February 7, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Extreme Biomimetics

Imitating spider silk or gecko feet is one thing, but some researchers are going to extremes to try to do what living organisms do.

  1. DNA railcar:  Researchers at University of Oxford have constructed a “programable [sic] molecular transport system” that travels like a railcar on DNA molecules, reported PhysOrg.  And that’s not all: they would like to build “synthetic ribosomes,” the article said.  “DNA origami techniques allow us to build nano- and meso-sized structures with great precision,” said Prof. Hiroshi Sugiyama.  “We already envision more complex track geometries of greater length and even including junctions.  Autonomous, molecular manufacturing robots are a possible outcome.”
  2. DNA iPad:  More DNA origami is at work creating smaller components for consumer and industrial electronics like iPods, iPads and similar devices, reported another article on PhysOrg.  Japanese researchers at Arizona State University, familiar with their culture’s art of origami, work with “have discovered a way to use DNA to effectively combine top-down lithography with chemical bonding involving bottom-up self-assembly.”
  3. Turbo dragonflies:  Imagine “micro wind turbines that can withstand gale-force winds.”  Such marvels are being prepared with inspiration from dragonfly wings, reported New Scientist.  Who would have thought that the energy source for powering your cell phone might some day owe its design to the dragonfly?
  4. Flagella carnival:  Nanoscopic inventions being built at Rice University look like “a carnival ride gone mad,” said Science Daily.  Researchers want to build arrays of programmable rotating machines modeled after the bacterial flagellum (07/12/2010) and ATP synthase (see CMI).  Such devices could be used for “radio filters that would let only a very finely tuned signal pass, depending on the nanorotors’ frequency.”  The computers used to model the molecular rotors are not yet capable of characterizing ATP synthase found in all living things, “but as computers get more powerful and our methods improve,” a team member said, “we may someday be able to analyze such long molecules.”
  5. Plankton armor:  Science Daily said that “The ability of some forms of plankton and bacteria to build an extra natural layer of nanoparticle-like armour has inspired chemists at the University of Warwick to devise a startlingly simple way to give drug bearing polymer vesicles (microscopic polymer based sacs of liquid) their own armoured protection.”  One goal is “stealth” armor that looks like water but can allow drugs to sneak past the immune system.  What were they looking at for inspiration?  “Organisms that particularly attracted our interest were those with a cell wall composed of an armour of colloidal objects – for instance bacteria coated with S-layer proteins, or phytoplankton, such as the coccolithophorids, which have their own CaCO3-based nano-patterned colloidal armour.”

Here’s an update on an old biomimetics story: the imitation of nacre, or mother-of-pearl (see 07/06/2004; 09/18/2008, bullet 4; 12/06/2008, 03/27/2010).  PhysOrg said that researchers at Northwestern University and McCormick School of Engineering are still trying to understand the molecular structure of this attractive material that is strong yet resistant to cracking.  They created an interlocking composite material that, while not as good as nacre, achieved “a remarkable improvement in energy dissipation.”

If these researchers succeed in getting DNA and rotating molecules to do the work of molecular machines already active in the living cell, will science finally admit that life shows evidence of intelligent design?  Notice that they cannot yet come close to doing what ATP synthase, a flagellum, mother-of-pearl, a ribosome or a dragonfly wing has been doing for millennia.  Ironic, is it not, that ATP synthase is powering their bodies and minds to imitate it.
    Intelligent design is revolutionizing science via biomimetics, promising amazing benefits for human health and society, forcing thinking along engineering concepts, challenging our best scientific minds, inspiring awe at natural capabilities, ignoring Darwin entirely.

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