Looking to Nature to Solve our Problems

Biomimicry allows us to apply our observations of nature to design and can serve as an effective blueprint for building the future.

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By Shirley Tan

As surprising as it may sound, Japan’s bullet train was not developed by human power alone. The aerodynamic structure of the train, which allows for speeds over 200 miles per hour, was inspired by the pointed beak of the kingfisher. This train is just one of many examples of how nature is a valuable asset to the development of modern technology. Moving into the 21st century, scientists have been looking toward a system that has existed even before human civilization. There is hope for the future if we acknowledge and emulate the model that has existed for billions of years: nature.

Biomimicry is the scientific approach to putting nature’s lessons into practice, mainly to solve complex human problems. Though the idea of incorporating concepts from nature for our benefit has existed since ancient times, the term “biomimicry” is only a couple of decades old. Throughout history, biomimicry has been a significant part of revolutionary discoveries and inventions.

The first powered aircraft, built in 1903 by Wilbur and Orville Wright, was based on observing birds in flight. Centuries before, in 1488, Leonardo da Vinci based his designs for the flying machine on the anatomy of birds. In the present day, we also see biomimicry in architecture, such as the Lotus Temple in India and the Beijing National Stadium in China.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, observing nature played a key role in developing eco-friendly and effective equipment, most notably when there was a nationwide shortage of diagnostic nasal swabs. To solve the shortage, scientists looked toward the unique features of cat tongues to produce more efficient and functional swabs. Richard Novak, an engineer at Harvard University, noted the papillae on cat tongues, which they use not only to trap fluids, but also to bring back the fluids, usually when grooming. Using this fact to their advantage, Novak and his team created a swab that had characteristics similar to those of a cat’s tongue: it could collect the mucus of an individual’s nose and release it into the test tube, all in an inexpensive and efficient manner.

As technology and our understanding of the world around us become more advanced, new problems arise, and scientists must tackle more complex and technical issues. In these circumstances, empiricism, the reliance solely on laboratory experiments, can only go so far. To solve these issues, optimizing time management, resources, and money is critical, which is where nature comes into play. Observing the interactions between organisms and their niches in an environment serves as an exemplar for design.

Nature-inspired design goes beyond aesthetic purposes and structural similarities. It delves into the mechanical and physico-chemical features of natural systems. The current physico-chemical features of natural systems are a result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The game of survival of the fittest leads organisms to develop more complex features and better adapt to their surroundings. Qualities such as night vision and additional layers of fur in colder temperatures are examples of how humans have built upon animals’ evolved properties and incorporated them into products humans can use.

One success story of using physico-chemical properties from nature is Sharklet Technologies, a manufacturing company that used shark scales as a reference to create a revolutionary fabric with special properties. The tooth-like shark scale denticles are evolved not only to decrease drag but also to be resistant to biofouling, the buildup of bacteria and microorganisms. This attribute paved the way for the creation of the Sharklet, a plastic sheet that mimics the pattern of shark scale denticles and impedes bacterial growth, all without antibiotics or additional chemicals. Sharklet is now used in hospitals for antibacterial resistance materials, such as gowns and shields. Its ability to reduce touch transfer by 99 percent encourages people to use Sharklet technology for doorknobs, elevator buttons, and other high touch surfaces. This ultimately may be integral in preventing the next virus outbreak.

Though there are other ways in which people use nature for their benefit, they are mostly harmful to the environment, and the benefits are one-sided. Animal testing is one area where we apply what we learn about animals in practical uses. However, this involves testing animals, like rats, hamsters, and even apes, with certain potentially harmful drugs and chemicals. Other times, animals are poached for medicinal benefits that can be false, especially for traditional and alternative medicine. These applications are a stark contrast to the environmentally friendly methodology of biomimicry. By using biomimicry, we take the admirable characteristics of the natural systems around us and apply them to our lives through technology, architecture, and other areas. Unlike animal experimentation or poaching, biomimicry does not harm living organisms. Rather, it admires them from afar and implements their unique properties as a blueprint for new designs.

Understanding and using nature’s processes in design, construction, and biomedical applications is not only environmentally friendly but also helps more people become aware of nature’s intelligence. By realizing the value of nature and its role in developing our future, we gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world and a sense of responsibility in protecting ecosystems and organisms. Instead of exploiting it, we should start looking toward nature for answers.