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Human Engineers Can’t Top These Biological Intelligent Designs

Photo: A humpback whale, by Whit Welles Wwelles14 / CC BY (

Amid the often-depressing news of Darwin censorship and dogmatism, with its ongoing ill effects on society like eugenics and racism, it is good to take a break and see what intelligent design science is accomplishing, whether it calls itself that or not. That is what biomimetics is all about: a focus on design, to understand it and imitate it. Here are just a few examples of what is being reported on a weekly basis from labs and universities around the world.

Making Better Surfboards

The Surf Engineering Association is studying HUMPBACK WHALE flippers to improve surfboards. Does it help? “We found using RW [‘real whale’] fins allowed a skilled surfer to improve their surfing performance relative to a professionally ranked surfer.” (PLoS One).

The fluid motion of a humble SEA SLUG in water gave engineers at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, inspiration for “A robot made from gel bends in response to light, allowing for a wide variety of motions.” (Nature). 

Cephalopods have amazed scientists at the University of California at Irvine with their transparency, which they can turn on and off at will. By adjusting their leucophores containing reflectin proteins, SQUID can become opaque or transparent. The team engineered human cells with a similar trick. It might help with microscopy and with medicine, allowing surgeons to mark cells with light. Question: is there money in biomimetics?

This project, which received support from Defense Applied Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, also involved researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Hamamatsu Photonics in Japan. [Emphasis added.]

Cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer in women, may be stopped in its tracks by a molecule called manzamine A, found in an Indonesian species of SPONGE. (Medical University of South Carolina)

Hydrogen-Powered Cars

Speaking of sponges, they have a fine pore structure that could inspire greener storage in hydrogen-powered cars. A researcher at Northwestern University developed a spongy material out of aluminum with so many pores, a gram of it has the surface area of a football field. “Like a bath SPONGE, the product is able to hold and release large quantities of the gas at lower pressure and cost.” (BBC News

Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania envision many useful applications with “uniform-sized, (sub)micrometer-sized particles with diverse surface patterns” that “will enable applications including drug delivery, tissue engineering, energy storage, and displays.” They found a perfect biological entity to imitate: POLLEN GRAINS. (PNAS)

Robot designers at UC Berkeley are finding out that to climb walls like a GECKO, their creations need toes. With toes that stick in one direction and peel in the opposite direction, geckos can go up, down, and sideways with ease. The design team lit up the toes with glowing markers to watch how they work.

“Toes allowed agile locomotion by distributing control among multiple, compliant, redundant structures that mitigate the risks of moving on challenging terrain,” [Robert] Full said. “Distributed control shows how biological adhesion can be deployed more effectively and offers design ideas for new robot feet, novel grippers and unique manipulators.”

The eyes of Xenos peckii, a tiny INSECT that lives as an endoparasite of a paper wasp, are unusual. Unlike the compound eyes of most insects, theirs have hundreds of photoreceptors in a single lens. Scientists in South Korea have “demonstrated a fully packaged ultrathin insect eye camera” made on similar principles which offers “offers high contrast and super-resolution imaging” (Nature,

Inspired by the Cockroach

One of the “smallest and most dexterous robots to date” has been designed at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Its inspiration was the COCKROACH. About the size of a penny, “This itsy-bitsy robot can’t climb up the waterspout yet but it can run, jump, carry heavy payloads and turn on a dime.”

“Nature is the best teacher of mankind,” say researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Like good students, they learned from the compound eyes of INSECTS to develop a “Multispectral Curved Compound Eye Camera with Ultra Large Field View” — but what will those eyes be looking at on Chinese satellites?

What does electronics have to do with biology? Plenty, say scientists at UC Irvine. Membrane channels in CELLS are giving them a new way to re-imagine electronic circuits. 

Integrated circuits are present in all electronic devices, and enable signal amplification, modulation, and relay. Nature uses another type of circuits composed of channels in a cell membrane, which regulate and amplify transport of ions, not electrons and holes as is done in electronic systems. Here we show an abiotic ionic circuit that is inspired by concepts from electronics and biology. The circuit amplifies small ionic signals into ionic outputs, and its operation mimics the electronic Darlington amplifier composed of transistors…. Ionic amplifiers are a logical step toward improving chemical and biochemical sensing, separations and amplification, among others. 

Nature Communications

Proteins can conduct electricity, and one advantage they have is being “green.” Using protein nanowires from the Geobacter BACTERIUM, a “team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reports this week that they have developed bioelectronic ammonia gas sensors that are among the most sensitive ever made.” 

Inspired by how a CHAMELEON can change its skin color, researchers at UC Irvine have created a material that responds to motion by changing color. “Unlike other materials that try to emulate nature’s color changers, this one can respond to any type of movement, like bending or twisting.” A color change could provide information about an environment, they say.

Ants and Their Arsenal

ANTS have an arsenal of tools for sampling their environment. They do this in a distributed way, using many individuals to avoid wasting energy. Researchers at the University of Bristol “observed the exploratory behaviour of ants to inform the development of a more efficient mathematical sampling technique.”

Overlapping fish scales, like those on CARP, have inspired armor since ancient times. Now, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab “have characterized carp scales down to the nanoscale, enabling them to understand how the material is resistant to penetration while retaining flexibility.”

“The structure of biological materials is absolutely fascinating,” said lead author Robert Ritchie, of Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, who headed this work with Marc Meyers, a professor of nanoengineering and mechanical engineering at UC San Diego. “We like to mimic these properties in engineering materials, but the first step is to see how nature does it.

A long-time inspiration for biomimetics is SPIDER silk, but for optics? This is new. Researchers at Tamkang University and National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan demonstrated that droplets of the silk form miniature lenses with super-resolution optical properties for bioimaging. Not only that, the lenses hang on the silk threads for easy placement and can be illuminated with lasers. (Journal of Applied Physics)

Human engineers mastered sonar decades ago, but the properties of BAT biosonar keep pushing the envelope for them. One trick bats use is frequency hopping, to gain information from delays at different frequencies. Researchers are Brown University developed a “biologically inspired method adopts the bat’s frequency-hopping technique to suppress pulse-echo ambiguity in wideband systems, a serious problem for man-made wideband radar and sonar systems.” (PNAS)

Modern-day Wright brothers, learning from BIRDS, keep improving on flight at smaller scales. A new drone made at the Nanyang Technical University in Singapore can “fly, dart and hover like a bird,” reports New Scientist. “The robot weighs just 27.5 grams and can fly at speeds of up to 8 metres per second,” the report says. “It lasts up to 8 minutes in the air on a single battery charge.” Getting it to lay eggs will take a little longer.

A Global Trend

Several big ideas come to light from these examples. One is that biomimetics is a global trend. From China to Southern California, from Harvard to South Korea, scientists are getting inspired with biological designs. A second big idea is that design is everywhere in the living world. From cell membranes to giant whales, from cockroaches to sea slugs, there are designs to be found: who would have thought that the eye of a parasite of a paper wasp would inspire the development of a micro-camera? 

Finally, these are great designs in nature. Engineers would be scoffing if they could do better. Instead, it is evident that they are still having trouble imitating some of nature’s works even after decades of trying. There is endless fascination in nature — the best teacher — and it will undoubtedly continue to stimulate cutting-edge, next-generation technology in science and engineering for years to come.