Looking at eggs differently makes them much more than just tasty

Getting a paper published isn’t easy, so when you succeed it’s one of those days that you’re fulfilled being a PhD student. You hope more of those days will come.

This paper, freely accessible on Biology Open’s website, has been a long effort. For the biology-centered journals the paper was too technical, and for the more engineering ones it was too biological. Not wanting to admit this might be a problem particular to this paper, I think it might be a general challenge for Biomimicry-focused research. The goal isn’t necessarily to answer a very in-depth biological question, nor to engineer an entirely new system, but rather to understand biological strategies well enough that they can inspire new designs. I believe with the growing Biomimicry community, there either needs to be a broadened focus of current journals or the formation of new, biomimicry-centered journals that realize the interdisciplinary nature of biomimicry research.

Figure1-pessFor the study titled “The cuticle modulates ultraviolet reflectance of avian eggshells” hidden patterns of eggshells were visualized with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and UV reflectance was measured before and after etching the cuticle, the outer most layer present on some eggshells. What triggered this research was the observation that some eggshells have very high UV reflectance, and the interest in how this could lead to new UV-protective materials.

The high energy of UV radiation hurts; we’ve all suffered from sunburn after a sunny, summer day. Many materials, including our skin, are UV-sensitive and need to be protected from high sun exposure. This is also true for avian eggshells, as the developing embryo can be damaged by UV light. It has been speculated that the colours of eggshells can act as a sun barrier because the pigments can absorb UV light. But what about white eggshells that lack pigmentation? This study shows that the cuticle absorbs UV light. This outer layer has a different chemical composition than the rest of the eggshell, and includes proteins and calcium phosphates that can selectively absorb UV light.

Eggshells are a great model system for inspiring innovative materials, because they are almost entirely made of calcium carbonate, a material that is totally harmless and naturally available in abundance. Next time you eat an egg, you might look at it differently.

Evolution and Biomimetics

Summer weather has finally made its way to northeast Ohio, and with it, another semester of classes has drawn to a close. One of the classes which most of the fellows took this semester was titled “Evolution and Biomimetics.” In the class, we read and discussed the ramifications of two books on how we understand biomimicry. The first was The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, and the second was Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptional Foundations of Evolutionary Biology by Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan.

The first book centers on the idea that science has reached a point in its knowledge where it must begin to consider problems from a more holistic, systemic view. The paradigm presented speaks to a vastly different culture of thought than is currently employed. The first chapters explain reductionist thought, which states that a large problem can be split into smaller problems which when individually solved will add up to a solution to the larger problem. Capra and Luisi suggest that many problems are non-linear, and must be consider as a whole. “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The authors then extend the idea to redefine the words life and cognition, and then examine how these new definitions changes the social sciences and economics.

With respect to biomimicry, the book prompts a question, which to me seems to be at the crux of how I personally define bioinspiration and biomimicry. To what degree must a practitioner adhere to the natural system which he or she examines in order to retain the benefit for the systemic problems which he or she solved? Nature solves the problems of material selection, processing, property optimization, and cradle to cradle sustainability. If we take an idea from nature but reduce it down to just one aspect, will we miss something very important? Not only on the matter of materials, but perhaps also from the standpoint of the function we are trying to mimic. The aspect which we study is part of the organism, which could have an interplay of structures and behaviors which produce the desired effect. This question leads perfectly to the discussion of the second book.

In Making Sense of Evolution, the authors claim that evolutionary biology is a much more complicated matter than the way it is currently treated, with respect to very common ideas such as G-matrices and fitness landscapes. The authors give the analogy of Indonesian Shadow Theater. We see the projection of shadows on the screen, but we do not know the shapes and structures which create what we see. We can create theories to describe what we see, but ultimately, we cannot look behind the curtain. The authors do not suggest that evolution is wrong. However, there are some specific aspects which need to be further examined so that the experiments and the knowledge derived from them can be properly understood.

