July 15, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Guessing Game: Name the Organism that Inspired This Discovery

Here’s a quick brain teaser. Can you guess which biological organism inspired the scientific advance? Answers and sources below.

(1) Better joints for robots.

(2) New antibiotics.

(3) Safe landings without a parachute.

(4) Improved artificial intelligence.

(5) Tandem wing airplanes.

(6) Super strong, stretchy material.

(7) Liquid-solid composites that are both flexible and strong.

(8) Threads that don’t spin out of control.

(9) Nanoscopic channels allowing controlled passage.

(10) Cost-effective manufacture of structural colors.

Answers:

(1) The ostrich (Phys.org). “Ostriches are the only animals in the world to have a double-kneecap, but its purpose remains an evolutionary mystery. PhD student, Ms Sophie Regnault, from the Royal Veterinary College, UK says ‘understanding more about different kneecap configurations in different animals could help to inform prosthesis design, surgical interventions, and even robots with better joints.’

(2) Bacteria with Type IV pili (Phys.org). “According to Dr Vladimir Pelicic, from the MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection at Imperial, who led the research, TFPs are like a ‘Swiss Army Knife for bacteria’.”

(3) Geckos (Phys.org). Finding the limit of adhesion when geckos fall and need to arrest their drop by clinging to a tree would be like “a skydiver reaching terminal velocity and then grabbing a support in mid-fall and stopping without using a parachute to slow down.”

(4) The synapses in a human brain (Seeker). “By replicating the function of the human brain’s 100 trillion synapses, scientists hope to boost the versatility of artificial neural networks.”

(5) Flying fish (Science Daily). The ribbon halfbeak lacks the pelvic fins of true flying fish, but still can fly above the water. “Investigating the design of ribbon halfbeak could provide useful information for the optimal design of tandem wing airplanes.”

(6) Spider silk, of course (Science Daily). At the University of Cambridge, “Researchers have designed a super stretchy, strong and sustainable material that mimics the qualities of spider silk, and is ‘spun’ from a material that is 98 percent water.” See also separate article at Science Daily, and a paper in PNAS.

(7) Disks in the human spine, or the skin in ocean-diving fish (Science Daily). “Materials scientists at Rice University are looking to nature — at the discs in human spines and the skin in ocean-diving fish, for example — for clues about designing materials with seemingly contradictory properties — flexibility and stiffness.”

(8) Golden silk orb weaver spider (Phys.org). “The last time you watched a spider drop from the ceiling on a line of silk, it likely descended gracefully on its dragline instead of spiraling uncontrollably, because spider silk has an unusual ability to resist twisting forces.”

(9) Cells with membrane channels called porins (Phys.org). “Proteins in lipid membranes are one of the fundamental building blocks of biological functionality,” the article begins. “Lawrence Livermore researchers have figured out how to mimic their role using carbon nanotube porins.”

(1) Birds and butterflies (Phys.org). Pigments have their place, but structural colors have many advantages. The “photonic crystals” in bird feathers and butterfly wings have been hard to duplicate, this article says:

Structural colors, on the other hand, produce color through nanostructures that reflect or scatter light. Feathers of birds and the scales of butterflies are two of the many examples of structural colors in nature. Furthermore. their structural spacings allow for the production of more distinct colors than is possible through pigments. However, despite the many advantages of structural colors in various applications, high fabrication costs and the inability to change a structural color once it has been applied has curtailed widespread implementation.

Research conducted by Geunbae Lim, a professor with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), in collaboration with Taechang An, a professor with the Department of Mechanical Design Engineering at Andong National University, has successfully developed a new and cost-effective method for obtaining biomimetic structural colors with the ability to finely tune the completed structures. This achievement has been published in the world-renowned ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

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