October 3, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Animal Models for Technology

Animals and microbes continue to inspire technologies that could provide better health and security.

Cell switches and diagnosis:  Want to get faster results from that blood test?  Science Daily has a headline to perk your interest: “Bioengineers Design Rapid Diagnostic Tests Inspired by Nature.”  It only gets better from there:

By mimicking nature’s own sensing mechanisms, bioengineers at UC Santa Barbara and University of Rome Tor Vergata have designed inexpensive medical diagnostic tests that take only a few minutes to perform. Their findings may aid efforts to build point-of-care devices for quick medical diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), allergies, autoimmune diseases, and a number of other diseases. The new technology could dramatically impact world health, according to the research team.

All living things use “nanoswitches” to respond to the environment, the article continued.  “The key breakthrough underlying this new technology came from observing nature.”  Cell surfaces, for instance, are covered with receptors that switch on and off depending on molecules detected.  The technology is not only effective, it’s beautiful: “The beauty of these switches is that they are able to work directly in very complex environments such as whole blood.”  In a few years, we may be able to get results of diagnostic tests in mere minutes instead of days.

Enzymatic assembly lines:  “All systems go at the nanofactory,” reads another headline on Science Daily.  Researchers at LMU have created “little green men” in the form of fluorescent proteins that can help them guide delicate parts into position with nanometer precision.  “Green light on protein assembly!” the subtitle exclaims.  Assembling parts at this scale is like working in a hurricane, with all the thermal motions and molecular interference.  As the researchers attempt to imitate what cells do routinely, they are also gaining insight into how cellular machines work.  “If we can efficiently build mimics of these ‘enzymatic assembly lines’ by bringing individual proteins together, we could perhaps make a significant contribution to the exploitation of sustainable energy sources.

Go to the ant, lesson #17:  Ants make good teachers, an article on PhysOrg implies.  They avoid “information overload” by sharing information in efficient ways.  Complicated decisions, like comparing nest sites, are resolved by the entire colony rather than by lone geniuses.  “Living in a group is costly in many ways, so ants must get some benefit from doing it,” said Stephen Pratt at Arizona State University.  “By sharing the burden of decision-making, colonies avoid the mistakes that a solitary animal makes when taking on too much information.  What’s great about these ants is that we can see exactly how they do this, by making sure that no ant has to process more information than it is able to.”  If you’re reeling from too much multi-tasking, tell your boss you want to go to ant class.  “Pratt added that this is one problem ants can solve, but that there are other problems ants face that we might be able to learn from.

Robo-tuna:  Tuna is not just for eating in sandwiches, but for improving security.  Live Science said, “Speedy tuna capable of swimming tirelessly in the Earth’s oceans have inspired the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fund a lookalike robot for underwater patrols.”  The shape of the tuna’s body, combined with its strong muscles and short turning radius, make it an ideal model for maneuverability and efficiency.  Astrobiology Magazine said of humble tuna fish, “they’re one of the fastest and most maneuverable creatures on the planet, having extraordinary abilities at both high and low speeds due to their streamlined bodies and a finely tuned muscular/sensory/control system.”  A developer of the battery-powered surveillance device called BIOSwimmer said, “We’re using nature as a basis for design and engineering a system that works exceedingly well.

What’s a biomimetics article doing on the evolution-saturated NASA Astrobiology site?  They had to get their Darwin hooks into the story somehow.  “These technologies could also have applications in exploring some of Earth’s most extreme environments, helping astrobiologists understand the limits of life on Earth,” the article ended.  “In the future, biomimetic robotic technology could also have many uses in exploration beyond our own planet.”  Pathetic.  Exploration requires intelligent design.  Evolution is of no use to your story; drop the quaint Victorian myth, chuck Chuck, and get with the I.D. program that is driving the Biomimetics Revolution.


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