Science & Nature

3D-modeling model organisms

arabidopsis pendants lab

Over the past year I’ve branched out from marine microbiology and microfossils to add a series of model organism designs to my collection. Model organisms are non-human species that are used daily in research by multitudes of scientists worldwide and include the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the ciliate Tetrahymena, the African clawed frog Xenopus, zebrafish and the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, along with several others.  These organisms have achieved a position of importance in scientific research not only because of their ease of growth in the lab and short regeneration times, but also because many of the biological mechanisms discovered in these organisms are fundamentally the same in all organisms, including humans. Arabidopsis thaliana flowerBack in my research days, I worked with genetic variants of the model plant Arabidopsis to try to understand the effect of glucosinolates, sulfur-containing plant metabolites, on herbivory by slugs.

Research with model organisms has led to a greater understanding of human disease by increasing our knowledge of DNA replication and repair, the cell cycle, carcinogenesis, the mechanisms of aging and gene expression.  To cite just one example, we now know, based on experiments with fruit flies and nematodes,how genetically controlled cell death (apoptosis) plays a role in cancer and other human diseases. Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly Without model organisms, the advancement of basic science and our basic understanding of human disease would be profoundly limited. For this reason, and to honor all of the scientists who are at their lab benches day after day doing the brute force work of discovery, I designed the model organism collection. The collection includes pieces for both men (tie bars, lapel pins) and women (pendants, earrings).

The German Darwin

Ernst Haeckel

The Englishman Charles Darwin is a scientist who needs no introduction. His pioneering work on evolutionary theory, outlined in the ‘Origin of Species,’ has informed scientific research and created public controversy since its publication in 1859. That he had a devotee in Germany, a 25-year-younger upstart by the name of Ernst Haeckel, was well-known to Darwin. Darwin and Haeckel met several times, exchanging ideas despite the language barrier. These meetings have been recalled in a blog post written by Ernst Haeckel’s great-great-granddaughter. That Ernst Haeckel was a respected scientist in his own right is evidenced by his inclusion as one of the few foreigners on the famous British deep sea expedition aboard the H.M.S. Challenger. Haeckel developed his own theories on organismal evolution based on his rigorous examination and illustration of samples collected on this expedition and others. His recapitulation theory, the idea that the embryonic development (ontogeny) of an organism is somehow reiterated in its evolutionary history (phylogeny), has been largely discredited with the advance of biological research. Although some of Haeckel’s scientific ideas have not withstood the test of time, his artistic contributions engage and inspire to this day. To learn more about Ernst Haeckel, check out this excellent article by Jennifer Frazer in Scientific American.

Radiolaria, Foraminifera, Diatoms, and Coccolithophores

Radiolaria Foraminifera Diatoms Coccolithophores

Why am I so fascinated with these miniscule denizens of the sea? They’re certainly not as popular and beloved as dolphins, whales or jellyfish. To see them, you need to look through a microscope, and to even get these microscopic samples in the first place you’ll need to dive to the bottom of the sea and scoop up sea bed sludge or trawl the deep sea with a special net. I have a confession to make. I’ve only seen these organisms in photographs, never in real life, a situation I hope to remedy someday.

All of these unicellular marine organisms are either planktonic, floating in the water, or they are benthic, living in the sediment on the sea bed. Radiolaria and Foraminifera are zooplankton, that is, they eat other plankton, bacteria, or dinoflagellates. Diatoms and Coccolithophores, on the other hand, are phytoplankton and photosynthesize to feed themselves.

What connects them is that they all form intricate shells, made of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide, punctured through with holes and often studded with delicate spines. Their multiply-perforated shells are quite unlike the shells of other marine mollusks, like clams and mussels. It is known that the holes function in nutrient exchange, and in the case of the zooplankton, allow amoeboid extensions from the soft inner core of the organism to protrude out from the shell, capture food, and drag it back inside the shell to be devoured. What isn’t fully understood, however, is why there are thousands of different shell patterns among these four groups, when probably a few designs would do the job. Perhaps ecologists will be able to answer this question someday.

For artists and designers, however, these shells represent a treasure trove of inspiration. Do they have bilateral, trilateral, or radial symmetry? Are the holes regularly or unevenly spaced? Is the overall shape a spiral, a bell, a cone, or something more complex? For a 3D-print designer, the spikes present special problems. In order to survive the physics of 3D-printing, the spikes and other wire-like features have to be modeled at a minimum thickness with respect to their length. This unfortunately eliminates many of the organisms from consideration as a 3D-printable model. Yet nature seems to be free from these rules, and makes these complicated structures in abundance.

Do you have a favorite Radiolarian, Foramiferan, Diatom or Coccolithophore? Drop me a line in the comments section and maybe I’ll give the modelling a try.