cell structure

Latte Art

Latte art scutoid tulip
The physics of bubbles. What links latte art to the shape of cells as an embryo develops?

An odd one out competition: which of the following is not a type of latte art? Tulip, heart, swan or scutoid? You may well ask, “what on earth is a scutoid?” and so identify this as the odd one out and, to some extent you would be right. Scutoids are not a type of latte art. But I would wager that you can still occasionally see them in your coffee.

Twitter can be a great thing and I was recently alerted there to a New York Times article about Karen Uhlenbeck by @Bob_Mat_Phys. Uhlenbeck is a mathematician at the University of Texas who has just won the Abel Prize in mathematics for her work on the maths of bubbles. The article was fascinating in itself but also mentioned in the article was the fact that there may be, on occasion, a connection between a cup of coffee and the cell structures seen in foetal development. And while I’m very well aware of the extraordinary number of connections that can be made between coffee and the science of the everyday world, I’ll admit, that one surprised me.

Metal jug and transparent glass
More bubbles in your coffee. But what determines their shape? And what shape are they?

By this point you may be unsurprised to hear that the connection is made via the scutoids, but what are they? A new type of shape, they were first described in a Nature Communications article about the development of cells as organisms such as fruit flies grew. Scutoids formed as the embryonic cells grew to form tubes or egg shapes. On one surface of the tube the cell was contacting a different number of cells to that which it contacted on the other surface (so perhaps the cell looked like a pentagon on the top and a hexagon on the bottom). In order for the cell to do this, it formed a further triangular face along one side of the cell and it is this cellular shape that is the scutoid.

Where is the connection with a coffee? Well, the amazing thing is that this shape can be the result of the physics that determines the shape of bubbles, in this case when they are confined between two curved surfaces, such as two cylinders. The shape of a bubble is the result of the minimisation of the surface energy of the bubble. So, in free space, the bubble will be spherical but somehow squash bubbles into a box and you can form a cube shaped bubble in the middle of the box. The shapes that form are the result of the minimum surface energy of the bubble surface. Now, if we return to the curved surfaces and the scutoids. The idea is that if there is a single layer of bubbles between two curved surfaces and that these surfaces are then moved away from each other, the bubbles will first resemble prisms and then, as the surfaces are stretched further, some bubbles will form a prism shape but with a triangular surface at one of the bounding walls: a scutoid.

latte art by Mace, Eiffel Tower and hot air balloon
It is astonishing what you can see in a coffee when you look closely enough.

The paper that showed this (published in Philosophical Transactions but you can read the full version here) combined mathematical modelling of the minimisation of surface energy with experiments involving two cylinders and some soap suds. They then photographed the resultant bubble structures. The results suggest that the minimisation of energy (ie. the physics of the bubble shape) could be a first approximation for explaining the cell structures that form in foetal development. But can you see them in your coffee?

You would need a coffee mug or French press and a smaller cylinder that fits neatly inside it. You would then need to form a foam somehow. Soap suds are obvious, some form of milk texturing would be more interesting. You can then look closely and see, can you in fact see scutoids in your latte art?

Coffee under the microscope

Inside Coffee Affair

There are many great cafés in London serving excellent coffee but inevitably a few stand out. One such café is Coffee Affair in Queenstown Road railway station which ‘inhabits’ a space that really encourages you to slow down and enjoy your coffee while just noticing the environment. An ex-ticket office that whispers its history through subtle signs on the parquet floor and in the fixings. The sort of place where you have to stop, look around and listen in order to fully appreciate it. And with a variety of great coffees on hand to sample, this is a café that is a pleasure to return to whenever I get the opportunity.

So it was that a few weeks ago, I happened to wander into Queenstown Road station and into Coffee Affair. That day, two coffees were on offer for V60s. One, an Ethiopian with hints of mango, peach and honey, the other, a Kenyan with tasting notes of blackcurrant and cassis. But there was an issue with them when they were prepared for V60s. The Ethiopian, “Gelana Abaya”, caused a considerable bloom but then tended to clog the filter cone if due care was not taken during the pour. The other, the Kenyan “Kamwangi AA”, did not degas so much in the initial bloom but instead was easier to prepare in the V60; there was not such a tendency to clog.

What could be going on?

So we had a look under the microscope at these two coffees. Each coffee was ground as if it was to be prepared in a V60 and then examined under the microscope. Was there any difference between the appearance of the Gelana compared to the Kamwangi? A first look didn’t reveal much. Magnifying both coffees at 5x, it could be said that the Kamwangi had more ‘irregular protrusions’ on the ground coffee compared to the smoother Gelana, but it was hard to see much more:

coffee under the microscope

The samples of ground coffee imaged under an optical microscope at 5x magnification. Kamwangi is on the left, Gelana on the right. “500 um” means 500 micrometers which is 0.5 mm.

So, the microscope was swapped to image the coffee in fluorescence mode. It was then that the cell structure of the coffee became clear. Here are the two coffees magnified 10x:

Fluorescence microscopy 10x, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Kamwangi, Gelana

Fluorescence microscope image of the two coffees at 10x magnification. Note the open structure in the Kamwangi and the more closed structure in the Gelana.

and at 20x

Kamwangi and Gelana coffee under the microscope

A fluorescence microscope image magnified 20x – not ‘um’ means micrometers (1/1000 of a mm), so the scale bar represents 1/10 mm.

So there is perhaps a clue in the cell structure. It seems as if the Kamwangi structure is more open, that somehow the cells in the Kamwangi break open as they are ground but the Gelana somehow keeps its cells more intact. Could this be why the Gelana blooms so much more?

Which naturally leads to a second experiment. What happens when you look at these two coffees in water under the microscope? Here the fluorescence images didn’t help as all you could see were the bubbles of gas in each coffee but the optical microscope images were of more interest.

optical microscope image in water

The two coffees compared under the microscope while in (cold) water. Magnfied 5x

‘Bits’ broke off the Kamwangi as soon as water was added but in comparison, there were far fewer bits of coffee breaking off the Gelana grains.

So what do you think has happened? If you remember our question was: when these two coffees were prepared with a V60, the Gelana bloomed a lot but then clogged in the filter (without extreme care while pouring the filter). Meanwhile the Kamwangi did not bloom so much but also did not clog the filter, what could be happening?

From the microscope images, it appears that

  1. Before adding any water, the cell structure in the Kamwangi is more open, the Gelana appears ‘closed’.
  2. When water is added, there are many more ‘bits’ that come off the Kamwangi whereas the Gelana does not show so much disintegration on the addition of water.

If pushed for a hypothesis, I wonder whether these two observations are linked. What is happening is that the cell structure in the Kamwangi is, for whatever reason, fairly fragile. So as soon as it is ground, the cells break up and a lot of the carbon dioxide is released. Consequently when water is added to it, the bits of broken cell quickly disperse through the water and it doesn’t seem to ‘bubble’ that much. In comparison, the Gelana cell structure is tougher and the cells only open up when water is added. I wonder if this means that the ground Gelana coffee will swell rather than break up and so ‘jam together’ as each grain tries to expand rather like trying to inflate many balloons in a bucket. They will push against each other and prevent water from easily percolating through the ground coffee.

Sadly, many more experiments would be required before we could see if there’s any truth in this hypothesis however that does provide a great excuse, were one needed, for many return trips to Coffee Affair. Meanwhile, what do you think? Do any of the images stand out to you and why? What do you think could be the cause of our V60 coffee mystery? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please let me know either here in the comments section (moderated and experiencing a lot of spam at the moment so please be patient), on Facebook or on Twitter.