November 14, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Inspiring Life Tricks

These tricks are enough to make an inventor run to the patent office.

Animal Tricks

Desert lizard can sip water from sand through its feet and back (New Scientist): “What devilry is this? The thorny devil lizard uses its entire skin as a web of drinking straws to soak up water from soggy sand,” this article says. Someone has an idea for useful products. This lizard “might inspire technologies for gathering fresh water in deserts.”

CT scans reveal birds’ built-in air conditioners (Science Daily): Scientists using a CT scanner on bird beaks were amazed at the complexity they found. Although bio-inspiration isn’t mentioned, that sounds like the logical next step, given their excitement with the images:

Amazing Facts“We had been studying the function of the bird bill as a heat radiator, with a focus on heat loss from the external surface and adaptation to local climates, when we began to wonder about the thermoregulatory processes that occur within the bill,” says Danner. “I remember the entire team assembled for the first time, huddled around a computer and looking in amazement at the first scans. The high resolution scans revealed many structures that we as experienced ornithologists had never seen or even imagined, and we were immediately struck by the beauty of the ornately structured anterior conchae and the neatly scrolled middle conchae.”

Why Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches (National Geographic): This is a review of the specialized structures in a woodpecker’s head and body that allow it to bang its beak repeatedly into wood without hurting itself. It’s a “good evolutionary design” according to writer Liz Langley. Liz does admit the design is good enough for human intelligence to imitate: “The woodpecker’s capacity to absorb blows has even inspired a system to reduce concussions in sports such as football.”

Mussel power: Researches develop underwater glue ( “Even the strongest glues collapse when soaked,” says a reporter thinking about that wet bandage falling off. “However, with support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), one researcher has developed a nature-inspired adhesive that stays sticky when wet.” He got the secret from mussels.

Insects can teach us how to create better technologies (The Conversation): Author Predrag Slijepcevic is thinking primarily about the eusociality of ants, termites and other insects that cooperate without harming the environment. Their societies can be brutal, however, with caste systems and slave labor; he probably wouldn’t want to live like a worker ant. He may have a point, though: even Solomon said, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

Plant Tricks

Stomatal design principles in synthetic and real leaves ( An image published by the Royal Society at the top of this article leads to a discussion of “design principles” in the gas-exchange pores in leaves, called stomata. “The paper looks at stomata geometry, combining biomimetic experiments and theory, to understand the link between environmental factors, such as light, water and carbon dioxide availability, and plant productivity relative to stomatal design.”

Research on photosynthetic antenna complexes illuminates how they harvest light in plants, algae and bacteria ( Question: did Darwinism or intelligent design inspire these scientists at Washington University?

BM-AmazingFacts-cellWalk through any woods, branches swaying overhead, and you’re surrounded by billions of the world’s most efficient systems for collecting energy. Inside every leaf, blade of grass, and algal cell, clusters of proteins and tiny pigments, called photosynthetic antenna complexes, capture sunshine.

Improving our understanding of antenna complexes could help scientists develop artificial systems that mimic leaves by turning sunlight into electricity or fuel. It could also lay the foundation for making the process of photosynthesis in plants, algae, and microbes more efficient.

Toadstool footstools: Are organisms manufacturing’s future? ( Technically, fungi are not plants (depending on one’s taxonomic system), but they share some characteristics. A company called Ecovative Systems is building park benches out of fungal material. “The sturdy stools and spongy cushions made at an upstate New York factory are formed with fungus,” this article says. What are the benefits? They self-assemble into molds, they’re soft like cushions yet strong, and they’re environmentally friendly. So is biomimetics good for science? Ask Andrew Pelling of the University of Ottawa.

We’re living in a biological stone age now,” he said. “I think we shouldn’t underestimate how much complexity there is in biology and I think there are still a lot of mysteries to figure out before we have real full control to dial in anything you want to grow or make or repair,” Pelling said. “And for me, that’s the exciting part.

Cell Tricks

New technology taps power of diatoms to dramatically improve sensor performance (Science Daily): This article preaches about miracles. So to speak. “Researchers at Oregon State University have combined one of nature’s tiny miracles, the diatom, with a version of inkjet printing and optical sensing to create an exceptional sensing device that may be up to 10 million times more sensitive than some other commonly used approaches.”

Computers made of genetic material? Researchers conduct electricity using DNA-based nanowires (Science Daily): Since silicon chips are approaching their theoretical limits, why not look to the masterful organization of DNA for inspiration? “One method could be the self-organization of complex components from molecules and atoms,” this article says. “Scientists have now made an important advance: the physicists conducted a current through gold-plated nanowires, which independently assembled themselves from single DNA strands.”

Chemists create clusters of organelles by mimicking nature (Science Daily): Scientists at the University of Basel would like to invent molecular factories, so they study how cells work. The article says that cells do it by “self-organization,” but only because of software in the genetic code that directs the materials. Intelligent design is evident in their descriptions: “This strategy inspired by nature goes beyond the actual self-organization approaches, since it also allows the integration of various requirements such as the fine tuning of the distance between the compartments or different topologies ‘on demand.'”

A bioinspired iron catalyst for nitrate and perchlorate reduction (Science Magazine): As useful as nitrates and perchlorates are for agriculture, they pollute. Inspired by enzymes that can break down these substances, scientists developed an artificial catalyst that mimics the active site. Upon breaking down the pollutant, it regenerates itself and releases DHMO (dihydrogen monoxide – i.e., water).

Bioelectronics at the speed of life (Science Daily): The highly-selective channels in cell membranes inspired an advance in Europe: a “microfabricated ion pump built from organic electronic components.” Think of how fast your nerves send a message to your brain when you stub your toe. With this new device, “ions can be sent to nerve or muscle cells at the speed of the nervous system and with a precision of a single cell.” It doesn’t get much better than that. It took ten years of work to match what nature does every day.

We love to prove to readers over and over that “design thinking” is the future of science – inspired by nature’s superb technology. It stimulates research, brings understanding, and bears fruit for the good of the planet and the benefit of mankind. We’re also noticing that more articles about biomimetics seem to be dropping the compulsion to credit Darwin for life’s designs. Charlie never had any credit on his account, anyway.

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