News Stories

What We've Learned (and Keep Learning) from Nature

Nature is the original "inventor"--Nature's designs are giving researchers ideas for new technologies that could help wounds heal, make injections less painful and provide new materials for a variety of purposes.

Velcro was inspired by the grappling hooks of burrs. Supersonic jets have structures that work like the nostrils of peregrine falcons in a speed dive. Full-body swimsuits, now banned from the Olympics, lend athletes a smooth, streamlined shape like fish.

Porcupine quills feature needlelike tips armed with layers of 700 to 800 microscopic barbs. Researchers, inspired by this, have created disks of medical tape impregnated with microscopic barbs. They are testing these patches as tools to repair hernias or close surgical wounds and think the disks might have advantages over the meshes and staples currently used.

Geckos can skitter up walls and walk along ceilings because their feet are covered with a dense mat of fingerlike projections. Each projection is a few thousandths of an inch long and many times thinner than a human hair. Scientists have created a gecko-inspired tape coated with a thin layer of glue, that conforms closely to the surfaces of wounds. The glue seals any small gaps, and the entire product is nonirritating to tissues.

Spider silk is strong (five times stronger than steel by weight), stretchy and lightweight. Some silk is sticky to catch prey, and some is not, to let the spider scurry along it.

With this inspiration, researchers created a pliable, peel-off adhesive that doesn't damage the underlying surface when removed. It has some sticky and nonsticky areas, just like a spider web. It goes on easily, adheres well and, best of all, comes off gently, even when pulled rapidly in an emergency situation.

How smart are animals, anyway? It depends on the animal--and the task. In the March 23-24 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal tells about a chimp who could recall a random series of 9 numbers, even though he had seen them for less than a second. When de Waal tried this, he couldn't remember more than 5 numbers, even though he looked at the numbers for a longer period of time. In fact, the chimp outperformed a group of university students by a wide margin.

Octopus brains are the largest among invertebrates. In captivity, they can recognize their caretaker and learn to open pill bottles protected by childproof caps--a task with which many humans struggle.

De Waal says, "It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses." (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this provocative interview).

Jeffrey Karp isn't surprised that studying the natural world can reveal solutions to medical challenges. He says, "I strongly believe that evolution is truly the best problem solver."

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