A recent Wired article is an excellent collection of stories for teaching how nature uses chemical processes to make materials. With colorful photos and links to abstracts, science stories, and researchers, “Strange Biology Inspires the Best New Materials” provides a rich resource for exploring life-friendly chemistry.
The story can also lead to some interesting discussions about what are and aren’t processes and chemicals found in nature. For example, did you spot the two examples in the article that are NOT how nature does chemistry? Read on for the answer…
1) Spider silk: Nature would not use an organism (E. coli) to make another organism’s material, at least not directly. Sure, bacteria in our intestines break down food for us, which in turn creates tissues and provides energy. However, that’s a mutualistic relationship developed over millions of years. Putting E. coli to work making spider silk is not a natural process in nature.
2) Burr: Velcro is a classic example many use to help people grasp what biomimicry is. However, Velcro is made from petroleum products. The hooks and loops emulate nature, but not the material.
The article is an opportunity for critical thinking is asking, “Are these two examples biomimicry?” The spider silk one isn’t. It’s bioassisted. Whether or not it’s mal-adapted or well-adapted depends on the process and chemicals used. The second one is bio-inspired and some would be considered biomimicry. It’s definitely emulating nature in the way it emulates the hooks and loops of the burr. But it misses out on the Life’s Principle of using life-friendly chemistry. So maybe it’s biomimicry-lite. Many biomimetic products focus on emulating form in nature, but to really emulate the burr, this type of fastener should also look at how nature makes materials using life-friendly chemistry.