May 12, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Three More Ways to Benefit from Nature's Designs

Three completely different biological mechanisms, at different scales of size, studied by different universities: all agree nature’s designs are wonderful, but difficult to imitate.

Woodpecker shock absorber:  Scientists at Mississippi State have come closer to understanding how a woodpecker hammers its head against trees at 1,000 G “without going stupid,” an article on Science News reports.  The keratin proteins in the beak interlock in a wavy path shown in the article.  This allows the proteins to slide past each other during compressive stress, absorbing some of the shock.  “The structure of woodpeckers’ heads has already inspired designs for shock absorbers,” the article says; now, this mechanism within the beak itself will contribute to efforts to build shock-resistant materials.  “We should implement this in car bumpers,” a reader comment says.

Blood plastic:  The blood clotting cascade in the human body is an example of irreducible complexity Michael Behe pointed to in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box.    Now, the BBC News describes a “self healing plastic” that “mimics blood clotting.”  Developed at the University of Illinois, this new plastic could lead to cell phone screens or tennis racquets that could heal themselves.  “Inspired by the human blood clotting system, it contains a network of capillaries that deliver healing chemicals to damaged areas,” the article says.  This is much simpler than blood clotting, actually, where multiple ingredients are tightly regulated to rapidly to stop the flow of blood without coagulating the flow in the vessels.  Also, the artificial material is slower, and only regrows material to 67% of its original strength.  The inventors realize that their product doesn’t measure up to blood’s abilities:

However, future materials which are “truly regenerative” will require a much more flexible repair system, the scientists admit.

“When damage is unpredictable and uncontrolled, more complex and interconnected vascular networks will be necessary to provide sufficient vascular coverage and redundancy to circumvent channel blockage,” Prof White and his co-authors wrote.

Molecular wheels:  How hard can it be to turn a wheel at the molecular scale?  Very, a press release from the University of Southern Denmark says.  Researchers trying to rotate parts of their man-made molecular machines are admiring ATP synthase, the rotary engine that powers cells by producing the “energy currency,” ATP, used by most cellular processes.

“This is a classical biological molecular machine that you can use for inspiration when working with artificial molecular machines”, says Sissel Stenbæk Andersen, a postdoc at the Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark.

“We ultimately want to create an artificial machine that can rotate and run a process. It sounds very low-tech and simple, but it is not. It is indeed a huge challenge to keep track of how the machine rotates and how quickly it does so – and if we want to benefit from molecular machines in the future, we must be able to control the rotation and the speed”, says Sissel Stenbæk Andersen.

They’re learning, the press release says, but they still have a long way to go.

Need we say it?  For the sake of newcomers, it bears repeating: “These articles mentioned nothing about evolution.”  (The only exception was a completely gratuitous, useless statement at the end of the BBC article: “Here again, elegant examples that have evolved in nature can inspire solutions.”  It’s clear, though, that the scientists did not need or use anything in evolutionary theory to do their work.  That statement was tacked on at the end of the article, as if the reporter wanted to assure the NCSE that the BBC was not cozying up to the intelligent design movement.)

It’s a law of science: the closer scientists look at designs in nature, the less they bring Darwin into the discussion.  Biomimetics is the key to turning science’s attention back to design.  It’s also the key to making science serve humankind once again, as Francis Bacon and other founders of modern science envisioned.  It’s a slow process, though, to cure a Darwine addiction.


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