November 21, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Invisible Subs and Other Tricks Inspired by Life

Working scientists seem less focused on evolution and more on design these days, figuring out how animals and plants do amazing things.

Camouflage (PhysOrg): “Scientists discover new camouflage mechanism fish use in open ocean.” A paper in Science analyzes how ocean fish are so skilled at evading predators. Guanine platelets in their scales appear to render them invisible, giving them omnidirectional camouflage. This is making Navy submarine designers eager to see if that can be applied to submarines. “I think it’s a great example of how human applications can take advantage of evolutionary solutions and the value of evolutionary biology,” one said, without specifying exactly what evolution has to do with it other than claiming, without proof, the BAD idea that “Fish have evolved the means to detect polarized light.”

Crystal eyes (Science): Science Magazine posted a video showing how humble chitons (oval shaped marine mollusks) use crystal eyes to detect predators. Scientists reporting in Science revealed that these relatively simple creatures are covered in thousands of eye-like light detectors made of the same “biomineralized armor” in their shells (original paper here). “The work offers a striking example of how a single material can perform two jobs—seeing and protecting—at once,” Elizabeth Pennisi says in Science, envisioning how this trick could lead to visual networks in robots. “And it may offer insight to materials scientists seeking to design their own dual-use materials.” Live Science mentions several other animals, like brittlestars, limpets and oysters, that share this secret (on brittle stars, see 8/23/01).

Blood clotting (Science Daily): to nurse in surgery room: “Hand me the snake venom.” No, it’s not a plot for a horror movie. The article explains that the dreaded cocktail of poisons in the fangs of certain South American pit vipers “quickly turns into a gel that conforms to the site of a wound, keeping it closed, and promotes clotting within seconds.” See? They’re just trying to help you. “It’s interesting that you can take something so deadly and turn it into something that has the potential to save lives,” a researcher said.

Space exploration (PhysOrg): Is this one about Space Duck or Felix the Martian Cat? Not quite, but “Bio-mimicry and space exploration” contains this praise to nature’s wisdom:

Nature is more fascinating the deeper you look into it. When we look deeply into nature, we’re peering into a laboratory that is over 3 billion years old, where solutions to problems have been implemented, tested, and revised over the course of evolution. That’s why biomimicry is so elegant: on Earth, nature has had more than 3 billion years to solve problems, the same kinds of problems we need to solve to advance in space exploration.

It’s not quite clear why evolution didn’t equip us humans with these same solutions if they are out there in nature among birds, ants, termites and other things; did we lose something along the way? Setting aside the moyboy terminology, it’s clear that (despite the Darwinese) the focus of the article is on rational design. The article describes a panoply of engineering solutions in sunflowers, extremophiles, and many other living things, and includes eight short videos showing researchers learning engineering secrets from a variety of creatures from bees to snakes.

Robot stability: Many robots—if they could talk—would cry it, “Help; I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Maybe we humans do have something to inspire biomimetics. PhysOrg reports that engineers at Carnegie Mellon are developing a “Strategy based on human reflexes [that] may keep legged robots and prosthetic legs from tripping.” Well-designed prosthetic devices using those principles could return the favor, helping amputees regain a solid footing.

Gecko foot cleaner: Wall-climbing geckos, those icons of biomimetics, are in the news again. This time, researchers publishing in Nature Communications found the secret to keeping their toe pads clean. The Chinese & American team describes a “unique self-cleaning mechanism” built into the gecko’s toe pads (spatulae) as follows: “The difference between the velocity-dependent particle-wall adhesion and the velocity-independent spatula-particle dynamic response leads to a robust self-cleaning capability, allowing geckos to efficiently dislodge dirt during their locomotion.” They imitated this mechanism with artificial materials and found similar effects. “This work should open the door to the development of novel self-cleaning adhesives, smart surfaces, microelectromechanical systems, biomedical devices, and more.

Quick Takes

  • RoboBee is getting an upgrade. Laser eyes on the bee-like micro air vehicle may help locate disaster victims. (Live Science)
  • Lobster eyes inspired a lightweight mirror that will be flown on a Chinese-French space observatory. (PhysOrg)
  • Spider web silk is helping eastern US scientists develop stickier glues that retain their adhesiveness in humid environments. (PhysOrg)
  • Wood you have known that wood is “an ideal raw material” to replace petroleum-based products with renewable alternatives? German and American scientists are exploring “xylochemistry” to derive materials for a variety of applications. (PhysOrg)
  • Mantis shrimp mastery of circular polarization (11/19/15) could lead to “applications in satellite remote sensing, biomedical imaging, cancer detection, and computer data storage” (Science Daily).
  • Epithelial cells in animal tissues are often “stretched, deformed and bashed about but they do not tear.” Here’s a great project for biomimetics: designing materials possessing the same properties. (PhysOrg)
  • Viruses are little nano-machines that deliver goods. Why can’t humans imitate their packaging and delivery principles? Chinese scientists are looking at “Virus-mimetic nanovesicles as a versatile antigen-delivery system” for good. (PNAS)

Finally, Robots can teach us about ourselves (PhysOrg). In his study of autism, biomechanist Madhusudhan Venkadesan has to build robots to understand humans to help humans.

“Building a robot is a more definitive test of a design principle than anything I can do in biology,” Venkadesan says. “If I believe this ligament or that tendon is responsible for energy efficient running, or for stability, I can’t remove the ligament in your body to test my theory. But with a robot, I can. I can do that, and I can use any insights from that to better understand you while you’re running.”

Thus biomimetics comes full circle. It recalls the famous quote by T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It may take time, but biomimetics has the potential to leave Darwinism in the dust and usher in a golden age of scientific understanding, application and prosperity. Help young people catch the vision. If you have influence as a teacher or parent, tell them about these real-life science projects that are doing great good. They’ll never look at a bumblebee, snake, or bird the same way again, and some day they may offer help to millions of people.

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  • John C says:

    The snake venom reference might be a clue pointing to a purpose for this now deadly serum prior to the fall.

    The idea that any creation (plant or animal) that would be forced to wait millions of years for effective changes to match environmental or predatory pressures would be: a) unaffected, if they were surviving without the change; or 2) dead, if survivability depended upon the million-year change; and d) lunch, if partial changes would prove deleterious, as undoubtedly they would be.

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