Learning From an Ice Fish

All vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) possess red cells in their blood. Red blood cells contain large amounts of the hemoglobin molecule, which binds oxygen as blood cells circulate through the lungs or gills, and then releases it as red cells circulate through the rest of the body. Without the hemoglobin molecule none of the vertebrates can survive. But this rule is violated by ice fishes living in the Bouvet Island. Their blood is white in color and they don’t have any hemoglobin molecule.


The existence of these remarkable fish provokes many questions. Where, when, and how did they evolve? What happened to their hemoglobin? How can the fish survive without it or red blood cells? – The Making of the Fittest

Over the past 55 million years, the temperatures of the Southern Ocean, has dropped from +20 degree celsius to less than -2 degree celsius. At these subfreezing temperatures the viscosity (read it as thickness) of blood increases which would make them difficult to pump for the heart. If the blood don’t circulate properly then the cells won’t receive enough oxygen and they’ll die.

In order to cope up with this situation, ice fishes have eliminated the red blood cells by allowing to mutate their hemoglobin genes into obsolesce. As I wrote here, mutation is a chance event without any purpose. But natural selection acted as a cop to favor this mutation as the environment, extreme cold temperature, suited it.

Without hemoglobin how does it breathe oxygen? One of the important differences between hot and cold water is that oxygen solubility is much greater in cold water. As the water in Southern Ocean is very cold they are exceptionally rich in oxygen. Ice fishes have large gills and have evolved a scaleless skin with very large capillaries. These two features enabled it to absorb oxygen directly from the environment.

All vertebrates have microtubules which are responsible for cell division, movement, and formation of cell shapes. At very low temperatures microtubules start to become unstable and cause the organism to die. Ice fishes also have microtubules. But how does it protect its microtubules at very low temperatures?

Few days back I was reading about Bosch, a German multinational company, supplying automative components throughout the world. It designs the automotive components by suiting it to the local conditions. For example cars in cold European countries requires heat to be injected into the fuel so that they won’t freeze. Whereas cars in India don’t need that. Like Bosch, these ice fishes invented antifreeze proteins.

There are many more genes that have been modified so that all sorts of vital processes can occur in the subfreezing climate. But adaptation to cold is not limited to the modification of some genes and the loss of others; it has also required some invention. Foremost among these is the invention of “antifreeze” proteins. The plasma of Antarctic fish is chock-full of these peculiar proteins, which help the fish survive in icy waters by lowering the temperature threshold at which ice crystals can grow. Without them, the fish would freeze solid. – The Making of the Fittest

Ice fishes adapted very well to the changing conditions by (1) removing the red blood cells and hemoglobins (2) developed large gills and scaleless skin with large capillaries (3) invented antifreeze proteins to protect its microtubules. Mutations are rare chance events which takes place over millions of years. The weather conditions in the Antarctic changed over 50 million years. And it gave a chance for mutation and which resulted in the formation of ice fishes. Had the temperature changed in few thousand years then there wouldn’t be any ice fishes and I wouldn’t have written this post. The image given below shows the transition of both geological and biological events.


To a naive observer this transition might appear like magic. But if one looks at this through the lens of compounding then it would be very clear. Albert Einstein is absolutely right on mentioning compound interest as the eight wonder of the world. Leaving the initial principal aside the two key components of compounding are rate and time. Evolution ran the compounding engine on these fishes by taking advantage of the time component; around 50 million years. Remember the rate (mutations) component was negligible.

From the domain of evolution let’s jump into the field of computing. There are two similarities that I can think of between evolution and computing. They are (1) evolution uses carbon as its building block and computers uses silicon. What’s the relationship between carbon and silicon? They belong to the same group in the periodic table and easily forms bonds with itself and other atoms (2) computers ran the compounding engine and took advantage of the rate component; processing power doubled every 18 months. Remember the time component of computers was small; around 50 years. The impact of processing power doubling every 18 months can be seen in the image below.

To see this same pattern unfold in technology, let’s examine the Osborne Executive Portable, a bleeding edge computer released in 1982. This bad boy weighed in at about twenty-eight pounds and cost a little over $2,500. Now compare this to the first iPhone, released in 2007, which weighed 1/100th as much, at 1/10th of the cost, while sporting 150 times the processing speed and more than 100,000 times the memory. Putting aside the universe of software applications and wireless connectivity that puts the iPhone light-years ahead of early personal computers, if you were to simply measure the difference in terms of “dollars per ounce per calculation,” the iPhone has 150,000 times more price performance than Osborne’s Executive. – Abundance

About half the adult population in the world today owns a smart phone and by 2020, around 80% of them will. With powerful phones every action of ours is getting digitized. What does digitization mean? It is the work of turning all kinds of information and media—text, sounds, photos, video, data into the ones and zeroes that are the native language of computers. Digitized content is a non rival good which can be used by several people at the same time. Also the marginal cost of digitization is close to zero. Increase in digitization will result in new ways of acquiring knowledge and that will lead to higher rates of innovation. And the result is a lollapalooza event. Watch the excellent video to see how many things were made extinct by digitization..

What is there to learn from an ice fish? There is a lot to learn from them. Geological changes that happened 50 million years ago resulted in extremely cold temperatures. But fishes got lucky as the changes happened over 50 million years. That gave sufficient time for evolution to catch up and tweak the bits of DNA. Those fishes that got lucky got their DNA mutated and became ice fishes and thrived. Technological changes that we are seeing today are similar to the temperature changes. But we have to adapt to these changes with in a decade. And evolution doesn’t work on such a small timescale. Is there a solution?

Luckily evolution gifted us with three-pound mass of jelly; our brain. As I wrote here, our brain is plastic and it’s capable of adapting to any changes. For that to happen we need to remain curious and keep learning all the times. Recently I came across the book shown below. And the title perfectly summarizes what one should do to adapt to these technological changes.

13 thoughts on “Learning From an Ice Fish

  1. Hi Jana,

    This is Manmeet Singh, from India and on a visit to Silicon Valley, US currently as part of India Government Delegation.

    I have been following your posts and found them to be quite insightful not only for developing my investing skills but also influenced my thinking skills. Just wondering if I could connect with you and possibly talk to you on phone.



  2. Thanks for the post. I just completed reading all articles in your “Learning” tag, and you ve posted it..🙂
    What does this “Nature selection” explain all about,?? Really surprising to see these species getting survived under such extreme conditions(though the change is gradual).

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