Make Like a Dog, Owl, or Beetle: How Biomimetics Will Improve Our Lives
The greatest breakthroughs in health and engineering may be as near as the back yard:
13 14 more stimulating stories from biomimetics.
Doggy human vaccination breakthrough: Medical Xpress announced another reason to pat your dog. “Common canine virus may lead to new vaccines for deadly human diseases,” the headline begins: Researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered that a virus commonly found in dogs may serve as the foundation for the next great breakthrough in human vaccine development.” Since the virus does not cause disease in humans, it can be used as a vector for vaccine delivery to places hard to the human immune system. “This approach not only ensures full exposure to the vaccine but also is much safer because it does not require the use of attenuated, or weakened, pathogens.”
Make like an owl: A beautiful shot of a great grey owl in flight, feathers outspread, graces a story on Science Daily about silent flight. Owls’ specialized plumage reduces noise, enabling them to “hunt in acoustic stealth,” the article said. That’s why “Researchers from the University of Cambridge, England, are studying the owl’s wing structure to better understand how it mitigates noise so they can apply that information to the design of conventional aircraft.” Unlucky homeowners in the flight path of airports will be glad. Surprisingly, little is known about this. “No one knows exactly how owls achieve this acoustic stealth, and the reasons for this feat are largely speculative based on comparisons of owl feathers and physiology to other not-so-quiet birds such as pigeons.” This is a good example of biomimetics motivating pure research. Airplane wings are noisy because they create turbulent eddies.
Owls, however, possess no fewer than three distinct physical attributes that are thought to contribute to their silent flight capability: a comb of stiff feathers along the leading edge of the wing; a soft downy material on top of the wing; and a flexible fringe at the trailing edge of the wing. At present it is not known whether it is a single attribute or the combination of attributes that are the root cause of the noise reduction.
Useful noise: Speaking of noise, it can actually power a machine. At the Free University of Berlin, Science Daily reported, a team has taken interest in how a cell’s molecular machines can harness the noise of thermal motion for useful work. Random fluctuations don’t have to be a nuisance if you have intelligent design. “This noise is a source of energy and its utilisation for undertaking a task is a paradigm that nature has shown to be possible in certain cases.” By designing a ratcheting device, they’ve made hydrogen molecules move a lever with a mass ten million trillion times greater than the hydrogen.
Silk body scanners: Imagine tiny mirrors made of biodegradable silk that can be implanted in your body to scan for problems. They dissolve away harmlessly, requiring no further care. That’s what Science Daily reported from Tufts University. And that’s not all these wonders can do: “Implantable Silk Optics Multi-Task in Body: Dissolvable Micro-Mirrors Enhance Imaging, Administer Heat, Deliver and Monitor Drugs.” One of the researchers explained, “The important implication here is that using a single biofriendly, resorbable device one could image a site of interest, such as a tumor, apply therapy as needed and then monitor the progress of the therapy.”
Pulling water from the air, like magic, like beetle: Visualize a water bottle that fills itself up from the air. Possible? Beetles in the Namib desert, living in a climate so arid it only gets 0.5″ of rain a year, can do this trick. PhysOrg wrote, “Biomimicry is the term given to using nature as an inspiration for sustainable technology ideas, and a young company has joined the biomimicry brigade with its prototype self filling water bottle, which mimics the Namib desert beetle.” Yeah, but it takes a long time to fill, right? Not so: “They say that, like this beetle, their bottle can pull water from the air. Their self-filling water bottle is said to be capable of storing up to three liters every hour.” That’s enough to keep a desert hiker hydrated. The company has developed a proof-of-concept prototype and hopes to bring it to market before long. And that’s not all; they’re thinking global: “enhanced dehumidification for households; potable water for military operations; water for greenhouses to support plant life; and potable water for third world nations.”
Fish leader: This is a twist on biomimetics: imitating a fish for their own good. Science Daily reported on work at Polytechnic University of New York on a robotic fish that imitates zebrafish, tail swishes and all. They’re testing this “bioinspired robot” that “eventually may steer live animal or marine groups from danger.”
Fast eye-like screen: Ever think about how quickly your eyes can adjust between bright and shadow? Wouldn’t it be nice if your phone or tablet screen could keep up? Science Daily says, “Mathematics Helps Mobiles and Tablets Match Eyes’ Ability to Switch from Sunshine to Shadow.” This seems to imply the eye knows some good mathematics. The new streaming technology may offer “enormous benefits” to apps from gaming to security. Researchers from the University of Warwick have “pushed the boundaries of High Dynamic Range (HDR) video to match our own eyes’ ability to cope with the real world’s ever rapidly changing light intensity — such as sun simply going behind clouds.”
