May 31, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Re-inventing Transportation by Watching Animals

Here are 3 ways science is advancing through the imitation of nature.

On May 28, a truck designed to act like an animal drove onto a Dutch motorway, taking part in a competition between self-driving vehicles. Here’s what the designers say about their invention (Science Daily):

Amazing FactsBiological systems are the best autonomous systems we know of. A biological system absorbs information from its surroundings via its senses and reacts directly and safely, like an antelope running within its herd, or a hawk pouncing on its prey on the ground. Before humans walked the earth, nature already had a solution, so let’s learn from that,” says Ola Benderius.

Benderius believes we are on the verge of a transport revolution, comparable to the transition from horse to motorcar. Now, after a century of motorcars, is he thinking the horse has better options? “All information that the truck compiles from sensors and cameras is converted into a format that resembles the way in which humans and animals interpret the world via their senses,” the article says. “This enables the truck to adapt to unexpected situations in its basic design.” At this rate, they’ll take all the fun out of 4-wheeling.

Battle ivy. Impressed at the powerful grip ivy shows as it climbs brick walls, researchers at Ohio State are thinking of ways to imitate it. Their project might lead to improved battle armor, medical adhesives and even cosmetics with better staying power. PhysOrg explains ivy’s mysterious secret force:

“Ivy has these very tiny hairy structures that have a wonderful interaction with the surface as the plant climbs. One day I was looking at the ivy in the backyard and I was amazed at the force,” Zhang said.

“It’s very difficult to tear down, even in a natural disaster. It’s one of the strongest adhesive forces in nature.

Top-down thinking: The folks at Arizona State’s Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics are thinking about DNA from the top down. In a PhysOrg article, they explain their goals:

In new research appearing in the advance online edition of the journal Science, Mark Bathe, along with colleagues Hao Yan from ASU and Wah Chiu from Baylor College of Medicine describe a new method for designing geometric forms built from DNA. They present a novel variant on a technique known as DNA origami, in which the base-pairing properties of DNA are exploited for the construction of tiny structures in 2 and 3 dimensions.

“An important challenge in the field of DNA nanotechnology is to design any desirable structures in a top-down manner, without much human input concerning details of DNA strand folding paths,” Yan says.

Their work holds promise for biotechnology, medicine and nanoscale robots. With software, they input the shape they want and let DNA do the rest. “The method can produce nanoforms with high fidelity and stability without the normal laborious process of manually designing base-pairs to form the intended target structure.” Their method works because of the peculiar properties of DNA.

The DNA molecule in its characteristic double stranded form is fairly stiff, compared with single-stranded DNA, which is flexible. For this reason, single stranded DNA makes for an ideal lace-like scaffold material. Further, its pairing properties are predictable and consistent, (unlike RNA, which is considered promiscuous, due to base-pairings that may be unexpected).

The project shows the power of human design, but raises the question of how the “DNA origami” in life came about. “The research paves the way for the development of designed nanoscale systems mimicking the properties of viruses, photosynthetic organisms and other sophisticated products of natural evolution.

The obligatory homage to Darwin seems to be getting more rare the more we report on biomimetics. The focus is on design. Human beings understand design as a cause. Natural designs, being usually far superior to what humans come up with point to design as their necessary and sufficient cause.


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