September 1, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Clever Animals Amaze and Inspire

The living world is an endless source of wonder and inspiration.  There’s an octopus that does a convincing imitation of a flatfish (Science Daily, Live Science), and a red crab species that emerges from its lethargic life around Christmas and migrates miles to the sea by the millions (PhysOrg).  There’s a tiny frog that can fit on the tip of a pencil (PhysOrg) and a whale with perfect pitch (Science Daily).  National Geographic released a gallery of sea creatures newly discovered deep in Indonesian waters that is as colorful as it is bizarre.  Some scientists get so excited about what animals they study, they want to imitate them.

  1. Embryo trick:  Scientists inspired by the cilia that embryos use to direct cells to their places copied the trick with “biomimetic cilia” they hope to use with lab-on-a-chip applications (see abstract at PNAS).
  2. Stickybot:  Inspired by gecko feet, scientists at Stanford designed a look-alike robot, reported Science Daily, that uses the same principle of dry adhesion by multiplication of surface contacts.  “The material is strong and reusable, and leaves behind no residue or damage,” just like a gecko foot, the article said.  They even imitated the gecko’s rotating ankles so that it can change direction.
  3. Perfect little engine:  Ever heard of a salp?  This small jelly-like creature lives in the sea and is important for carbon cycle.  Science Daily told about its “near-perfect little engine” that propels it and filters its food with a microscopic mesh.  Because “the scientists are captivated by the unique, almost magical performance of this natural undersea engine,” they think inventors could learn something.  Science Daily asked, “What if trains, planes, and automobiles all were powered simply by the air through which they move?  Moreover, what if their exhaust and byproducts helped the environment?  Well, such an energy-efficient, self-propelling mechanism already exists in nature.”
  4. Beetle bifocals:  Scientists at the University of Cincinnati were stunned to find a diving beetle with bifocal compound eyes.  Live Science reported that the eyes have two retinas, one for distance and one for close-up inspection.  Analysis of how this unique beetle sees could help bifocal manufacture.  “Bifocal glasses and contacts create two images that interfere with each other, creating an area of blur,” the article said.  “The beetle larvae solve this interference problem by having focal planes [that] are slightly shifted so they aren’t completely on top of each other.  In fact, the researchers found the shift of the focal planes improved contrast of the resulting image three-fold.”
  5. Oyster glue:  The Navy is employing “interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research” to copy oysters.  The amazing underwater adhesives that oysters use are attractive to the Navy not only because of their importance to the marine ecology, but also because of the insights they provide.  Naval researchers have been “studying marine animals’ various adhesives, uncovering fundamental properties that could yield new innovations from replacements for medical sutures to surface coatings that keep waterborne craft from picking up marine hitchhikers,” the article said.  They found that oysters have a unique adhesive for sticking to one another as they build oyster reefs.
  6. Put on your bacteria:  New Scientist posted an unusual article and video about researchers using bacteria to grow fibers for clothing.  Such biodegradable clothing will be “green” not necessarily in color, but in the sense of being biodegradable and environmentally-friendly.
  7. Code in the nose:  Inventors have been working on artificial noses for some time, with only mixed results at distinguishing the thousands of odors that natural noses are so good at detecting.  PhysOrg reported that Stanford inventors are finding that a touch of DNA helps.  The combinatorial flexibility of DNA is providing the coding repertoire for sensors to respond to many more molecules than before.  Live Science added that frog egg cells are providing a key ingredient in robotic noses as receptors.
  8. Cornea breakthrough:  Synthetic corneas are too hard to make, and cornea transplants are expensive and difficult, so why not regrow the real thing?  The BBC News reported that biosynthetic implants, using “a synthetic version of human collagen designed to mimic the cornea as closely as possible,” are providing real hope for restoring impaired vision.  Already in tests patients reported “dramatically improved” vision with the new technique.
  9. Pop goes the circuit:  Manufacturing circuits inspired by bacteria?  Why not?  Synthetic circuits is a relatively new method within the “emerging field of synthetic biology” of organizing genetically-modified bacteria to “produce a myriad of useful proteins, enzymes or chemicals in a coordinated way.”  Science Daily reported that scientists at Duke University were surprised to find bacterial cells popping, or committing suicide, when reaching a certain stage of plasmid density.  They modeled the behavior with a sample circuit they called ePop and found that it can “increase the efficiency and power of future synthetic biology circuits.”
  10. Flying with altitude:  Somehow, fruit flies know the right altitude for their flying and hovering needs.  Live Science reported that findings about how they calculate optic flow might help designers of “insect-inspired robots.”  Mike Dickinson’s team at Caltech found that flies use horizontal edges and “integrate edge information with other visual information to pick flight plans.”  This work not only helps “unveil the mysteries of insect flight and cognition, but it may have practical implications for humans, as well.”

These articles are part of an increasing flood of reports about biomimetics – the imitation of nature.  Whether biologists look high or low, large or small, at plants or at animals, they find amazing feats in the living world that amaze and inspire.  And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the designs in life are getting rave reviews.

Biomimetic designers wanted: bright, young, observant, inquisitive, logical, perceptive, entrepreneurial, honest, forward looking, optimistic, enthusiastic.  This implies that Darwinians need not apply. 

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