• Piyumi Kapugeekiyana

Why biomimicry matters

"When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world."—Janine Benyus

In a nutshell, biomimicry is exactly what it sounds like. It's about emulating nature to develop sustainable products and processes to address human challenges.

The easiest way to understand biomimicry is through a simple example, like Velcro and the cockle-burs. Reportedly, the Velcro brand of hook and loop was invented by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who was intrigued by the natural design of the cockle-burs, a coarse, spiky plant. He first noticed the plants stuck to his trousers and his dog's fur after a day spent hunting in the Jura mountains. It made him curious about how they'd attached themselves and upon further study under a microscope, discovered the tiny hook-like shapes of the cockle-burs that became the inspiration for Velcro.

The Biomimicry Institute offers a growing trove of new examples across domains as diverse as architecture, communications, medicine and transportation. To wit, recent advances in biomimicry include learning from termites to create sustainable buildings, studying how dolphins send underwater signals, learning from mosquitoes to create 'nicer needles', fixing water leaks by studying everything from octopus to jellyfish and modeling trains after kingfishers (as in the case of Japan's Shinkasen)!

The mosquito example, in particular, truly throws me. I've not been a fan of the bloodsuckers since an episode of dengue but of course, there's more to them than meets the eye. Materials researchers and engineers at Kansai university in Japan actually noted how the unique structure of the mosquito's mouth makes for pretty painless bites and leveraged this understanding of biology and materials science to create a micro-needle that glides into the skin, much like a mosquito. A game-changer for anyone who has to undergo regular blood draws.

Researchers at the Imperial College and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK have applied similar techniques to show how a neurosurgical probe tipped with the same design can penetrate brain tissue with the least amount of force, enhancing the safety of brain biopsies and surgeries.

Biomimicry is worth understanding for so many reasons: the brilliant potential of our Universe, the untold applications of natural design for solving the greatest challenges of our time, the creativity of the people undertaking this research and the marvel of intelligent design.