Nature Does It Right

Posted on January 4, 2012 in Amazing Facts, Awards, Biology, Biomimetics, Birds, Botany, Cell Biology, Dinosaurs, Genetics, Health, Humanity, Microbiology, Physical Science, Physics, Terrestrial Zoology

Scientists and engineers continue to find well-designed features in living things that are worth imitating.

Get a tail:  Extinct velociraptors, the terrors of the Jurassic Park movies, are inspiring robot designers.  Live Science and PhysOrg told about how Tailbot, developed at UC Berkeley and modeled after “leaping lizards,” can right itself after stumbling and can jump without tumbling.  “Engineers quickly understood the value of a tail,” said Thomas Libby, a grad student involved in the development of Tailbot.  “Robots are not nearly as agile as animals, so anything that can make a robot more stable is an advancement, which is why this work is so exciting.”  The PhysOrg article includes two entertaining video clips showing the robot clumsily attempting to duplicate the leaps a lizard does naturally (Tailbot’s attempt might be described as “falling with style”).  Prof. Robert J. Full remarked, “Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.”

Good design in bad water:  A briny pond at the lowest spot in the western hemisphere has a simple but descriptive name: Badwater.  Yet in this pond in Death Valley lives a microbe worth noting.  Science Daily says the “Death Valley Microbe May Spark Novel Biotech and Nanotech Uses.”  Why is that?  Dennis Bazylinski (U of Nevada) is impressed at the ability of the microbe to orient itself to magnetic fields.  The magnetic bacterium BW-1 has genes that produce nano-sized crystals of the minerals magnetite (a form of iron oxide) and greigite (a form of iron sulfide); BW-1 is the first microbe isolated capable of synthesizing greigite.  Bazylinski sees treasure in these microbes: their magnetosomes make them “useful in drug delivery and medical imaging.”  The article states that “Magnetotactic bacteria are simple, single-celled organisms that are found in almost all bodies of water.”  They can’t be that simple, though, to do what they do: “As their name suggests, they orient and navigate along magnetic fields like miniature swimming compass needles.

Insect cuticle for the environment:  “Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a new material that replicates the exceptional strength, toughness, and versatility of one of nature’s more extraordinary substances—insect cuticle,” reported PhysOrg.  They call it “Shrilk.”  Look for it in these products of the future: disposable diapers that degrade quickly, an environmentally safe alternative to plastic, biodegradable trash bags and packaging, sutures for wounds, and a scaffold for tissue regeneration.  Look at the praise they give to this material insects make on the fly:

Amazing FactsNatural insect cuticle, such as that found in the rigid exoskeleton of a housefly or grasshopper, is uniquely suited to the challenge of providing protection without adding weight or bulk. As such, it can deflect external chemical and physical strains without damaging the insect’s internal components, while providing structure for the insect’s muscles and wings. It is so light that it doesn’t inhibit flight and so thin that it allows flexibility. Also remarkable is its ability to vary its properties, from rigid along the insect’s body segments and wings to elastic along its limb joints.

The Wyss Institute is on a mission to “create bioinspired materials and products.”  They’re understandably proud of their Shrilk, thanks to their flying friends.

A bird, a plane:  In the tradition of the Wright Brothers, another aeronautical engineer has taken inspiration from birds.  PhysOrg calls “Queensland University of Technology PhD student Wesam Al Sabban” a genius for his “unmanned aerial vehicle that uses wind power like a bird.”  Does that imply that birds are even more intelligent for coming up with the design first?  To develop his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) called the Green Falcon II, Al Sabban had to learn from the masters. “As part of my PhD topic we are studying the way birds make use of wind energy to fly with minimum power, the way they glide and use all types of wind to move and change their flight path.”  He boasts, “The Green Falcon II will be a zero-emissions UAV capable of round-the-clock service.” Birds are kind of like that.  Unreported is whether the robot will leave spots on your car.

