De­sign­ing our way to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place...

The Asian Age - - Edit - Zar­rar Khuhro By ar­range­ment with Dawn

The su­per­bugs are here to stay; sci­en­tists have been warn­ing that bac­te­ria are evolv­ing im­mu­ni­ties to com­monly used an­tibi­otics and that if this is not checked, these drug- re­sis­tant bac­te­ria could cause 10 mil­lion deaths by 2050AD.

So it’s no sur­prise that the world is scram­bling for a so­lu­tion: some are look­ing at house­flies and mag­gots for the next gen­er­a­tion of an­tibi­otics; the logic be­ing that crea­tures that live in and feed on de­cay­ing or­ganic ma­te­ri­als — hot­beds of bac­te­ria — with­out get­ting sick must have in­cred­i­bly ro­bust im­mune sys­tems.

Oth­ers are also look­ing at the in­sect king­dom but with a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach: tak­ing ci­cadas as their re­search sub­jects, Aus­tralian sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that the wings of these noisy crit­ters are highly re­sis­tant to bac­te­ria — not be­cause of some chem­i­cal they ex­crete but be­cause of their very de­sign.

Ci­cada wings are cov­ered in tiny spikes one thou­sandth of the thick­ness of a hu­man hair; when bac­te­ria or other mi­crobes try to land on the wings they are im­paled upon the spikes, which punc­ture their cell wall caus­ing a quick and pos­si­bly painful death.

Sci­en­tists are now plan­ning to mimic the de­sign of ci­cada wings to cre­ate anti- mi­cro­bial sur­faces that by virtue of their de­sign, are re­sis­tant to bac­te­ria.

Pos­si­ble ap­pli­ca­tions in­clude us­ing this to cre­ate pathogen- proof hos­pi­tal beds, bac­te­ria- re­sis­tant paint and even coat­ings for ar­ti­fi­cial joints. This is the fas­ci­nat­ing field of biomimet­ics or biomimicry, where de­signs that ex­ist in na­ture are used to solve hu­man prob­lems.

It’s been around longer than you think; take Vel­cro, which is used to fas­ten ev­ery­thing from shoe straps to bags and much more.

The in­spi­ra­tion for this now com­mon prod­uct came when, in the 1940s, a man called Ge­orge de Mes­tral was walk­ing his dog in the Swiss moun­tains and found that his pants, and his dogs fur, were both cov­ered in burrs.

An en­gi­neer and en­tre­pre­neur, he ex­am­ined the burrs un­der a mi­cro­scope and found that their tiny hooks fit per­fectly into the equally tiny loops of the fab­ric and de­cided to cre­ate a prod­uct that mim­icked this de­sign. And thus the ubiq­ui­tous Vel­cro was born.

Ob­serv­ing na­ture also made the bul­let train bet­ter; when Ja­panese de­sign­ers were look­ing at ways to re­design the shape of the train so as to avoid a sonic boom when it reached its top speed, one en­gi­neer, who was an avid bird­watcher, re­called that the king­fisher can dive into wa­ter at high speeds with­out caus­ing much of a splash and de­cided to de­sign the nose of the bul­let train along the lines of the king­fisher’s bill. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

If in the fu­ture you live in a build­ing that can stay cool in a scorch­ing sum­mer with­out air con­di­tion­ing, you’ll have to thank the hum­ble

Sci­en­tists are now plan­ning to mimic the de­sign of ci­cada wings to cre­ate anti- mi­cro­bial sur­faces that by virtue of their de­sign, are re­sis­tant to bac­te­ria. Pos­si­ble ap­pli­ca­tions in­clude us­ing this to cre­ate pathogen- proof hos­pi­tal beds, bac­te­ri­are­sis­tant paint...

ter­mite and its mound- build­ing skills.

These mounds, which can reach up to five me­tres, stay cool thanks to an in­ge­nious sys­tem of open­ing and clos­ing vents and are pro­vid­ing ar­chi­tec­tural in­spi­ra­tion for a rapidly warm­ing world.

And while driv­ing to this build­ing if you never get a flat tyre, then please salute the honey­bee and its hon­ey­comb, the hexag­o­nal shapes of which are in­spir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of tyres that don’t need air ( and thus can never go flat) and can even sur­vive an IED at­tack.

Want to live not just by, but on the wa­ter? Well thanks to re­search on fire ants and the in­cred­i­ble way they stay afloat by link­ing to­gether and form­ing rafts with their bod­ies that may too one day be pos­si­ble.

The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less: bone is stronger than steel on an ounce- by- ounce ba­sis and — if mim­icked — can pro­vide a lightweight and durable build­ing ma­te­rial. The same goes for eggshells and a host of other ma­te­ri­als.

It goes far be­yond sim­ply mim­ick­ing de­sign, and re­searchers are also fo­cus­ing on mim­ick­ing abil­i­ties like that of the ax­olotl sala­man­der which can re­gen­er­ate its limbs. If sci­en­tists crack this se­cret, it could po­ten­tially lead to a world where hu­mans could also re­grow lost limbs.

While this may be decades away, there is also work be­ing done on copy­ing the sonar and echolo­ca­tion sys­tem used by bats to en­able blind per­sons to “see” us­ing canes mim­ick­ing the bats’ abil­i­ties. And then of course, why sim­ply mimic na­ture when you can hack it?

Spi­der silk al­ready has one of the high­est ten­sile strengths of any sub­stance, and now sci­en­tists have fig­ured out how to make it even stronger by feed­ing spi­ders graphene — one of the strong­est ma­te­ri­als known to man — and thus tak­ing spi­der silk to a whole other level.

Mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion have pro­vided work­able mod­els all around us, wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered and har­nessed. The dan­ger is that at the rate at which we are los­ing bio­di­ver­sity and likely caus­ing the ex­tinc­tion of species that we haven’t even dis­cov­ered yet, we are los­ing those parts of the world that may just make this world a bet­ter place to live in.

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