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  • Writer's pictureAlan S Kolok

February 13 Good Science News #5 Taking notes from a fish.

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

Ever had this happen to you? You are occupying your time with something more or less, mindless, taking a walk, watching television, mowing the lawn, whatever.

Then it hits you! Peanut butter and jelly in the same jar! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before!

You run inside and google your great idea only to realize that Smuckers has beaten you to the punch, and did so, years, maybe decades, before. The problem (how can you minimize the number of jars needed for a PB&J sandwich?) isn’t a new one, nor was your “brilliant solution” particularly novel.

It’s the same thing with solving some of life’s other persistent problems.

For example, how can you de-ice the roads, without using the highly corrosive salt, sodium chloride?

In the winter, rock salt (big crystals of table salt (sodium chloride) are spread on roads in the Northern parts of the U.S. because salty water has a lower freezing temperature than does freshwater. With salt on the roads, water remains liquid at colder temperatures than it would otherwise. Since a non-slippery road is a safe road, salt is widely used across the country to keep water in its liquid, less-slippery form. But it is an expensive proposition. Over 20 million tons of salt are used on roads in the United States alone, costing drivers more than 20 billion dollars in damage to their cars. Salt is corrosive, and just loves to eat away at the metals that our cars are made out of! The environmental damage of all of that salt, is equally devastating, as runoff of the salt into freshwater streams kills many freshwater species.

Is there anything else that we could put on the roads to keep ice crystals from forming at temperatures below 32°F without the adverse environmental impacts of rock salt? Well, it turns out that the Antarctic toothfish suffers from a de-icing problem, too, and they figured it out millions of years ago, for their very existence depended upon it. The fish lives at ocean temperatures well below 0°C, due to the salty nature of the ocean water. If they didn’t do something about living at such cold waters, their blood would, literally, freeze. So they produce glycoproteins, that is, antifreeze molecules that perform in the fish's blood, in much the same way that antifreeze performs in our car's radiators.

These glycoproteins wouldn't be effective, being smeared on our roadways as de-icers, for when removed from the animal, they break down too quickly. However, research groups are analyzing the molecules and trying to design new glycoproteins that would remain in one piece for longer periods of time. The intent, is that they could be sprayed on the roads, keeping the roads clear of ice, but then degrade hours later, as they run off into streams. A win-win! The more we try to solve some age-old questions, the more we realize that evolution has already solved the problem, we just need to know what animal, or plant, or microbe, has already done so. The Smuckers PB&J in a jar, is a great product, but the problem is that the peanut butter is much stiffer than the jelly, making it difficult to scoop out and spread. Maybe there is an animal out there that has solved that problem, too. I don't know, but I will keep looking. And when I find it, you, dear reader, you will be the first to know!

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