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We're pretty good at inventing things, but stealing from nature is a great way to solve some problems!

Hosted by: Michael Aranda

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Mosquito Needle

Waterproof Glue

Cleaner Surfaces

Turbine Blades

Turbine Placement

Green Concrete




 Intro (0:00)

Michael: Humans are incredibly good at inventing stuff. I mean, just in the last 50 years, we’ve come up with technology that’s totally transformed our world, like cell phones and the internet. But natural selection has been solving problems for billions of years, and it’s led to some super efficient solutions.

So lots of researchers look to nature for solutions that we might not have thought of on our own. Here are 8 of the coolest ideas we’ve borrowed.

 A Less Painful Needle (0:26)

Mosquito bites are, like, unquestionably awful. But have you ever noticed you rarely feel the actual bite? It’s the mosquito’s saliva that makes you itch--and delivers diseases. But if there’s one good thing mosquitos have ever done for humanity, it’s inspiring scientists to design less painful injection needles.

A mosquito’s proboscis, the part it bites you with, is made up of seven different movable parts. Two of those parts hold hold onto your skin, while two more carefully saw through, making way for the “straw” part to dive in and suck up your blood. I mean, it sounds horrible, but it is less painful than just jabbing into your skin.

So in 2008, a team of Indian and Japanese scientists copied the size of a female mosquito proboscis to make a tiny needle with a tiny pump to suck up blood. Its size, combined with the pump, makes getting poked practically painless. Then, in 2011, a second group copied three of mosquitos’ seven moveable mouthparts to make a motorized needle that pokes first with one tiny saw, then the other, while vibrating slightly to ease into the skin.

That makes way for the sharp straw to draw blood or deliver medicine. The serrated edges of the saws make less contact with your skin than a regular hypodermic needle, so you feel less pain.

 Waterproof Glue (1:32)

Another animal that’s helping with healthcare? The mussel.

Mussels stick themselves to all kinds of underwater surfaces, like rocks, piers, and boats, with glue that they make. And not only is this glue waterproof it’ll actually set underwater, and repair itself if the bond is broken.

Researchers studying mussel glue have identified some of the specific proteins that make it stick, and the research has inspired all kinds of new glues, like a new waterproof, less-toxic glue for plywood. And in 2014, a team at MIT genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce some of the gluey proteins, combined with the proteins the bacteria use to produce biofilm. They ended up with a glue that works underwater, just like natural mussel glue.

At this point the researchers can only make small amounts of the glue at a time, but the stuff could eventually be used for everything from repairing ships to sticking people back together during surgery. There's also a Danish team working on synthesizing a glue based on mussel proteins one that does more than work underwater. It also repairs itself like mussel glue.

Mussel glue contains an amino acid that bonds very strongly to iron - so strongly that even if the bond is broken, it’ll reform. The Danish researchers’ glue is designed to do the same thing. The glue is still in development, but it’s the kind of thing that could also someday be useful for surgeries or any other situation where you could use a waterproof glue that can fix itself.

 Cleaner, Safer Surfaces (2:40)

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten up-close-and-personal with a shark. But if you decided to pet one for some reason, you’d probably notice that its skin is sandpaper-rough. That’s because it’s covered in tiny, tooth-like denticles, which help sharks both swim faster and stay clean of parasites and bacteria.

The denticles affect the flow of water around the shark, which reduces the friction as it moves through the water, allowing it to swim faster. The concept has inspired high-tech swimsuits, where the fabric is designed to have the same kinds of tiny bumps. And researchers are also working on ways to use shark skin’s adaptations to keep ships clean of clingers and hospitals surfaces safer from germs.

The microscopic surface of shark denticles is covered in ridges whose shape makes it hard for parasites and bacteria to get a grip. By copying that texture, one company created a material that, compared to a smooth surface, reduces the presence of MRSA bacteria by 94%.

 Wind Turbine Blades (3:31)

Like sharks, whales are pretty great swimmers. And some whales have bumps that help them out, too. Humpback whales zoom through the ocean hunting schools of fish. But they can’t just scoop up big mouthfuls like blue whales do with plankton, because fish tend to swim away when you try to eat them.

So humpbacks use a technique called bubble net feeding. They use their giant flippers like airplane wings to swim in tight circles while blowing bubbles, which concentrates the school of fish so the whale can just swim up through the middle and swallow them. That got scientists wondering why on earth there are knobs and bumps, called tubercles, on the leading edge of humpback whales’ flippers.

