December 10, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Latest Animal Winners in the Inspiration Contest

Scientists want to copy animal skills.  The new science of biomimetics is on a roll (11/30/2010), looking to living things for design inspiration.  Here are a few of the latest organisms giving inventors and engineers goose bumps.

  1. Bird gloss:  Ravens have what scientists at the University of Akron in Ohio want: glossy materials.  Nevermore shall ravens be despised members of the bird order; according to PhysOrg, their feathers have thin layers that cause light interference, producing a sheen that glistens even though the surface is rough.  That could be useful to inventors needing a glossy look for materials that cannot be polished.
  2. Honeybee aerobatics:  By imitating the optical flow of honeybee eyes, researchers at the University of Queensland are inventing plane navigation systems that can perform complex maneuvers, PhysOrg reported.
  3. Fly navigation:  With help from the Air Force, Caltech scientists, similarly, are studying fly vision to learn better flight attitude control.  It would be enough to improve flight stabilization and navigation from our tiny winged neighbors; “However, with a tiny brain they are able to perform a variety of tasks such as finding food and mates despite changing light levels, wind gusts, wing damage, and so on.
  4. Bird-o-soar:  Soaring is better than flapping, reported PhysOrg.  Researchers at Hebrew University of Jerusalem are equipping birds with transmitters to learn more about their flight efficiency.  They are finding that small birds benefit from gliding as much as large birds.
  5. Bacterial biofuel:  A subset of biomimetics is employing organisms directly.  Science Daily said that scientists at Concordia University are trying to engineer Lactobacillus lactis, the organism that helps make cheese from milk, into a workhorse “to transform plant material into biofuels or other chemicals.”
  6. Bacterial sensors:  Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are recruiting bacteria to test water quality.  According to Science Daily, their “revolutionary Swimming Behavioral Spectrophotometer (SBS) … employs one-celled protozoa to detect toxins in water sources.”  The contraption, which monitors the swimming ability of the germs as indicators of water quality, could some day monitor all the drinking water in the world, with instantaneous feedback and continuous response.  The Department of Defense is very interested. 
  7. Butterfly medic:  “Butterfly-Inspired Patch May Alert Soldiers to Brain Injury” reads a headline on Live Science, describing how “A color-changing patch modeled after the iridescent wings of butterflies could give soldiers a heads-up on the severity of injuries sustained on the battlefield,” thanks to work at the University of Pennsylvania.
  8. Silk drop control:  Remember how spider webs collect dew by causing water droplets to bead up due to the nature of the proteins in the silk? (see 02/04/2010).  Nature reported that Chinese scientists are trying to imitate this trick with synthetic silks.
  9. Earthworm biohazard sensors:  Why build electronic sensors to detect hazmat (hazardous materials), when earthworms can be hired to do it?  Science Daily reported that researchers in Venezuela and Argentina are studying the “viability of using earthworms to process hazardous material containing high concentrations of heavy metal for the bioremediation of old industrial sites, landfill and other potentially hazardous areas.”  This offers an “alternative to complex and costly industrial cleanup methods, the team suggests.”
  10. Neuron computers:  Live Science reported how researchers at Boston University are bringing the world closer to silicon-free computers that use memristors, which “behave like neurons in many ways,” toward new digital brains.
  11. Bacterial computers:  Imagine being able to program bacteria to act as logic circuits for organic computers.  That’s what researchers at the University of California at San Francisco are counting on, according to Science Daily.
  12. Ant computers:  How do ants solve puzzles so well?  They can always find the shortest route to a target, even when a barrier is put in the way.  Scientists at the University of Sydney are curious, so they have built mazes to learn how the “humble ant is capable of solving difficult mathematical problems.”  The headline reads, “Next generation of algorithms inspired by problem-solving ants.”  Supercomputer programmers who humble themselves like the ant might learn how to adapt to changing conditions and barriers, both by exploratory behavior and signals left in the path, such as the pheromone molecules that help ants remember previous trials without backtracking.  One team member commented, “Even simple mass-recruiting ants have much more complex and labile problem solving skills than we ever thought.
  13. Viral batteries:  “Viruses have a bad rep–and rightly so,” began an article on PhysOrg, but researchers at the University of Maryland are “turning the tables, harnessing and exploiting the ‘self-renewing’ and ‘self-assembling’properties of viruses for a higher purpose: to build a new generation of small, powerful and highly efficient batteries and fuel cells.”
  14. Starfish medical breakthrough:  Watch a video at BBC News to learn how asthma, hay fever and arthritis may get new effective treatments, thanks to starfish.  Imitating the slimy goo on starfish surfaces could help reduce inflammation on blood vessels, researchers at King’s College London said.  “The starfish have effectively done a lot of the hard work for us.
        This is just one example of promises from sea creatures.  The article said that scientists envision an “underwater pharmacy” of useful medical products coming from organisms as diverse as sea cucumbers and seaweed.  “Some of the most widespread, widely used medicines come from nature,” said David Hughes, an ecologist from the Scottish Association for Marine Science.  “Penicillin is a mould that grows on bread, aspirin comes from willow trees, so it’s not too surprising turning to nature to find useful drugs.  But we’ve only very recently begun to look to the sea for a useful source of medicines.”  The huge diversity of life in the oceans that cover nearly 3/4 of the earth’s surface promises a vast research area for years to come.
  15. Bones and cones:  From the spiral cones of molluscs to the bones and teeth of vertebrates, biominerals form a variety of lightweight yet tough materials.  Science Daily discussed how researchers at the Ohio Supercomputer Center are studying “nature’s ability to form complex structures, such as bones, teeth and mollusk shells, from peptides.”  This could lead to breakthroughs in “bone replacement, sensing systems, efficient energy generation and treatment of diseases.

Very few of these articles mentioned evolution.  Of those that did, evolution was a side dish, not the entree.  In the raven feather article (bullet 1 above), for instance, the suggestion was made that the peculiar feather structure “may represent an evolutionarily intermediate step between matte and iridescent colors,” and in the starfish story (bullet 14), Clive Page at King’s College London injected purpose and design into a Darwinian answer by saying, “The starfish is effectively providing us with something that is giving is different leads: it has had billions of years in evolution to come up with molecules that do specific things.”

Go biomimetics!  The biomimicry revolution is making science fun again.  Reporters and scientists who are tired of Darwin, this is a way for you to get out of the kingdom of the DODOs (Darwin only, Darwin only) without jeopardizing your career.  Just study the living subject and apply it to real world problems.  Storytelling about “billions of years in evolution” is superfluous and will not be missed.
    Parents and teachers: consider inspiring your precocious students’ next science project with biomimetics.  It could be a first-prize winner and open up a young person’s mind to an exciting, productive career that could improve human life and health without harming the environment.

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