Saturday, May 30, 2009

Square Trees and Lilliputian Architects

Trees at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in Albany are trimmed so that they mirror the monolithic architecture of New York State's government complex.

This spring, I've watched a particular cubic tree leaf from one of the few windows near my lab. I suppose that some might think it "cruel" to shape a tree this way; if so, you should see what artist Natalie Jeremijenko has done to her trees at Mass MoCA, or simply think of what every bonsai goes through.

Getting back to the plaza, I wonder if the "tree foraminifera" that we study would build similar monoliths if offered bricks and blocks? This is a serious scientific question: I've long held the notion that we could "train" cells to construct tiny devices. (The alternative concept that most engineers have adopted, i.e., self-assembly of components, is one of the bottlenecks, if not fallicies, of nanotechnology.) Tree foraminifera are magnificant sculptors and build micro-scale shells for a living. Why not teach them how to assemble our miniaturized goodies?

Notodendrodes antarctikos - a "tree foram" from Explorers Cove, Antarctica (photo courtesy Shawn Harper)

Since this post considers the concept of scale, we should be cautious when thinking about working at the level of foraminifera. These single-celled giants are voraceous carnivores; given the chance, they would probably trim our body parts so that we conform to their arborescent aesthetic.

And then eat us!

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