One aspect of evolutionary biology which I learned about in the class was the idea of spandrels and “just so stories.” The spandrel is the flat decorated area of an arch in cathedral domes. We could claim that the spandrel was created to provide a place for more art. With the decoration that we see on all of the spandrels, that seems like a pretty likely answer. Of course, it could provide some structural factor as well, and would have been created as such. The analogy leads over to the complicated changing of traits over time. An organism is not one trait, but is the totality of all of its traits and the relations between its individual aspects. When we see a trait with some function, we could say that that trait was evolved for the function it currently has, but perhaps it was formed for something else first, and then began to be used for the function we see today.

The complicated nature of evolution leads to some questions which would be interesting and important for the biomimicry community to explore. For example, if we see a structure performing some function, does it matter if that structure was evolved by pressures selecting towards the function we see or by pressures which originally evolved the function for some other purpose? In other words, if that structure performs a function we desire, then we have an answer from nature on how to solve that problem. But it may not be the best solution to the problem if it was not originally selected for that function. Therefore, what examples from nature should we examine if we want to solve a problem? Should we look to the extreme examples from which we can hopefully be surer of the selective pressure? Or should we examine a local example for our application, which will see a similar environment? How does the interplay between informal selection (one trait interacting with one situation) and formal selection (the comparative growth rates of traits in a population) affect the solutions by which we should desire to examine? Would it be better to follow traits which grow faster in a population or choose traits which seem to better serve the function we desire (a single selective pressure), regardless of the growth rate in populations (a more systemic view)?

The questions go on and on. I will close with one more question which I think sums up the main idea from the class. Since we study 3.8 billion of years of R&D from nature in order to produce better solutions to the challenges we face, to what degree should we understand the process by which nature forms these traits and functions?

Biomimicry: What About the Why?

In her article, “Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry,” Freya Mathews argues that biomimicry is philosophically under-developed. The current objective of biomimicry is to reorganize what and how we make things, instead of why we make things. Focusing on the what and how presumes a shift in why (i.e. a shift in the maker’s mindset) will follow. It presumes that the act of emulating natural forms and processes delivers increased consciousness of the principles of natural systems, and eventually, behavioral alignment with those principles. But it is dangerous to presume a shift in why. Given the current state of our environment we assume far too great a risk by delaying attention to the why. To accelerate a mindset shift, we must address the following questions: Why do we make things? What optimal future state are we pursuing through biomimetic innovation? Answers to these questions will help us develop a more robust biomimicry philosophy.

If we derive inspiration for what and how we make from biological models, we should also derive inspiration for why we make by looking at principles of organization in biological systems. In her article, Mathews identifies two such principles. First is the principle of conativity, according to which biological beings strive to prolong their existence. Second is the principle of least resistance, whereby biological beings expend the least amount of energy in pursuit of conative ends by avoiding energy-intensive actions that impede the conativity of others. Most biological beings follow the path of least resistance instinctually, but humans, as uniquely reflexive beings, must make a conscious decision to pursue that which is beneficial to us in the short term AND conducive to life on Earth over the long term. We must choose NOT to pursue what is beneficial to us in the short term but threatens the livelihood of our biological brethren. Our choices cannot solely be based on strategic, market-driven imitation of natural forms and processes (current tenet of biomimicry), but also a commitment to ecological integration (future tenet of biomimicry), through alignment with the two principles of organization in biological systems that Mathews identifies. Generally speaking, our current behaviors embody the principle of conativity, but not the principle of least resistance, so the latter should be our focus.

Eastern philosophies like Taoism revere nature as mentor, and thus are a logical source to pull from as we devise a behavioral code of ethics that will support eco-integration. Taoism encourages alignment with natural energy flows – in other words, adherence to the principle of least resistance. Some modern Western environmental philosophies, like deep ecology, could also inform further development of biomimicry philosophy. Deep Ecology prescribes a widened concept of self, to include nature. When the concept of self includes nature, the principles of conativity and least resistance are inseparable, because caring for yourself is caring for nature as a whole, which implies avoiding actions that impede the conativity of others.

