Sweet Solutions from Nature
Human engineers continue to look at plants and animals for inspiration. Biomimetics – the imitation of biology for design technology – shows no sign of running out of ideas.
- Sweet gas: A spoonful of sugar in the gas tank? Science Daily reported on progress in converting plant sugars into clean-burning hydrogen – using biological enzymes. This could give a new meaning to “power plant.”
- Moooove on: Speaking of enzymes, fuel technicians have isolated an enzyme in a cow’s stomach that shows promise for efficient conversion of plant sugars into ethanol. Science Daily’s gut reaction to this story was positive: “The fact that we can take a gene that makes an enzyme in the stomach of a cow and put it into a plant cell means that we can convert what was junk before into biofuel,” said one professor of crop and soil science.
- See ya sooner, alligator: Yuck: alligator blood. What good could come from that? Infection-fighting drugs, reported National Geographic News. Scientists are intrigued that alligators live with frequent bloody wounds in bacteria-laden muddy swamps but rarely get infected. Scientists at Louisiana University found that alligator serum fights more bacteria than human serum. If we can harness the alligator’s secrets, said one researcher, “we could be on the verge of a major advance in medical science.”
- Drag queen: The dragline silk of spiders continues to be a holy grail for materials scientists. A German physics team reported in PNAS some initial success in getting the proteins to assemble into fibers.1 To do it, they squeezed the proteins through tiny orifices similar to the spinnerets on a spider’s abdomen. The BBC News published a report about it. Spiderman, here we come.
1. Rammensee, Slotta, Scheibel and Bausch, “Assembly mechanism of recombinant spider silk proteins,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online on April 29, 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0709246105.
In the alligator story, National Geographic noted that alligators have “innate” immune systems while humans have “adaptive” immune systems. “Although innate immunity is often considered primitive, there is nothing primitive about its effectiveness, [Adam] Britton [biologist, northern Australia] said.” Britton called the antimicrobial peptides in alligator serum “extremely effective agents” against bacteria. Remember that the first extremely effective antibiotics were also found in a “primitive” organism – fungus. Design follows design, not chaos. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.