September 20, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Reverse Engineer Living Solutions

Need solutions to practical engineering problems?  Save time and effort; see how animals and plants do it.

Bee in the wind tunnel:  Harvard researches are wondering how bees fly stable in the wind and rain.  Miniature flying robots have trouble even in slight breezes.  By watching bees in a wind tunnel in slow-motion, researchers hope to use what they learn to design “bad weather robots,” the BBC News reported.

Bug treasures:  Seeing how “bug biology” is leading to better materials and reducing pollution, Science Daily reminded its readers, “those creepy crawlers we try so hard to avoid may offer substantial solutions to some of life’s problems.”  How does an artificial ligament sound?  Or a chemical-free way to protect crops from pests?  Want bigger biceps?  Then support your local biomimetics researcher.  “Although few gym rats want to admit it, whispery moth wings and bulging human biceps aren’t that different. What we learn from them can teach us more about human muscle mechanics to potentially improve physical therapy treatments and further understand diseases attacking the muscular system.”

Bacterial implants:  What a concept: implants made from biomolecules that are absorbed by the body after they do their work.  No more screws, pins, or plates, according to Science Daily; the implants are made biologically by bacteria.  Not only that, the “The production is completely independent of fossil resources, so there are no negative affects on the body.”

Bug-eye lens:  A lens combining technologies from human eyes and insect eyes has been developed at Ohio State, Science Daily reported.  It works great for those super wide-angle views.  “The results could be smartphones that rival the photo quality of digital cameras, and surgical imaging that enables doctors to see inside the human body like never before.”  They get the best of both: “combines the focusing ability of a human eye with the wide-angle view of an insect eye to capture images with depth.”

Rose tape:  Our standard adhesive tape works fine, until it gets wet.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have adhesives that stick in spite of wetness?  Take time to smell the roses, and to study them, too, like researchers at the University of Sydney, who are intrigued with how water beads up on rose petals.  The secret is in the nanostructure, Science Daily reported, and it ain’t simple: “The reasons for this are complex and largely due to the special structure of the rose petal’s surface.”  Once they figure it out, numerous applications are in view, like self-cleaning glass.

Plant cures:  Pharmaceutical companies spend so much money and time developing drugs from scratch.  Maybe they should spend that effort learning to read “nature’s library,” another article on Science Daily says.  It might lead to cures for AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s Disease.  The approach being advocated by the American Chemical Society takes heart at the discovery of a treatment for viral hepatitis found in a tree that grows in Samoa, the mamala tree.  It’s a non-evolutionary lesson for all on the design value of biomimetics:

The mamala tree did not start making prostratin millions of years ago to treat a disease that appeared in the 20th century. The same is true for other substances that occur naturally in plants and animals. But we now have the tools to read nature’s library and use the lessons learned there to design, make and study new molecules that address unmet medical needs. This “function-oriented” approach seeks to identify useful parts of molecules and then, based on this knowledge, to design new and more readily synthesized molecules that work better or work in totally new ways. This is a well-validated strategy, perhaps best exemplified by the emergence of modern aviation from knowledge of how birds fly.”

Reverse biomimetics:  Here’s a case of humans inventing a molecule to treat pain, only to find it in the roots of an African tree.  Nature told how “An African plant used in traditional medicine for pain relief contains the same active ingredient as an artificial pain killer” called tramadol that was found inside the roots of the pincushion tree.  “The researchers believe that this is the first time a widely prescribed synthetic drug has been found in a plant at clinically relevant concentrations.”  Nature had it first (see also “More Reasons to Love Plants,” 9/10/13).

Capture the light:  Photosynthesis continues to be a mainstay in biomimetics research.  If we could only capture sunlight as efficiently as plants do, it would revolutionize our energy industries.  Science Daily tells how a scientist at Okayama University in Japan has already spent 20 years of his life trying to figure out how plants do it, in order to develop “methods for producing an unlimited source of clean energy.”  He’s getting warmer but not there yet.

In the journals, too:  It’s not just the popular science outlets promoting the biomimetics parade.  Leading science journals are in it, too.  Science talked about lighter, stiffer materials that mimic cellular structures and honeycomb.  Nature showed how the recent discovery of gears in an insect (see 9/16/13) is an example of reverse biomimetics.  And PNAS discussed a new “microbial battery” that harnesses the “oxidative power” of microorganisms to get power out of sewage and other gunk.

We’re so glad that biomimetics has been a force for good for nearly a decade now.  There were earlier examples (like Velcro) but the imitation of nature really took off after the turn of the millennium.  Now there are whole university institutions devoted to it, and journals.  This is good science for everyone.  It takes the focus off of useless Darwinian tales and puts it on intelligent design.  It also provides fodder for entrepreneurs, helps the economy, and can even save lives.  By providing insight into the wonderful workings of nature with a potential for practical applications, it’s making science fun again.

 

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