Get her an elegant hagfish gown for Christmas: Don’t say yuck yet: “Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from a creature called the hagfish.” Believe it or not; Science Daily introduced “Hagfish Slime as a Model for Tomorrow’s Natural Fabrics.” Apparently hagfish, which can generate quarts of slime in seconds, are competing with spider silk for material of the future. “The slime consists of tens of thousands of remarkably strong threads, each 100 times thinner than a human hair,” the article said. The lady doesn’t have to know where it came from.
Birthday suit: What could be finer than skin for protection? It breathes, it cools, it adjusts to absorb or repel moisture. For those not ready to make like Adam and Eve, researchers at the University of Amherst and other institutions are developing a “second skin” fabric that could provide these benefits in clothing. PhysOrg said it will be great for military uniforms of the future. Their “nanotube-based fabric that repels chemical and biological agents” can provide both comfort and protection. Here’s what the federal funding might bring to our defense forces, and maybe to the rest of us, too:
The researchers say the fabric will be able to switch reversibly from a highly breathable state to a protective one in response to the presence of the environmental threat without the need for an external control system. In the protective state, the uniform material will block the chemical threat while maintaining a good breathability level. “The uniform will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment,” says [Francesco] Fornasiero.
The sea monster against the insect: Who would have thought sea anemones would inspire insect repellants? They give off a powerful toxin that scientists in Belgium are looking into, Science Daily said. “Are toxins friend or foe? The more we understand these toxins, they are more friend, and less foe,” a co-author said. The article explained the possible benefits, “Since these toxins disable ion channels that mediate pain and inflammation, they could also spur drug development aimed at pain, cardiac disorders, epilepsy and seizure disorders, and immunological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.”
Spider web insect repellant: Speaking of materials and insect repellants, just the sight of a spider web may be enough to scare insects away. Live Science reported on work by researchers at Miami University (in Ohio) who found that plant damage was significantly reduced in the field when spider silk was detectable by the insects, even if from spiders not natural to the area. Why invent artificial poisons, when a natural substance can do the trick?
DNA toy story: Scaled up to our size, they look like toy blocks, Rubik’s cubes, or toy space shuttles, but they’re made out of DNA. Science showed pictures of Lego-like structures that a Harvard team made out of short pieces of DNA that can be stacked at will into various shapes. Why? Sorry, kids; “The method opens a new route to complex self-assembled (3D) nanostructures that may serve as addressable templates for placing guest molecules with high precision, with possible applications in biophysics, medicine, and nanoelectronics.”
Bee-bite medicine: “Honeybees never cease to amaze us,” begins an article on PhysOrg. Now, “their bite contains a natural anesthetic.” Why re-invent what nature already produces? Because the bee’s anesthetic is non-toxic to humans and animals, “this natural substance is likely to find many applications in both human and veterinary medicine.”
It’s clear that biomimetics remains one of the hottest trends in science. Did evolution have anything to do with these advances? Nada. Most of the stories did not even use the word. Even when mentioned, evolution was not at all vital to the story, especially the Darwinian kind. Here’s a sample of the E-word from the story about DNA Legos: “DNA nanotechnology evolved from Seeman’s pioneering ideas in the 1980s about using immobile DNA junctions to create periodic DNA lattices and bioelectronic devices.” Needless to say, that’s not Darwinism; that’s intelligent design.
This just in: another beetle inspiration: Science Daily just reported that researchers at the University of Tennessee want to imitate the whirligig beetle. Why? “The propulsive efficiency of the species has been claimed in literature to be one of the highest measured for a thrust-generating apparatus within the animal kingdom,” a researcher said; “inspiration for developing energy-efficient propulsion mechanisms for swimming vehicles and robots.” The beetle’s secret was a mystery till they studied it with high-speed cameras and found that each of the beetle’s three pairs of legs performs a different function. Mingjun Zhang remarked, “I am always amazed how nature does this with the small organism.”
Zhang’s team looks to nature for inspiration in engineering. By studying the movements of the whirligig beetle, the team is applying nature’s principles to bio-inspired swimming and diving robots. He is designing the robots for the Office of Naval Research through their Young Investigator Program award which he received in 2011. The award gives him $170,000 in annual research grants for three years.
See, kids? Robots are not only cool; there’s money to be made in biomimetics.
We hope you enjoy these true examples of good science as much as we enjoy reporting them. Biomimetics is helping lead the world out of the dark ages of Darwinism, and opening up a golden age of inspiring, interesting and useful research that everyone can benefit from. Use these stories to motivate and encourage a great awakening of science as it used to be: understanding nature to benefit the world.