July 7, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Life Worth Imitating

The living treasure chest of biological designs opens wider each week, inspiring human engineers to improve human health and productivity.

From paramecia to swimming nanorobotsScience Daily tells how scientists at Christian-Albrechts-Universitaet zu Kiel want to make artificial cilia so they can imitate how paramecia swim in liquid.  To copy the “biological transport system” they had to manufacture molecular switches and suction cups.  If they can get it to work, there would be valuable applications:

The recent findings are particularly interesting, not only with respect to fundamental research. With artificially ciliated epithelia, a molecular nano-fabrication seems possible — machines of molecular size would build other machines by positioning chemical products specifically and precisely. Entire production plants could thus fit onto a tiny chip. Other conceivable fields of application include artificial organelles equipped with molecular cilia that are controlled by an external stimulus; or in the more distant future, they could operate autonomously within the bloodstream and carry drugs to the site of a disease.

From leaves to artificial photosynthesis:  Curious about why plants use manganese in their light-splitting reactors, scientists at RIKEN sought to understand how it works.  “Learning from nature is an important theme of this research,” PhysOrg says.  Their finding about manganese “inspired us to think about how nature engineered the normally inactive manganese mineral to become an active catalyst for water splitting.”  As a result, the engineers are trying to build “an electrochemical water splitting device that can operate at neutral pH, thus exploiting water as a resource to create new fuels.”

Amazing FactsFrom bamboo to body armor:  By imitating the “gradient structure” of biological structures as diverse as bone and bamboo, researchers at North Carolina State see a “host of applications” ahead that can be inexpensively incorporated into manufacturing processes.  “Drawing inspiration from the structure of bones and bamboo, researchers have found that by gradually changing the internal structure of metals they can make stronger, tougher materials that can be customized for a wide variety of applications – from body armor to automobile parts.

From bees to secure airplane landings:  Fearing the possibility of hackers commandeering a plane’s avionics to make it crash, aircraft engineers looked to honeybees for help.  PhysOrg reported that a new “bee-inspired landing system” being developed at the University of Queensland “will sting aircraft hackers” by relying on optic flow instead of software for the final moments of descent.  This backup strategy “is totally independent of GPS signals, which can be blocked or hacked, and is a start for aircraft to independently understand their surroundings.”

From virus motors to personalized medicine:  A stunning picture of a six-part revolving machine in an article on PhysOrg might suggest something man-made, but it’s a virus packing motor.  A “DNA-packaging biomotor” that the phi29 virus uses to stuff its DNA into a capsule is attracting the attention of scientists at the University of Kentucky who want to understand its action.  “Biomotors function similarly to mechanical motors but on a nano-scale.”  The team had been studying rotating biomotors when they found this one, a third kind, uses a “revolution without rotation” mechanism.  A researcher said, “DNA-packaging technology has tremendous potential applications in the diagnosis and treatment of viral diseases and cancers, as well as in personalized medicine and high-throughput human genome sequencing.”

From Venus flytrap to cell gripper:  Fascinated by the self-closing action of the Venus flytrap leaf without the use of muscle or nerves, Army scientists with help from Johns Hopkins University scientists have designed a tiny substance that can wrap up individual cells on contact, but still allow fluids to enter and exit around the cells. PhysOrg reports,

The grippers can be mass produced, with perhaps 100 million on a 12-inch wafer, and potentially directed to a specific part of the body to capture specific types of cells. Somewhat like the way in which a Venus flytrap captures its prey, the self-folding grippers enclose their arms around target cells, though without killing them. In experiments, the researchers demonstrated that the grippers can capture mouse fibroblast cells in vitro, as well as red blood cells.

The grippers need no energy supply, because they rely on stresses built into the material.  Another neat thing is that they are transparent, allowing energy in real time – and they’re biodegradable in the body, dissolving away after they’ve done their job.  Such nanodevices could pass through many portals in the body and retrieve hard-to-reach cells for biopsies without damaging them.

From muscle to machine:  It’s hard to know where the biology stops and the technology begins in a paper in PNAS.  Scientists primarily from the University of Illinois claim they have developed “Three-dimensionally printed biological machines powered by skeletal muscle.”  Basically, they can “print” individual cells into “soft robots” to do their bidding on cue, like moving along a surface when given an electrical jolt.

Cell-based soft robotic devices could have a transformative impact on our ability to design machines and systems that can dynamically sense and respond to a range of complex environmental signals. We demonstrate innovative advancements in biomaterials, tissue engineering, and 3D printing, as well as an integration of these technologies, to forward engineer a controllable centimeter-scale biological machine capable of locomotion on a surface in fluid. Due in part to their elastic nature and the living components that can permit a dynamic response to environmental and applied stimuli, these biological machines can have diverse applications and represent a significant advancement toward high-level functional control over soft biorobotic systems.

What could they use a “bio-bot” for?  Try these for starters: “drug screening, programmable tissue engineering, drug delivery, and biomimetic machine design.”  Live Science points out that DARPA is interested in soft bio-bots for a variety of military applications to help warriors on the ground.  The article mentions other living creatures inspiring this technology: starfish, jellyfish and octopus.

In a TV show last week about the “The Good New Days” we live in, libertarian consumer reporter John Stossel urged inventors to create things faster than the government can step in and regulate them.  We encourage biomimetics researchers to do something similar: create bio-inspired applications faster than Darwinists can step in and claim evolution takes credit (8/24/07).  If government bureaucrats become unpopular and irrelevant when the public is too busy enjoying new innovative technologies, the Darwin Party bureaucrats will also fade into the twilight in a bright new era where Design is the watchword, improving life for everyone.


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