November 4, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

All Kingdoms of Life Have Ideas We Need

Inventors aren’t partial.  They are willing to find inspiration in plants, animals, and microbes.  Here are three examples showing that all kingdoms of life have great engineering ideas that researchers involved in biomimetics are seeking to understand.

  1. Plants:  We don’t fight walled cities with catapults any more, but storing elastic energy can still be useful.  According to Science Daily, Dr. David J. Ellerby at Wellesley College studies plants for ideas.  “While plants are generally thought of as immobile organisms, many of them are capable of spectacularly rapid movements,” he said.  One species catapults its seeds with rapidly-uncoiling valves.  “The entire coiling and launching process is completed in around 5 msec – faster than the blink of an eye,” the article said.  Why does Dr. Ellerby think it is worthwhile to study how plant tissues store such impressive amounts of energy?  “This could inform the design of human-engineered structures for absorbing or storing elastic energy,” he said.
  2. Animals:  Spiders are still the envy of modern-day spidermen who want to mimic their strong, PhysOrg reported on work going on at Arizona State – just one of many institutions eager to tap the secrets of this wonder material.  Think about the wonder of the web coming out of the spider’s spinnerets: “They’ve taken this aqueous protein solution and they’ve pulled an ultra-strong fiber that is no longer soluble in the medium it was in,” exclaimed Jeff Yarger of ASU.  “When it rains outside, webs don’t dissolve.”  His team is throwing all man’s high-tech imaging equipment at the stuff – MRI, NMR, Raman spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction – to understand it.  ASU is not only interested in the final product, but understanding how it is produced by the spider, because “Imitating the natural process will allow scientists to create products in an environmentally friendly way.”  One of the environmental hazards, though, is having to work close to black widows in addition to the friendly garden orb spinners.
  3. Cells:  Proteins and DNA include structures called coiled coils.  According to a paper by a European team published in PNAS,1 “Coiled coils are extensively and successfully used nowadays to rationally design multistranded structures for applications, including basic research, biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials science, and medicine.”  Consequently, they want to understand better how cells produce them.  Using a transcriptional factor from yeast, they announced, “We found an unexpected, general link between coiled-coil oligomerization-state specificity and trigger sequences, elements that are indispensable for coiled-coil formation.”  Multiple states can coexist in the trigger sequences and give rise to different structures, they found, “revealing a delicate balance of the resulting oligomerization state by position-dependent forces.”  The resulting ability to predict the oligomerization state “should have major implications for the rational design of coiled coils and consequently many applications using these popular oligomerization domains.”

1.  Ciani et al, “Molecular basis of coiled-coil oligomerization-state specificity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print November 2, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008502107.

Rational design: is that the same thing as intelligent design?

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