And Nothing Much Happened

Today’s post is my one thousandth blog entry.  I suppose this represents a milestone of sorts.


I started doing this a little over five years ago.  Mostly I have posted photographs–more bugs than anything else.  I did some posts that I am particularly  proud of about the history of the butterfly:  History of the people related to the discovery of Oarisma poweshiek, and early Iowa history.  I went on a few political rants, but mostly have resisted the urge to do so.

Lately I have posted about possible kinetitrophic organisms, and will continue to do so for a little while.  When spring shows up I will start over with the insect photos I imagine.

Nothing I have posted went viral.  I have a few steady readers, but probably fewer than most blogs of similar duration.  I hope you find this interesting, but I do it mostly for my own amusement.  Often I don’t really know why I do it. I just do it.

Thanks for your attention, though.  I do appreciate feedback.

Harlan Ratcliff


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More on Eating Motion: The Click Mechanism

In previous posts I have speculated on the existence of  kinetitrophic autotrophic  organisms–creatures which are able to create food for their metabolism out of the energy of motion.  Picture a bacterium attached to a substrate, with its flagellum spinning in the current.  It might act like a tiny wind generator.


But regardless of whether or not bacteria are capable of kinetisynthesis, could there be other organisms as well?

It seems that rotation around an axis is not very common in life forms.  Perhaps there is some kind of click mechanism that works to make the organism collect energy from the motion in one direction, then clicks to change the angle so that little energy is used to spring back to the original position.

Old-fashioned mechanical jacks and some ink pens have click mechanisms.  So do some toy rubber-tipped dart guns.  Could that lock the flow of the energy so it can be translated into chemical energy?

If you watch trees or grasses in the wind, do you see anything like this?  How would you know it if you did?


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Hanging on

I was looking at some of the photos I took this summer, and ran across some photos I took in June of a red admiral.  The pictures did not seem too remarkable at the time, but I had not noticed the hitchhiker at the time.

Pseudoscorpions are known to hitch rides on insects but I have never seen one on a butterfly.  I did not see this one, either, until I saw it on the photo.


I wish I had noticed it when I took the photo.

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What’s the Formula for Kinetisynthesis?

If you define organisms that use the energy of motion to create food as kinetitrophic organisms, then the process could be called kinetisynthesis.

So we are talking about hypothetical organisms and making words up.  Welcome to my world.

If you go into a cave with flowing water, or any underground pipe, you will find organisms living attached to the substrate, but in complete darkness.  Are they heterotrophic or autotrophic?  You know they are not phototrophic because there is no light.

When we were in school, we learned the “formula” for photosynthesis:


If we go to school long enough, and take advanced biology courses, we find out that this formula is oversimplified.

Oxygen is a waste product for photosynthesis.  Complex organic chemicals cannot be made without sources of carbon and hydrogen.  And if those sources are water and carbon dioxide, the inevitable result is that oxygen is generated.


The final product does not have to be sugar.  Try it with a formula for lipids or proteins.  Try it with the Hover and Porges formula for bacteria:


When you balance it out (and you might want to try ammonia for the source of N), true autotrophic organisms that use carbon dioxide for the carbon source and water for the hydrogen source must generate oxygen.


Chemotrophic autotrophs typically rely on the oxidation of an inorganic compound, so they use oxygen as a part of the reaction.  But kinetitrophic autotrophs, if they exist, would likely generate oxygen as a waste product.  Unless, of course, they build their bodies with chemicals other than carbon dioxide and water.


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Moving on…

My blog posts also get posted to Facebook, and for a short time I wondered if maybe they were too weird for Facebook.  Then I saw the post about the guy who went into Starbucks and was offended that the red cups did not say “Christmas” or “Jesus” or “NRA”.   Mine are weird, but a little less harmful.  They have nothing to do with some imaginary war on Christianity.

Thirty years ago I started searching for hypothetical organisms which could convert motion into food–kinetitrophic organisms.  I started with a question about how the structure would work physically and/or chemically.

If the rotary flagella of bacteria could be reversed in some way, would that make a kinetitrophic organism?  If any other type of locomotion were run in reverse, would that do it?  In the age of long play records, there was a device sold which was used to remove static electricity from them.  It used something called the “piezoelectric effect.”  When certain crystals are mechanically stressed they release a static electric charge.  Could something like that form the basis of kinetitrophic chemical pathways?

I read The Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling and Bioenergetics by Albert L. Lehninger.  (I might still have both books in a box somewhere or I may have sold them–I don’t really remember.)  Understanding and getting a mental picture of how chemicals work was key to later observations.  Conformational isomers can transfer and trap energy, and that will form the basis to the argument I will make later (and have already suggested) about kinetitrophic behavior in dinoflagellates.

But maybe we don’t need a complete understanding of how kinetitrophic organisms work to show that they exist.


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Where to Look

If we look for organisms that can convert kinetic energy into food–kinetitrophic organisms, where should we look?

People who speculate on the possibility that life exists on other planets sometimes mention the possibility of kinetitrophic organisms among the half dozen or so possible types of primary producers that could exist on those planets.  But they haven’t really demonstrated how these organisms could function.

If they could possibly exist on other planets, why couldn’t they exist on earth?  What habitats would we look in?  What would we look for that would show an organism was converting motion into chemical food energy?

