Big Science Loves ID – Sometimes
Despite institutional rejection of intelligent design, researchers are attracted to ID when it can make money, make them famous, or advance understanding of nature.
To be inspired to imitate nature’s designs, don’t you have to presuppose that nature’s designs are good? If you have to use your best intelligence to mimic what nature has done, how can you believe nature arrived at the solution without intelligence? The gold rush going on in biomimetics leaves secular scientists who hate creationism and ID in this awkward position. Let’s see how it’s turning out in the latest flood of news.
Breakthrough! Spinning spider silk is now possible! – sort of (Swedish Laboratory of Sciences). Replicating spider silk, one of the strongest flexible materials known, has been a long dream for biomimetics engineers. The real stuff is stronger than steel but biodegradable. It’s also hard to make, and you can’t harvest it from spiders, which tend to be aggressive and territorial, even if you could extract a little from their tiny organs. Various artificial methods tried have fallen short of the spider’s gold standard. Well, why didn’t they think of this before? – imitate the spider’s spinnerets! A new “biomimetic spinning apparatus” made at the lab imitates many of the complex molecular mechanisms taking place in the spider’s spinning organs (see also Live Science‘s coverage). “Today they report that they can produce kilometer long threads that for the first time resemble real spider silk,” researchers at the lab say. Nature Research Highlights qualifies the boast a little: “The artificial silk (pictured) had some physical properties that were similar to those of natural silk, but was less tough.” Expect to hear more about this breakthrough, though, and watch for exciting applications to come. Take a look at Live Science’s photo gallery of the new silk, then read about the work at University of Nottingham for the background story. The article tells how a chance meeting between a spider expert and a chemist led to the ‘Aha’ moment: “We could make that!”
Improve smartphone cameras with insect vision (Phys.org). Visitors at CES this month were no doubt impressed with an industrial camera only 2mm thick. “Similar to the eyes of insects, its lens is partitioned into 135 tiny facets.” Researchers at Fraunhofer arrived at this by “following nature’s model,” the article says. Current models only have 4 megapixel resolution, but that will improve, as smartphone manufacturers are eager to get rid of “camera bulge” that keeps the phones thicker than desired. They expect a 3.5 mm version of their “facetVISION camera” will deliver 10 megapixels. The lenses built on the “insect eye principle” are easy to manufacture, the inventors say, even without having to lay eggs that undergo metamorphosis. Imagine the money that this bio-inspired invention could make.
Clean up oil spills in the lotus position (Nature Communications). Nature is one of the most anti-ID journals out there, but it published this paper by German scientists who came up with “adaptable bioinspired special wetting surface for multifunctional oil/water separation.” The ability to separate oil from water has many applications in industry, perhaps none as important to environmentalists as cleaning up oil spills. So where did they get the inspiration for developing a new “nanofur” with the ability to do this, that is both biodegradable and reusable? Not from mammals, but from lotus leaves. “Taking inspiration from the multifunctionality of plant surfaces into the global problem of oil/water separation,” they created an artificial model that imitates the super-hydrophobic lotus leaf, which works with a “fur” principle: “The surface wettability of the plant leaves is enhanced by a variety of nano- and microstructures such as hairs, waxes or cuticular folds.” A related article on superhydrophobic surfaces inspired by lotus leaves appears in Nature.
Need a damage-resistant drone? Bee careful how you make it (New Scientist). It would be interesting to know how many people who got drones for Christmas are shedding tears right now after their thousand-dollar toy crashed or flew off and never came back. “This is how you do it,” NS shows under a picture of a bumblebee. Insects can stay aloft even with a broken leg, and fly through winds without crashing. To achieve the success of insects, drones of the future may have to take the flapping-wing route instead of the rotary-quadcopter design. Bumblebees are the tankers of the insect world. They fly superbly even in turbulent air. With the right software, robotic drones might some day keep their owners’ eyes drier. And there’s more bio-inspiration at work, the article points out:
“Understanding how insects solve this problem will be very useful for drone design,” says Crall.
Meanwhile, other researchers have examined how stick insects right themselves in the air after a fall, how owls fly silently and how pigeons navigate turbulence to pick up some aerodynamic tricks for flying robots.
Make like a bird and perch (University of Bristol). Your science project is to design a drone that can land on a twig. Good luck. Well, the geniuses at Bristol won that prize. But it’s more than just a stunt. “The revolutionary development of a fixed wing aircraft that can land in a small or confined space has the potential to significantly impact intelligence-gathering and the delivery of aid in a humanitarian disaster.” Suddenly what sparrows do every day transforms into a matter of global defense and disaster response, thanks to biomimetics.
