March 4, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

The Best Science Imitates Nature

Biomimetics has everything science desires: inspiration, motivation, understanding, and application.

What’s not to like about biomimetics? It’s amazing. It’s interesting. Kids can like it. Parents can steer kids into careers in science with it. It’s usually ethical and non-controversial. And we can all benefit from the discoveries that are leading to applied understanding that comes from figuring out nature’s designs. Here are a few of the latest examples.

Baja California treefrog

Frog choruses inspire wireless sensor networks (Osaka University). The chorus of frogs is a familiar sound on many a camping trip. Kids love to catch frogs, but do they know what scientists have learned?

If you’ve ever camped by a pond, you know frogs make a racket at night; but what you might not know is how functional and regulated their choruses really are. Frogs communicate with sound, and amid their ruckus is an internally orchestrated system that lets information get through more clearly while also permitting collective choruses and time to rest. Researchers from Osaka University and University of Tsukuba sought to leverage this amphibious acumen for mathematical and technological aims.

It seems impossible that a female could pick out a male’s song from the din of croaks, but the collective regulation of sounds allows each frog to be heard, and also to take a rest. Inspired by their “amphibious acumen,” the scientists figured that network engineers could learn a thing or two.

“We found neighboring frogs avoided temporal overlap, which allows a clear path for individual voices to be heard,” study co-author Daichi Kominami explains. “In this same way, neighboring nodes in a sensor network need to alternate the timings of data transmission so the data packets don’t collide.”

Spider silk could be used as robotic muscle (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The geniuses at MIT are bowing before a higher genius: the lowly spider. The “unusual property of the ultrastrong material could be harnessed for twisting or pulling motions,” they announced recently.

Spider silk, already known as one of the strongest materials for its weight, turns out to have another unusual property that might lead to new kinds of artificial muscles or robotic actuators, researchers have found.

The resilient fibers, the team discovered, respond very strongly to changes in humidity. Above a certain level of relative humidity in the air, they suddenly contract and twist, exerting enough force to potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators — devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve.

We all know about smart homes, smart lights, and smart grids. This newly-discovered property of spider silk might give us smart fabrics to wear. A civil engineering professor not involved with the work was impressed. Exemplifying the value of biomimetics in general, he responded,

What is particularly noteworthy about this work is that it combines molecular modeling, experimental validation, and a deep understanding by which elementary changes in chemical bonding scale up into the macroscopic phenomena. This is very significant from a fundamental science point of view, and also exciting for applications.

Beetle (Illustra Media)

A bioinspired multilegged soft millirobot that functions in both dry and wet conditions (Nature Communications). A comparison of legs and feet of many animals reveals designs that allow creatures to live in almost any terrain on earth. Ask if the evolution reference in this amazing quote really helps the science, though:

Legs and/or feet are commonly found in many living animals, including both land animals (e.g., ant, dog, cheetah, etc.) and ocean animals (e.g., starfish, octopus, etc.), after billions of years’ evolution. The legs could lift the animal’s body from ground in demand manner, leading to smaller body friction to ground, higher degrees of freedom in locomotion, less energy cost, and enhanced obstacle-crossing ability. Thus, legged animals usually demonstrate great adaptability to complex terrain, and can probably access virtually 100% of earth’s land surface.

Design principles for peroxidase-mimicking nanozymes (Phys.org). Scientists at Nanjing University in Japan have joined the biomimetics movement. These researchers are trying to create new enzymes by imitating the “design principles” of various natural enzymes.

Design–functionality relationships for adhesion/growth-regulatory galectins (PNAS). In another enzyme-engineering paper, these scientists didn’t find any help in evolution, so they turned to design. “Faced with the challenge to understand why evolution has led to three particular modes of modular architecture for adhesion/growth-regulatory galectins in vertebrates, here we introduce protein engineering to enable design switches,” they say. They never answered the challenge. Instead, they sought to understand why nature designed these proteins:

Of fundamental importance, the molecular architecture of glycan presentation and of lectin design appears to matter somehow, and the emergence of this paradigm is calling for implementing strategies to help delineating definitive topology—activity relationships of biomedical significance. As a test model for this study, human adhesion/growth-regulatory galectins are selected to illustrate the power of rational design engineering, teamed up with functional assays on cells and on surface-programmable vesicle-like binding partners.

In the end, speculations about evolution produced no understanding, but attempts to explore the reasons why galectins have the “architecture” they do leads not only to understanding, but to rational design of “new promising tools for imaging studies on lattices and for innovative therapeutic approaches.” Key phrase: “design appears to matter somehow.” Pursuing that assumption led to understanding and application.

Credit: Illustra Media.

Researchers wing it in mimicking evolution to discover best shape for flight (New York University). While this article claims it is “mimicking evolution,” the phrase is misleading. It’s really about intelligent design. Even though the scientists randomly selected various wing shapes, they had a goal: the optimum wing. Darwinian evolution, by contrast, is unguided and aimless. It has no goal, and no scientist watching to pick out winners.

“We can simulate biological evolution in the lab by generating a population of wings of different shapes, have them compete to achieve some desired objective, in this case, speed, and then have the best wings ‘breed’ to make related shapes that do even better,” says Leif Ristroph, an assistant professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the paper’s senior author.

They call it ‘survival of the fastest’ but the wings did nothing. Human intelligences designed the starting shapes, set the goals, directed the duplication, and selected the winners. This was design all the way down. And where do you think they got inspiration to understand “flapping flight”?

It gets tiring having to slap the wrists of thieves who grab design concepts to offer to their idol, Darwin. Biomimetics is intelligent design science. No scientist really looks to the Stuff Happens Law for inspiration.

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