April 20, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Biological Designs Worth Imitating

If these designs are so good that intelligent minds want to mimic them, who can believe they emerged by chance?

Falcon aircraft: With eyes like lasers, wings for speed, and talons for capture, a peregrine falcon swoops down unerringly for its prey at speeds approaching 200mph—even in high winds. No wonder Phys.org reports that “research work on how falcons fly is inspiring new technologies for aircraft that could contribute to their safety in the air, aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.” But even after over a century of flight design, human engineers probably won’t get close to the falcon’s abilities for another two decades. The article includes this infographic from BAE systems:

The article ends with this remark by a specialist in air flow control in military aircraft: “Bio-inspiration is not a new concept; many technologies that we use every day are increasingly inspired by animals and nature.

Cheetah robot.  “University of Twente researcher Geert Folkertsma has developed a prototype cheetah robot,” Science Daily reports. “Folkertsma has dedicated four years of research and development to constructing a scaled-down robotic version of the fastest land animal in the world, with a view to replicating its movements.” To try to replicate the cat’s movements, the PhD student “studied extensive video footage of cheetahs,” the article says.

Honeybee cleaners. The life of a honeybee seems like it would be a messy job: getting covered with pollen dust all the day long, even in the eyes. And yet they keep their hairs neat and clean. How? The spacing of the hairs seems to be a key, says Phys.org. The Bioneers at Georgia Tech are onto the case. They found that bees also come equipped with cleaning tools and the training to use them.

“Bees have a preprogrammed cleaning routine that doesn’t vary,” said Marguerite Matherne, a Ph.D. student in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “Even if they’re not very dirty in the first place, bees always swipe their eyes a dozen times, six times per leg. The first swipe is the most efficient, and they never have to brush the same area of the eye twice.”

A mechanical engineer at the school says, “Our findings may also be used to create mechanical designs that help keep micro and nanostructured surfaces clean.”

Honeybee robot eyes: Speaking of honeybees, Science Daily says, “Honey bees have sharper eyesight than we thought.” They didn’t specify who “we” is, but they quickly inspire the reader with details about how scientists at the University of Adelaide are applying the new knowledge to the design of sharper eyes for robots. “Bees have much better vision than was previously known, offering new insights into the lives of honey bees, and new opportunities for translating this knowledge into fields such as robot vision, outlines a new study.”

Fern batteries. Storing energy from solar cells is a major challenge. You can’t charge the cells at night, so how do you maintain the day’s energy collection? Scientists at RMIT University (Australia) are looking to Americans for answers – to American fern plants, that is – for “bio-inspired” answers to fast charging. The secret is in fractals: subdivisions of subdivisions of subdivisions in the leaves of the western swordfern. “Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level,” they say. The fern-mimic electrode could “boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent. Watch for it in smartphones, laptops, cars, and buildings.

Seaweed superconductors. Speaking of energy storage, ditch the graphite. Cease the lithium-ion pollution. There’s a greener way: use seaweed, say American scientists. Phys.org explains that when chelated, seaweed takes on an egg-box structure that magnifies the energy storage potential of batteries. “Testing showed that the seaweed-derived material had a large reversible capacity of 625 milliampere hours per gram (mAhg-1), which is considerably more than the 372 mAhg-1 capacity of traditional graphite anodes for lithium-ion batteries,” the article says. This could double the range of electric cars, while exploiting a cheap, renewable resource.

Bat sonar. Echolocation in a certain species of bat seems to get enhanced when they wiggle their noses and ears. The evidence seems clear; bats have “extraordinary accuracy” at finding what they need in the dark. Virginia Tech engineers have taken notice, wondering if that could improve man-made sonar systems. The techs built a model with the new wiggle technique and found that it improved signal to noise by a factor of 100 to 1000. “Bat echolocation is one of nature’s remarkable achievements in navigation,” the article on Phys.org says, making this interesting admission: “That suggests that bolstering sensor capability by using a dynamic, mobile emitter and receiver should be translatable to engineered systems less complex than real bats, improving the navigation of autonomous drones and the accuracy of devices for speech recognition.”

For Bat Appreciation Day (April 17), National Geographic posted “16 Incredible Pictures Show the Beauty of Bats.”

Parsley scaffolds. Getting stem cells to grow where you want them is a challenge. Phys.org explains how some scientists are succeeding with plant materials. In the process, the scientists make a good statement about the value of living models:

Amazing FactsBorrowing from nature is an age-old theme in science. Form and function go hand-in-hand in the natural world and the structures created by plants and animals are only rarely improved on by humans.

Taking that lesson to heart, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are using the decellularized husks of plants such as parsley, vanilla and orchids to form three-dimensional scaffolds that can then be primed and seeded with human stem cells to optimize their growth in the lab dish and, ultimately, create novel biomedical implants.

DNA computers are coming along, says Live Science. Tia Ghose writes, “Computers of the Future May Be Minuscule Molecular Machines.” Inspired by DNA’s longevity and extreme storage density, scientists have already encoded the entire works of Shakespeare in the genetic molecules (see article at Evolution News and hear it on ID the Future). Now that biology has shown the way to efficient data storage, engineers at DARPA are looking at other molecules that could encode in new ways beyond silicon’s 1’s and 0’s and DNA’s A-C-T-G system, using orientation, size and color to represent additional bits of information.

