July 7, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Productive Science Imitates Nature

Examples continue to accumulate that some of the most interesting and fruitful science projects involve copying design principles found in nature.  This “biomimetics” approach not only pleases the consumers who can look forward to greener, cheaper, better products, but leads to deeper understandings of nature’s workings.

  1. Gecko adhesives:  PhysOrg published a story on the ongoing efforts to imitate the superb adhesive properties of gecko toes.  “The gecko footpad’s unique structure and function make it one of the most efficient adhesion systems found in nature,” said a scientist from Northeastern University.
  2. Genetic computers:  Scientists at the University of Reading got “genetic inspiration” for the storage and processing of digital information, according to another press release on PhysOrg.  By imitating genetics, the researchers think they can “revolutionize” information technology.
  3. Windpipe microbots:  Your windpipe is lined with cilia that keep the lining clean.  A new microbot designed at Stanford and University of Washington has artificial cilia – but that’s only one biomimetic part of the design, according to Science Daily.  By imitating a centipede, the UW microbot can carry seven times its own weight and move in any direction.  The team struggled to get the actuators and power supply small enough to compete with the living thing.

A related approach to biomimetics is to harness the actual biological material.  Science Daily announced that “Biologically Inspired Technology Produces Sugar from Photosynthetic Bacteria.”  Harvard has a “Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.”  The institute succeeded in producing simple sugars and lactic acid by engineering bacteria to produce what they desired.

These stories are each worth reading in more detail.  For a little fun, see if you can find any mention of evolution in them, or any indication that evolutionary theory was useful in any way in these science projects.  Then look for how design concepts played a role in guiding the teams toward understanding and productivity.  If you have kids needing to do a science project, why not turn them on to biomimetics?  Send them into the backyard or woods and have them try to copy a natural technology and make something useful from it.  The effort might just give them a head start toward a productive career – in addition to helping them learn not to take biological design for granted.

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