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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/412

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

leaves, and another that remains below ground. It is this latter that concerns us now, and it is worth study. This lower part consists of a number of twigs called rhizomes, from which proceed a vast number of fine, threadlike rootlets, and these are the mouths of the plant, through which it draws nourishment from the earth about it.

Before any living thing can use nourishment from without, it must be dissolved, and this solution requires much preparation at times. Men, and other animals with a wide range of food stuffs, effect this by the secretions of the digestive organs; but most plants have no digestive apparatus, strictly speaking, and were they supplied with an abundance of the foods they most need, they would starve unless the food were in a suitable state for absorption.

The way in which Nature effects this solution is the key to many of her secrets, and it has been understood only within the past few years. If we have a piece of meat freshly taken from an animal we find it firm, coherent, and almost odorless. If it be put into a warm, moist chamber for a few days a great change comes over it, and it becomes soft, offensive in odor, and liable to fall to pieces. We say that it is rotten or putrid. If a bit of it be put under a microscope, it is seen to be teeming with bacteria, and these are responsible for the decay. Now, if a specimen of earth be examined, we find that it contains bacteria, that attack all kinds of organic matter, tearing it to pieces to get their food, and making many different things out of what is left. There is one sort of ferment that grows in apple juice and splits the sugar into alcohol and carbonic acid, forming "hard cider," and if the fermentation stops at this point the well-known drink results. However, there is another ferment called "mother of vinegar" that may get in, and, if so, a different kind of fermentation is started that forms acetic acid instead of alcohol; or the bacteria of decomposition may come in and the whole go back to its elements.

There is a wonderful provision of Nature shown in these stages. The bacteria—the organisms that produce decay—can not live in a strong sugar solution, but the ferments, like common yeast, can live in it, and they split the sugar into alcohol, carbonic oxide, and other things. In these another set can live, and when the first have died of starvation or from the alcohol they form, the second set step in and turn the weak alcohol into acetic acid. Acetic acid is a preserving agent, as our sour pickles show, but if it is not too strong there are some organisms that can live in it, and the whole process ends in decay. Now, it should be noticed that each of these organisms paves the way for the next by converting an unsuitable food stuff into a suitable one.

This familiar example indicates the lines on which Nature works. It is the same everywhere, and shows the advantage of specialization,