Learning From Nature

A bio-inspired strategy for addressing the key issues in future human development

Examples of bio-inspired strategies: (a) “King of the sea”: shark, (b) Rattlesnake with infrared induction, (c) Bat using ultrasonic positioning, (d) Swimsuit with shark skin structure, (e) Rattlesnake missile with infrared tracking function, (f) Radar using electromagnetic wave positioning. Figure is copied from 于存明:中国科学院大学博士论文

Have you ever looked to the sky and wondered why birds can fly? Or perhaps why the leaves of cacti are needle like1,2? After billions of years of evolution, natural species have developed intriguing survival skills to adapt to cruel environments. A few more examples: shark scales reduce water resistance allowing the shark to swim up to 60 km/h; bats emit ultrasonic waves to locate targets, assisting them when hunting in the dark; and the lotus leaf has a special microstructure that allows it to keep clean despite growing in sullage3-6.

While this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Nature, human beings have been studying nature for far more than 150 years. From animal teeth to spears, fish fins to paddles, humans have studied biology not only to satisfy their curiosity but, more importantly, to learn from it to develop technology. Nowadays, people draw inspiration from nature to create things such as a shark-skin swimsuit that increases swimming speeds, a bat-inspired sonar to locate targets, and self-cleaning clothes that are mimic lotus leaves4,7. These ideas, utilizing biological methods and natural systems to design modern technology or engineering, are so-called bio-inspired or bionic strategies. Nature’s wisdom is endless, and many issues faced by humanity have been skilfully solved using nature’s mechanisms. Herein, the question is, what future issues can humanity address using bionic strategies?

Bionic strategies can contribute to society’s demand for a higher quality of life. Stemming from the idea of imitating birds and insects, the Wright brothers invented the first powered airplane to achieve humanity’s desire to fly. Consequently, airplanes have been a crucial form of transportation. In the future, inspired by the natural world, scientists can come up with ideas to design eco-friendly and advanced bionic technologies, making our lives more convenient and comfortable. For instance, due to mechanically mismatching, the prosthetic limbs which are directly attached to human body may cause the pain and infection. Let us see natural instance for dealing with such problems: the squid beak can connect with the soft body without interfacial damage owing to the gradient hardness distribution8. Thus, instead of suffering from frequent replacement, is it possible to develop a similar bionic therapeutic device to promote the wearability of prosthetic limbs? Likewise, instead of taking part in burdensome tasks, is it possible that a bionic robot be developed to promote the functions? When architects seek for inspirations of designs just by imagination, can they get ideas from the way that creatures such as ants and bees build their nests to achieve the high stability and save materials? … Bionic strategies will strongly impact our lifestyles in the future.

Bionic strategies can help expand the scope of human existence. For thousands of years, countless people have died in the desert because of the shortage of water. However, the desert is not a place where life is unfeasible. For example, there is a kind of desert beetle that can survive by utilizing tiny water droplets carried in the wind9. The cactus spines and spider silk can also collect water droplets using conical structure10. Based on this water collecting function, scientists have developed ‘fog collection systems’ which are expected to transform uninhabited deserts into liveable oases11-13. When human immigration to space becomes a reality, scientists not only have to figure out how to provide humans with water but also how to cope with the atmosphere, gravity and temperature. The best way for scientists to solve these issues is to learn from what creatures that live in extreme conditions on Earth. The fish and shrimp living in areas of magmatic activity deep in the sea can withstand high temperatures and pressures, and water bears can resist high-intensity cosmic ray radiation14-16. If scientists can figure out the mechanisms behind how these creatures live in extreme environments, it is possible to apply those mechanisms to increase the viability of extraterrestrial lives and help humans living in space. Consequently, it would relieve both the heavy burden of the increasing population and the rigorous challenge of reduced resources.

Bionic strategies can coordinate the relationship between humans and nature, thus contributing to solving resource and ecological problems. Since the industrial revolution, urban expansion and conventional production have been using up water and rendering prominent ecological disasters like water shortage and pollution. Nowadays, scientists implement “sponge” cities to address this challenge. Sponge cities propose the use of ecological drainage systems that operate in a manner like a sponge to achieve equitable regulation of urban water resources17. Currently, the nationwide sponge city programme in China has been expanded to over 30 cities. Similar to deserts, rainforests have barren soil. However, because of their unique closed-loop systems, rainforests have highly developed ecosystems with extensive biodiversity and splendid stability18. When it comes to future design of the infrastructure and industrial production of urban civilizations, it is reasonable to suggest that humanity learns from natural formulation to create coordinated municipal constructions that can demonstrate eco-friendly resource cycling properties. Moreover, the whole society is fighting against the lack of food and green-house effect. And the photosynthesis processes the normal approach for plants to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen and nutrients. Naturally, it is possible that the bionic technologies based on the utilization of photosynthesis could be the key to solve these problems19,20.

What is the future of the scientific world? When envisioning a scientific world people may first think of computers, networks, medicine, environments or astrophysics. In my opinion, the future of the scientific world belongs to nature. Although many phenomena in nature are ubiquitous, scientists should take notice of the extraordinary and utilize the natural models to improve engineering, architecture, urban planning, computing, healthcare, chemistry, robotics and product design. Soon, bionic scientific advancements will flourish. In the future, when human beings encounter imminent problems of vital importance, it is feasible to turn to nature for solutions, because the most advanced technological ideas come from the vast natural world.

Reference

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  13. Li, K. et al. Structured cone arrays for continuous and effective collection of micron-sized oil droplets from water. Nature Communications 4, (2013).
  14. Connelly, D. et al. Hydrothermal vent fields and chemosynthetic biota on the world’s deepest seafloor spreading centre. Nature Communications 3, (2012).
  15. Hashimoto, T. et al. Extremotolerant tardigrade genome and improved radiotolerance of human cultured cells by tardigrade-unique protein. Nature Communications 7, 12808 (2016).
  16. Rothschild, L. & Mancinelli, R. Life in extreme environments. Nature 409, 1092–1101 (2001).
  17. Chan, F. et al. “Sponge City” in China—A breakthrough of planning and flood risk management in the urban context. Land Use Policy 76, 772-778 (2018).
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Xiao Xiao (肖潇)
Xiao Xiao (肖潇)
PhD student

My research focuses on bioelectronics, bioinspired materials, as well as nanotechnology for energy and healthcare applications.