Volvox—Single-celled Synchronized Swimmers

Colonies of Volvox green algae demonstrate amazing coordination in movement and growth wherever they are found—a testament to God's creativity in algae.

by Dr. Joe Francis on July 1, 2013; last featured May 16, 2021
Featured in Answers Magazine

Ever heard of Volvox? It may not be in the next Olympic lineup, but it will beat anything on their program. This single-celled wonder performs masterful pirouettes flawlessly every day—without fanfare—in your local pond scum.

Algae are among the most abundant creatures on earth, growing rampantly in lakes, puddles, and even aquariums. The word algae usually brings to mind stagnant ponds covered with green sludge. Contrary to their foul reputation, algae are amazingly beautiful, diverse, and vital to life. They fill the seas, whether as solitary individuals or as gently swaying “kelp forests,” which feed an immense variety of hungry ocean-going creatures.

Under the microscope, algae populate a marvelous world of light-gathering, twirling, and spinning creatures. One of the most fascinating is Volvox. Just barely visible as a pale green dot to the human eye, under a microscope they appear like spherical, translucent spaceships, composed of thousands of dancing algae cells sailing through the water.

For decades microbiologists have been baffled over how these cells cooperate without a brain or even a single nerve cell to guide them.

A closer inspection shows a small biological wonder, a “colony” of up to thousands of individual “rowing” cells working together to move the floating ship. For decades microbiologists have been baffled over how these cells cooperate without a brain or even a single nerve cell to guide them.

Even more puzzling, cells that are separated from the colony look just like any other single-celled algae, with two flagella (spinning whiplike propellers common in many one-celled organisms) and an eyespot (a basic “eye” which senses light). In a pond or the ocean, these single-celled algae would get lost in the crowd.

But this is not the case with a Volvox. The individual algae cells work together to form a hollow sphere, and they coordinate their flagella so that the Volvox moves in one direction.

How is this possible? You would expect each side of the sphere to cancel the other out. Furthermore, why doesn’t every eyespot point the ship in a different direction?

Recently, microbiologists noted that the cells with the most sensitive eyespots line up toward the front of the sphere. Then all the algae cells point their flagella toward the back.

Okay. Amazing. So how does the Volvox turn?

Volvox never stops swimming.

Volvox never stops swimming. It can respond to a change in light by turning quickly; the cells with eyespots nearest the light shut off their propellers, and the active propellers cause the Volvox to turn toward the light.

All of this activity requires a complex system of biochemical communication between each eyespot and the flagella propellers. Although Volvox is supposed to be a simple creature, this complex biochemistry and cell-to-cell communication still mystifies scientists. Volvox is just one more example showing how God created his creatures to work together to serve His purposes.

Next time you see pond scum, thank the Lord for these beautiful reminders of His wisdom and provision for all living things (Proverbs 8:30–31)!

Dr. Joe Francis, chairperson of the the science and math departments at The Master’s College, earned his PhD from Wayne State University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Francis also teaches for Liberty University Online.

Answers Magazine

July – September 2013

To say that the human brain is more amazing than a computer misses the point. We now know that it’s nothing like a computer— and far more powerful! In this issue of Answers you’ll learn why a computer will never match the human brain. Also, discover why the big bang is a theory in crisis, what the Bible says about women in combat, and much more!

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