What does a Kinetitrophic Organism Look Like?

If you look for a hypothetical organism that is able to convert kinetic energy into biochemical energy, what would you look for?  Maybe something that is attached to a substrate but able to move in the wind or a current?

If you see a field of grass, blowing in the wind, the grass will be moving back and forth.  Is the grass able to convert kinetic energy into biochemical energy?  How would you know?

If microorganisms are attached to a rock in a current of water, are they capable of kinetisynthesis?  How would you know?

Maybe we could look for some kind of click mechanism—something that ratchets the flow of energy, and keeps it going in one direction.

When you look for that, and you come across the bioluminescent dinoflagellates, you realize that you have found it.

The light from bioluminescent dinoflagellates is evidence of a biochemical click mechanism that locks kinetic energy into chemical energy.

To understand how this happens, let’s look briefly at quantum chemistry, on a level that might be taught in a high school or college chemistry class.

Atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons.  In a neutrally charged atom, there will be as many electrons as there are protons.  Those electrons will be in distinct locations, called shells.  Heat up an atom, and an electron will go from a low energy inner shell to a higher energy outer shell.  The atom then releases a “quantum” of energy with a distinct wavelength when the electron goes to a lower shell.

You may remember heating up samples of metal in class—lithium glows red, copper glows green.  Energy is being released from excited atoms in the form of photons.  The color of the light relates to the amount of energy released, which relates to the difference in energy of each electron shell.

Energy can also be stored by the conformation of a chemical compound—that is, the positions the atoms (and the corresponding electron shells) take to each other without breaking the covalent chemical bonds.  The classic example is cyclohexane, and its “chair” and “boat” conformations.  Cyclohexane is a ring of six carbon atoms, each with two hydrogen atoms attached.  The molecule can have different conformations without breaking the chemical bonds, each with a different level of energy.  The molecule moves more or less freely between the different conformations.

Now imagine a more complicated molecule.  The molecule has a huge number of conformations, some of which have more energy than others.  If you squeeze or twist the molecule it goes from a low-energy conformation to a higher energy conformation.  It will then have a tendency to go back to the low energy conformation unless there is something that stops it.  Releasing a photon could be a click mechanism that would force the molecule into a different conformation.  The molecule then stays in the higher energy conformation.

When you understand how the release of light could be evidence of a chemical/mechanical click mechanism, the light from bioluminescent dinoflagellates makes sense.


About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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