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Monday
Dec082014

Been there, done that: animals do it better 

The best natural asset us humans have is arguably our intellect, and it has allowed us to create many tools and objects that have helped our lives significantly. Biomimetics is the study of natural systems and elements with the intention of imitating them to solve our problems. Here are some examples of where nature ‘one-upped’ us, and where we need to pay attention!

Antifreeze

Image courtesy of Brian Gratwicke 

Fish are often found in very cold, sometimes freezing waters, yet their flesh does not freeze. This is due to a class of proteins called, quite adequately, “antifreeze proteins”. These proteins bind to small ice crystals to prevent them from growing and becoming fatal to the animal (or plant, or fungus, or bacteria… quite a few species live in sub-zero conditions!). Some wood frogs can even freeze and thaw their bodies to fit the weather’s whims, slowing their metabolism to preserve their cells and brain function, so that they are perfectly healthy once winter is over.

Beyond the clear use for an antifreeze solution (examples include car engines and airplane wings), the medical community could also use a biologically safe antifreeze. Indeed, the main problem with organ transplantation is the preservation of organs between donation and implantation. Freezing them is not an option as it dehydrates and kills the cells, and organs degrade quickly once out of a living body. Investigating these antifreeze properties of fish and wood frogs, for example, would give surgeons an opportunity to keep organs transplantable longer.

Warm clothes

Image courtesy of Antarctica Bound

Penguins, unlike fish, are warm-blooded animals, yet they manage to keep warm in the freezing temperatures of their natural habitats. Part of this is due to a layer of blubber, essentially fat, insulating them from the cold – but the main contributing factor to their warmth is the air bubbles that form under their feathers. By puffing up these short, stiff and uniformly distributed feathers, penguins create a layer of air surrounding their body, protecting them from the cold. They can also trap these feathers down when swimming to create a watertight barrier.

By studying the structural arrangements of these feathers as well as their mechanical properties, engineer are trying to mimic the insulation capabilities displayed by penguins. Man-made insulation works on the same principle: trapping a foam-like structure between structures like glass or ceramic; insulative paints also exist. Nevertheless, try as they might, engineers haven’t matched penguins’ feathers in terms of insulation, water tightness, and mechanical properties .

Tough fibres

Image courtesy of Digo_Souza

Spider silk is a natural wonder which scientists are attempting to mass produce. It is stronger than steel, while remaining very extensible (‘stretchy’), making it extremely tough (ie. able to absorb a lot of energy before reaching its breaking point), tougher than both steel and Kevlar. As silk is mostly protein, its density is quite low, and a strand long enough to circle the world would weigh less than 500g!

In terms of toughness, spider silk is comparable to commercial polyaramid (nylon) fibres, used in body armour, bicycle tires and for aerospace applications. However, these fibres were only commercially introduced in the early 1960s, whereas spiders have been producing silk for thousands of years. Spider silk could be used in a wide range of items, including protective vests, artificial ligaments, suspension bridges, etc.

Sonar

Image courtesy of Jay Ebberly

A sonar (originally: Sound Navigation And Ranging) uses sound to identify objects and navigate, and is usually used underwater. Sonars can be passive – listening for the sounds of passing objects – or active – emitting sounds and listening to the echo produced by passing objects. A similar kind of technology is also used in medical imaging.

Some animals, such as dolphins or bats, have naturally developed echolocation systems, or biosonars, for millions of years. In contrast, the earliest, simplest human sonar is attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci in 1490 and consisted of a simple tube inserted into water. The first patents for underwater echo location systems were obtained in 1912 and 1913, and research for sonar technology flourished during WWII.

Adhesives

Image courtesy of jillyspoon

Basically, glue. Some animals produce extremely sticky substances naturally. For instance, spiders lay droplets of glue on the silk of their webs to catch and trap insects coming in contact with it, and geckos can also adhere to almost surfaces without leaving a trace. Adult barnacles and mussels can also attach very strongly to surfaces, even underwater, some even permanently adhering – added bonus: barnacles can also seal themselves in water to keep from dessicating, which would be very useful for human inventions (think plumbing for example).

While plant-based and animal-based glue has been used for millennia (the oldest evidence of plant-based adhesive use dates back 200 000 years), the first completely synthetic commercial glue is less than a hundred years old: Karlsons Klister (also known as Elmer’s glue), launched in the 1920s. A biodegradable glue that attaches to any surface even in wet environments would also be an incredibly useful surgical tool to avoid using sutures. And if you’ve ever had to call the plumber at three in the morning, you’ll know first hand that we still have some things to learn about creating water-tight seals!

By Marion Thibaudeau

Nature has surprised and fascinated mankind for thousands of years, and it is certainly not about to stop! New species are constantly being discovered, and who knows what amazing discovery we’ll make next? From medical prosthesis and surgical tools to military and aero-spatial applications, we can learn much by imitating nature… but to do so, we need to preserve it! Why not contribute by volunteering in wildlife conservation?

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