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Intelligent design

April 16, 2018

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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.

Observing nature made the bullet train better.

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 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.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2018