One of the things I work on is the nucleation of crystals. Nucleation is how crystals start to form, and so control over nucleation basically means being able to start a crystal growing where we want and when we want. We scientists have tried really quite hard to do this, for decades, and to be honest we are still pretty rubbish at it. We still can’t predict what we need to do to make a crystal on command. Sometimes nothing happens when we want a crystal to nucleate, other times when we want one crystal to form, instead we get dozens. It is a bit of a tale of woe.
Another thing I work on is understanding how cells function, and I often talk to cell biologists. I am often struck by a cell biologist casually saying that the cell strongly controls nucleation, of various structures inside the cell. These include structures such as the actin filament shown above, that are a lot like one-dimensional crystals.
This is all a bit of a insult to scientists like me who are trying to control the nucleation of crystals. We struggle to control nucleation even in very simple and very pure systems. While apparently the cell is simultaneously controlling the nucleation of dozens of different structures, apparently with ease. It looks like cells have evolved to not just be a little bit better than we have so far managed to be, but (Brazilian readers look away know) more like Germany-against-Brazil-in-the World-Cup better than us.
So, what does the cell know that we don’t? The short answer is that I don’t know. But there are differences between our systems where we are trying to make crystals, and cells. Cells are constantly consuming energy, so maybe it is at least partly due to these energy consuming processes, the cells are able to exert so much control.
Also, the size of these nucleating crystals or structures may be giving evolution the edge. They are typically only nanometres across. We scientists don’t have the tools to image things that small, and so are handicapped as we quite literally can’t see what is going on. Evolution is, famously, a blind watchmaker, and so does not need to see or understand — it is just a blind process. So for things this small, evolution may have the advantage. It can try billions upon billions of mutations over millions years, to achieve better and better control over nucleation, whereas we can’t make anywhere near that number of attempts and struggle to systematically improve our control as we cannot see what is going on.