Zoom in to the inner world of your veins, arteries and capillaries, and you'll find an engineering marvel: the red blood cell. Disc-shaped and flexible, millions of these oxygen transporters can be found in just a single drop of blood, and they’re adapted extremely well for their job of keeping you alive.
Now zoom out, cross the globe and witness another design feat: the termite mound. Relative to the size of its inhabitants, the structures are like skyscrapers and form the ideal habitat for an entire colony of insects.
The blood cells and termite mounds might seem completely different, but they have one thing in common: They’re inspiring Arizona scientists to develop new technologies.
The technology falls under the umbrella of “biomimicry,” a practice that, at its core, lets scientists and researchers imitate and learn from from features found in nature. In one famous example, engineers in Japan modeled the front of their high-speed bullet train after the shape of a kingfisher's beak to make the design more streamlined and eliminate the sonic boom.
Whether the biological muse is a bird, a school of fish or a beehive, many scientists believe that biomimetic innovations can improve our relationship with technology and with the ecosystems around us.
With applications ranging from medicine to space robots, biomimicry is behind inventions that range from the simple or elegant to the futuristic or sci-fi. ASU’s Biomimicry Center, which was founded in 2014, features an entire graduate academic degree devoted to biomimicry and includes faculty who teach subjects as far afield as architecture, business and engineering. The Biomimicry Center recently joined ASU’s new College of Global Futures, highlighting intersections of design and sustainability.
Though the concept of biomimicry has been around for a while, several researchers in the field say its message is needed now more than ever. Some see it as an answer to pressing sustainability challenges. Others view biomimicry as a method of addressing what they see as gaps in western science.
Dayna Baumeister, the director of ASU’s Biomimicry Center, says that in recent years, she has seen more students growing interested in the biomimicry program. She has also seen more organizations looking to biomimicry for solutions as they approach deadlines for sustainability commitments in the coming decades.
“I've been doing (biomimicry) for almost 25 years, and the world is finally waking up to the potential of biomimicry as a tool and the path towards a regenerative future,” Baumeister said. “And I think the pandemic actually had a huge, positive impact in that space where it caused people to slow down and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, maybe we ought to be thinking about doing things a little bit differently than we currently are.’”
As biomimicry gains popularity, Baumeister and others think that addressing the practice’s potential — and its potential pitfalls — could shape the designs and ideas that build a post-pandemic future.
Designs for the body: cells and chips
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Minkyu Kim could be red blood cells’ greatest admirer. He wants to mimic them in a lab by making his own versions that can be used to deliver medications like cancer drugs directly to specific parts of the body.
Kim, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering at the University of Arizona, recently received a $600,000 award from the National Science Foundation to make his vision a reality. Over the next few years, he will use techniques from synthetic biology and engineering to develop the technology that he says may one day improve doctors’ ability to provide targeted treatments and deliver drugs more effectively.
He says the idea stemmed from his curiosity about the red blood cells themselves.
“That was the starting point in this study, to learn more about this cell, and then (we) came up with the idea to develop biomimetic red blood cell microparticles,” Kim said.
Kim has good reasons for wanting to create imitation red blood cells for drug delivery. They can slip past the body’s filtration system (unlike many drugs delivered using conventional methods). They’re great at carrying oxygen, so all scientists need for drug delivery purposes is to replace that oxygen with the medication of choice.
Red blood cells also have a unique structure, tailored to human blood vessels.
“They are flexible and they have very special geometry, and then they can be stretchable if there are external forces, and they are reversible if those external forces were removed,” Kim said. “I'm just trying to mimic (what) the red blood cell looks like.”
Other researchers have seen the potential of red blood cells, too, and some are working on attaching drugs directly to real red blood cells. That introduces the issue of blood type, because not everyone’s blood cells are the same. Kim hopes his biomimetic cells would be universal, because he can simply engineer them not to have the proteins that make some blood types incompatible with others.
“This can be applied to any person, any blood type. It doesn't matter,” he said.
He also hopes that delivering drugs using this method could reduce or eliminate many of the worst side effects of drugs like those used in chemotherapy. Kim says the ability to target specific locations and the lower dosage of drugs needed to achieve the same results “will be great for the patient and the physician as well.”