Permaculture is an example of an approach that adheres to both the principles of conativity and least resistance. Permaculturalists codesign with the land, creating resilient, self-sustaining agricultural systems that harmonize with the sun/shade, wind, and weather patterns of a particular place (least resistance). Permaculturalists facilitate biotic exchanges that lead to incredibly productivity (including food productivity – conativity), all without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A scene in the documentary Inhabitat: A Permaculture Perspective shows one permaculturalist growing shitake mushrooms from the branches of a fallen tree. As he explains, the fallen tree will decompose anyway, so that decomposition process might as well be orchestrated in such a way that it produces a nutritious food source.

For biomimicry to make its greatest impact, it is essential that we begin approaching its practice with a deep understanding of and sensitivity towards the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of nature. Can we borrow from the realms of Taoism, Deep Ecology, Permaculture, etc. to develop this capacity so that our actions better embody both the principle of conativity and the principle of least resistance?

 

A Weaving Of Thought

After a very difficult day where I’ve been up working way too late I find myself having to deal with a surprise sugar ant migration in my daughter’s bedroom by her bed. Apparently something clear, sticky and sweet had fallen between my daughter’s bed and the wall and lay forgotten to all but the most diminutive of explorers. Bringing in soapy water and vinegar to destroy pheromone trails I moved the bed out into the hall and wiped down the entire area. This was not the sort of conclusion to my day for which I had been hoping; I really don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings for ants. I remember being quite young when I first saw Disney’s The Jungle Book, and being oh so very relieved when Mowgli was unsuccessful in eating his first ant.

I was a big public T.V. (National Geographic’s nature documentaries) watcher. Growing up, Saturday morning cartoons always competed with African Safari adventures; however, when the documentaries on ants came up I realized very young that if I valued not jumping at every sudden itch and feeling like scrubbing my skin multiple hours long explorations of ant colonies was not meant to be in my future. This was added to by the fact that at one point around the age of six I came into the room while my parents were watching the Naked Jungle at the most optimally wrong moment (the mention of the Movie “Naked Jungle” and parents in the living room may bring to mind many possible uncomfortable moments but the movie is about hoards of army ants attacking Charlton Heston; “sadly the ants don’t wield guns”). Needless to say swarming ants were never one of my fascinations.

“Why” you should be asking “do you keep coming back to fun facts about insects?” This is a great question and one I found myself asking repeatedly as I was once again neck deep in insects, specifically, ants. I realized that it all boiled down to incomplete cycles, and insects’ ability to again and again offer the opportunity to close the loop.

Inherent in any developed society is the need and obtainment of a reliable, significant source of protein. More sources than I could possibly ever quote have established this. Knowing this, it can’t help but strike me as peculiar that in many cases we would choose a source and a method of obtaining protein that is not only inferior to another, less reliably available, but also so incredibly resource intensive. For instance, cows take “6 pounds of corn for one pound of beef”1 yet as mentioned in one of my previous blogs soldier fly larva are fed wastes i.e. slaughterhouse leftovers (degraded organic matter).

In place of consuming waste, imagine a source of protein that could aid in several types of crop production and save 408 million dollars a year in maintenance cost. The reality of these imaginings leads you to a species of my “Oh so favorite insect.” Weaver ants. Over the last thousand years in China the cultivation of weaver ants has led to an effective method of pest control and seasonal boom of an additional protein rich crop. The methods have been adopted by Thailand, some parts of Africa, and Australia.

Why? To illustrate let’s play a game; in this game you are a farmer, in front of you are two possible boards in which to play. For your pieces on these boards you may choose among the various citrus fruits, rice, or cashews. The rules should be fairly self explanatory.

