The Basic and Beautiful Influence of Biomimicry

02-19-2019

By Sarah Sinn-White, Expedition Guide

Biomimicry, or the improvement of technology from natural inspirations, is a topic that many people are unfamiliar with, even though their lives may be directly influenced by it. Examples of biomimicry abound in our everyday lives, with many examples slipping past us as we go about our daily tasks.

One of the most used examples of biomimicry is Velcro. The simple hook and loop system was originally created by a French entrepreneur and inventor named George de Mestral after he walked through a field with his dog. As he exited the field, he found his pants and his hound covered in tiny burrs. A closer inspection showed the burrs were covered in tiny hooks, not really a revolutionary observation but for Mestral this was an epiphany of natural design. Adding loops to the hooks was straightforward, so Mestral went with a straightforward name as well, combining the French word for loop, ‘velour,’ with the French word for hook, ‘crotchet.’

Thus the Velcro company was born. With the birth of this easy fastening system, shoes around the world were revolutionized, but also belts, jackets, and attachment methods of all sorts. After a humble beginning in a field in France, we are now able to buckle our shoes without bending over, revolutionarily easy.

In Alaska, there are many, many examples of these natural inspirations or technology improved through biomimicry. The humpback whales we watch from our boats have directly influenced the wind energy industry with their pectoral fin shapes. The efficient tapering method of their fins, fatter on the leading-edge tapering to thinner trailing edges with tubercle bumps, allow them to “grip” the water and fly through it on long migrations from feeding grounds up north to breeding grounds in southern warmer waters. The larger-leading edge with these bumps breaks up the resistance of the water they travel through, creating vortices of water that roll across their fins for less effort during the 5,000+ mile long migration. Those tubercles and different width edges have also changed the propeller on helicopters, not only allowing for a smoother, more efficient ride but increasing the “angle of attack” for turning.

Blue mussels in our intertidal system are also a great example of biomimicry in action. Mussels attach themselves to rocks using byssal threads, or tiny strings that are made up of a special protein sequence, different from the calcium carbonate that attaches barnacles to rocks. These byssal threads are known as the “beard,” and if you have ever prepared mussels at home you have experienced these byssal threads when you “de-bearded” your dinner. Not only are these tiny strings a great attachment to combat the constant waves and extreme tidal exchanges of the Pacific Ocean, but they can also attach these byssal threads to would-be predators, like carnivorous snails that would prey upon the mussels. The specialized protein sequence within the byssal threads are now being developed and used within the medical industry for internal surgical stitches in moist areas where typical glue would not dry, stitches would be invasive, or dissolving threads would be the best bet for clean healing.

Sharks have also influenced human-made technologies in several ways. These cartilaginous fish have a special type of scale that is different from other fish, known as “skin teeth” or dermal denticles. The scales naturally shed algae that might otherwise buildup on the epidermis. Dermal denticles also create small vortices that break up the water across the skin, letting sharks glide almost effortlessly through the water. Both attributes of these scales have been used in far-ranging applications on land, sea and even in the Olympics by athletes like Michael Phelps.

Because of the natural ability to shed algae and other hitchhikers, stamps have been created that prevent fouling, or organism build-up, on the underside of ship hulls. By pressing the shape of dermal denticles into the paint on the undersides of boats, the navy is now saving millions of dollars with faster, more efficient boat hulls, and not having to take boats out of rotation with costly haul-outs to scrape the hulls every year.

Even better, the ocean environment is benefitting with the phasing-out of fouling paints, keeping metals such as copper and other chemicals from being introduced unnaturally into aquatic environments. In hospitals, this same idea is being used on surfaces that can become covered with germs. New counter tops imprinted with the shape of the scales naturally shed bacteria, germs, and even viruses that might otherwise infect patients with compromised immune systems. Olympic athletes have also used dermal denticle scales with designers mimicking the idea on the outside of swimsuits, allowing for faster times of gold-medalists. This design worked so efficiently that it was actually banned from future games.

Biomimicry is in use in our everyday lives in many other ways. These few examples are simply touching the surface of the way our human-made technologies are being influenced by natural technologies developed by animals and other organisms through evolution. As we continue to learn more about our natural environment, no doubt more ideas and inspiration will influence further examples of biomimicry. Understanding the natural environment not only inspires us but enables us.

For those who wish to learn more about the many applications and examples of biomimicry around the world, I highly encourage people to research the Biomimicry Institute and find examples that were influenced by organisms that may just live in their own backyards.

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