Focusing on the experiences of patients and physicians is key to Philipp Gutruf’s approach, too. Gutruf, another assistant professor at the UA, is working with his team to develop a tiny chip that attaches directly to the surface of a bone. The device could be used after traumatic injuries or for patients with osteoporosis, collecting data to keep tabs on the healing of fractures and other elements of bone health. The device is as thin as a sheet of paper, does not need a battery and is made to work seamlessly with the body.
Gutruf considers his device “biosymbiotic,” not “biomimetic” (his goal is to integrate smoothly with the human body rather than imitate it). But he is still borrowing some of the body’s principles with the aim of creating a better biotech experience, a goal that shares many commonalities with biomimicry.
And seamless integration is a challenge because the body — including the surface of bone — is constantly regenerating, making it hard for any foreign objects to stick or stay put. Think of skin growing around a splinter.
Gutruf and his team addressed that challenge by attaching calcium particles to their chip, merging techniques of engineering and biology. The body perceives those calcium particles as part of the bone itself, eventually creating a permanent bond with the device.
That’s an approach that differs from many other medical devices ranging from pacemakers to Fitbits, which Gutruf says are often just iterations of a “box” that takes measurements or carries out a certain function with little regard for the context in which it will be used. He wants to move away from that, and toward devices that are more like us.
“It is much more natural to interact with these devices, because we are not a box. We are a soft, squishy thing that moves around this world,” he said.
Gutruf acknowledged that some people may be skeptical of devices that merge so seamlessly with the body. The data his team’s device collects doesn’t leave the device, he noted, partly for practical engineering reasons and partly for better data security. He thinks that acknowledging the psychological effects of technology as well as just the physical aspects is key to creating a better experience for users.
“We do interact a lot with patients, and we also try to engage social scientists, to … be more mindful with how we create technology to have the best possible integration with the body,” he said.
It’s a goal that he hopes other engineers will consider as medical technology progresses.
“Taking the human that is using these devices into account really then helps to create devices ultimately with more impact on society,” Gutruf said.
New ways of thinking, from graphic design to insect-inspired robots
Kim, Gutruf and other engineers who create devices focused on the human body aren’t the only ones borrowing from biology. Michelle Fehler, a clinical assistant professor at ASU’s design school who teaches in the biomimicry master’s program, described how nature sets a benchmark for her teaching, with a list of goals she and other biomimics call “Life’s Principles.”
Fehler says nearly all organisms on the planet meet that design criteria, a set of 26 principles (including ones like resource efficiency and “life-friendly chemistry'') outlined by Biomimicry 3.8, a bio-inspired consultancy group. Homo sapiens, she says, tend to be the exception.
“In our design solutions and human interventions, we tend to fulfill three to five (of the 26 Life’s Principles). And a solution that fulfills five of those is actually (considered) a very successful, innovative and regenerative kind of solution. So we have a lot of work to do,” she said.
She said learning to think this way is often a shift for her students, who are used to finding design solutions in a human context.
“It’s not possible to go out into nature and say, ‘nature, how do you design water bottles?’ Because nature doesn't design water bottles. What nature does, though, is it has strategies to collect water or funnel water, or release water or store water or transport water,” she said. By defining the problem in nature’s terms, she says, designers can find better ways to translate between the biological and human worlds.
Beyond just introducing the potential for better designs, Fehler said she sees biomimicry as a salve in an era of climate crisis, at a time when students feel immense pressure to find system-level solutions through their work. She says using concrete principles found in the natural world helps the students break down large, complex problems that might otherwise feel paralyzing for individual designers.
“Last year, for the first time, I had to bring in the topic of anxiety and eco-grief because it is super overwhelming. And the new generation that are my students are definitely drowning in worry,” she said.
To combat that worry, she said, reconnecting with the outside world is a must, regardless of profession.
“I would love to see every job description in this world to include time outdoors as part of the daily activities,” Fehler said. Something as simple as watching bees — observing how they fly and move from one flower to another — can “provide some insight on what is happening around us, and connect (us) to it, so that we can protect it more in all of our decisions.”
Fehler isn’t the only one watching bees. Jekan Thanga, an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the UA, takes inspiration from insects, particularly “eusocial,” or highly organized social species like ants, termites and bees. And he’s using that biomimicry to create teams of robots that may one day help us explore outer space.
Biology is full of “principles that we consider sort of superior to our own engineering methods,” he said.
