Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Super-Intelligent Kestrels and the Colors of Tiny Things

In my Biochem book, we're always seeing pictures of really tiny things (like the chylomicron being observed above by the below-mentioned super-intelligent Kestrel) that are always shown in a myriad of colors, presumably so as to better hold our attention. This morning as I was studying lipid catabolism, an errant thought popped into my head, thoroughly distracting me and resulting in the blog post you're now reading. What I thought was, I wonder what color triacylglycerols actually are? Then I thought about it conceptually and realized that even if we had a good enough microscope, we probably wouldn't be able to see them in visible light. This is not a very interesting answer; however, the explanation (and subsequent ponderings) ARE interesting.

You see, a single carbon-carbon bond in most molecules averages around 1.5 angstroms in length, where 1 angstrom = 1x10^-10 meters. So, for triacylglycerol palmitic acid (16-C, saturated) side chains (plus let's say 3 angstroms of added length for the glycerol C-O-C bond) we'd have a total maximum length (assuming the molecules are completely stretched out, i.e., all bond angles = 180 degrees) of only 19 angstroms, or 1.9 nanometers.

Given that the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum only extends down to wavelengths of about 350nm, this size as a photon wavelength would lie solidly in the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum. In other words, an individual triacylglyceride molecule would probably be invisible to the naked human eye even if we had a visible microscope capable of such precise focusing because the molecule would be too small of an object to reflect a photon of visible light.

That is, unless we genetically engineered some super-intelligent species of bird (many of which, like the above Kestrel, can see UV light), provided it with a unique linguistic diction capable of identifying ranges of the UV spectrum as specific colors, sat it down in front of a futuristic (specially designed with avian ergonomics in mind) ultra-violet spectrum microscope pointed at some tracylglyceride molecules, then asked it to tell us what it saw.

That would be a cool experiment. I'd put my name on that paper.


Susan said...


Med Student said...

Xanthomas tend to be yellowish and they are just triglycerides for the most part.....

Emily said...

Ooh, very cool thought! The fake colors textbooks show are pretty, but they always bugged me a bit. Knowing a single triacylglyceride molecule is far into the UV spectrum is strangely satisfying.

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