Weekend Biomimetics Parade
Here’s a quick list of exciting news about how imitation of nature’s designs is leading to wonderful inventions.
Spider microscope: Scientists at Bangor University have found that laying a strand of spider silk across the subject creates a “superlens” that overcomes the limitations of optics (Science Daily).
Spider hammock: Watch a video of a “spiderbot” weaving a threaded hammock strong enough to hold a person! Live Science shows the work of artist/architect Maria Yablonina from Stuttgart University, who created this technology inspired by nature.
Mantis shrimp camera: The way a mantis shrimp rotates its eyes in a linearly polarized field is giving ideas to optical engineers. It opens up new avenues for “dynamic polarization” in man-made devices and navigation systems, says a team of seven scientists publishing in Nature Communications. Torsional movement of the stalked eyes apparently allows the stomatopod to “find the optimal polarization signal more quickly and unambiguously than a simple two-channel system.” And there’s still more to learn about these amazing creatures:
In summary, the dynamic polarization vision system of mantis shrimps is yet another example of an exquisite and unique adaptation to visual perception in these crustaceans and such findings could prove useful for developing bio-inspired technology in the field of polarization cameras and image processing. However, there are still a number of questions about this remarkable polarization vision system that remain to be investigated, such as how do these animals determine which set of receptors (dorsal or ventral) to align with the stimulus?; how is the information processed downstream within the optic neuropil and beyond?; and how, if at all, is information combined from the two eyes?
Daughter of pearl: What would you call the offspring of research into mother-of-pearl? Science Daily calls it “synthetic nacre” but daughter-of-pearl seems apt. The crack-resistant material inside oyster shells has long been a favorite for bioneers. “Its substantial strength and toughness make it an appealing material to synthesize, for various applications, yet its multifaceted and complex structure have made this process difficult.” It still takes months to make, but scientists are getting warmer. The oyster knows how to do it, by layering protein with aragonite in complex ways. “The authors anticipate that this artificial mineralization method could be extended to produce other bio-inspired materials with unique or desirable properties.”
Squid sensors: Jellyfish and squid are inspiring innovation at the University of Connecticut. PhysOrg describes “Novel smart materials inspired by sea creatures,” such as “mechanical responsive devices” that imitate how these marine animals “can very smartly and actively alter their skin’s structure and color.” Videos in the article show how their test material can change color and structure when squeezed. Such materials could be used in everything from toys to encryption technologies.
Neuron computers: “Inspired by the way the biological brain functions, scientists have theorized for decades that it should be possible to imitate the versatile computational capabilities of large populations of neurons,” Science Daily says. IBM has taken a lead with this inspiration. “IBM scientists have created randomly spiking neurons using phase-change materials to store and process data,” the article says. “This demonstration marks a significant step forward in the development of energy-efficient, ultra-dense integrated neuromorphic technologies for applications in cognitive computing.”
DNA hard drive: Would a DNA storage device be called a soft drive? PhysOrg reports that scientists at Microsoft are pursuing a “sci-fi” project to make DNA a storage medium. The advantage? Lifetime durability. “Scientists can recover and read DNA sequences from fossils of Neanderthals and even older life forms,” the article points out. And unlike earlier technologies that have already disappeared (e.g., paper tape, punched cards), people will always be making DNA readers since that’s our biological storage medium. Another advantage is density: “In terms of information storage, that compactness could mean storing all the publicly accessible data on the internet in a space the size of a shoebox,” a project designer says.
Internal storage: Speaking of DNA storage, why not store your medical history in your own DNA? Engineers at MIT are thinking about programming human cells to store complex histories in their genetic material. PhysOrg says that the method may also allow DNA to record inputs on conditions that could be later retrieved by DNA readers.
Graphene DNA dancer: “Nanoribbons in solutions mimic nature,” Science Daily announces. “Scientists test graphene ribbons’ abilities to integrate with biological systems.” Both the synthetic material and the biological material can do the twist, making them good partners. “The researchers saw nanoribbons’ biocompatibility as potentially useful for sensors that could travel through the body and report on what they find,” the article says.
Fern oil spill cleaner: Some aquatic ferns have the “impressive” ability to absorb oil from contaminated water. This makes them attractive as “extremely convenient” cleaners for oil spills, PhysOrg says. The ability to selectively absorb and retain oil droplets comes from the shape of tiny hairs on their leaves, called trichomes. German scientists imitated the structures, creating “nanofur” that shares the same properties. Here’s a good use for plants that have long been considered a nuisance by many countries. The work is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.
Caterpillar robot: Soft robots are all the rage now, instead of metallic tin-man cans from old sci-fi movies. Science Daily describes a “natural scale caterpillar soft robot” designed at the University of Warsaw that is “powered and controlled with light.” In a sense, that’s what powers living caterpillars who eat the nutrients made with sunlight by plant leaves. “For decades scientists and engineers have been trying to build robots mimicking different modes of locomotion found in nature.”
Sharktooth dentistry: Finally, Medical Xpress writes about “How sharks could help us regrow our own human teeth.” Unlike our permanent teeth that come in just once after the baby teeth fall out, shark teeth regenerate throughout life. The teeth come in on rows like a conveyor belt. Gareth Fraser is studying sharks to learn how they do it. If his team learns the trick, we might be able to use our own stem cells to grow replacement pearly whites ourselves.
Some of the research teams have been studying their animals or plants for 20 years or more. What does that tell you about the level of design in living creatures? If the best minds take decades to learn the secrets of life’s solutions to problems, you know it’s not just the work of Darwin’s blind watchmaker tinkering around by chance.
For a good explanation of why mechanisms that solve problems give undeniable evidence for intelligent origin, read Douglas Axe’s new book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. The author, a biochemist who worked at the Molecular Biology Laboratory at Cambridge, wrote for laypeople who know intuitively that life is designed, but don’t know how to answer Darwinian claims that design is an illusion. Axe provides sufficient logical, mathematical and scientific evidence to confirm that the “universal design intuition” is correct. It’s a good read, just challenging enough to stretch your thinking a bit, but not requiring advanced math or science to follow. After proving that natural selection is not an inventor, he proves mathematically that any functional device (a “busy whole”) that accomplishes a purposeful task, whether it’s a pool-cleaning robot or a spider building its web, cannot be invented by any blind process. It is not just hopelessly improbable, he shows: it’s physically impossible.