May 9, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

What's New in Biomimetics?

It’s hard to keep up with the numerous advancements in science coming from inspiration provided by natural design.

Climbing bot: Robots inspired by geckos can now carry 100 times their own weight, New Scientist reports.

Cell pump light switch: Adjustments to a sodium pump in cell membranes is enabling a protein-based light switch, PhysOrg says, in the new field of “optogenetics”— switching with light-sensitive proteins.

Sunflower scissors: A protein found in sunflower seeds can both cut and repair molecules. PhysOrg says that using this molecular machine will help the development of new drugs.

Neural computers: Use of “memristors” (resistors with memory) is allowing computer scientists to design computers that mimic the neural networks in the brain (Nature News).

Ant-i spam: Need better spam filtering? Look to the ant, thou programmer. PhysOrg says that ants use a “distributed decision network” that is inspiring anti-spam technologies.

Ant-i traffic: Why don’t ants get into traffic jams on their trails? Science Magazine says that traffic engineers could alleviate congestion by following their example. Counter-intuitively, “the bugs hit the gas instead of the brakes as it got more crowded, upping their speed by about 25% as their density doubled.” Don’t try that on the freeway just yet until scientists work out the dents.

Synthetic nanofactories: The future is in sythetic biology, Live Science says. Ginkgo Bioworks, seeking to build nature-inspired factories at the molecular scale, “is one of a growing number of companies engineering technology with lessons from nature,” the article says. “Its founders are redesigning industrial engineering for a new generation — a manufacturing revolution powered by biology.”

Pulling water from thin air: Tomatoes and other plants with tiny hairs on their leaves are inspiring ways to collect mist from the air to alleviate global water shortages, Science Daily reports.

Fish armor: More on efforts to create armor from designs in fish scales was reported on PhysOrg. “The secret behind this material is in the combination and design of hard scales above with soft, flexible tissue below,” an engineer said of the scales on elasmoid fish that inspired the biomimicry.

Fish submarines: Speaking of fish, PhysOrg also reported that submarine designers are looking to extinct lungfish for innovations in submarine design. They call this “paleobiomimicry.” They’re investigating how sensitive hair cells on the “lateral line” of fish, used for their sonar, might help design subs that can more effectively locate things like downed aircraft MH370.

Membrane channels: Lawrence Livermore Labs has found a way to build spontaneously-assembling “biomimetic, nanoporous membrane channels” with carbon nanotubes the way cells build them with proteins (PhysOrg).

Win-win photosynthesis: Progress in artificial photosynthesis continues. Science Daily reports a major breakthrough for sunlight harvesting, using light-capturing nanowire arrays and live bacteria. If it works, it will be a win-win for humans and the environment.

Cuttlefish camo: Researchers at University of Nebraska-Lincoln are making progress imitating the “master of disguise,” the cuttlefish, which can change colors almost instantly. “This is a relatively new community of research,” said Li Tan of UNL on PhysOrg, who co-authored a recent paper outlining the team’s design. “Most of the people (in it) are inspired by the cuttlefish, whose skin changes color and texture, as well.” Changing texture is much harder than changing color, they are finding.

Insect hearing aids: “An insect-inspired microphone that can tackle the problem of locating sounds and eliminate background noise is set to revolutionise modern-day hearing aid systems,” reports Science Daily.

Sandalwood yellow: Sandalwood is known for its red pigment, but the yellow pigment is much more complex. PhysOrg reports that “biomimetic access to yellow pigment” has been found in red sandalwood. Trying to mimic the complicated production of this pigment would make for easier access to the popular color for various uses.

Cautionary tales: All this mimicking of nature is wonderfully promising, but safety must be considered. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Design at Harvard has drawn up some guidelines for proactive safety processes when working on experiments involving risks like synthetic bacteria.

Wonderful reports keep coming from the world of biomimicry: copying nature’s incredible designs! Just don’t turn loose any biomimetic rattlesnakes or mosquitos.


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