Outdoing plants?  PhysOrg reported, “Researchers figure out how to outperform nature’s photosynthesis.”  The body of the article, though, reveals that they didn’t invent a light-gathering engine from scratch.  Rather, “They frankensteined together proteins from Synechococcus sp. with those from Clostridium acetobutylicum using molecular wire to create a ‘hybrid biological/organic nanoconstruct’ that was more efficient than either on their own.”  So, even though “These researchers have created a tiny solar-powered device that works twice as fast as nature to produce hydrogen biofuel,” it would be more impressive if they got their own dirt.

Slimy computers:  Some Japanese researchers became fascinated with slime molds.  “A brainless, primeval organism able to navigate a maze might help Japanese scientists devise the ideal transport network design,” PhysOrg wrote.  “Not bad for a mono-cellular being that lives on rotting leaves.”  Somehow the cells of amoeboid yellow slime mold can find the most direct route through a maze to get to their food:  “the cells appear to have a kind of information-processing ability that allows them to ‘optimise’ the route along which the mold grows to reach food while avoiding stresses – like light – that may damage them.”  This means that we have something in common with slime.  “Humans are not the only living things with information-processing abilities,” said Toshiyuki Nakagaki.  Sloughing off his Ig Nobel Prizes for loving slime, he sees a bright future: “it could provide the key to designing bio-computers capable of solving complex problems.”

Butterfly materials:  The blue mountain swallowtail butterfly is not just pretty; it’s downright inspiring.  “Butterflies have inspired humans since the time of ancient Egypt, but now they’re also inspiring researchers to look toward nature to help create the next generation of waterproof materials for electronics and sensors,” reported PhysOrg.  That’s why researchers in America and South Korea are looking carefully at the wings of this butterfly.  “The wings shed water easily because of tiny structures that trap air and create a cushion between water and wing which allows water to roll easily off the surface.”  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cell phone that repels water, instead of shorting out when doused?  One team member said, “Mimicking biological surfaces in nature is an important part in a variety of practical applications.”

Spider silkworm:  The desire to imitate spider silk was one of the first biomimetics stories reported in these pages.  In the years since, scientists have had only partial success at duplicating the strands, or at genetically engineering goats with the silk genes to produce it in their milk.  Now, researchers from Wyoming, Indiana and China have succeeded in transplanting the genes for spider dragline silk into silkworms.  Since ancient times, humans have farmed silkworms, so we know about their care and feeding; wrangling spiders is much more difficult.  Reporting in PNAS (Jan 3, 2012, 73/pnas.1109420109), they announced,

The development of a spider silk-manufacturing process is of great interest. However, there are serious problems with natural manufacturing through spider farming, and standard recombinant protein production platforms have provided limited progress due to their inability to assemble spider silk proteins into fibers. Thus, we used piggyBac vectors to create transgenic silkworms encoding chimeric silkworm/spider silk proteins. The silk fibers produced by these animals were composite materials that included chimeric silkworm/spider silk proteins integrated in an extremely stable manner. Furthermore, these composite fibers were, on average, tougher than the parental silkworm silk fibers and as tough as native dragline spider silk fibers. These results demonstrate that silkworms can be engineered to manufacture composite silk fibers containing stably integrated spider silk protein sequences, which significantly improve the overall mechanical properties of the parental silkworm silk fibers.

Of this achievement, the BBC News announced, “Spider-Man web closer to reality.”  Live Science’s article has a humorous photo of a future T-shirt labeled, “95% silkworm / 5% spider.”  Impressive as this work is, it’s not the same as coming up with the silk from scratch.  The team still had to use the real animals and their genetic information.

None of these articles mentioned evolution.  It’s all design, inspiration, and motivation.  Bio-inspired researchers want to produce better products, safer for the environment, safer for humans, helping humanity without damaging the planet.  Home school parents should use stories like these to fascinate their precocious youngsters with the wonders all around them, right in their back yards.  It can lead to a new crop of highly-motivated scientists, 100% Darwin-free (which means, safer for the environment, safer for humans, helping humanity without damaging the planet).

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