Boards and pieces are displayed below feel free to print and cut out the boards and pieces so that you can get the full experience “you will have to provide the coin I’m not including that.”:

Use a coin on every flip move forward 1 space

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After playing the games a few times it would seem that the game boards tend to be fairly one sided. Since these boards are roughly modeled on the real world cycles I can’t claim too much credit for that. If you notice however one cycle propagates and continues and the the other simply breaks, one has been trial tested for thousands of years the other is a product of the 20th century. Taking that into account which is the superior system? If Charlton Heston had known could he have saved his farm by utilizing the invading force? “Probably not because he was battling super army ants not weavers.” The point remains, why not try the alternatives? If you’re not sure how to prepare your ants here is a favored Taiwanese recipe:

Stir Fried Weaver Ants Eggs Recipe2

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoon of vegetable oil
1 clove of garlic
1 stick of lemongrass, finely chopped
5-10 small Thai chilies
1 large mild red chili chopped into medium size pieces
3 chopped green onions
3 Thai eggplants
3 small red onions, (shallots)
2 handfuls of ant eggs (Kai Mod Daeng) Click here to order
Approx 1 to 2 teaspoon of fish sauce
1 kaffir lime leaf rolled and sliced thinly into slivers

Method:

Over the hot embers of a charcoal BBQ fire, place the egg plant, garlic, and chili to roast. You can use a standard home oven if you wish but BBQ’s taste better.
When they are cooked remove them from the BBQ or oven and allow them to cool.
Remove any black burnt pieces from the vegetables, then pound them to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, this paste is called ‘kheuang’ in Thailand.
Prepare the red onions by chopping them into regular pieces.
Place half of the cut onions, three crushed and diced garlic cloves, chopped lemon grass and 2 tablespoons of oil into a skillet or wok. Stir fry until the garlic starts to turn brown.
Add the fish sauce, ant eggs, three quarters of the green onions and the roasted pulp (kheuang) and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kaffir lime leaf pieces and give the dish a final stir over high heat, then transfer to a serving bowl.
Add the remaining red and green onion and mix it together or simply throw them on the top of the dish as a fresh garnish.
Serve immediately with glutinous (sticky) rice. It is eaten by rolling small balls of sticky rice and dipping them in the stir fried ant’s eggs.

This dish shouldn’t be over-cooked after the ant eggs are added.  The texture of the eggs should be comparable to a soft boiled chicken egg.

***

Still not sure about eating ants? I get that, I’m a vegetarian “And very grateful to be one.” Mostly though I think it’s long past time that we should look at the bigger picture and seriously consider what we are doing before we do it.

References

1 On average, how many pounds of corn make one pound of beef? … (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.extension.org/pages/35850/on-average-how-many-pounds-of-corn-make-one-pound-of-beef-assuming-an-all-grain-diet-from-background#.VT5eTiFVikp

2 Menu. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.thailandunique.com/weaver-ants-eggs-recipe

3 PENG, R. (2014). Weaver Ant Role in Cashew Orchards in Vietnam. JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC ENTOMOLOGY,107(4), 1330-1338.

4 CHAO, W. (2014, December 19). Spreading seeds of knowledge – Asia Weekly – China Daily. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from http://epaper.chinadailyasia.com/asia-weekly/article-3776.html

5 Roser, M. (2014, January 1). Fertilizer and Pesticides. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from http://ourworldindata.org/data/food-agriculture/fertilizer-and-pesticides/

6 Materu, C. (2014). Assessment of Oecophylla longinoda (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the Control of Mango Seed Weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae) in Mkuranga District Tanzania. Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare, 4(8), 44-48. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/gd6000/Downloads/12284-14636-1-PB.pdf

7 Siriamornpun, S. (2008). Insects as a Delicacy and a Nutritious Food in Thailand. In Using Food Science and Technology to Improve Nutrition and Promote National Development,. Mahasarakham: Department of Food Technology Faculty of Technology Mahasarakham University.

8 Mele, V. (2007). A historical review of research on the weaver ant Oecophylla in biological control Agricultural and Forest Entomology.

9 Holland, J. (2014, May 13). U.N. Urges Eating Insects; 8 Popular Bugs to Try. Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130514-edible-insects-entomophagy-science-food-bugs-beetles/

10 On average, how many pounds of corn make one pound of beef? (n.d.). Retrieved November 1, 2014, from http://www.extension.org/pages/35850/on-average-how-many-pounds-of-corn-make-one-pound-of-beef-assuming-an-all-grain-diet-from-background#.VT5YhiFViko

11 China Spends $2.4 Billion…On Pesticides? (2011, January 11). Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2011/01/11/china-spends-24-billionon-pesticides/

12 Mele, Paul. (2007). Ants as friends (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1-68). Modern Lithographic & Cab International.

