sponges of the fiber-optic kind

In yet another example of how Mother Nature got there first, a small deep-sea “glass” sponge has been shown to have “remarkable fiber-optical properties, which are surprisingly similar to those of commercial telecommunication fibers,” report researchers from Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies in the Aug. 21 Nature. Fiber-optic cables are long, thin strands of glass that can carry telephone and computer data as light, and it appears that the sponge Euplectella makes structures that can do the same. Its skeleton, made of silica, is composed of a lattice of tiny projections called spicules that provide support for its body. It appears that these skeletal structures can conduct light just like fiber-optic cables, and appear to be stronger as well. Not only that, but they are made at normal temperatures in the deep, dark sea, not the high heat now required for their manufacture by industry. But why would a sponge need this kind of high-tech, fiber-optic skeleton to begin with? The researchers think that beyond structural support, the spicules “may be useful in distributing light in its deep-sea environment.” They conclude, “This illuminating sponge should also shed light on low-temperature, biologically inspired processes that could give rise to better fiber-optical materials and networks.”

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 9/02/2003.
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