October 24, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Inspiring Designs in Life

When scientists look closely at living designs, they think, Wow! That’s cool! I wonder if we could copy that?

Frog computing (PhysOrg): Can computer programmers learn something from slimy green amphibians? Yes! This article says that their trick of “lyrical desynchronization” is informing algorithms for Twitter and Facebook.

Back to the future with nature’s own construction materials? (PhysOrg): The arrival of October 21, 2015 made this a big week for Back to the Future fans: the date in Episode II when Doc rocketed Marty and Jennifer into 10/21/15 from the year 1985 in his DeLorean time machine. European researchers used the movie reference to discuss their high-tech bio-based building materials that conjure up nostalgic times. People have used clays for construction for thousands of years. The new bio-based clays from German startup Claytec, though, will be better engineered: environmentally friendly, economically feasible and equipped for good insulation. Will they be used for flying cars and hoverboards? Time will tell.

A skin-inspired organic digital mechanoreceptor (Science): The smart guys at Stanford are after your skin. Did you know your skin does analog-to-digital conversion when you reach out and touch someone? That’s what they say:

BM-AmazingFacts-cellHuman skin relies on cutaneous receptors that output digital signals for tactile sensing in which the intensity of stimulation is converted to a series of voltage pulses. We present a power-efficient skin-inspired mechanoreceptor with a flexible organic transistor circuit that transduces pressure into digital frequency signals directly. The output frequency ranges between 0 and 200 hertz, with a sublinear response to increasing force stimuli that mimics slow-adapting skin mechanoreceptors. The output of the sensors was further used to stimulate optogenetically engineered mouse somatosensory neurons of mouse cortex in vitro, achieving stimulated pulses in accordance with pressure levels. This work represents a step toward the design and use of large-area organic electronic skins with neural-integrated touch feedback for replacement limbs.

Silk attraction (PhysOrg): This article tells about scientists who are still trying to figure out the marvels of silk. When humans process it, they basically kill it, making it less resilient. Silkworm silk is hard enough to mimic, but spider silk is much more complex. It would be the perfect stuff for medical implants if they succeed.

Sealing a prey’s fate (Science Daily): A cute photo of a harbor seal in this article tempts you to read about what these animals have to offer engineers. The answer: whiskers—and not just big hairs sticking out, but whiskers that do the slalom when they whisk. “Artificial whisker reveals source of harbor seal’s uncanny prey-sensing ability,” the headline reads; “Study finds a whisker’s ‘slaloming’ motion helps seals track and chase prey.” Watch them next time you see them; those whiskers aren’t just for looks. They’re “amazingly fine tuned” sensors that function as antennae. Performance factoid: “Even when blindfolded, trained seals are able to chase the precise path of an object that swam by 30 seconds earlier.

Smart grid (PhysOrg): Have you noticed the difference between recognizing a familiar place and having a sense of direction? That’s because you have specialized neurons for each: place cells for the former, grid cells for the latter. Your body comes equipped with a superb navigation system that robot designers at A*STAR are trying to imitate.

Amazing FactsLong jump record (PhysOrg): Check out the graphic in this article. A good long jumper can jump about 6.4 feet. If a cricket were human sized, it could leap across a football field lengthwise! “When it’s time to design new robots, sometimes the best inspiration can come from Mother Nature,” the article says. “Take, for example, her creepy, but incredibly athletic spider crickets.” These wingless crickets can leap 75 to 80 times their body lengths and land right side up. Watch them leap in slow-mo like ballet dancers to the Blue Danube Waltz in a video clip that has students at Johns Hopkins mesmerized. “They really are masters of aerodynamics,” JHU professor Rajat Mittal remarks. “I want to understand the engineering aspects of these creatures, and how they’re able to do what they do,” he explains, marveling at “the beauty and the intricacy in the way they move.” He and his students hope to build tiny robots that can leap over uneven surfaces, for instance to find survivors in earthquake debris. This is a very good illustration of biomimetics: taking a lowly creature, becoming inspired by it, studying it, and applying it.

High-performance mussel-inspired adhesives of reduced complexity (Nature Communications): This paper tells about researchers at UC Santa Barbara flexing mussels to learn about wet adhesives. When you can’t copy nature directly, simplify: “This study significantly simplifies bio-inspired themes for wet adhesion by combining catechol with hydrophobic and electrostatic functional groups in a small molecule.” They found a way to simplify the process nature uses by identifying “zwitterionic surfactants” that adhere to a variety of surfaces when wet. Zwitterions have both positive and negative charges.

