The Best of Biomimicry

April 14, 2013

As the name implies, biomimicry is the discipline of designing products by mimicking phenomena that already exist in biology and nature.  The best-known example of this approach is Velcro, which was developed in the 1940s by engineer George De Mestral when he noticed burrs clinging to his dog’s fur after a walk in the woods. It took him more than a decade to perfect the manufacturing process, reinforcing how difficult it is to mimic even seemingly simple natural phenomena.

I was inspired to learn more by Janine Benyus’ ‘The Promise of Biomimicry’ TED talk.

Since watching that talk, I have read about dozens of biomimicry examples, including:

  • the Shinkansen bullet train that emulates the kingfisher’s beak so it travels more quietly at very high speeds (LINK),
  • wind turbines that are more efficient because they mimic whale fins (LINK),
  • self-healing plastics that fix themselves by creating a ‘scab’ much like humans do when they get a cut (LINK), and
  • high-rise buildings that cool and heat themselves by imitating termite mounds (LINK).

I have been most fascinated by the use of biomimicry in medicine. For example, while researching alternatives to toxic paints that discourage the growth of barnacles on ship hulls, University of Florida scientists noticed that Galapagos sharks do not suffer from this problem. Further investigation proved a microscopic pattern on the sharks’ scales make them naturally resistant to bacteria.

When this pattern is commercially replicated onto surface coverings for hospital countertops and bathroom doors, bacteria growth is reduced by a staggering 80%. This approach now seems like the most promising way to stem the tide of drug-resistant bacteria MRSA and C-diff, the so-called superbugs that cause difficult-to-treat infections in hospitals.

By some accounts, MRSA and C-diff kill more than 30,000 people per year in the U.S. Despite tens of millions of dollars of drug research, the solution may lie in mimicking the scales of a shark.

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