Cells are Cool! Gun Cells

As a seventh grade science teacher, one of my least favorite things to hear from students is, “why do I have to learn this?” Usually this phrase is said with a tone of voice that hints at boredom. One of the major units this phrase pops up most is ‘cells’. In biology, cells are the basic unit of life. All functions that living organisms have can be traced to these microscopic ‘cells.’ Cells are one of my favorite things to talk about! I think they are fascinating and amazing structures. Thus, it saddens me to hear of a student’s boredom on the topic. In a world where Minecraft, Mario Maker, and other ‘build it yourself’ video games are hugely popular, surely the billions of varieties of cells (the building blocks of life) can find a place to be loved too! So, this blog series of mine is an attempt to popularize cells. Today’s cell showcase is the “gun cell.”

Fungi have some of the most complex cells in the world. One of the more complex, and arguably one of the most gruesome, cells a fungi can have is a gun cell. Certain oomycetes (a fungus-like organism called Haptoglossa mirabilis) produce these cells with the purpose of impaling their tiny animal hosts and eating them alive from the inside out.

Before I dive into the structure and function of these incredible cells, there are a few things you need to know:

1. These organisms grow underground, so all of the carnage you are about to witness is happening underground in the soil.

2. The animals that are the victim of these gun cells are microscopic worms. This means they typically cannot be seen with the naked eye.

3. Fungus (as well as these oomycetes) reproduce using spores. They create offspring and ensure that their offspring has room to grow by spreading these spores all over the place.

4. Fungus use chemical messages to attract other living things all the time. In this case, the oomycetes are using chemical messages to attract microscopic worms.

Now, on to the amazing structures that make up these gun cells.

  • The harpoon- at one end of the cell is a long harpoon-like structure with 6 barbs sticking out of it. When the cell is disturbed by a potential victim, part of the cell ruptures which triggers the harpoon to shoot into the victim. The barbs pierce through its skin and ensure a secure grip on the animal.
  • The gun shell- at the base of the harpoon lies the bore, which forces its way into the host after the harpoon secures an entry point. Inside the bore (or “gun shell”) contains all the parts needed to create a spore cell. These spores form and develop inside the host, eventually eating the worm to death from the inside out. (Insert creepy alien, horror film music here)
  • The escape plan- once the fungal cells have grown up enough inside the now lifeless husk of a worm, they sprout tube-like structures with tails on the end. They use these structures to propel themselves out of the host’s dead body.

I even took the time to interpret what these cells might look like and build them in Minecraft. Check out my Minecraft gun cell models below!

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