banner by Helen Richard

Mother (Nature) Knows Best

by Austin Kuntz

Humanity has long seen itself as the most important species, the top of the food chain or otherwise as the masters of the earth. Although human intelligence is impressive, every other species is a complex biological system with adaptations that have allowed them to flourish even with domineering species like Homo sapiens roaming the earth. Scientific innovation is often seen as a result of human intellect, but it can happen through the observation of other species’ traits as well. This study of nature to solve human problems is called biomimicry, and recent developments show a promising trend for biomimicry as a research method. Species that survive pass down their traits and over time develop sophisticated biological mechanisms that allow them to thrive in their environment. If nature has already created and tested these survival systems, why not use what already works?

For example, scientific observation of hedgehogs has found that in their natural environment, they tend to fall from tall trees quite often. Whether they were looking for food, running from predators or just trying to get around, falling is an everyday part of a hedgehog’s life. As a defense to their own clumsiness, hedgehog spines function as a sort of crash helmet to absorb the impact from a large fall. A new company, Hedgemon, located in Akron, OH, plans to use this aspect of the hedgehog’s biology to improve several types of sports helmets in an attempt to prevent concussions.

Current helmets for sports, such as cycling or football are lacking in shock absorption for impacts involving rotational motion. To understand the difference in a rotational impact, picture a ball. Imagine the difference between dropping the ball straight to the ground and dropping it with a spin; that spin on the ball is going to make it bounce off into one direction because of that added rotational force. That same added rotational force is present when, for example, a receiver’s head is hitting the ground after being tackled mid-air. In a study done by Hedgemon in August 2016, a hedgehog inspired design was found to add protection against a rotational fall. After all, a terrified ball of quills falling 30 feet from a tree wouldn’t exactly fall straight, and neither do most athletes who sustain concussions.

Approaching innovation through biomimicry can help us adapt to situations much more foreign to us than falling, however. In July of 2016, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sought to create a wetsuit that would help a swimmer retain body heat while keeping them agile in the water. The team decided to look more closely at semi-aquatic mammals like otters or beavers to find a solution. These creatures have stayed warm and nimble in the water for millions of years, so scientists started their research by looking at their fur, which are essentially natural wetsuits. They found that the secret to how our furry friends stay warm lies in how air is trapped in between their hairs. As an otter or beaver dives, more warm air is trapped within their fur depending on how fast the dive is.

By creating a synthetic fur sample, the MIT team was able to create a precise mathematical model to define this association between the speed of the dive and the amount of air trapped. While no full suit has been completed yet, this mathematical model does allow for easier customization of wetsuits. Basically, developers can use this model to adjust how much agility they want to sacrifice for warmth by adding hair like structures. As stated by the co-author of the study Dr. Anette Hosoi, “Of course, you could make a very hairy wetsuit that looks like Cookie Monster and it would probably trap air, but that's probably not the best way to go about it.”      

Studying the biomechanics of hedgehogs and otters can help us develop tools to better interact with our environment, but by going deeper into animal biology we could solve more fundamental human problems. To combat things like disease and pain, the biology of the naked mole rat has been intensely studied. While its appearance is not as endearing as the hedgehog or otter, it's what’s on the inside that counts for the naked mole rat.

For years, the naked mole rat’s near complete resistance to cancer has inspired researchers, but more recently it was found that the naked mole rat is also resistant to pain. In October of 2016, Researchers at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany, found that naked mole rats aren’t as sensitive to pain as other mammals. In the human nervous system, damaged cells release a chemical signal to nearby pain receptors, which in turn send signals to other cells to become more sensitive. The pain receptors on cells effectively tell nearby cells to turn up the volume on the pain. In the naked mole rats, this signaling to amplify the pain signal is not nearly as strong, allowing the naked mole rat to feel less severe lingering pain. By copying the neurological pain pathway in naked mole rats, it could be possible to make more sophisticated pain drugs that can more specifically alter how pain is perceived by the pain receptors.

Going along a different avenue of science with an equally unappealing creature is the study of two tarantula species Poecilotheria metallica and Lampropelma violaceopes, both blue species. Just calling them “blue” however, does not do these species justice. The color of these tarantulas is vibrant and non-iridescent, so it does not change color depending on the angle of view. Why tarantulas, a creature with poor eyesight, developed such a striking color on their hair was a mystery to science, so researchers dug deeper. The answer for how the color benefits the tarantula still isn’t answered, but it is clear how this color can help us. In October of 2016, a team of researchers at the University of Akron, in Akron, OH found that the non-iridescence is due to the repeating nanostructure of the hairs. This gives the color a viewing angle of 160 degrees, which is the angle at which the color does not change. This angle is greater than that of any other synthetic structural color. Development of structural colors is important because it can optimize display on screens and replace toxic dyes.

There may be a sizable gap in intelligence between humans and the rest of Earth’s species, but we still have a lot to learn from those with whom we share this earth. The world is littered with species with precise biological adaptations that may solve a problem through an approach we never thought about. Mother Nature is the world’s greatest engineer, and there’s a lot we can learn from her.