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Barnacles start out their lives swimming around the ocean, but as they grow older they ultimately live a sessile life, so they need to choose their anchor site wisely.  Some cement themselves to reefs, bellies of whales, and others yet pick the hulls of boats.  The latter can be somewhat of a nuisance, as the buildup of colonies of barnacles on boats can create unwanted drag.  The barnacle removal process often involves a pricey dry docking (removal of the boat from the water) to then scrape the hull off.

What about a much less expensive alternative?

Researchers at Duke (1)  have studied the barnacle cement to better understand their mechanism for adhesion.  It turns out that it is very similar to our mode of blood clotting.  When we get a cut or scrape, certain elements in our blood help clot off the injury site to avoid blood loss.  These same clotting factors help adhere the barnacle to the hulls of boats.

Clots are not always beneficial in humans.  A blood clot can break away from a wound site, and cause blockage in small blood vessels; this is an ebollism.  To avoid embolisms, there are drugs in a class called anticoagulants.  These include heparin and coumadin to name a few.

If barnacles adhere by a mechanism similar to blood clotting, it would make sense that a coating or paint with similar properties to anticoagulants would reduce, if not eliminate, barnacle growth on the hulls of boats.  To my knowledge there are no companies working on this technology.

(1) Dickinson GH, Vega IE, Wahl KJ, et. al.  Barnacle cement: a polymerization model based on evolutionary concepts. J Exp Biol 212: 3499-3510, 2009.


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Horseshoe crabs have a wonderful secret buried under their shell.  They have blue blood.  This blood is special, not only in color, but in function as well.  The reason for it’s blue sheen is due to the copper it uses to bind oxygen, rather than iron which we have in hemoglobin in our blood (red coloration).  Apart from the blue coloration, the blood has extreme sensitivity to pathogens, or foreign contaminants.  When E.coli comes in contact with horseshoe crab blood, it immediately forms clots.  The reason for these clots is a compound in the blood called LAL (Limulus Amebocyte Lysate) which is extremely sensitive to foreign fungi, viruses and bacteria.

As a result the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any new drug be tested using LAL to ensure there is no bacterial contamination.  Surgical implants require a similar test as well.  The blood, as a result, has become extremely valuable ($15,000 a quart).

The harvesting process involves capturing the horseshoe crabs, removing 30% of their blood and returning them to their natural habitat.  This blood volume then recovers within 3 days.  The process is not perfect, as 10-15% of the subjects do not survive bleeding.

LAL is another wonderful example of why we should always consult nature when attempting to solve large problems, as nature’s evolutionary forces have been working for a much greater length of time than we humans have been technologically adept.

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A small rodent species, naked mole rat has emerged in science recently, and albeit not too cute, they might hold the cure to cancer.

These guys seem to be immune to cancer.  With an average lifespan of 30-years, and no documented tumors, this is exciting news to researchers in medicine.

In human tissues, cells can sometimes go haywire, and reproduce uncontrollably.  There are several reasons this may occur, but the body has a difficult time controlling the excessive growth.  This often results in tumors.

Naked mole rats, however,  have a special defense… a gene called p16.  P16 is expressed when excessive cell growth is detected, and in turn inhibits continued growth.  This is unique to these rodents, and could be the key to curing cancer.  Researchers at Rochester are continuing to study these genes, and are searching for an effective means of translation into humans.

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Festo, an automation company out of Germany, has developed two devices: The AquaJelly and AirJelly.  Inspired by the motion of jellyfish underwater, Festo was able to design, in their own words, “an artificial autonomous jellyfish with an electric drive and an intelligent, adaptive mechanical system,”  or in my opinion Autobot Jellyfish!

The elegance is apparent, and the utility of these autobots could extend from measuring air and oceanic pollution levels wirelessly, to actually cleaning up contaminated environments.  BP could really use a massive army of these water Roombas right now to help clean up their little mess.

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Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from your heart, and veins help return the blood to the heart.  The delivery of oxygen is extremely important, so the arterial side of your circulatory system runs on a much higher pressure than the venous side.  As a result, a weakening of the arterial walls can occur over time, which leads to ballooning and eventual rupture.  If this process occurs in the head it is called a cerebral aneurysm (pictured below).

Cerebral Aneurysm

Rupture of this ballooning structure can lead to fatal bleeding out in the brain (hemorrhage).  Cerebral aneurysms are fairly common, and in the US alone, there are more than 10 million people affected (1).  A stent is a rigid structure placed inside the arteries to provide support, and prevent the hemorrhage from occurring.

What does this all have to do with bio-inspired?

Lace Fern

Researchers at the University of Oxford have been inspired by the lace fern’s branching structure to create a much more efficient stent (2).  The design, in essence, is a series of “leaves” all connected by “stems” in an entire chain seen below.

Nitinol etched leaf stent

This chain is originally coiled, and as it is inserted into the artery, it self deploys, as if it were an unfolding fern frond, and ultimately should prevent hemorrhage from occurring.  The development team is currently trying to commercialize through Oxford’s spin-off company Isis Innovation.

Stent self deploying procedure

1. Jonathan, L.B., Joon, K.S., and David, W.N., 2006, “Cerebral Aneurysms,” N Engl J Med, Vol. 355, pp. 928-939

2. Zhou, X., You, Z., Byrne, J. “Bio-inspired Leaf Stent for Direct Treatment of Cerebral Aneurysms.”  University of Oxford. zhong.you@eng.ox.ac.uk

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What do Butterflies and Pink Floyd have in common?

Butterflies do something cool… they make color without pigment.  Light hits a butterfly, and then is then split into its component parts like the prism seen on Dark Side of the Moon’s cover.

The new Mirasol display from Qualcomm was inspired by the butterfly, and through a large pattern of tiny little mirrors they are able to create color displays from ambient light.  This leads to a dramatic reduction in power consumption, and as a result, this display is perfectly suited for use in personal cell phones, and other portable electronic devices.

More and more companies are mimicking nature to make the best product possible… What could you invent on your next visit to the zoo?

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Natural Spirals

This spiral can be seen often in nature. Ferns, romanesco broccoli, sunflowers and even some succulent plant varieties as well. It is an efficient way of organizing, and is also esthetically pleasing. I would like to see the spiral become much more ubiquitous in modern design.

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