The Best of Biomimicry

tedAs the name implies, biomimicry is the discipline of designing products by mimicking phenomena that already exist in biology and nature.  The best-known example of this approach is Velcro, which was developed in the 1940s by engineer George De Mestral when he noticed burrs clinging to his dog’s fur after a walk in the woods. It took him more than a decade to perfect the manufacturing process, reinforcing how difficult it is to mimic even seemingly simple natural phenomena.

I was inspired to learn more by Janine Benyus’ ‘The Promise of Biomimicry’ TED talk.

Since watching that talk, I have read about dozens of biomimicry examples, including:

  • the Shinkansen bullet train that emulates the kingfisher’s beak so it travels more quietly at very high speeds (LINK),
  • wind turbines that are more efficient because they mimic whale fins (LINK),
  • self-healing plastics that fix themselves by creating a ‘scab’ much like humans do when they get a cut (LINK), and
  • high-rise buildings that cool and heat themselves by imitating termite mounds (LINK).

I have been most fascinated by the use of biomimicry in medicine. For example, while researching alternatives to toxic paints that discourage the growth of barnacles on ship hulls, University of Florida scientists noticed that Galapagos sharks do not suffer from this problem. Further investigation proved a microscopic pattern on the sharks’ scales make them naturally resistant to bacteria.

When this pattern is commercially replicated onto surface coverings for hospital countertops and bathroom doors, bacteria growth is reduced by a staggering 80%. This approach now seems like the most promising way to stem the tide of drug-resistant bacteria MRSA and C-diff, the so-called superbugs that cause difficult-to-treat infections in hospitals.

By some accounts, MRSA and C-diff kill more than 30,000 people per year in the U.S. Despite tens of millions of dollars of drug research, the solution may lie in mimicking the scales of a shark.

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4 Responses to The Best of Biomimicry

  1. Sarith April 14, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    Wonder how close we are to mimicking the firefly to light our homes and offices or…. Vegas :)

  2. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) April 15, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    Another recent article on how the recent bed bug scourge may one day be defeated by recreating the key characteristics of bean leaves: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/science/earth/how-a-leafy-folk-remedy-stopped-bedbugs-in-their-tracks.html?_r=0

    And a slighly different but related point: evolution has a long time to get to the “right solution”, but we can copy the process as well as the result, eg. this Tim Hartford reference to Unilever using evolution techniques to optimize a nozzle: http://www.futurelab.net/blogs/marketing-strategy-innovation/2012/06/god_complex_and_importance_tri.html?quicktabs_2=2

  3. Gretchen Lindquist April 15, 2013 at 4:53 am #

    My dad came down with a C-diff infection during his final stay in the hospital. He would be pleased to know that there is a way to prevent such infections.

  4. wildsage2 April 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Apparently lotus flower leaves are never dirty due to finely dispersed wax crystals on the leaf surface. This has been applied to roof tiles that don’t soil and self cleaning wall paints (great for kitchens). Similar extracted proteins are being applied to cosmetics, dirt doesn’t adhere to skin or hair (Puricare and Purisoft). Benefits of biomimicry are making it into their marketing.

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