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A Trio of Design Reminders Three stories this week provide salient reminders of the design apparent in creation—whether it be in structures we’re just beginning to understand, or in engineers taking cues from nature to construct their machines.
Such “quality assurance” mechanisms are “not fully understood.”
Scientists at the University of Leeds and the University of Bristol have examined the amazing cellular capability to ensure proper building of proteins, which is crucial for the ongoing function of a life-form. But such “quality assurance” mechanisms are “not fully understood.” One of the team members even noted, “Scientists have been puzzled as to how this process makes so few mistakes” and continued, “Statistically, we would expect to see a hundred-fold more errors than we actually do.”
The answer may lie in “miniature scissors” that can cut out letters of an RNA sequence if error is detected before copying resumes. “The mechanism we’ve modeled has only recently been shown to be implicated in proofreading,” explains the team member. “In fact, there is more than one identified mechanism for ensuring that genetic code is copied correctly. The challenge now is to find out—through a combination of experimental biology and modeling—which mechanism is dominant.”
Not only does Darwinian evolution have to account for the genetic information that results in functional anatomy; it also must explain the piecemeal development of such sophisticated quality control and biological management machinery.
Tests show a 95 percent success rate.
The human eye has sometimes been a target for accusations of “bad design” (read more in Is our ‘inverted’ retina really ‘bad design’?). But Boston College computer scientists have created a new computer technique that is inspired by the human eye’s behavior.
Calling it a solution to “one of the most vexing challenges to advancing computer vision,” the report states that scientists developed a new set of algorithms to help streamline the computer’s work in recognizing elements of a live image (by matching them to other images).
“When the human eye searches for an object it looks globally for the rough location, size and orientation of the object. Then it zeros in on the details. Our method behaves in a similar fashion, using a linear approximation to explore the search space globally and quickly; then it works to identify the moving object by frequently updating trust search regions,” explained one of the researchers.
The technique has increased the speed of matching by 10 times relative to previous methods, and tests show a 95 percent success rate (compared to 50 percent for previous methods)—yet “at a fraction of the complexity.”
So much for “bad design”!
A toxic molecule known as superoxide may be behind birds’ ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field. The discovery is based on the idea that a blue-light photoreceptor called cryptochrome is part of what makes birds sensitive to magnetic fields, which are said to influence fast-occurring chemical reactions. In these chemical reactions, electron transfers result in tumbling electron spins that “behave like an axial compass,” explained one of the researchers, affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
The research suggests that negatively charged superoxide is a reaction partner that interacts with cryptochrome, facilitating the birds’ detection of magnetic fields. But what of superoxide’s toxicity?
The researcher noted, “I realized that the toxicity of superoxide was actually crucial to its role.” Mechanisms for reducing the concentration of superoxide prevent its damaging effects, and the resulting low concentrations help ensure the biochemical compass works correctly.
Once again, does such a sophisticated system—involving quantum mechanics and a careful management of a would-be toxic substance—sound more like design, or more like an evolutionary accident?
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