August 8, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Nature

Inspiration for invention comes from everywhere in nature’s engineering.  At every level, there are designs worth imitating.

BiomaterialsPhysOrg‘s headline says all you need to know: “Researcher creates bioinspired and biofunctional materials for widely diverse applications.”  It’s about Brad Olsen, a young researcher at MIT, who is creating “new materials that are derived from, or inspired by, biology.”  Read the article for three stunning examples in energy production, wound healing and toxic chemical cleanup.

Butterfly plastic:  Want colorful plastics without the toxic dyes?  Make it with structural color, the way butterflies do.  That’s the eco-friendly story from the American Chemical Society.

Monarch butterfly on flower

Butterfly probesClemson University engineers are trying to imitate another part of the butterfly: the thin proboscis that allows the insects to feed on nectar.  So far, they’ve learned that the proboscis has a dual mechanism, acting like a soda straw and a sponge.  How does the proboscis form?  How does it prevent getting gummed up?  A “huge number of applications” could come from this effort, including the ability to pluck individual genes from cells and replace them.  For close-up images of the butterfly proboscis, including views of it assembling after hatching from the chrysalis, see the documentary Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies.

Popeye power:  Want more energy from spinach than Popeye’s muscles?  Use spinach leaves to inspire artificial photosynthesis.  That’s what engineers at Purdue University are exploring.

Nanopropellers:  At the American Technion Society, engineers are making nanopropellers in the billionths-of-an-inch range.  Now where do you think they got that idea?  They don’t credit the bacterium that invented it first, but they’re proud of their work, even though it is much simpler than a bacterial flagellum.  Another press release from Springer does give credit to the living prototypes.

Cartilage:  The weave of fibers in the photo looks like a close-up of a knitted sweater, but it’s artificial cartilage funded by the National Science Foundation (see Live Science write-up).  combined with stem cells, it can form a durable, flexible framework for repair of injuries, because it “mimics the suppleness and strength of natural cartilage tissue.”

Neurons:  IBM’s new chip mimics the brain, with a million artificial neurons on a “neurosynaptic chip.”  Story on PhysOrg.  “We have taken inspiration from the cerebral cortex to design this chip,” the chief scientist said.  See Perspective article, “The brain chip” in Science Magazine, accompanying the IBM paper in Science.

Spider silk:  After a decade of biomimetics research, biologists are still trying to figure out how spiders spin their amazing silks.  Some progress was reported in PLoS Biology this month and summarized by Science Daily.  The PLoS entry begins and ends:

Amazing FactsSpider silk is wonderful stuff—light as the breeze and stretchy yet stronger than steel. People can manufacture synthetic fibers, such as Kevlar, that come close but can’t begin to match the process spiders use. Their silk proteins, called spidroins, rapidly convert from the soluble form to solid fibers at ambient temperatures and with water as the solvent. Not only is this beyond us, we don’t even know how spiders do it. Now, in this issue of PLOS Biology, new research by Anna Rising, Jan Johansson, and colleagues shows [sic] that silk formation involves structural shifts at either end of the spidroin and that these shifts are completely different, overturning the hypothesis that these protein terminals play similar roles….

This work brings us closer to unraveling the mystery of spider silk, explaining how it can form so quickly—faster than a meter per second—as well as how its formation can be confined to the spinning duct. Moreover, because the N- and C-terminal domains of spidroins are found nowhere else, this lock and trigger formation is likely unique to spider silk. Besides being essential to producing biomimetic spidroin fibers, knowing how spiders spin silk could give insights into natural ways of hindering the amyloid fibrils associated with disease [like Alzheimer’s].

Who would have thought the little Araneus spider sitting in its web in the photo was such a genius?  Now see this cartoon.

Hummingbird vs UAV:  Engineers are getting closer to making drones that can hover as efficiently as hummingbirds, PhysOrg reports, but they’re not there yet.  It’s kind of humbling in a way:

The hummingbird observations and comparison with the Black Hornet are one more instance of scientists’ keen interest in what can happen when exploring how biology and engineering can intersect. Scientists are humbled by engineering skills of animals and seek to translate those skills using technology. “There is still a ton we can learn from nature,” Lentink said….

The Black Hornet is a 16-gram helicopter used by British troops for surveillance in Afghanistan.  A short entry on Science Magazine says that the “awesome strength of a hummingbird” is partly due to wings that are 27% more efficient than the current best microcopter rotors (see documentary Flight: The Genius of Birds).  A longer entry on the BBC News brings butterflies into the picture, too.


Synthetic cells:  Bioengineers at Rice University are working on synthetic cells and proteins, trying to “advance bio-logic” in order to imitate the “programming” that cells do so naturally.

Whale in the kitchen:  It may only be a crude imitation, but a pot strainer fashioned after the blue whale’s baleen was promoted on Gizmodo.  “The Largest Mammal On Earth Makes For the Perfect Pot Strainer,” the headline reads.

Origami robot:  A self-folding robot that looks a bit like a crawling bug is shown in a video clip on Live Science.  The robot is called “self-assembling” but the second half of the video clip shows that a lot of intelligent design went into its manufacture.  The project was reported in Science Magazine; see also the Perspective article.  Question: is it biomimetics to imitate the Japanese art of origami?

Hitchhiker: This one’s a bit of a stretch for biomimetics, but there’s a robot in Canada imitating the human practice of hitchhiking.  Live Science reports that HitchBot even imitates the right-thumb-out posture, and updates its Facebook and Instagram accounts after each ride.  So far, nobody has stolen the cute robot.

Biomimetics has revolutionized biology.  It has turned the stale practice of spinning Darwinian just-so stories about everything into a gold rush of design.  Let’s keep the momentum going!


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  • John C says:

    The LiveScience video on the “origami-bot” is fascinating, not the least for which it is definitely not the simple straightforward “fold-up and walk away” thing that attaching the name of the lovely old Japanese art form would suggest.

    They show the process of the self folding robot, and it performs as promised, though I would hardly call the mad shamble a “walk” at the end. But then, oh then, they take you into the process of preparing this self-folding robot. Through speed photography, they rapidly go through the etching, acid baths, engineering and programming phases of the photography–hours, if not DAYS required, to say nothing of the INTELLIGENT DESIGN so evidently and rapidly displayed. It reminds me of what the old magician said to his audience: “Everything I do, everything you see, is a TRICK. There IS no magic involved.” This is decidedly NOT “self-folding.”

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