to understand how microscopic creatures (primarily Giardia lamblia) move through the bloodstream. The goal? Construct micro-robots that can navigate the dangerous twists and turns of the bloodstream. Only worldclass swimmers can make it to their intended destination in this foreign environment. So scientists want to study the very best.
If robots can imitate the swimming abilities of Giardia, doctors could send them on any number of special missions, such as site-specific drug delivery and breaking up kidney stones. The technology promises many nonmedicinal benefits, too (for example, better maneuvering of large underwater vehicles).
Why the focus on Giardia? One scientist involved in the research, Dr. Mingjun Zhang, stated, “Giardia seems to be one of the most sophisticated swimming microorganisms and is very efficient and intelligent in terms of controlling its swimming behavior and energy utilization. It is a source rife with bioinspiration and innovation.”1
Who knew that a well-known parasite might lead to the next major breakthrough in medical treatment? Giardia is a source that is full of inspiration.
Giardia, a single-cell organism known as a protozoan, attaches to the small intestine and causes a form of diarrhea called giardiasis. This disease causes abdominal cramping, vomiting, and a fever that can last for days. Though the protozoan now causes great harm in our fallen world, there’s no denying that its motors are elegantly designed!
Not just one, but four pairs of flagella (tentacle-like arms) extend from its body. They enable Giardia to swim with a rotating motion, much like that of a beater on an electric mixer.
Giardia is unusual in that it can infect many different types of hosts—both humans and animals. The key to its versatility is that each of the four pairs of flagella has different movements and functions, allowing it to infect very different types of hosts. Two pairs act like “flexible paddles,” similar to paddles on two sides of a canoe. Another pair moves with a wave-like action, like snakes moving through water. This pair is important for attaching to the host’s cells. The last pair does not seem to move at all! However, they run almost the entire length of the body and increase the flexibility of the tail end, which appears to contribute to the cell’s overall movement.
All the flagella work closely together when the Giardia nears its host for attachment. Like a spaceship preparing to dock, the motors stabilize and direct the body, as it hovers into position above the cell surface. The flagella’s ability to direct precise movements excites robotic engineers.
Dr. Zhang, the scientist mentioned earlier, also stated, “This [each of Giardia’s flagella] is the result of a robust design from millions of years of evolution.”2 This statement is ironic considering that he had previously described Giardia as “sophisticated,” “efficient,” and “intelligent.” Complex biological machines like the flagella cannot evolve in a step-wise fashion via random mutation over millions of years, as Darwinian evolutionists postulate. If even one small part of the biological machine were not present, the organism would quickly die.
Although Giardia causes disease, this was not the case before the Fall. God’s original design for Giardia was likely that of a beneficial symbiotic (mutual support) relationship, like so many other microorganisms today. Giardia is an amazing example of God’s complex design in a seemingly simple organism. Even in our fallen world, the Great Physician shows us many inspiring designs—including those in a parasite—that doctors can use to help the sick.
The fast-moving, single-celled organism, Giardia lamblia, has a unique combination of paired “whips” (flagella) that give it incredible maneuverability. Like oars on a ship, the forward oars (anterior) and side oars (posterolateral) propel the body quickly forward with powerful, rotating strokes. When it reaches its destination, the motion changes to a back-and-forth motion, allowing Giardia to hover over its target and “dock.” Meanwhile, the back whips (ventral flagella) beat in a wave motion. Could miniaturized motorized vehicles be built to imitate this amazing design?