The Biomimetic Era

13 October 2007

Man drawing on nature for invention is not new:Icarus tried it with his failed attempt at flight, inspired by a bird’s wing. While Da Vinci watching a falling sycamore seed prompted the design of his helicopter.

Modern examples include the design of CrystalPalace by Joseph Paxton, who was stirred by the shape of a Lily pad, while the design of Velcro by George de Mestral came from watching how burrs on a seed stuck to his clothes and his dog!

What these men were all doing with their inventions was mimicking the natural world; a process that has evolved over the last 3.6 billion years of life and continues to evolve and adapt. Mankind has evolved too– from the Stone Age, the Iron Age through to the Industrial Age of the 19th century and the Technical Age of the 20th century.

But where does mankind stand now? I believe we will look back and call this the Biomimetic Age, as we now begin to develop the potential of mimicking nature’s own processes. Over the next few decades we will see the most extraordinary developments across all branches of technology, but particularly in drug design and material engineering which are rapidly taking their inspiration from nature. Some of the latest advances include the identification that Tethya aurantia, (the orange puff ball sea sponge), can produce silica molecules from seawater. The sea sponge does this to produce the spiky filaments that cover its body but researchers at the University of California, have mimicked Tethya aurantia’s silica production for their own ends using an analogous method, which scales up the process by using readily available chemicals. This process has inspired the development of cheap, low-energy solar panel cells.

In the healthcare world, observing the immune system of crocodiles promises to yield exciting new drugs. These evolutionarily old animals live in disease and parasite-infested water, but any open wounds they develop, rarely results in an infection. Yet a person with a wound in the same water will often get a severe infection, which normally involves amputation of the infected limb. Scientists in Australia are now looking to see how the crocodile’s immune system is different to ours and how they manage to evade infection. Understanding this process will aid our continuing battle with antibiotic resistant super bugs such as the hospital-acquired infection MRSA.

Evolution has adapted by natural selection so that the most suitable biological solution prevails. Problems encountered by many organisms are often similar to those mankind faces. However this fact is not often acknowledged or pursued. Indeed, one of the challenges of our era is to speed up the rate of innovation by encouraging more cross-discipline collaborations from physics to biology.

Julian Vincent, professor of biomimetics at the University of Bath, believes that: “Biomimetics is now flourishing because we have more techniques to investigate and manipulate materials and chemicals at the molecular level”.

Vincent is excited by the fact that biomimetics can promote the expansion of materials research and the introduction of life sciences into engineering. However he suspects that there are not enough biologists willing to cross the disciplines necessary to push biomimetics further, a reason that would hamper its progress.

So far only the UK and Germany are looking seriously at the study of biomimetics, partly because many other research centres have yet to gather enough funding to get the subject off the ground.

The scientific gains are potentially enormous, but for biomimetics to develop, a much broader approach is required. An approach that means scientists are able to cross over disciplines to see how they can work and think together.

We could save ourselves so much time if we just looked to see if evolution has already solved our problem. The human brain has an infinite potential for ideas, but 3.6 billion years of hard work is hard to ignore!