Biomimicry – Harnessing the Power of Nature

Have you ever marveled at a gecko climbing on glass? Or wondered why mosquito bites are painless unlike the injections we get at the doctor’s office? The natural world has developed some ingenious features during the ~3.8 billion years of its evolution. However, until quite recently, humans weren’t taking full advantage of the ‘inventions’ of nature. Engineers and scientists work tirelessly to develop high tech solutions to everyday problems. Sometimes however, ‘getting back to nature’ is the way to go – enter the field of biomimicry.

Biomimicry, also called biomimetics, uses the natural world as an inspiration for innovative solutions. Instead of developing something brand new, we are more closely examining the natural world and then mimicking its properties for our benefit. One of the earliest examples of biomimicry is velcro, a common component of clothes and other accessories. Velcro was developed by a French engineer to mimic a bur, a little seed with hooks that he picked off himself and his dog after a walk.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bur_Macro_BlackBg.jpg
A bur
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook-and-loop_fastener#/media/File:Velcro_Hooks.jpg
Velcro hooks

Biomimicry experienced a boom after the release of a book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus in 1997. The super fast bullet train Shinkansen in Japan was designed using concepts of biomimicry. Although engineers didn’t have trouble achieving the desired high speeds, the trains produced large amounts of noise when entering/exiting tunnels. The shock wave produced was enough to structurally damage several tunnels. The redesign of the front of the train was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher. The kingfisher is able to enter water almost without splashing because of the streamlined shape of its beak. Application of this knowledge to the Japanese trains solved the issue of shock waves while also increasing speed and decreasing use of electricity.

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Common kingfisher
https://pixabay.com/photos/bullet-train-shinkansen-railway-1540467/
Shinkansen train

What is the future of biomimicry? There are many possible applications still out there and several technologies currently in development. German researchers are working on a robot that resembles a spider. While spiders scare many of us, these spider-like robots could be used to enter spaces unsafe for humans to accomplish important tasks, such as searching for survivors after disasters. Another interesting project is being pursued by scientists in Japan who are developing a needle based on the the mosquito proboscis (mouth) that would slide into skin painlessly just like a mosquito bite.

The potential to use nature as a template for development of new technologies is exciting. We may find previously elusive solutions by harnessing the power of nature, which has evolved for much longer than humans have been on this planet. Biomimicry strives for sustainability because “…the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.” (Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature).

If you want to learn more about biomimicry, I recommend checking out the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organization that is a driving force in the field of biomimicry.

Peer edited by Shaye Hagler.

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Bionic Plants Detect Explosive Chemicals

http://www.mattniederhuber.com/PublicImages/bomb_biosensor.png

Bionic plants that respond to nitroaromatics could be used to detect landmines or other explosives.

Imagine a future where the plants in your garden not only grow delicious vegetables, but keep an eye on the soil and water conditions while they’re at it. Is the ground too acidic? Are there toxins present in the water? It would be pretty handy if our plants could tell us the answers, right? That’s probably still a long way off, but last month researchers Min Hao Wong and Juan P. Giraldo at MIT published an article on a new type of biosensor (that’s a sensor that incorporates some kind of a biological system), which might take us a couple steps closer to such a reality.

The article describes how plants implanted with specially prepared carbon nanotubes in their leaves can detect a compound in their water that is associated with explosive materials. On top of that, the signal the plants produce can be easily detected from a distance with a smartphone.

Here’s how it works: Carbon nanotubes are tiny, tiny, tiny cylinders of carbon atoms that occur naturally and can be synthesized in the lab. They are amazingly strong, even stronger than steel when they’re made into fibers. And they have unique optical properties, producing near-infrared light that responds to slight changes in the surrounding chemical environment. Additionally, the nanotube response to chemicals can be modified by coating it in different substances.

The Strano lab at MIT figured out that, with a particular coating, the intensity of light emitted by nanotubes changes in response to nitroaromatic compounds commonly found in explosives. By implanting these coated nanotubes into the leaves of spinach plants, they could detect changes in the infrared signal as the plant absorbed the target compound. That’s pretty incredible because they harnessed the plants natural function of absorbing material from the earth and water, to make a biosensor.   What makes their work even cooler is that they were able to put together a simple smartphone system that let them check on their plant bomb detectors from a distance. Practically, such a biosensor could help detect nearby explosives by picking up on specific chemicals the explosives leach into the ground water. While a lot of work on developing biosensors has focused on directly manipulating the organism’s genome (think CRISPR/Cas9) such that it can respond to certain inputs, this work demonstrates a way to make biosensors without any genetic engineering. That gets around a lot of worries about using genetically engineered biosensors in the wild.

This technology isn’t at the level where we’ll have crops engineered to broadcast environmental data to the cloud, or send you text messages when there are dangerous chemicals present, but this work makes a future where the line between biology and digital technology is blurry if not totally intertwined.

Peer edited by Laurel Kartchner.

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