Which brings us back to the termite mounds. Certain termites build structures known as “cathedral mounds,” Thanga said, some of which can be far taller than the average human. They also form a complex ventilation system, channeling airflow to create a perfectly cool and moist inner environment. And, to top it off, that cozy abode shelters a self-sustaining food system: The fungi that grow inside the termite mounds provide services for the colony that lives within.
But perhaps even more impressive than the termites’ construction know-how, or their agricultural acumen, is their ability to work together. Thanga said the termites have solved a problem that robot engineers are just starting on. Programming a single robot is one thing. Getting five, 10 or more to cooperate is another story.
“We realized very quickly that our current theory, particularly with multiple robot systems, is quite limited, that it falls flat very quickly,” he said. “And so we look towards these insects for how they're organized.”
One day, Thanga hopes that teams of robots could be deployed to mine for natural resources on asteroids or the surface of the moon. And like Fehler, Thanga sees his research and methods as a response to the pressures of the modern world, including climate change and resource limitations. But instead of focusing on Earth, he thinks humans should push to become an interplanetary species.
“All of these factors (threats like climate change and resource limitation), I think, forces us to want to think about a second place outside of Earth apart from just curiosity about what's out there,” he said.
But while Thanga looks to the stars, other biomimics see Earth itself as the focus of their work.
Addressing sustainability and equity challenges
Baumeister, of ASU, defines biomimicry as a “conscious emulation of nature’s genius,” and calls it an emerging discipline of an ancient practice. She says its growing popularity makes it an appealing framework for presenting sustainable and human-centered technologies to corporate boardrooms that might not have gained traction even just a few years ago.
“The beauty of biomimicry is it is a bridge between innovative, creative thinking exploration that is palatable to modernists, but it is grounded in our success as a species for the first three hundred thousand years,” Baumeister said.
It’s a tactic that she acknowledges has potential pitfalls. As biomimicry gains traction, it can also be deployed by actors who might just want the optics of “green tech” rather than meaningful solutions. But for every example of “bio-washing” (Baumeister’s spin on “greenwashing,” a term used to describe products and businesses that make sustainability claims without the evidence to back it up), she says there are researchers committed to the process of biomimicry, which is a science as well as an art.
“There's a reason why we have a two-year master's degree. It's not like you can just pick the flavor-of-the-week organism and (say), ‘I'm going to mimic this,’” Baumeister said. “There is a discipline to it. It's important (for) the science (to) have integrity.”
Melissa K. Nelson, another professor in the school of sustainability at ASU, agrees that there has to be more nuance to biomimicry than “calling it biomimetic because there’s a curve on it,” as she puts it. She relates the practice to the concept scholars sometimes call traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Nelson says biomimicry and TEK invoke an Indigenous mode of thinking that extends beyond science and engineering into an ethical code that values natural systems.
“A lot of modern engineers and scientists who like the idea of biomimicry to make more innovative efficient patents (or) designs, (they’re) still missing the point,” Nelson said. “Are we just exploiting (nature) or appropriating it, you know, to create a new product? And is that product really going to have (a) benefit back to the environment and benefit for people?”
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Many leaders of the biomimicry movement are women, who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, she said.
“Western science traditionally has been led by mainly European men (who) distanced ourselves from nature and considered nature more of a machine, or something dead and inert that we can manipulate and control,” Nelson said. She said she has yet to see significant numbers of people from Indigenous or other underrepresented communities join the contemporary field of biomimicry.
A biologist and ecologist by training, Nelson has also studied religion, literature and Indigenous studies. For her, biomimicry is a way to pull together her expertise in a wide variety of fields, and to bring her voice to an arena that has been historically dominated by European men.
“There’s many different ways of talking about it, but (what’s) important is embracing these knowledge systems together,” said Nelson, noting that while western science has yielded many groundbreaking advances, it can come up short when applied to long-term ethical considerations for future generations.
“There's a tension … but it's also exciting that there's more (of western and Indigenous science) coming together because of the pandemic and climate change,” she said. “I mean, life is very fragile right now, and people are realizing that. So it's a time for change.”
Independent coverage of bioscience in Arizona is supported by a grant from the Flinn Foundation.
Melina Walling is a bioscience reporter who covers COVID-19, health, technology, agriculture and the environment. You can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MelinaWalling.