April 20, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Roundup

Here’s a quick rundown of news on new technologies emerging from the study of plants, animals, and cells.

Toxin spongesPhysOrg reported on “biomimetic nanospongers” made of absorbent material wrapped in red blood cell membranes that can drift in the bloodstream as “decoys” to absorb bacterial toxins and snake venom.  Instead of poking holes in live blood cells, the toxins poke them into the sponges harmlessly, which are then eliminated by the liver.

Nano-cellulose:  Promising “one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever,” a researcher has “engineered algae” to manufacture “nano-cellulose,” a “wonder material” can become the raw material for “sustainable production of biofuels and many other products.”  While producing the nanocellulose, the algae mop carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  See PhysOrg.

Nano-fabrication:  Need to form precise shapes on graphene at billionths of a meter?  Use DNA as a template, reported PhysOrg on efforts at MIT to perfect the technology.  It might be used to fashion nano-circuits such as “electronic chips made of graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon with unique electronic properties.”

From parasite to patch:  A surgical patch more effective than sutures or staples has been developed by inspiration from a parasite, reported Science Now.  “By mimicking a technique used by an intestinal parasite of fish,” namely a spiny-headed worm that embeds itself into the fish’s intestine, researchers created a “flexible patch studded with microneedles that holds skin grafts in place more strongly than surgical staples do.”  It’s 3 times stronger than surgical staples, PhysOrg said.

No hit; new use for road apples:  Believe it or not, scientists have found a useful enzyme in horse feces that might help world biofuel production.  Science Daily said that a horse pile houses a fungus that can convert cellulose to sugars, promising “a potential treasure trove of enzymes for solving this problem and reducing the cost of biofuels.”  Who woulda thunk as they heard that plunk.

Bat wing and a pinch of inspiration:  Inventor of a robotic bat wing said it all: “Bats are just really amazing, spectacular flyers,” Joseph Bahlman said for Live Science.  “Their wings are extremely dynamic, so much more dynamic than birds or insects. If you look at the wings of a bat, they’re just like our hands, they have all these joints that let their wings adapt into lots of different shapes, giving them a tremendous range of aerodynamic forces and maneuverabilities. They fly much better than anything we’ve engineered. I would love to figure out how that works and then duplicate it.

Where you bean, amigo:  Efforts to control pesky bedbugs have been largely unsuccessful, frustrating many a homeowner and hotel client.  Now, scientists are building synthetic traps “inspired by an age-old remedy formerly used in Bulgaria and Serbia where kidney-bean leaves were strewn on the floor next to beds to trap the bugs.”  That’s right; bean leaves successfully trap the critters, reported Nature, Live Science and the BBC News.  Tiny hairs impale the bugs’ feet, leaving them helpless to die.  The synthetic versions don’t work as well yet, but scientists have their inspiration for a pesticide-free solution.  “Plants exhibit extraordinary abilities to entrap insects,” a researcher said.  “Nature is a hard act to follow,” said another.

The only mention of evolution, in the bean-leaf bedbug story, was not particularly helpful to Darwinism: “There is absolutely no evolutionary history between bean plants and bedbugs, so this entrapment effect on bedbugs specifically is purely coincidental.”

These are all new biomimetics ventures, not previously reported, indicating that the field continues to grow and branch out into more and more areas.  These Darwin-free projects are bringing science back to its old design-theoretic, people-sympathetic roots.  Take Joseph Bahlman’s attitude (bat wing story) and run with it.


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