Berkeley -- University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Alistair Boettiger has amassed a beautiful collection of seashells, but not by combing the beach. He created them in his computer.
He and George Oster, a UC Berkeley biophysicist, along with University of Pittsburgh mathematical neuroscientist Bard Ermentrout, have written a computer program that generates the complex patterns of seashells using simple principles developed to explain how the brain works and how memories are stored.
The "neural net" model explains how mollusks build their seashells based on the finding that the mollusk's tongue-like mantle, which overlaps the edge of the growing shell, senses or "tastes" the calcium carbonate layer laid down the day before in order to generate a new layer.
"The pattern on a seashell is the mollusk's memories," said Oster, a professor of environmental science, policy and management and of molecular and cell biology. "The shell is laid down in layers, so the mantle is sensing the history of the mollusk's 'thoughts' and extrapolating to the next layer, just like our brains project into the future."
The studies may help neuroscientists understand how neural networks work in the brain and throughout the body, where neural nets cover our skin and all internal organs.
The researchers' computer model, published this week in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reproduces nearly all known shell shapes, ranging from scallops to whelks, and nearly all the shell patterns that make beachcombing so popular.
"The model gives us a remarkable ability to explain much of the dramatic diversity of both shape and pattern that we see in the natural world," Boettiger said.
To build their model, the UC Berkeley scientists first studied electron microscope images of mollusk mantles in order to understand the network of neurons connecting the sensi
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University of California - Berkeley