March 11, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Weekend Biomimetics Showcase

The focus in biology these days is on design. Here’s evidence from a quick rundown of recent natural designs scientists want to imitate.

Bones and tendons with their “remarkable strength” are inspiring an interdisciplinary team to understand their “Microstructure and micromechanics” and the way they interface, says Phys.org. Appreciation leads to understanding; understanding leads to invention.

Amazing Facts“These results allow us, for the first time, to understand the biochemical processes in the contact zone between bones and tendons, which give our locomotor system its extreme strength,” summarizes Bausch.

Possible applications will arise in material research, as well as in medicine: Engineers will be able to produce innovative connections between hard and soft materials. And orthopaedic doctors will use the results in tumour surgery to attach tendons to implants.

New Scientist also writes about this: “Special steel inspired by bone is more resistant to cracking.” The inspiration is there at Kyushu University and elsewhere, but the problem with implementation is scaling up what they have learned. “The insights into biological strategies to build crack-resistant materials… is an outstanding source of inspiration for the design of advanced materials, including steels,” says Admir Masic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wood and bone are also inspiring a variety of 3-D nanostructures for numerous applications. Phys.org talks about work at Washington State to construct 3-D lattices and trusses at the nanometer scale to “mimic the intricate architecture of natural materials like wood and bone.” Pictures of examples are included in the article.

Insects continue to inspire robotics engineers. After detailed study of fruit flies, Science Daily says that engineers at EPFL and UNIL found that the insect’s gait, the “tripod gait,” works best on six-legged robots when they have adhesive pads like the flies do. Without the pads, they could actually improve on the robot’s gait by adopting a different gait, the bipod gait. Their robots, however, can’t climb walls like insects can. And the insects will adopt a bipod gait under certain conditions.

There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species. We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”

Brown rot fungi are teaching engineers about efficient ways to produce biofuels, reports Phys.org. Employing a two-step process, these fungi “possess a unique ability to attack the cellulose fraction of wood while avoiding the surrounding lignin.” Meanwhile, researchers at Sandia National Labs are coaxing algae to produce biofuels, says Science Daily.

Tooth enamel reveals ways to make tougher composite materials. Nature talks about enamel’s durability: it is both hard and resistant to cracks. A new “report a tooth-enamel-inspired composite material” has been developed with “an unprecedented combination of stiffness, vibrational damping and low density.” The reporters, unfortunately, claim that the natural material “evolved in response to environmental pressures,” as if pressure is a designer. The full paper is also in Nature.

Yeast factories are being programmed to produce jet fuel. Science Daily says that researchers at Chalmers Institute of Technology have tweaked the fatty-acid synthase enzyme, which normally constructs long-chain fatty acids, into producing medium-chain fatty acids and methyl ketones, “chemicals that are components in currently used transportation fuels.” Now to mass produce it using these “yeast cell factories.” They found it’s easier to tweak an existing machine than start from scratch.

Beetle bodies inspire anti-fogging materials. Scientists at Brookhaven National Lab explain their motivation to imitate the tiny hairs on beetle exoskeletons because of how they repel water effectively. “Some insect bodies have evolved the abilities to repel water and oil, adhere to different surfaces, and eliminate light reflections,” Science Daily says. “Scientists have been studying the physical mechanisms underlying these remarkable properties found in nature and mimicking them to design materials for use in everyday life.” Resulting materials could “prevent fog condensation on surfaces in humid environments, including for power generation and transportation applications.”

Mussel glue is powering ideas for adhesives that need to work in wet environments, such as medical devices or industry. Nature Communications describes how mussels construct their adhesive pad, which “exhibits exceptional wet adhesion, abrasion resistance, toughness and self-healing capacity–properties that arise from an intricate hierarchical organization formed in minutes from a fluid secretion of over 10 different protein precursors.” The scientists want to translate what they learn about mussel “design principles into synthetic materials.” See also Phys.org‘s report on shellfish-inspired underwater glues being made at Purdue University.

Mimicking evolution to treat cancer? This conundrum is presented in Medical Xpress. What they mean by “evolution” is really artificial selection, a form of intelligent design. They start with an already-complex enzyme, introduce random mutations into it, and select the ones that show selective activity against tumor cells.

Wasp flight principles are creating crash-resistant drones. The popular quadcopter drones tend get destroyed when they crash because they are rigid. Wasp wings, by contrast, fold up nicely with flexible joints. Nature describes a test drone at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “Over the course of 50 collisions, the 50-gram prototype sustained damage only twice.”

Cell signaling is promoting research into “synthetic receptors” that can talk to each other chemically, like cells can. See report in Science Daily about “world-first” progress on this at the University of Bristol.

Cellulose packaging would be biodegradable, reducing plastic waste, while keeping food fresh at the same time. Even the Lithuanians are getting into this biomimetics business, reports Science Daily.

Chromosomes in yeast store information in a complex but compact way. In an introductory article to a special issue on synthetic chromosomes, Science Magazine says that the “Synthetic Yeast Genome Project” is “building on nature’s design.”

Bacterial flagella have been a subject of intense research in Japan for years now. Phys.org says that scientists at Osaka University are “Using nature to build nanomachines” modeled after the rotary motor. This mlecular machine helped inspire the intelligent design movement when Michael Behe described them in his book, Darwin’s Black Box in 1996.

Robber flies have mastered aerial dogfighting. An open-access paper in Current Biology describes their “Novel Interception Strategy” that uses “Extreme Visual Acuity” to lock onto a target and catch it reliably. Engineers might imitate their “constant bearing angle strategy” to develop “bioinspired guidance systems in miniature, aerial and autonomous vehicles, where maximum performance with minimum size is highly desirable.” See Live Science‘s report on the “Jaw-Dropping Vision [that] Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second.”

Are you inspired yet? Look at the diversity of these examples. Almost every kind of life form, from microbe to elephant, has some amazing property that inspires scientists to learn and imitate it. Biomimetics is one of the best things that has happened to biology in decades. So long, Charlie; we’re focused on intelligent design now!

 

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