August 1, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Nature’s Designs Excite Inventors

The imitation of nature – biomimetics – is one of the hottest areas in science these days.  Recent reports tell about research teams racing to move natural designs to market, and there’s no end in sight.

  1. Pack it green:  Got parcels?  Don’t use styrofoam peanuts and bubble wraps; that’s so 2009.  Why manufacture plastic and oil-based stuffing when you can grow something soft and biodegradable?  Two grads from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute started a company that is making packing foam out of mushroom fibers and agricultural waste, reported Science Daily.  Gavin McIntyre said, “We don’t manufacture materials, we grow them.  We’re converting agricultural byproducts into a higher-value product.”  The products use mushroom fibrous roots called mycelia mixed in with waste from cotton gins.  It’s all natural, all green, all biodegradable.
        With fellow grad Even Bayer, McIntyre started up a company in Green Island, New York, called Ecovative Design to bring their idea to fruition.  They can produce custom-fitted foam packing material with very little energy.  The National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are supporting their project.  By 2013, do-it-yourself homeowners may be able to use the technology in another way: for home insulation.  The award-winning company also invented Greensulate(tm): an insulating material based on mushroom fibers that has the added advantage of being flame retardant.
  2. It’s a plane, like a bird:  “Why can’t an airplane be more like a bird?” asked researchers at MIT.  Birds don’t have to slam into a runway and roll for a mile to land.  They “can switch from barreling forward at full speed to lightly touching down on a target as narrow as a telephone wire,” said Science Daily.  They do it by mastering the “stall” – a complicated maneuver that involves vortices and wakes.  The article explains how this “complicated phenomenon” works; “Even the best descriptions of it are time-consuming to compute.”
        Can humans make like a bird?  Hopefully, yes.  “MIT researchers have demonstrated a new control system that allows a foam glider with only a single motor on its tail to land on a perch, just like a pet parakeet,” the article said.  “The work could have important implications for the design of robotic planes, greatly improving their maneuverability and potentially allowing them to recharge their batteries simply by alighting on power lines.”  Picture that on your next long-distance flight.  The control system won its inventor the Engineering Student of the Year Award, but the article did not say if the parakeet got an extra treat for providing the inspiration.
  3. Eye of the fly:  Who would have ever thought that fly’s eyes would inspire a scientist?  What’s next, the bee’s knees?  Sure enough, PhysOrg reported that fly eyes are inspiring the next biomimetic surfaces that could revolutionize solar cells and materials for a “variety of applications.”  Scientists at Penn State are not only mimicking the fly eye; they are duplicating it.  They used a high-tech electroplating technique to reproduce the shape of they compound eye exactly, forming a “master template can be used either as a die to stamp the pattern or as a mold.”  The fly they chose is the blowfly – those disgusting flies that hang around dead things.  The researcher said, “These eyes are perfect for making solar cells because they would collect more sunlight from a larger area rather than just light that falls directly on a flat surface.”
        The same team is “currently looking at butterfly wings to understand how the surfaces create colors without pigment.”  Who knows; for more great ideas, maybe they should also take a closer look at the bee’s knees.
  4. Light farming:  Algae and plants achieve a feat that is the envy of engineers: harvesting the energy of sunlight with high efficiency.  Jeff Tollefson at Nature News reported about the new “Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis” that is using federal grant money “with the ambitious goal of developing, scaling up and ultimately commercializing technologies that directly convert sunlight into hydrogen and other fuels.”  Caltech and Lawrence Berkeley labs are teaming up to get the technology out of the lab and into commercially viable products.  Plants produce sugars and other complex molecules with their light harvest.  The human engineers would be happy to get cheap hydrogen for fuel cells.  They appear to be making progress; the article is accompanied by a photo of a test car that has a bumper message, “This plug-in hybrid gets 100+ MPG.”
  5. Snakes alive:  The thought of snake bite is enough to cause shudders, but there might be a bright side to learning more about it.  Science Daily told about a Japanese team that is studying snake venom for clues to how blood platelets respond to it.  This is not a true biomimetics story, in that the researchers are not trying to imitate snake toxin, but they think by controlling substances that have similar responses they can gain understanding for good ends.  The article began, “Researchers seeking to learn more about stroke by studying how the body responds to toxins in snake venom are releasing new findings that they hope will aid in the development of therapies for heart disease and, surprisingly, cancer.
  6. Spider prize:  Many of our previous biomimetics entries have mentioned spider silk as the holy grail for materials science.  A spider is able to take a watery fluid with special proteins and spin it out into some of the strongest flexible material known.  “It’s also flexible, durable and biodegradable, and can withstand extremely high temperatures,” Live Science added.  Simple as the spider makes it look, it is astonishingly difficult to duplicate the feat.  After years of work, several teams are making progress understanding and imitating the process of silk production.
        A paper in Science1 recently pointed out that “the development of silk hydrogels, films, fibers and sponges is making possible advances in photonics and optics, nanotechnology, electronics, adhesives and microfluidics, as well as engineering of bone and ligaments” that will be non-invasive and environmentally friendly, according to PhysOrg.  The authors of the paper, from Tufts University, said (pun probably intended), “Silk-based materials have been transformed in just the past decade from the commodity textile world to a growing web of applications in more high technology directions.”  One exciting new method for mass production of the coveted material would be through genetically-engineered plants that could be harvested like cotton.  Developing countries might find a new source of wealth by growing the stuff made famous by silkworms and spiders.
        On another front, Live Science and PhysOrg reported on work published in PNAS2 about the successful engineering of a bacterium, E. coli, to produce spider silk protein that mimics the properties of the real thing.  PhysOrg mentioned some of the uses that could come from mass production of spider silk: parachute cords, protective clothing (bullet-proof vests), and composite materials for aircraft are just the beginning: “Researchers have long envied spiders’ ability to manufacture silk that is light-weighted while as strong and tough as steel or Kevlar,” the article began.  “Indeed, finer than human hair, five times stronger by weight than steel, and three times tougher than the top quality man-made fiber Kevlar, spider dragline silk is an ideal material for numerous applications.”