Terrestrial plants use the sun to produce energy.  Limiting factors for land plants are water (or lack of it), the amount of sunlight present, and the presence or absence of minerals that can be used by the plants.

Plants in heavy shade are usually not exposed to significant amounts of wind.  Land plants do not seem to be the most likely candidates to be kinetitrophs.

But watch prairie plants or fields of grain moving in the wind, or watch a tree responding to a light breeze.  How much energy is in the wind?  Could any of it be transferred to the plant by some mechanism that we do not understand?  How would you know if it is?  How would you know if it is not?

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Consider a Tree

Watch a tree sometime.  A slight breeze will get its branches moving and the leaves fluttering around.

We know from our elementary science classes that all of the energy that goes into allowing a tree to grow comes from photosynthesis.  We learned the basic equation, where light plus water plus carbon dioxide makes sugar.  Maybe we even had to learn the Calvin cycle.

We learned about experiments by Joseph Priestly, Jan Ingen-Housz, Theodore Wihelm Englemann, Robert Emerson and William Arnold that showed what happened in photosynthesis.

We never considered that plants could use the energy of motion.  But are there any experiments that show that they can’t?

Is there enough energy in the wind to grow a tree?


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The Thrill of Discovery

It is a huge thrill to discover something new.  Even if that thing is only new to me, and maybe even if other people do not see the significance.

Earlier this year I was able to see for the first time a progression of fungus gnat larva.  I even got some quick photographs.


That was an enjoyable and emotional experience for me.  I already knew about them, having read some recent blog posts from other people that had even better photos.  But until that time I had not seen the phenomenon in person.  I was so excited about it I shared what I had seen with co-workers, friends, and family members.  The typical reaction was either a blank stare or revulsion:  Yuck, maggots!

A few years back I discovered a huge mound of digger bee nests under my porch, and digger bees making their little tunnels.

Reactions were similar, although I was able to show some of my pictures at the annual Day of Insects event put on at Rieman Gardens in Ames, and the insect enthusiasts were a little more interested.


The discovery was a huge thrill for me.


I even discovered small flies that mated in the chimneys created by the digger bees.  I am not sure of their exact role, but I strongly suspect that they are parasites.

Even though I do not have all of the answers, the discovery of the bees and the flies and the questions that surround their life cycles was an emotional experience for me.

Thirty years ago I read about the rotary mechanism of the bacterial flagella.  That was something that changed my view of science.  Then I found myself picturing bacteria attached to a substrate, with their flagella rotating in the current.  And I pictured spiral bacteria attached by their flagella, with the body of the bacteria rotating in the current.

And I came up with a series of questions.  If the flagella is forced to rotate, does the bacteria create its own food from the motion–that is, does the reaction work in reverse?

Whether or not bacteria can create food from motion, are there other organisms that can do it?  If the energy of motion is kinetic energy, are there kinetitrophic autotrophic organisms?

The discovery of this question was hugely emotional for me, and I am still not over it.  I have posted on this subject previously–if you find the tab at the top of this post you may see where I am going with this.  And I still have not made the progress I want to with it.

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When What We Know Changes

We go to school and get an education. Some of us learn fast and some of us struggle. But as students I think we all start out with a basic assumption. That is that facts are facts, and they don’t change.
As a student of biology I have found on quite a few occasions that the facts can change. I can think of dozens of examples, but three in particular left a huge impression on me.

Insect thermoregulation:

Insects are cold blooded. They may heat up in the sunlight but the only animals that are truly warm blooded are birds and mammals. That is what I learned.
But that is not really right. Scientists like Bernd Heinrich showed that some insects (initially in a sphinx moth) can heat up their muscles, particularly those in the thorax. He also showed that they can cool those muscles down when they get too hot. Later, Heinrich and others showed that active thermoregulation was present in many insects, including many moths, bees and wasps, and flies. Learning that there could be such a sea-change in knowledge about life was something that totally amazed me. Learning about active thermoregulation in other groups—fish, even plants, and possibly dinosaurs–did not carry the impact that my initial exposure to the concept did.
Check out his many books, including Bumblebee Economics and The Thermal Warriors.

Hydrothermal vents:

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, and the ecosystems that surround them were discovered in 1977, and the habitats were photographed and described scientifically in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The life living among these seeps do not rely much on sunlight, but rely on food produced by chemosynthetic organisms. This may seem like ancient history to some of you, but this discovery was made while I was still in college, and it made a huge impression on me. What I knew (and what we all knew) about biology was turned upside down.

Bacterial flagella:

The notion that the flagellum of a bacteria moves in a rotary pattern was proposed in 1974, which was the year I started college with a major in biology. I don’t remember hearing about that in any of my classes, and although I was a fairly mediocre student I would have remembered that. I remember reading about how the flagellum worked sometime in the early 1980s and I was blown away by the idea.
I consider myself a student of life. I have always had a deep interest in biology, and at that time I was especially tuned in to the life sciences. I was young, probably a little too socially isolated for my own good, and spent a lot of my time reading about science and nature. This was a revolutionary change in biology.
I soaked it in.

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Fall Color

We had a mild but rainy day today, and when I got home it seemed like several of the trees had turned color overnight.


So I took some quick snapshots of the fall colors.




This is autumn in Iowa.

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