Similarities between biological and crystal growth patterns

petri You may be forgiven if at first glance you mistook the picture in this post as a snowflake. The picture is only one of a whole range of bacterial growth patterns, and part of research being done by Eshel Ben-Jacob, a professor of physics at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Professor Ben-Jacob is collaborating with colleagues at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at the University of California to determine how the growth of biological systems and colonies are influenced by different environmental stimuli. According to
New Scientist: "In order to flourish in difficult living conditions the colony must adapt. This requires communication and cooperation from the individual microbes to organise the entire colony."

What immediately struck me as odd was the similarity between snowflakes and these colonial growth patterns. Whereas the petri dish pictures are the direct effect of different environmental influences on biological growth and diversification, the complex formations we can observe in snowflakes result from the interaction of water vapor and the environment.

Snowflakes grow in very cold environments as water vapor condenses directly to ice. While we do not fully understand the mechanisms responsible for the formation of snow crystals, recent research on the nature of water suggest that it has something to do with the behavior of electrons within the water molecule. These charged subatomic particles influence crystal formation and provide water with many of the characteristics that have baffled scientists for decades.

The link between the growth patterns and water can be found in research published by CU-Boulder physics Professor Noel Clark. According to an article in
Science Daily they found that surprisingly short segments of DNA, life's molecular carrier of genetic information, could assemble into several distinct liquid crystal phases that "self-orient" parallel to one another and stack into columns when placed in a water solution. Life is widely believed to have emerged as segments of DNA- or RNA-like molecules in a prebiotic "soup" solution of ancient organic molecules.

(Images courtesy of Eshel Ben-Jacob and