July 17, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Body Double: Your Body as a Template for Inventors

Your body contains a lot of things engineers would like to copy, and not just at the scale of C3P0-like humanoid robots.

Pore over this:  Your cell membranes have pores that let good things pass through but block the rest.  One of the most important is the ion channel, responsible for passing electrical signals in the nervous system.  The extreme selectivity of these pores, some of which can pass potassium ions but block sodium ions, is desirable to chemical engineers, but difficult to achieve in synthetic materials.  “Inspired by nature,” a press release from the University at Buffalo began, “an international research team has created synthetic pores that mimic the activity of cellular ion channels, which play a vital role in human health by severely restricting the types of materials allowed to enter cells.”  The team’s synthetic pores are pretty crude by cellular standards.  They are just stacks of nanotube rings at this stage; achieving high selectivity is a future goal.  But the lead researcher is hopeful: “The idea for this research originated from the biological world, from our hope to mimic biological structures, and we were thrilled by the results.

Home sweet homeostasis:  The body’s ability to maintain stability in a dynamic world (homeostasis) requires control and regulation at many levels.  Wouldn’t it be nice if chemists could do something like that in the lab?  A Harvard team publishing in Nature thought so:

Living organisms have unique homeostatic abilities, maintaining tight control of their local environment through interconversions of chemical and mechanical energy and self-regulating feedback loops organized hierarchically across many length scales. In contrast, most synthetic materials are incapable of continuous self-monitoring and self-regulating behaviour owing to their limited single-directional chemomechanical or mechanochemical modes. Applying the concept of homeostasis to the design of autonomous materials would have substantial impacts in areas ranging from medical implants that help stabilize bodily functions to ‘smart’ materials that regulate energy usage.  (from the abstract of Ximin He et al, “Synthetic homeostatic materials with chemo-mechano-chemical self-regulation,” Nature 487, 12 July 2012, pp. 214–218, doi:10.1038/nature11223)

The team put together a bilayer gel that was able to maintain one parameter—temperature—within a narrow range.  Crude, but it’s a start, and it gave something for the people at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering to aim for.

Shedding tears over clogged ink-jet printers:  Tired of paying for ink cartridges for that old ink-jet printer?  Part of the cost is waste.  Because the ink in the nozzle dries after last use, fresh ink has to blast through a crust of dry ink each time.  Engineers at the University of Missouri took a cue from the human eye and made a breakthrough with a new clog-free nozzle.  How did they do it?  They shed tears over the nozzle, in the form of silicone oil, that keeps the nozzle moist just like tears keep the cornea moist so that your eyelids don’t stick shut when you close your eyes.

“The nozzle cover we invented was inspired by the human eye,” said Jae Wan Kwon, associate professor in the College of Engineering. “The eye and an ink jet nozzle have a common problem: they must not be allowed to dry while, simultaneously, they must open. We used biomimicry, the imitation of nature, to solve human problems.

The engineers at Mizzou think that this simple trick inspired by the blink of an eye can save businesses thousands of dollars.  Source: PhysOrg.

Other animals inspire, too:  Biomimetics continues its roll with other fresh ideas from nature:

Froggy network:  How can wireless networks avoid stepping on each other?  Let Kermit show the way.  “Frog calls inspire a new algorithm for wireless networks,” reported PhysOrg.  Male Japanese tree frogs know a trick called “desynchronization,” i.e., not sending their calls at the same time, to avoid confusing the female.  Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia took this cue to discover an algorithm for coloring network nodes that prevents any two adjacent nodes from having the same color, while minimizing the number of colors.  “This study falls under the field of ‘swarm intelligence’, a branch of artificial intelligence that aims to design intelligent systems with multiple agents,” the article explained, showing how the idea can be extended to other situations.  “This is inspired by the collective behaviour of animal societies such as ant colonies, flocks of birds, shoals of fish and frogs, as in this case.”

Lizard rover:  With the new Mars Curiosity rover about to land in a couple of weeks (see landing video), engineers are thinking ahead to the next generation of rovers.  As we all know, it’s easy for cars to sink in sand and get stuck, and running or walking across sand takes more energy.  Lizards, though, scamper across the sand like a walk in the park.  According to Michael Slezak at New Scientist, the Georgia Tech bioengineers have bested the UC Berkeley team in the robotic sand-run competition.  They did it by imitating lizards instead of UCB’s cockroach model (note: cockroaches do not normally run on sand, but lizards do).  The Georgia Tech team studied slow-motion video of lizard footsteps and found that lizard-like legs and their speed of travel makes the sand behave more like a fluid that the lizard can push off of without sinking in.  With memories of the multimillion-dollar Spirit rover stuck in Martian sand, rover designers are undoubtedly paying attention.  Maybe some day earthbound adventurers, too, can benefit, with a new feature on their 4WD sports vehicles: retractable lizard feet.

Here is more cutting edge, Darwin-free science and engineering that is helping humanity.  Darwinian storytelling is becoming like smoking.  In decades past, almost everyone in the science lab smoked, and nobody worried about it.  Then, non-smokers meekly requested smoke-free environments.  Companies gradually began obliging by designating areas for non-smokers.  Still, the smoke drifted into the nostrils of those offended.  Simultaneously, the public was becoming more aware of scientific discoveries about the dangers of cigarette smoke.  Soon, non-smoking areas became the default, and smokers found themselves having to go outside to designated smoking areas, as smoking became prohibited in more and more public areas.  Warning labels became more prominent and cigarette taxes rose.  Today, smokers still engage in their dirty habit, but they are increasingly frowned upon in polite society, while managers look askance at smoking breaks as non-productive use of time.

Darwin storytelling is like smoke in in the biomimetics lab.  It’s still taken for granted, and everyone is used to the smell, but over time, it may be increasingly viewed as useless, even harmful.  We shouldn’t outlaw storytelling, but should issue warning labels: “Warning: this scientific explanation contains neo-Darwinism, which is hazardous to societal health”  (11/30/2005).  It would be gracious of the Darwinists to voluntarily take their filthy habit outside of the scientific journals into designated storytelling areas, provided they keep it to themselves and don’t try to influence the young.  The upcoming generations of scientists, enjoying the invigorating fresh air of bio-inspiration, need to maintain their health for the good of us all.


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