March 28, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Still Trending Up

The imitation of nature’s designs (biomimetics) is all the rage, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Nature published a special Outlook feature this week on Biomaterials.  The nine articles mentioned lifeforms from armadillos to oysters, showing how revolutionary applications are coming from the study of how nature solves problems. The writers focused not only on the superstars (spiders, geckos, etc.) but on lesser-known stars of biomimicry like ivy stems, sea cucumbers, squid, pine cones, pitcher plants and cacao. Single cells and tissues like bone, hydrogels and nacre also made the list. Amid the praises for these natural designs was an unholy mix of credit given to Darwinian evolution for figuring out these designs over millions of years.

But the world’s leading science journal is not the only place where biomimetics is making a splash. Here are a few recent reports, some of them about newcomers to biomimetics:

  • Poison-dart frog skin that inspired an Arizona State engineer to figure out a new way to de-ice aircraft wings (PhysOrg)
  • “Designer’s toolkit” for dynamic DNA nanomachines: Arm-waving nanorobot signals new flexibility in DNA origami (Science Daily, Science Mag)
  • 3-D printed bionic ants (“intelligent agents”) that can get the job done, the way real ants do big jobs with teamwork (New Scientist, PhysOrg)
  • Flexible-wing flapping drones that can recover from collisions like birds and bats can (BBC News and Live Science; see embedded video demonstrations)
  • Snake robots that can imitate the complex motions of sidewinders (PhysOrg)
  • Bat traffic rules (Univ of Bristol): “By employing movement strategies that nature has optimized over millions of years, engineers may be able to improve the efficiency of search and rescue missions, monitoring tasks, and surveillance operations in the emerging market of flying drones and autonomous moving vehicles.”
  • Something fishy about synthetic armor (Science Mag); “Many fish are covered in rigid scales attached to a flexible dermis layer, an arrangement that is compliant, resistant to penetration, and lightweightin other words, an efficient coat of armor. Fink et al. use this as inspiration for a synthetic protective material based on a stretchable mesh that supports a set of hard plastic tiles.”
  • Squid-inspired “invisibility stickers” that could help soldiers evade detection in the dark, even by infrared cameras (Science Daily)
  • DNA-mediated engineering of multicomponent enzyme crystals that can allow scientists to make functional nanomaterials (PNAS)

Sometimes a researcher can save a step and go right to the animal for the goods.

  • Opossum antivenomScience Daily reports that “Opossum-based antidote to venom from snake bites could save thousands of lives.” That’s right; opossums are immune from snake venom. They make a peptide that binds to the venom protein, rendering it harmless. This could lead to antivenoms that are easier to produce and have no side effects. National Geographic is a tad skeptical, but the researcher stands by it; “It was like a miracle, that this peptide really has this activity.” Mice injected with the peptide showed no signs of being sick.
  • Weed cleanser: In a similar vein, PhysOrg reports that a common weed can reduce water pollution; just plant it. Typha domingensis already grows in polluted waterways.  “This plant helps to reduce up to 98 percent of pollution by enterobacteria (usually found in the intestines of mammals) involved in the development of disease,” a Mexican researcher found. Are there other weeds we could learn to love? A
  • Egg plastic: Another PhysOrg article says that the albumin in egg whites inhibit bacterial growth so well, it could be mixed with glycerol to create “bioplastics” that are effectively sterile for medical applications, as well as being more environmentally friendly. “If you put it in a landfill, this being pure protein, it will break down,” the inventor says. “If you put it in soil for a month—at most two months—these plastics will disappear.”

Back to the biomimetics icon, the gecko. Live Science lists “6 Crazy Skills that Prove Geckos Are Amazing.” That’s five besides their famous ability to walk up glass with atomic-powered toes! They can also fall right side up, regenerate their tails, harness raindrops for cleaning, perform tail acrobatics, and adhere to surfaces even better in the rain.

In conclusion, we see that biomimetics not only promises to improve human life and health; it will improve biology overall. Its very inspiration requires focusing on the plants and animals to understand them better. That’s bound to help science education, improve textbooks, and inspire a new generation to enter biology. With all these advantages—and so many organisms to learn from—the sky’s the limit.

Another outstanding benefit of the Biomimetics Gold Rush is to watch Darwinism fall off the radar like yesteryear’s news. We won’t have to fight it any more, because it’s so– so 1859.


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