8 Useful Technologies Inspired by Nature

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. 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. 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 re-form. 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. 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%. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you by our patrons on
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