February 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Are Studying Your Garden for Ideas

51; Your garden plants are visited by a butterfly and various insects as you sip tea in a lawn chair.  Did you have any idea that inventors are watching the same things with an eye to making money?  Or that military officers are getting ideas from the garden to use against the enemy?  Biomimetics – the imitation of nature’s designs – is on a roll, because some of the best design ideas are right in your yard.

  1. It’s a bird; it’s a plan:  Watch the video clip of Matt Keennon’s ornithopter at PhysOrg.  It’s a robotic mimic of a real hummingbird – size, shape, wings and all.  Like the real thing, it can hover and move in all directions.  The military wants to use such devices as “spybots” to enter buildings with tiny cameras.
        The hummingbird makes it look easy: “Manager of the project, Matt Keennon, said it had been a challenge to design and build the spybot because it ‘pushes the limitations of aerodynamics.’”
  2. Moving plants:  Schoolkids are often delighted with touching the leaves of the sensitive plant, Mimosa, and watching how they instantly fold up.  PhysOrg reported that University of Michigan researchers are sensitive, too: they are leading studies of moving plants that are “inspiring a new class of adaptive structures designed to twist, bend, stiffen and even heal themselves.
        Where could these efforts lead?  “When this technology matures, [Kon-Well] Wang said it could enable robots that change shape like elephant trunks or snakes to maneuver under a bridge or through a tunnel, but then turn rigid to grab a hold of something,” the article ended.  “It also could lead to morphing wings that would allow airplanes to behave more like birds, changing their wing shape and stiffness in response to their environment or the task at hand.”
  3. Solar plants:  What uses sunlight better than a leaf?  Penn State researchers are trying to copy photosynthesis, reported PhysOrg, in order to make efficient fuels.  “Inexpensive hydrogen for automotive or jet fuel may be possible by mimicking photosynthesis,” the article said, “…but a number of problems need to be solved first.”  Thomas Mallouk at the university has only achieved 2-3% hydrogen so far.  He needs to aim for 100%.  His team is trying to figure out how to handle the “wrecking ball” of oxygen produced by his experimental solar cells, and how to channel electrons so they stop recombining.  Plants make it look so easy.
  4. Hear thee:  Chang Liu at Northwestern is fascinated by the hair cells of the inner ear.  Like many researchers with the biomimetics bug, he “is using insights from nature as inspiration for both touch and flow sensors – areas that currently lack good sensors for recording and communicating the senses.”  He’s not all ears; “Hair cells provide a variety of sensing abilities for different animals: they help humans hear, they help insects detect vibration, and they form the lateral line system that allows fish to sense the flow of water around them.”
        This multi-application potential of nature’s design particularly impressed him: “The hair cell is interesting because biology uses this same fundamental structure to serve a variety of purposes,” Liu said.  “This differs from how engineers typically design sensors, which are often used for a specific task.”  Synthetic hair cells might be useful for anything from robots to heart catheters. 
  5. Fly me a computer:  Last week’s Science (Feb 11) had an article by Jeffrey Kephart about “Learning from Nature” to build better computer networks.1  What, in nature, did he have in mind?  Fruit flies.  “Studying the development of a fruit fly’s sensory bristles provided insight into developing a more practical algorithm for organizing networked computers,” the caption said on a photo of the little bug’s bristly head.
        Kephart explained that biomimetics has a long history.  “The tradition of biologically inspired computing extends back more than half a century to the original musings of Alan Turing about artificial intelligence and John von Neumann’s early work on self-replicating cellular automata in the 1940s,” he noted.  “Since then, computer scientists have frequently turned to biological processes for inspiration.  Indeed, the names of major subfields of computer science—such as artificial neural networks, genetic algorithms, and evolutionary computation—attest to the influence of biological analogies.” (Note: evolutionary computation is a form of intelligent design, in which a scientist or computer selects outcomes from randomly varying inputs according to purpose-driven goals.)
  6. Crawl me a network:  Speaking of IT, ants are inspiring new ideas for computer networks.  According to PhysOrg, “Ants are able to connect multiple sites in the shortest possible way, and in doing so, create efficient transport networks,” scientists at the University of Sydney are finding.  Even without leaders, they solve this complex problem by making many trails and pruning them back to the best ones.
        Ants are not the only inspiration for the next generation of networks: “The findings sheds light on how other ‘simple’ natural systems without leaders or even brains – such as fungi, slime molds and mammalian vascular systems – are able to form efficient networks, and can help humans design artificial networks in situations lacking central control,” Dr. Tanya Latty said.
  7. Firefly probe:  Science Daily told how scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs have made a probe of hydrogen peroxide levels in mice based on the chemical that makes fireflies glow: luciferin.  Their device seems reminiscent of Doc Bone’s hovering probe that could detect problems non-invasively: the new probe “enables researchers to monitor hydrogen peroxide levels in mice and thereby track the progression of infectious diseases or cancerous tumors without harming the animals or even having to shave their fur.
        How did Christopher Chang come up with this neat idea?  “The fact that in nature fireflies use the luciferin enzyme to communicate by light inspired us to adapt this same strategy for pre-clinical diagnostics,” he said.  Their PCL-1 probe has already passed a milestone and has found that hydrogen peroxide, “nature’s disinfectant,” is continuously made even in a healthy body.  Now they are working to improve the sensitivity of the probe.
  8. Roach model:  Hopefully your garden experience was not interrupted by seeing a cockroach in the kitchen when getting your tea out of the refrigerator.  Even so, Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University are finding things to admire in the beasts: PhysOrg said, “Ask anyone who has ever tried to squash a skittering cockroach – they’re masters of quick and precise movement.”  That’s why “Tel Aviv University is using their maddening locomotive skills to improve robotic technology too.”  While we’s getting grossed out with bugs, the article added, “Cockroaches are not the only insects that have captured the scientific imagination.  Projects that highlight both the flight of the locust and the crawling of the soft-bodied caterpillar are also underway.”  Good.  Get them out of the house and yard and give them to the scientists.

Chang Liu had one of the best recent summations of why biomimetics is such a hot trend: “Using a bio-inspired approach is really important,” he said.  “Nature has a lot of wonderful examples that can challenge us.  No matter how good some of our technology is, we still can’t do some of the basic things that nature can.  Nature holds the secret for the next technology breakthrough and disruptive innovation.  We are on a mission to find it.”


1.  Jeffrey O. Kephart, “Computer science: Learning from Nature,” Science, 11 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6018 pp. 682-683, DOI: 10.1126/science.1201003.

As stated before, biomimetics provides a breakthrough that can bring scientists together.  Evolutionists do not have to worry about how these things evolved, nor waste time and energy making up stories or building their shrines to the Bearded Buddha.  Creationists do not have to mention God and risk alienating their colleagues who don’t want to hear the design argument for God’s existence.  Everyone can agree that the designs in nature, however they arose, are fascinating, important, and worth imitating.  The public will benefit from the inventions that result.
    Follow the biomimetic research lead, and pretty soon Eugenie Scott will be out of a job, because all scientists will be marching together away from Darwinland and into the promised land of nature-inspired technology, talking design without any need for help from those who already knew intelligent design is the inference to the best explanation.  The ranks of the Darwinists will shrink by attrition.  Why?  Nobody will be looking to them for answers (re: stories), when practical science based on design is winning the hearts and minds of everyone.  Books and lectures on garden-variety intelligent design will, by then, seem perfectly natural.

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