March 6, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Natural Wonders Can Be Useful

To find great ideas, look to nature.  Many plants and animals are as useful as they are ornamental.  They can show the way to solve problems of great interest to humans.

  1. Mussel power:  Want an abrasion-resistant, highly-extensible coating?  PhysOrg reported that mussels are providing inspiration to materials scientists.  They build a byssus, or network of threads, that attaches to hard surfaces and absorbs the energy of crashing waves.  A cuticle on the outer surfaces of these stretchy, flexible fibers is “a biological polymer, which exhibits epoxy-like hardness, while straining up to 100% without cracking.”  The cuticle’s success depends on its careful tailoring of protein-metal chemistry and organization of cross-links at the submicron level.  All human inventors need to do is study and copy what the mussel has achieved.  “Nature has evolved an elegant solution to a problem that engineers are still struggling with; namely, how to combine the properties of abrasion resistance and high extensibility in the same material,” said Peter Fratzl, director of the biomaterials department at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces.  “Conceivably, this same strategy could be applied in engineered polymers and composites.”  ScienceNow has a close-up picture of the mussel fibers.
  2. Insect glue:  The caddis fly is well known to fishermen.  They are accustomed to hunting for the tube-shaped larva shelters, made of grains of sand and rock.  The larva glues those grains together with silk made of a wet adhesive that is attracting the attention of inventors.  Science Daily reported on research into the characteristics of this glue.  It could be extremely useful to invent a glue that works when wet.  Imagine trying to put on a bandage in a shower.  Surgeons often have to attach sutures to wet biological tissue.
        Scientists have found that the caddis fly can work its magic with glass beads replacing sand.  The silk, they found, resembles tape more than anything else.  It fastens the beads together from the inside.  They are studying this mechanism “for the purpose of trying to copy it,” the article said.  The material properties of the silk that allow it to work underwater have something to do with the way electrical charges are arranged on the molecules.
        The article ended by speculating about how these abilities evolved.  The ability to make underwater adhesives has been identified in four phyla – members of which include caddis flies, sandcastle worms, mussels and sea cucumbers.  What does that mean?  To Russell Stewart (U of Utah) it can only mean one thing: “They came to this underwater adhesion solution completely independently,” he said.  The press release added, “showing that it repeatedly evolved because of its value in helping the creatures live and thrive, Stewart says.”
  3. Sea squirt lab rat:  Science Daily said that hope for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may come from the lowly sea squirt.  Scientists have found that they produce the tangles and plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s quickly.  This makes them suitable as a model organism on which new drugs can be tested in a shorter time.  The article said, for whatever it means, “as long ago as Darwin, it has been recognized that sea squirts may be our closest invertebrate relatives; in their immature, tadpole form, they resemble proper vertebrates, and they share about 80% of their genes with us.”  But does this imply we are 80% sea squirt, or 60% banana?
  4. Bee silk for aviation:  Science Daily reported on progress to imitate bee silk.  Maybe you didn’t realize that bees make silk.  Maybe you also didn’t realize that silk is useful.  Indeed they do, and indeed it is: “Possible practical uses for these silks would be tough, lightweight textiles, high-strength applications such as advanced composites for use in aviation and marine environments, and medical applications such as sutures, artificial tendons and ligaments.”  A team in Australia is working on recombining the ingredients by producing them with the genes of other organisms, so that silk fibers can be hand-drawn without the need for the bee’s silk-producing glands.  Those glands are probably as hard to work with as bee’s knees.
  5. Pitcher plant medicine:  Some day, your cabinet may not just have pitchers, but medicines inspired by the pitcher plant.  Researchers at Tel Aviv University are producing anti-fungal drugs, said Science Daily, based on the carnivorous plant’s technology.  Pitcher plants need more than just the ability to digest animal products to gain carbon and nitrogen from poor soils; “Carnivorous plants also possess a highly developed set of compounds and secondary metabolites to aid in their survival.”  It’s in those compounds, produced in special glands by the plant, where anti-fungal medicines are waiting to be discovered.
