July 19 – Auto-trophy Room

Today’s factismal: Autotrophs don’t drool.

If you’ve seen “The Big Bang Theory”, odds are that you’ve heard the catchy little song that goes before it. but what you may not have caught is the fact that there are several errors in the song. The most notable of these is the line “the autotrophs began to drool”. The problem with it is that autotrophs don’t drool.

“Hold on, Bucky!” I hear you cry; “how can you know that?” I’m glad you asked. It all has to do with the special word autotroph (geek Greek for “self feeder”). Autotrophs are critters that don’t rely on other critters for their food; instead, they rely on light (phototrophs, like plants) or chemicals (chemotrophs, like the rust-eating bacteria on the Titanic). Because autotrophs don’t need to eat other critters, they don’t really have mouths. And without mouths, there is no drool. (They may have a phagocytic organelle, but that’s too pedantic even for me.)

But what they do have is specialized parts of their cells that work to turn the light or chemicals into energy. For the phototrophs, that specialized part is known as a chloroplast because it is where the green (chlor) goo (plast) is stored. That green goo is known as chlorophyl (green lover) and it turns sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar, which then gets used as energy elsewhere in the autotroph. And the neat thing about that is that it makes autotrophs the basis for the food web here on Earth; if they didn’t turn sunlight or rust or whatever into food, then we’d all starve. So while they may not drool, we certainly do thanks to them!

Of course, they don’t take kindly to being turned into food.Whenever an autotroph-eating bacteria comes near one, the chloroplasts in an autotroph can clump. And that’s the idea behind today’s citizen science project. In the Clumpy project (clever name, no?), you’ll look at images of plants and try to identify where the chloroplasts have clumped together. Knowing that will help the biologists determine how to make autotrophs happier, which will mean more food for us, which will make us happier. Want to take part? Go to:
http://clumpy.ex.ac.uk/

One thought on “July 19 – Auto-trophy Room

  1. Pingback: July 30 – Zoned Out – Little facts about science

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