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Natural fiber optics

Esponja euplectella

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Humans are truly fascinated and proud of the “discovery” of fiber optics. These cables are long strips of pure glass, with a diameter as thin as a hair, that transmit digital information over long distances in the form of light signals. But scientists have just discovered that the sea did it first and much better than us.

A sponge that lives at great depths in the ocean, Euplectella, possesses spicules (horny fibers of its skeleton) that are very similar to modern fiber optic cables but much superior since they do not break. They can even be tied in knots without fracturing. This discovery by Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey, could revolutionize the human communications market.

Euplectella, commonly known as the “Venus’ flower basket,” has an interesting commensal relationship with some species of shrimp that enter in pairs into its skeleton and, once inside, can no longer escape as they grow. Their entire lives are spent inside the sponge where they are protected from predators. The offspring, being smaller in size, will eventually leave the sponge and never return. Dried sponges with the shrimp inside were traditionally offered as wedding gifts symbolizing the idea of being “united until death.”

The skeleton of Euplectella presents itself as a marvelous lacework of incredible beauty. The spicules are surprisingly similar to fiber optic cables and are even made of the same material, transmitting light in a similar manner. However, fiber optic cables frequently break, unlike the spicules of Euplectella, whose intricate structure makes them stronger. Now, scientists are tasked with uncovering the secrets of sponges and being able to replicate them for their benefit.

How many more answers will the depths of the sea abyss hold? Undoubtedly, it is one more reason to take care of it. To care for that ocean, the oldest and largest living organism on the planet, which may be giving us a small beacon of light to remind us that it is the timeless memory, the past, the future, and the anticipation of what is to come.

“You cannot defend what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.”