It turns out that those knobs and bumps can make lots of flipper or wing-like things more efficient by funneling water or air into the troughs between the bumps on the wing. Putting the bumps on wind turbine blades lets them turn more wind energy into electric energy. And sticking them on airplane wings could make them more efficient and less likely to stall.

They could make surfboards more maneuverable, and fan blades quieter and more efficient. Researchers are trying them out on everything from submarines to kayak paddles.

 Wind Turbuine Placement (4:29)

There’s another more wind turbine innovation inspired by marine inhabitants. Specifically, it’s modeled after the way fish form schools. Those tall wind turbines with blades known as horizontal axis wind turbines can’t be too close to each other, or they interfere with each others’ air dynamics. The closer together they are, the more they interfere, which limits the amount of energy they can produce over a given area of space.

But schooling fish swim very close together without interfering with the water around each other, which made scientists wonder if fishy physics could be the key to compact wind farms. And it is.

Vertical axis wind turbines are turbines with shorter blades that spin around the pole. By themselves, these turbines generate less energy than horizontal axis turbines. But they interact with the air in a way that’s similar to how schooling fish interact with water, and researchers have used the similarities to apply what they’ve seen in schooling fish to the way the turbines are arranged.

That means the turbines can be packed closer together, which takes up less room so you can get more electricity out of the space you have available.

 Earth-Friendly Concrete (5:25)

Coral are great builders. Tiny individual animals, called coral polyps, build up the structural skeleton of coral reefs by producing calcium carbonate, otherwise known as limestone. And they use the carbon dioxide in ocean water as part of their building process.

We humans like to build lots of things with concrete. But unfortunately for us and coral reefs and the whole planet, manufacturing cement, a main ingredient in concrete, produces about 5% of all the carbon dioxide we pump into the environment every year. Which is... not great.

But inspired by the way corals build their skeletons, companies are working on ways to incorporate carbon dioxide into building materials like cement and cement board. Normally, making a ton of cement produces about a ton of carbon dioxide. But using carbon dioxide in the cement itself can reduce those emissions by anywhere from 5 to 40%.

And—bonus!—some of these CO2-infused building materials are stronger than the original recipe. Different companies have created versions of this so-called “green concrete,” but right now they’re still working on developing the process so it can be scaled up.

 Vaccine Preservation (6:20)

Waterbears do it. Jericho roses do it. Even Brewer’s yeast does it. I’m talking about the ability to survive your cells being dried out.

Usually, cells don’t like to be dried out. They lodge their complaints by dying. Permanently. But some cells—like those of waterbears and Jericho roses, aka “resurrection plants”—take it in stride. To bring them back, you can just add water! Researchers studied this ability and found that the secret seems to be a protective sugar called trehalose that allows cells to lose their water without being damaged.

One potentially life-saving use for trehalose is to preserve vaccines, which otherwise have to be protected from heat and drying out while they’re being transported. Every vaccine recommended by the World Health Organization requires protection from heat, making hauling them long distances difficult and expensive. Scientists have been working on this for over 20 years, and it seems to really work.

One 2010 study, for example, used trehalose to stabilize a flu vaccine so it would work with a microneedle that even someone with little or no training could use to deliver the vaccine. The researchers found that when they included trehalose to stabilize the vaccine, it was more effective at protecting against the flu.

 Hook and Loop Fasteners (7:27)

Velcro might seem like a simple way to stick things together. But it actually wasn’t invented until the 1940s, when a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral went on a hunting trip with his dog, and burrs from burdock plants got stuck to his pants and to his dog’s fur.

Sticky burrs have probably been annoying people for thousands of years, but they gave de Mestral an idea: What if he could use burrs to create a sort of reusable adhesive? He decided to check out the burrs under a microscope, and he saw that they were covered in tiny hooks, which explained why they were so great at sticking to stuff.

He recreated the hooked ends of the burrs, which became the rough half of the Velcro. The other, softer side was made of loops for the hooks to grab onto. By the late 1950s, he’d patented and started selling his invention.

And then NASA started buying it. They knew things would just sort of float around in orbit, and astronauts needed an easy way to stick things to walls so they’d stay put, but could also be easily detached. Velcro was the perfect solution.

People also started using it for things like sports equipment and blood pressure cuffs. And, of course, awesome sneakers. All because de Mestral was inspired by those annoying, sticky burrs.

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