Silk strategies: top down or bottom up? PNAS discusses how best to try to make artificial silk. Silkworms make it look so easy. “Above all, the attractiveness of silk materials is based on their natural source, superior mechanical properties, ease of processing in water at conditions of ambient temperature and pressure, their compatibility with a wide range of additives for added material functionality, and their ability to be molded into a variety of forms using either a top-down or bottom-up approach.”
The secret is inside your ears. Who would have thought that ear wax could inspire engineers? Reporters at ECN News say that the greasy substance actually has “innovative potential as a high-tech filter for use in robotics and other fields.” A researcher from Georgia Tech caught the inspiration when noticing that earwax is a great substance for holding back water in a channel, like the ear canal. Wanting to know how it works led to research on wax from a variety of animals, and led to discoveries that the wax could be used to filter air as well as water. It might even be put to use on a future Mars rover. (This link was sent in by a CEH reader.)
Clingfish-ing along to bio-inspired suction cups (The Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology). Would you like to have a suction cup that clings to wet surfaces, so your soap dish wouldn’t keep falling in the shower? Scientists at the University of Alaska found an animal, the clingfish, that has a suction cup that holds tightly to its shelly prey, even in strong waves 150 times the fish’s body weight. The clingfish’s secret consists of tiny projections on the inside of the suction organ that are arranged in a hierarchical manner. We can’t expect to replicate this feat in all its complexity. “Biomimicry is not about creating a one-to-one replica of the original inspiration,” a researcher says. “Instead, it requires understanding of the underlying mechanisms so that the technology can be employed in a simplified yet useful manner.” No mention of evolution in this article, understandably.
Learning the trunk trick (New Scientist). An elephant can carry a heavy log a meter across with its flexible trunk, but it can also handle small, delicate objects. That’s got to inspire someone – and it has. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology studied the physics involved and want to imitate the elephant trunk for robotic arms. “If we know how an elephant manipulates its trunk to handle such a huge range of objects, we may be inspired to develop a universal robotic gripper,” the team lead says. But he realizes it won’t be easy, “because existing artificial muscle technology would struggle to match the complexity of the muscular manoeuvres within the trunk.” The idea is worth it. Imagine “soft but highly versatile robotic gripping devices for use in industry and perhaps for delicate rescue operations.”
Stick to the corn oil (Phys.org). Researchers at Kansas State have developed a cheap biodegradable adhesive made from corn oil, soybean oil and other plant oils. The adhesive, which they envision using for painter’s tape (a big waste product) “outperforms previous bio-based adhesives because it adheres to a surface for a longer period of time, has a longer shelf life and is more water-resistant.”
What good is a pine cone? (PLoS One). Pine cones inspired Korea to develop a “Biologically-Inspired Symmetric Bidirectional Switch.” Learn how in this open-access paper that says, “In this study, we designed a temperature-sensitive hydrogel with symmetric structure with inspiration from pine cone scales.” Amazing as it seems, scientists at the Albert Ludwig University of Frieburg just found out that even fossil pine cones retain their touch! They looked at fossil cones they say are over 16 million years old that could still flex when wet. “The cones analyzed in the study therefore represent the oldest known plant structures that are still capable of movement and can also serve as a model for bioinspired technical applications with low maintenance requirements” (i.e., no batteries to replace).
Nano, nano: envisioning transportation at a very small scale (American Institute of Physics). The smart guys at AIP figured out that “A new design for a fully biocompatible motility engine transports colloidal particles faster than diffusion with active filaments.” Their inspiration? The cilia and flagella that Michael Behe famously wrote about in Darwin’s Black Box that he called “irreducibly complex molecular machines.” With targeted drug delivery a big topic in cancer treatments, this project can’t hurry up too much.
Let your robot do the caterpillar dance (Live Science). “A soft, caterpillar-like robot might one day climb trees to monitor the environment,” this article says. A team at the University of Tokyo thought soft robots are cool. Then they got worried. “Modeling and predicting such activity currently requires vast amounts of computation because of the many and unpredictable ways in which such robots can move, the researchers said.” They watched caterpillars and wondered, how do the caterpillars manifest such exquisite control with a small number of neurons? That’s when the light bulb went on. The control must be decentralized, they reasoned. Accordingly, “The scientists developed a caterpillar-like soft robot that was inspired by their animal model.” See the Royal Society’s Open Science journal for their write-up.
Follow the cell into the reaction core (Phys.org). “Inspired by the cell,” Europeans are finding ways to concentrate complex drug factories into a single small reactor. Why do they want to do this? The potential benefits are manifold, they say, but they will have to overcome a number of hurdles to match nature:
They are inspired by the biological cell, a tiny space in which nature succeeds in enabling many different chemical reaction chains (cascades) to take place, at the same pressure and temperature and in the same solvent (water). And constantly, which means fast. Cells do this using enzymes, substances that give the reactions a helping hand. The researchers want to be able to make drugs in the same way in small chemical reactors that operate constantly.
