Animal Olympians Inspire Engineers
Here are more stories about animals, plants and cells attracting scientists with their astonishing capabilities, proving that biomimetics is one of the hottest trends in science.
Nutcracker sweet: The mantis shrimp won another gold medal after triumphing in the circularly-polarized eye competition. PhysOrg, New Scientist and Live Science all gave it thumbs up for its club-like hammer claw, found to be the “strongest club in the world” able to deliver a force 1,000 times its own weight without breaking. Not only that, the clubs accelerate to 10,000 g’s, have the fastest moving parts in the animal kingdom (23 m/sec), and are so durable they deliver a thousand blows before the next molt replaces them.
Unsurprisingly, manufacturers of body armor are raising eyebrows with visions of joining the club. Mantis shrimp use their weapons to break open molluscs and crabs. They have been known to break aquarium glass with their little karate choppers. The clubs survive breakage through construction with hard, then medium, then soft layers that distribute the force and inhibit cracks from forming. The original paper in Science (8 June 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6086 pp. 1275-1280, DOI: 10.1126/science.1218764 ) calls the claw “A Formidable Damage-Tolerant Biological Hammer.”
Al G. Lightner, NRG: Algae and bacteria accomplish a feat green engineers drool over: the ability to harvest light efficiently for energy. Artificial fuel cells need their secrets to make green energy competitive with fossil fuels (which, by the way, are by-products of plants that used photosynthesis to make the complex hydrocarbons). PhysOrg reported on new attempts at Lawrence Livermore Labs to use X-ray diffraction to probe the secrets of Photosystem II, the plant antenna where the magic happens and water is decomposed into hydrogen, oxygen and electrons. The article paid customary lip service to Mother Nature and long ages without explaining how the complex process arose:
For more than two billion years, nature has employed photosynthesis to oxidize water into molecular oxygen. Photosystem II, the only known biological system that can harness visible light for the photooxidation of water, produces most of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere through a five-step catalytic cycle (S0-to-S4 oxidation states). Light-harvesting proteins in the complex capture solar photons that energize the manganese-calcium cluster and drive a series of oxidations and proton transfers that in the final S4 state forms the bond between oxygen atoms that yields molecular oxygen.
Overall, though, the article was about how human designers, using cutting-edge tools to probe the “photosystem II complex” for secrets, have been unable to duplicate what single cells accomplish. “Doing this study was a monumental achievement that required a large team to make it happen,” one noted. Why so much effort? “We hope to learn from nature’s design principles and apply that knowledge to the design and development of artificial photosynthetic systems.”
DNA Disk: Hey, DNA is already “the molecule that already stores the genetic blueprints of all living things,” PhysOrg says. Why not use it for a hard drive? Drew Endy, a pioneer in synthetic biology at Stanford, was interviewed in the article to explain how he intends to “turn the basic building blocks of nature into tools for designing living machines.” He’s thinking ahead to applications for waste treatment, medicine, manufacturing and others he can’t even imagine. As for his DNA hard drive, he didn’t say how the USB interface might work, but he did share his feelings a bit: “What we’re likely to end up with will not look like classical electronics. Biology is beginning to teach us how to be a little bit more sophisticated in our engineering designs, which is a lot of fun.”
“Biomimetic” is a trendy word more frequently encountered in scientific papers every year, as in this paper’s title, “Biomimetic emulsions reveal the effect of mechanical forces on cell–cell adhesion” (PNAS, June 1, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201499109 PNAS June 1, 2012). The team in that paper not only studied cells for ideas about adhesion, but used a “biomimetic approach” to doing their science. The emphasis in these sciences is on (1) understanding and (2) application for the benefit of mankind.
Was Darwinism ever “a lot of fun”? If it was, it was the fun of entertainment: telling tall tales around the cave campfire, not getting at the truth to produce understanding, for the purpose of designing tangible benefits for the world. All for biomimetics over Darwinism please signify by imitating the mantis-shrimp karate chop on useless speculation.