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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Sponge could improve telecoms
By Richard Black, BBC science correspondent

A humble sea-sponge is showing scientists how to make better fibre-optic cables, used in modern telecommunications.

According to new research published in the journal Nature, one type of sea sponge makes fibres which have significant advantages over those produced in human factories.

Fibre-optics (Image: Eyewire)
Fibre-optic is the backbone of telecommunications
Fibre-optic cables are the backbone of modern telecommunications, carrying telephone and computer signals in the form of light from one side of the world to the other.

Even the best of human ingenuity cannot make these materials as well as the deep-sea sponge Euplectella, commonly known as the Venus Flower-Basket however.

Strong sponge

Joanna Aizenberg leads the team of scientists who have been studying them at Bell Laboratories near New York, and she says their main advantage is strength.

"We can even tie a knot from these biological fibres and they don't break. While we know that in commercial fibres, the major failure mode is fracture that results from crack growth."

Nature is showing us another example of its ability to evolve optical systems that in some senses superior to man-made materials
Dr Aizenberg, Bell Labs

So the sponge's fibres are stronger and they conduct light just as well. They may also show scientists the route to better manufacturing processes, because somehow the sponge makes its fibres at low temperatures, rather than the high temperatures needed in industry.

It's all the more extraordinary because the Venus Flower-Basket lives hundreds of metres down in the ocean where light is scarce.

It's thought the creature uses its fibres to transmit what light it can gather - perhaps from bio-luminescent organisms - and attract food.

Cheaper communication?

Dr Aizenberg thinks it unlikely that scientists will ever be able to grow fibres of useful length directly from the sponge.

Instead it's a case of learning its secrets, and putting them to use in industry to make cables which will be more robust, making communication more reliable and, in the long run, cheaper for us all.

"What is clear is that nature is showing us another example of its ability to evolve optical systems that are comparable and in some senses superior to man-made materials," says Dr Aizenberg.

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