Beetle Bailey’s armor (Northwestern University). “What can a beetle tell us about good design principles? Quite a lot, actually.” That’s how this article starts. Think of how lightweight a beetle’s outer covering is, yet it is very strong. And the beetle can fly! One has to get down to nanomechanics to decipher the structure of a beetle’s exoskeleton, but the engineers at Northwestern feel it’s worth it. So does the Air Force, which is helping fund the work that “could ultimately uncover information that could guide the design and manufacturing of new and improved artificial materials by emulating these time-tested natural patterns, a process known as bio-mimicry.” Soldiers would be really happy to get the same protection their armor gives them now but with a lot less weight.
Biological bone meets artificial bone (Science Daily). Engineers at University of New South Wales are studying how bone grows so they can use what they learn to grow artificial bone and other useful materials. They can’t quite figure out how to imitate collagen and elastin, so they are substituting artificial materials for those, but “nature’s weaving formula” inspired a first-stage trial of a ‘smart’ material that “mimics the sophisticated and complex properties of one nature’s ingenious materials, the bone tissue periosteum.” Skiers, want a protective suit made of this flexible, strong stuff? Nurses, want a better compression bandage to heal injuries? Even race car drivers and astronauts might benefit from what the UNSW researchers are learning about nature’s bone weaving formula.
Where now, photosynthesis? (Phys.org). For obvious reasons, photosynthesis has been a holy grail for biomimetics. The smart guys at MIT figured out a new model of plant’s methods of sunlight energy capture that “could help guide scientists in designing new types of solar cells made of organic materials that efficiently capture light.” We’ve been waiting a long time for that hope to show fruit. “Nature has mastered this art, evolving from a very limited number of building blocks an impressive diversity of photosynthetic light-harvesting complexes, which are highly versatile and efficient.” Evolving in this context doesn’t necessarily imply Darwinian evolution. It means that from simple building blocks, nature builds exquisite light-capturing machines that the world’s best engineers still haven’t been able to imitate.
Smear on some of that cyanobacteria sunscreen, please (Taylor & Francis). Is cyanobacteria the future of sunscreen? Could be, if an international team gets their way. Biologically-based sunscreen would be safer, more environmentally-friendly, and sustainable. And think of this: you wouldn’t have to keep putting it on, because cyanobacteria self-renew, living off of carbon dioxide, sunlight and a few basic nutrients. In fact, “some of its species live in extremely arid habitats and thus produce compounds that give them the ability to cope with both high UV radiation and extreme desiccation.” Sounds better than that oily stuff, doesn’t it?
Spin that plant turbine (PLoS One). Face it; wind farms are ugly, noisy, and hazardous to bats and birds. But the Department of Energy is pushing for 20% wind energy by 2030. What to do? These scientists watched cottonwood leaves fluttering in the breeze and had an idea. Why not attach piezoelectric elements to similar structures? They built a prototype, but their first trial at “plant-inspired designs” fell short. So next, they mimicked cattail leaves waving in the wind. The system worked, but still fell short of energy targets. That’s OK; even if this approach doesn’t look like a near-term reality, it’s important to keep searching, and science learns by failure as well as success. “Although our results discourage focus on piezoelectric schemes, alternative methods like the triboelectric system pioneered by Wang’s group may offer a more productive test of wind energy harvesting by botanic mimics.” One thing is not failing: inspiration to follow nature’s designs. If plant-inspired wind harvesting works some day, it can take more units off the power grid and thereby help protect the nation from a threat that’s creating a growing fear among defense experts: catastrophic EMP attack from an airborne nuclear warhead. Distributing the power locally would help mitigate the damage. It will be interesting to see, also, if bats and birds avoid “flapping” turbines better than rotating ones, and if wind machines can be made quieter and as aesthetically pleasing as leaves in the breeze.
Geek bonus: Read Nature Communications if interested in this title: “Therapeutic microparticles functionalized with biomimetic cardiac stem cell membranes and secretome.”
Wow! How about that. This list of 20 discoveries took extra hours to write up, because there is so much news about biomimetics coming in so fast. This is where the action is, folks. It’s not in Darwinian evolution. That old dogma is rusting on the junk pile. Teachers, parents, deans: get your students thinking bio-inspired engineering! It’s great all around: it requires studying biology in detail to figure out how organisms work, and it leads to the most amazing applications that can improve our lives in everything from personal health to recreation to industry to national defense. Money is racing after bio-inspired design. On top of all this, it’s making science fun again! Look at how many different institutions around the world are caught up in this 21st century gold rush. The momentum has only increased over the past 15 years since we started reporting on biomimicry, and there’s no end in sight. Intelligent design is the future of science. (Listen to CSC’s “ID the Future” podcast.)
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