Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Can we breathe underwater…please?

By Ryan Pearson
WHAT!? Are you CRAZY? This isn’t bloody Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we’re talking about. Of course humans can’t breathe underwater… not without a tank or compressor and a regulator at least.” Sure, I agree, this is a perfectly reasonable response to such a preposterous question… for now.

You see, recent research has provided some evidence that may eventually lead to a Harry Potter style symbiosis with a “plant” that could allow humans to breathe underwater. It’s not like there isn’t enough oxygen down there for creatures to live (ever heard of H2Oxygen?). The thing is, they’ve recently found the first vertebrate (like us!) that lives in symbiosis with algae, and thus allows it to ‘breathe’ underwater.

Sure, that vertebrate is a salamander, which is, of course, an amphibian, which we ALL know diffuses gases through its skin, but really… this is awesome. It turns out that salamanders have algae growing within itheir cells from the embryo stage. The algae (not quite a plant), photosynthesizes from within the salamanders cells, and produces oxygen which the salamander can then use for respiration. Forget growing ugly-arse gills Kevin Costner style… in the future we’ll just get injected with some green gunk and start breathing directly through our skin, no matter where we are… hell yeah!

This may not be news to some of you, but it got me thinking about other ways we might benefit from algae and/or amphibians. So prepare yourself for one of Ryan’s famous speculation rampages… read on and get ready to have your mind blown (that is assuming it hasn’t been already).

Let’s start with the algae itself… did I mention they’re not quite plants? Well, I wasn’t lying… they’re currently known as protists, a kingdom of organisms that include pretty much anything that is not plant, animal, fungus or prokaryote. The known forms or algae fall into a couple of clades under the protest kingdom. Chromalveolata includes the Golden (Chrysophyta) and the Brown algae (Phaeophyta)… as well as a few other weirdo things that I won’t mention for now. The other clade is Archaeplastida which includes the Red algae (Rhodophyta) and the one most likely responsible for the salamanders oozing of awesomeness, Green Algae (Chlorophyta).

As mentioned, the Chlorophyta are the most likely candidate for providing the Salamander with their extra oxygen supply, because they exist mainly in freshwater, and contain chlorophyll-a and-b which are vital for photosynthesis. The Rhodophyta also contain chlorophyll-a, but we already use this algae for something… eating. It’s the seaweed you all see wrapping up your sushi rolls. So, let’s grab some of that and shove it into our cells as well. Now I reckon we have and oxygen supply from the Chlorophyta, and a food supply from the Rhodophyta. Damn, we don’t even need to surface for food OR air anymore. The Golden and Brown algae’s don’t really offer us anything new so I’m just gonna skip them.

Now, the fun part… amphibians. Believe it or not these guys belong to the class Amphibia (wow, creative Zoologists, real creative) in the phylum Chordata. Wow, they’re in our phylum, heck, they’re practically half human already! There’s three orders, Urodela (our friends the Salamanders), Anura (Froggies!), and Apoda (an unusual snake-like bunch called caecilians).

Litoria peronii - Emerald-spotted Treefrog. Photo Matt Davies
“What can we get from these moist fools” you ask? Well, apart from that awesome feature of performing gas exchange (breathing) through their skin that they all share, there’s a few other things that we might find handy. I’m sure you’re all aware that the Anura (frogs) all have sticky tongues that shoot out long distances to catch flies and other tricky critters. Imagine having that!? No longer will you be sitting at Grandma’s famous dinner and have to ask ‘Can you please pass me a bread roll’? SNAP, it’s already yours. You’re at the bar and not getting any love from the sexy waitress? SNAP, you don’t even have to pay for that beer now! In a strip club and the lovely dancing lady is just out of reach for your $5 note? Umm… I won’t go there, but I think you get the point. 

Also, in case you didn’t already know… frogs can hop pretty long distances compared to their body length. GASP! Let’s go ahead and steal that from them then, I doubt it’ll come from a simple injection, but what the heck… I’m sick of being stuck in traffic… HOP, I’m all the way across town already. WIN!
So, what we’re left with is being able to breathe underwater, go for super long periods without eating (thanks to our Red Algae injection), but if we want to eat (or drink), we can pretty eat from the fridge without getting off the couch, and if the fridge is empty, we just hop in a single bound from the couch straight into our favourite seat at the awesome Mexican place across town. Thank you algae and amphibians!

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