Exaptation refers to evolution by natural selection coopting a phenotypic trait for a new adaptive purpose. I’m not a big fan of the term in its original evolutionary context, just because it seems like everything is an exaptation if you trace its evolutionary history far enough. But studying evolution or ecology often involves “exaptations”–coopting materials, tools, and techniques ordinarily used for non-scientific purposes and putting them to scientific use.
I was reminded of this by this recent BBC story on a loggerhead turtle tracking project. The investigators used nail salon techniques to get the transmitters to stick to the baby turtles’ shells. Basically, they gave shell manicures to turtles. 😉
Of course, sometimes it’s easiest not to explain such exaptations to the general public. A former Calgary grad student, Susan Bailey, has an amusing story about buying materials for her very fine M.Sc. work. She and another student needed long sections of wide-bore PVC pipe, which they were going to slice in half lengthwise to make artificial stream beds. The checkout clerk at the hardware store took a look at their rather unusual purchase–several huge lengths of industrial-width PVC, but no other plumbing-related products–and started telling them that they couldn’t possibly do any plumbing without threaded pieces, and joints, and sealant, and etc. The clerk must’ve been a bit patronizing, because Susan just gritted her teeth and said something like “Look, we know what we’re doing but it would take too long to explain. Just sell us the frickin’ PVC!”
Similarly, one of my labmates when I was a grad student, Jennifer Price, needed to create artificial ponds of varying size for a mosquito colonization experiment. So she did what everyone does when they need to set up an aquatic mesocosm experiment–called a ranching supply company to order a bunch of cattle watering tanks of appropriate sizes. She must’ve ordered from a company that doesn’t deal with many ecologists, because the guy taking her order over the phone said “What the hell kind of herd have you got?” 🙂
I don’t have any really good stories of my own about this sort of thing. I did once save my adviser a bunch of money by building my own vacuum manifold out of $20 worth of PVC rather than pay over $600 (seriously!) for a pre-made one from Fisher. And it turns out that, if you’re building artificial patchy microcosm habitats by drilling holes in plastic bottles (“patches”) and connecting them up with tubing (“corridors”), you need to use Marine Goop to seal the holes because silicone sealant and other forms of Goop (even Aquarium Goop) will leak. But that’s small-time stuff, I’m sure you all have much better stories.
This gets into the broader topic of building your own equipment. IIRC, a respiratory physiologist at Rutgers, Tim Casey, once needed a microrespirometer ten times more sensitive than anything manufactured at the time. So he and his labmates built one. Then, just because they could, they built another one ten times more sensitive than that. Building your own kit was pretty common among physiologists at the time (is it still?), but that doesn’t diminish the engineering skills of Tim and his colleagues. And my good friends Owen Petchey and Andy Gonzalez have a paper in an electrical engineering journal describing their homemade refrigerator-waterbath hybrid apparatus, used for imposing temperature fluctuations on aquatic microcosms (Cohen et al. 1998, 1999; full references here). Joel Cohen and his at-the-time-15-year-old son are co-authors; I believe Joel’s son actually designed the electrical circuitry.
So, what’s your best story about coopting non-scientific materials for scientific purposes? Or about building your own scientific equipment?