Trademarking Nature

Science is an awesome thing, by which I am continually amazed. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the natural sciences I’m most drawn to, and what we learn from nature is sometimes beyond imaginable.   In fact, I just found out about a human who has redefined what it means to be clinically dead. This dying man’s heart was replaced by twin turbines, effectively rendering him still alive, but without a heartbeat or pulse.   I often assess each of these amazing technologies on the basis of ethics. I don’t often go deeply into the theoretical ethics (I get a headache reading too much Foucault and Kant), but I do like to think of the basic ethical ramifications (either positive or not) as to how it affects the environment and future generations.

One scientific advancement that’s been at the fore of the ethical debate is patenting DNA. The implications of privatizing genomic DNA would ostensibly have rendered a huge potential windfall for private companies that would have patented the natural DNA. Thankfully (or perhaps not to some), the US Supreme Court struck that down in 2013. Yet, within the writing, there are some other “gray” areas whereby if the genetic DNA is altered, then that can be patented, as can certain methods of genetic disease screening.

But that brings up another point: is there a line we should not cross in terms of “owning” or “patenting”, “copyrighting”, or “trademarking” nature? A few years ago, I learned of a movement (not sure if it’s still growing or become stagnant) whereby any company that uses nature for its profitable gain, should then give back to the natural entity from which it is benefiting. There are few examples, but I’d like to think this is a growing trend. As a positive example, General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios uses a bee mascot to sell its cereal, yet as a result of collapsing hives, the company is starting to work with farms and the Xerces Society.

In another sense, some sounds and smells are being increasingly trademarked. Harley Davidson famously tried to patent its loud exhaust sputter, which ended in corporate legal fatigue where Harley Davidson pulled out of the battle and dropped its case.   But what if a company tried to trademark sounds such as a certain bird chirp, or the sound of the rushing wind? Technically, the main idea that needs to be conveyed is that the sound is inextricably linked with a company’s product. That is to say, as soon as a consumer hears the sound, it is immediately linked to that particular product – much like Pavlov’s famous drooling dog.

In some cases, natural smells have already been trademarked (also called Olfactory Marks).   “The Smell of Fresh Cut Grass”, for instance, is officially trademarked by a tennis ball company; United Airlines has a trademarked “Landing Scent”; and a Ukulele company has the only instruments that smell of Piña Colada.   These are all quite benign examples of “Non-Conventional Trademarks,” which in addition to smells and sounds also include shape and color. Toblerone candies are pretty unmistakable with their shape, and you probably wouldn’t find another candy bar shaped like the chocolaty peaks and valleys of the bar.

The filing of Non-Conventional Trademarks (particularly in the US) are increasing based on an ever more competitive market (whatever that may be) – companies are looking for new ways to get ahead. Recently, a company filed an olfactory trademark for the fresh scent of oranges some liken to the smell of orange juice. Even the liquid looked an appetizing and refreshing orange color. Except this liquid is far from one you’d want to ingest.; it’s developed by Flotek Industries – a Fracking corporation out of Texas – for its Fracking Chemicals.

So where is the line drawn? Can companies patent natural shapes if consumers have come to liken its product to a certain shape that appears in nature, like that of the ubiquitous golden spiral? Or the fractals that are so pervasive in our natural world?   There have been a few examples of trademarking nature’s smells, yet it’s the first in the world of fracking chemicals, which is decidedly quite a harmful practice for the environment and human health.  Hence, it’ll be interesting to see the ruling on this and if it does go through, if there will be other companies in these types of these industrial niches that will employ this technique.

Corporate Roundtable Event at Sherwin-Williams

Last month, Great Lakes Biomimicry (GLBio) asked if I was available to give a short presentation at an upcoming Corporate Roundtable event, part of a monthly series organized by Center for Sustainable Business Practices at Cleveland State University.