        The plant has to protect itself from fungi that would steal its meal.  “To avoid sharing precious food resources with other micro-organisms such as fungi, the carnivorous plant has developed a host of agents that act as natural anti-fungal agents,” said Prof. Aviah Zilberstein of the university.  Some of these compounds, if isolated for medicine, “may avoid the evolution of new resistant infective strains.”  Secondary infections from fungi are a serious problem in hospitals.  “There is a lot of room for developing compounds from nature into new drugs,” Zilberstein said.  “The one we are working on is not toxic to humans.  Now we hope to show how this very natural product can be further developed as a means to overcome some basic problems in hospitals all over the world.”  The article noted that drinking pitcher plant liquid as an elixir has been documented in the folk medicine of India.
  6. Green fertilizer:  Nitrogen is a tough nut to crack.  The triple bonds of N2 gas usually require high amounts of energy, like lightning or the Haber process, to pull apart so that ammonia and other compounds can be produced (this is called “fixing” nitrogen).  Somehow, nitrogenase enzymes in bacteria that live in nodules attached to the roots of some plants do it with ease at room temperature.  “It sounds simple, but it is a complicated and poorly understood process,” the article said.
        For thousands of years, farmers have known that legumes (including peas, beans, alfalfa and clover) can increase productivity of fallow ground when alternated with other crops.  That’s a major reason George Washington Carver urged southern farmers, whose fields were being depleted by cotton and boll weevil infestations, to grow peanuts.  Until recently, no one understood why legumes were so effective in boosting the productivity of the soil.  Science Daily reported on a discovery at Stanford that helps explain their potential.  The finding might reduce fertilizer use and help the environment.  “We have discovered a new biological process, by which leguminous plants control behavior of symbiotic bacteria,” said Stanford molecular biologist Sharon Long.  “These plants have a specialized protein processing system that generates specific protein signals.”  The scientists have identified the gene responsible for the signal.  If scientists can generate that signal in other plants, perhaps through genetic engineering or selective breeding, they might trigger more nitrogen fixation in crops without fertilizer.  World farmlands could remain more productive as population grows while simultaneously reducing pollution by nitrous oxide (a highly potent greenhouse gas) and other fertilizer byproducts.  “When you deal with a natural soil, you are dealing with a lot of complexity.  Everything we learn about what makes symbiosis work gives us a tool to understand why, sometimes, symbiosis fails,” said Long.  “Plant breeders who are trying to help develop better-adapted plants can now analyze traits such as this.  We’ve given them a new tool” – a tool that was there all along, but needs a little prying and coaxing.
  7. Energy the way plants make it:  There’s no more effective solar power plant than a plant, so why not plan to imitate plants?  PhysOrg said that’s just what scientists in France are trying to do.  Photosynthesis may become the next new source of electrical energy.  The team has found a way to convert the chemical energy from photosynthesis into electrical energy in biofuel cells.  “They thus propose a new strategy to convert solar energy into electrical energy in an environmentally-friendly and renewable manner.”
        This kind of biomimetics actually employs a real plant – in this case, a cactus.  By implanting special enzyme-modified electrodes sensitive to the products of photosynthesis, the French scientists were able to generate 9 watts per square centimeter.  They could see more juice when the light was turned up.  They envision not only more efficient solar cells, but medical applications.  Similar biofuel electrodes in human skin, sensitive to glucose and oxygen in biological fluids, could power implanted medical devices autonomously, without batteries or external power sources.

In each of these stories, evolution was either ignored or mentioned only in passing.  This indicates that the heavy lifting in the scientific research is being done without it.  Instead, the impetus of the research is drawn from attention to biological design.

Biomimetics could well be a major player in the downfall of Darwinism.  For one thing, evolutionary theory has very little to do with biomimetics, if anything.  Saying stupid things like, “This organism figured this out 150 million years ago,” or, “Four phyla came up with this elegant solution independently,” contributes only entertainment, not substance.  For another, biomimetics is a completely positive enterprise.  Scientists don’t have to get bogged down in philosophical debates about origins.  They can get funding, work constructively, increase understanding of nature, and come up with Nobel-prize-quality discoveries that will help the world – all without Darwin.  Here is a positive alternative to evolution that relies on intelligent design assumptions.  The wealth that can be generated is enormous.  Darwin will be left in the dust as the world stampedes to biomimetic technology.  Think Michael Behe’s famous illustration as we repeat, “If you can build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.”

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