The abstract of the paper in Science1 mentioned the aesthetic as well as practical value of the spider’s product.  The opening paragraph serves as a model vision statement for all bio-inspired research:

Spiders and silkworms generate silk protein fibers that embody strength and beautyOrb webs are fascinating feats of bioengineering in nature, displaying magnificent architectures while providing essential survival utility for spiders.  The unusual combination of high strength and extensibility is a characteristic unavailable to date in synthetic materials yet is attained in nature with a relatively simple protein processed from water.  This biological template suggests new directions to emulate in the pursuit of new high-performance, multifunctional materials generated with a green chemistry and processing approach.  These bio-inspired and high-technology materials can lead to multifunctional material platforms that integrate with living systems for medical materials and a host of other applications.


1.  Omenetto and Kaplan, “New Opportunities for an Ancient Material,” Science, 30 July 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5991, pp. 528-531, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188936.
2.  Xia, Qian et al, “Native-sized recombinant spider silk protein produced in metabolically engineered Escherichia coli results in a strong fiber,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online July 26, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003366107.

Biomimetics is a favorite topic in our pages for many reasons: the promise of wonderful products, the wonder of learning about amazing feats of plants and animals, the fact that biomimetics is intelligent-design friendly, and the reality that scientists do not need to pay homage to Charlie D. to participate, get funding, and be heroes.  For the years we have reported biomimetics news, we have rarely seen the researchers even mention evolution.  When they do, it’s usually just in passing, like “spiders evolved this fantastic ability 300 million years ago” or some other stupid dragline that wouldn’t hold up an ounce of scrutiny.  Whole university research departments have been set up to work on biomimetics, and the future is bright.  It’s time to ditch Darwin like a ball and chain and run into the future of design-based science.
    If you have precocious kids, take them into the yard and get them thinking along these lines.  Some of the most amazing technologies are right under our feet.  If your kid can help understand them, copy them, and make products out of them, he or she could become rich and help support you in your retirement, because if you can build a better fuel cell, Obama will beat a path to your door with stimulus money.  (Whatever works; the greed angle should be secondary, whenever possible, to the inspirational angle.)
    Spiders didn’t invent silk; birds didn’t invent landing on a wire; plants didn’t decide to harvest light and then find the perfect way to do it.  Such things do not arise from unplanned, unguided processes of chance and necessity.  This is engineering – and art.  Strength and beauty, magnificent architectures, efficient high performance – nature’s wonders should stimulate any clear-thinking person to ponder the master Mind that put these technologies into living things.  That’s a good first step toward wanting to know that Mind.

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