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Examples of Biomimetics in Recent Issue of Leading Scientific Journal

A few weeks ago I discussed how the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A devoted its April, 2009 issue to the topic of biomimicry. The issue was introduced with a review by Bharat Bhushan, trying to deflect any possibility of intelligent design overtones from biomimicry by repeatedly referring to the power of “nature” to “evolve” these technologically useful structures. I concluded that “Dr. Bhushan’s chosen blindness to the intelligent design implications of his field does not negate the many dozens of instances of biomimicry discussed in his article and other articles in this recent issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A.” What follows is a list of some of the fascinating examples of biomimicry discussed in Dr. Bhushan’s review:

  • Ancient examples such as the Chinese trying to make artificial silk
  • Birds inspiring aircraft and wing design
  • The construction of neural networks based upon “the desire to mimic the human brain,”
  • “The existence of biocells and DNA serves as a source of inspiration for nanotechnologists, who hope to one day build self-assembled molecular-scale devices”
  • Modeling the patterns by which spiders produce webs to create a “‘virtual spider robot’ that builds virtual webs, which perfectly mimic the visual architecture of real webs of the garden cross spider”
  • Light refraction in bird feathers and butterfly wings modeled to create better display screens
  • Self-sharpening teeth on many animals, such as vertebrates and echinoderms, being copied to produce better cutting tools
  • “[P]roteins are being used to control materials formation in practical engineering towards self-assembled, hybrid, functional materials structure”
  • Mimicking the “climbing and peeling ability of geckos” to create climbing robots
  • Tire treads inspired by the shape of toe pads on tree frogs
  • Speedo’s “Fastskin bodysuit,” used by many Olympic swimmers, which recreates properties of shark skin
  • Seashells inspiring better ceramics
  • Studying self-healing properties of biological systems to produce polymers and polymer composites capable of mending cracks
  • Polar bear-inspired furs, textiles, and thermal collectors
  • Spiny hooks on plant seeds and fruits inspiring velcro
  • Mimicking mechanisms of photosynthesis and chemical energy conversion to create cheaper solar cells
  • Studying the light refractive properties moth eyes to produce solar panels with less light reflection

Bhushan lists biological features with potential uses in industry and technology, and the very first example he gives is, you guessed it, the bacterial flagellum. He also offers a detailed discussion of the how the hydrophobic and self-cleaning properties of plant surfaces could be “of interest in various applications, including self-cleaning windows, windshields and exterior paints for buildings, boats, ships and aircraft, utensils, roof tiles, textiles, solar panels and applications requiring antifouling and a reduction of drag in fluid flow, e.g. in micro/nanofluidics, boats, ships and aircraft.” Another fascinating suggestion is the possibility that “[r]eplication of the structure of gecko feet would enable the development of a superadhesive polymer tape capable of clean, dry adhesion, which is reversible.”

Finally, Bhushan proposes macro-biomimicry, suggesting that the general nature of hierarchical control in biological systems could be useful for construction purposes:

Nature develops biological objects by means of growth or biologically controlled self-assembly adapting to the environmental condition and by using the most commonly found materials. Biological materials are developed by using the recipes contained in the genetic code. As a result, biological materials and tissues are created by hierarchical structuring at all levels in order to adapt form and structure to the function, which have the capability of adaptation to changing conditions and self-healing. The genetic algorithm interacts with the environmental condition, which provides flexibility. For example, a tree branch can grow differently in the direction of the wind and in the opposite direction. The only way to provide this adaptive self-assembly is a hierarchical self-organization of the material. Hierarchical structuring allows adaptation and optimization of the material at each level. It is apparent that nature uses hierarchical structures, consisting of nanostructures in many cases, to achieve the required performance. Understanding the role of hierarchical structure and development of low cost and flexible fabrication techniques would facilitate commercial applications.

(Bharat Bhushan, “Biomimetics: lessons from nature — an overview,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A, Vol. 367, 1445–1486 (2009) (internal citations removed).)

Bhushan claims that “[i]t is clear that nature has evolved and optimized a large number of materials and structured surfaces with rather unique characteristics,” but when nature offers so many structures which outperform our intelligently designed technology, I don’t think his point about evolution is quite so “clear” at all.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.