Puffin stuff (Science Daily): In 1939, a Russian engineer dreamed of creating a vehicle that could both fly and swim. Why didn’t he just look at puffins, seabirds that do this every day? Harvard engineers are doing that at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “The birds with flamboyant beaks are one of nature’s most adept hybrid vehicles, employing similar flapping motions to propel themselves through air as through water.” Their first attempt to mimic this is the Harvard Robobee, a tiny insect-like device that can transition from air to water. First attempts were disappointing; the robots sank to the bottom. It’s a start, though, and success will enable ramping up the scale to bird-size models.

Bioinspired robots, such as the RoboBee, are invaluable tools for a host of interesting experiments — in this case on the fluid mechanics of flapping foils in different fluids,” said Wood. “This is all enabled by the ability to construct complex devices that faithfully recreate some of the features of organisms of interest.

Mother-of-pearl’s genesis identified in mineral’s transformation (PhysOrg): Nacre is back in the news. “How nature makes its biominerals—things like teeth, bone and seashells—is a playbook scientists have long been trying to read,” this article begins. Humans have used nacre from oysters for years, but scientists at the U of Wisconsin want to know how the shell makes it. “Amazing chemistry happens at the surface of forming nacre,” a professor says. Calcium carbonate is common, but with mother-of-pearl, “It is how the atoms are arranged that matters.”

Snake’s belly slides on fatty film (BBC News): Many of us cringe at these slithering beasts, but we should take the attitude of Oregon State researchers who are intrigued by that smooth, gliding motion. Studying non-venomous California kingsnakes, they learned a secret: snake scales are slippier on the belly than on the back. Apparently this lubricates the snake, reducing wear and tear and also making it easy to move. Looking at the scales with an electron microscope, they noticed a well-ordered array of lipids. “It’s extremely, extremely well ordered,” chemical engineer Joe Baio says. “It’s not just some grease they picked up; it’s there for a reason.” That’s the spirit! Expect a reason, and you will find. Usually inspiration follows. “You could make very slippery surfaces by mimicking what’s going on in these scales,” Baio said.

Material inspired by nature could turn water into fuel (PhysOrg): If we can’t turn water into wine, how could we turn it into fuel? This surprising headline begins a story about scientists at the University of Reading who are fascinated by how plants use the sun’s energy. We can’t do that yet. “Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen is an energy-intensive process, which currently requires much more energy in from electricity than comes out in usable fuel.” The fuel they seek is not oil, but hydrogen for fuel cells—a “clean, storable and transferrable source of energy.” Now, if they can just find the right catalyst and mass-produce it. Porphyrins look promising. “Our research is inspired by nature, as porphyrin is related to chlorophylls, the green pigments which allow plants to convert sunlight into chemical energy.”

Clathrin as a biotech substrate: Immobilization and functionalization (PhysOrg): Clathrin? What’s that? You have lots of it. It’s a triskelion-shaped protein in your cells that wraps vesicles in geodesic domes for transporting cargo inside the cytoplasm. English and German researchers are considering using it for immobilizing nanomaterials to surfaces. “Furthermore, the clathrin lattice can be stored and re-activated without losing its functionality, making it a practical substrate for molecular devices.”

So there you have it: another baker’s dozen of news stories that illustrate the promise of biomimetics. (But wait! There’s more! “Researchers design ‘biological flashlight’ using light-producing ability of shrimp” that might image cancer cells, reports Science Daily). Need a solution to a problem? It’s probably in something alive that might be right under your nose. Now try to catch that spider cricket in real time.

Bob Enyart has a good line in his Real Science Radio broadcasts: “This program is brought to you by God, maker of heaven and earth and other fine products.” In all rights, these scientific papers should include Genesis 1 as their first reference.

These stories are encouraging. They are positive. They are practical. They make science fun again. Without any Darwinian baggage, they make design central to the search for understanding about the world. “It’s there for a reason!” — what a great attitude for approaching mysteries in nature.

If you only have time for one of these, watch the video clip in the spider cricket story on PhysOrg. It’s fun to watch, and the professor and students make good statements about the value of imitating nature’s designs. They’re inspired by it. They think it’s beautiful. And what they are doing with what they learn could save people’s lives some day. That’s the design revolution.




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  • John C says:

    “Kind of beautiful in a really weird way.” Thus closes the PhysOrg video. What a lesson for all of us. God’s wonders are all around us. This video slows the crickets down, and it’s great. One could wish more people would slow themSELVES down and see the beauty and wonder in God’s marvelous designs.

  • St-Wolfen says:

    The water splitting article is interesting. It produces HHO, and many people are doing it already, using Faraday Electrolysis. However, the auto and fuel industries have been fighting against this for decades….

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