Power plants. Bio-engineers have been trying to replicate photosynthesis for years, but still seem to have a long way to go. Science Daily says that a Japanese team has uncovered another part of the mechanism the plant uses to break down water, “marking another step towards the potential development of artificial photosynthesis.”

Algae petrol. Imagine how much better it would be to create fuel from an abundant, renewable resource: algae. The Japanese are looking at this green gold: “Microalgae can grow with light, water, carbon dioxide and a small amount of minerals, and their cells divide quickly, meaning that they can be harvested faster than land-based biomasses,” Science Daily says. “Algae can also be harvested all year round, potentially offering a more stable energy supply.”

Sperm therapy. To get ingredients to a female with cancerous tumors, why not imitate one of nature’s best delivery systems? Phys.org reports that German scientists are developing steerable sperm to do just that. They coax the expert swimming cells into little iron helmets, then steer them where they want them to swim. There are problems with the concept, though; how to shed the helmets after delivery, “And then there is the problem of obtaining the sperm.” There will undoubtedly be volunteers.

Borrowing from nature is an age-old theme in science.

Improving on nature? An article on Phys.org claims that a new technology is “better than nature” – “artificial biofilm increases energy production in microbial fuel cells.” Well, ‘better’ is relative to the function at hand. If biofilms were meant to generate electricity, the researchers at University of Bayreuth could boast. By combining a gel substance with the bacteria, the scientists got more electrical output than previous attempts with the bacteria alone.

The following six papers are more technical for those interested.

Bio-inspired Murray materials for mass transfer and activity (Nature Communications). Scientists build on nature’s hierarchical designs for applications needing to move mass. Why? “Natural systems and their hierarchical organization are not only optimized and designed for durability but also have the capability to adapt to their external environment, to undergo self-repair, and to perform many highly complex functions.”

Reproducing the hierarchy of disorder for Morpho-inspired, broad-angle color reflection (Nature Scientific Reports). The brilliant blue Morpho butterfly returns to the biomimetics stage in the paper. Praise for the design gets mixed with long-age credulity in the opening sentences: “Intricate structures create structural colors that can remain brilliant after millions of years of fossilization. One of the most well-known examples is the butterflies of genus Morpho whose bright, blue wings grace many famous collections, and are reported to be visible even from low-flying aircrafts [sic].”

Structural features and lipid binding domain of tubulin on biomimetic mitochondrial membranes (PNAS). Tubulin is not just a protein component of the cytoskeleton; it is also “a highly unexpected component of mitochondrial membranes involved in regulation of membrane permeability,” this paper says. The authors are studying its interaction with membrane proteins, knowing this will be “important for the structure-inspired design of tubulin-targeting agents.”

A living mesoscopic cellular automaton made of skin scales (Nature). Theoretical cellular automata, famously conceived by John von Neumann, are realized in—of all things—lizard skin. Nature (that is, biology, not the journal) had it first. But does Nature‘s evolutionary reference compute?

Here we show that in ocellated lizards a quasi-hexagonal lattice of skin scales, rather than individual chromatophore cells, establishes a green and black labyrinthine pattern of skin colour. We analysed time series of lizard scale colour dynamics over four years of their development and demonstrate that this pattern is produced by a cellular automaton (a grid of elements whose states are iterated according to a set of rules based on the states of neighbouring elements) that dynamically computes the colour states of individual mesoscopic skin scales to produce the corresponding macroscopic colour pattern. Using numerical simulations and mathematical derivation, we identify how a discrete von Neumann cellular automaton emerges from a continuous Turing reaction–diffusion system. Skin thickness variation generated by three-dimensional morphogenesis of skin scales causes the underlying reaction–diffusion dynamics to separate into microscopic and mesoscopic spatial scales, the latter generating a cellular automaton. Our study indicates that cellular automata are not merely abstract computational systems, but can directly correspond to processes generated by biological evolution.

Biomimetic supercontainers for size-selective electrochemical sensing of molecular ions (Nature Scientific Reports). This paper describes how “the unique structure of spherical viruses” is  inspiring the construction of nano-containers for storage and sensing applications.

Biomimetic catalytic transformation of toxic α-oxoaldehydes to high-value chiral α-hydroxythioesters using artificial glyoxalase I (Nature Communications). This paper describes attempts to mimic enzymes for maintaining handedness in pharmaceuticals. Once again, the authors tip the hat to Darwin: “Nature has evolved a wealth of proteins called enzymes that catalyse the chemical reactions necessary to sustain all life on Earth.” How nature “evolved” these capabilities is never explained.

Show these articles to those who think Darwin owns science and intelligent design is religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, the religion in these instances is Darwinism, taking it on faith that “nature” works miracles, achieving what our best scientists and engineers are struggling to imitate.

Parents: get your kid a Science Fair award! Find a natural design he or she can imitate and learn about, coming up with a useful application. It will be sure to turn the judge’s heads. (Just don’t use the forbidden phrase “intelligent design” in a public school. We don’t want your kid to get Expelled.)



Leave a Reply