For those of you who haven’t followed this blog from the very beginning or heard of GLBio, GLBio is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating conditions in our region for innovation through biomimicry. The Biomimicry PhD Fellowship is the result of one of the earliest collaborations between The University of Akron and GLBio. GLBio is the organization that initiates secures corporate and foundation sponsorships for Biomimicry Fellows. We have GLBio to thank for each of our fellowship opportunities.

The March Corporate Roundtable is particularly special to me, not only because GLBio was an organizer, but because it was held at the Breen Technology Center at Sherwin-Williams – my fellowship sponsor.

I was given the task to talk about Biomimicry and my spider color research here at the University. I knew the audience would be very diverse, so I prepared some simplified presentation slides, leaving out technical jargon and focusing on getting my points across with the best visuals I can make. That morning there were around 50 people in the room, consisting of employees of Sherwin-Williams, faculty members and students from Cleveland State University, and many other local business leaders. In a limited amount of time, I successfully ignited people’s interests and curiosities about Biomimicry and spiders with a continuing individual Q&A session lasting about 30 min after the event, until we had to vacate the conference room!

It was a really interesting experience, and it felt good to know that I can successfully make people excited about Biomimicry and biological research. Many opportunities like this are coming…I’ll try my best to share them with you on the blog.

CRT-spider

ps. This week I’ll be kicking off an internal innovation workshop series at Sherwin-Williams with an introductory lecture about Biomimicry. Following-on will be weekly hands-on workshop sessions where we will tackle a Sherwin-Williams R&D project (topic to be determined at the kick-off session this week) using Biomimicry tools and processes. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we’ll achieve!!

Update: GreenTown at Kent Conference

As introduced in my last post from February, the GreenTown conference will be held on April 14 at the Kent State Universtiy Hotel and Conference Center. Here are some updates on the events that will be offered: On April 13 there will be a pre-conference including three workshops: The “Farm to School” workshop will focus on the possibilities of increasing the capacity of local communities to provide locally produced foods in schools. After that, the “Towns and Growns” workshop will be held bringing together leaders form universities, municipalities, community non-profits and other individuals to think differently with the context of university-city collaborations. In the evening a walk through downtown Kent with key speaker Mark Fenton is being offered. The main event on April 14 will start with several presentations dealing with topics such as sustainable minded businesses, creating sustainable regions and walkable communities for healthy people. This will be followed by 4 breakout sessions beginning at 11 am. For these sessions one can choose from one out of five tracks which are: Economic development, food and waste, water and green infrastructure, community sustainability planning and transportation. One of the breakout sessions will be a panel discussion titled “Biomimicry: Innovation comes naturally.” Panelists include three of our biomimicry fellows (Emily Kennedy, Adam Pierce and Sebastian Engelhardt). For more information have a look at GreenTown at Kent. Registration for the event is now open.GreenTown at Kent Poster

Project Wild Thing

Hi germiNature readers,

Nature is the key component for Biomimicry, but have you struggled convincing yourself, your children or your friends to go out in nature more often? Do you feel like people think you are a hippie because you love nature so much?

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Project Wild Thing (click to see trailer) is the documentary for you. In the film, David Bond, Marketing Director for Nature, takes on the task of convincing people to get outside. As a worried dad seeing his children becoming addicted to TV and games, rather than playing outside, he tries to promote nature again. The film explores the increasing disconnection between British children and the natural world around them.

Although many children think nature is boring and unattractive, the film shows that this idea can easily be changed. However, one of the main challenges of getting this change to happen falls in the hands of the parents themselves. They worry about letting their children outside; kids are being overloaded by homework; and parents are becoming lazy themselves – they’d rather let their kids watch TV than go play in a forest with them.

This realization should be interesting for parents in general and a biomimicist, in particular. I’m going to float three here…

– With the support of branding and marketing, nature could once again be a popular ‘free product’ for kids. Less waste, less money, more playful area.

– Letting your kids be active at a young age should support an active lifestyle as an adult. It’s easily accepted that you are healthier, happier and more productive when you are active. Additionally, playing in nature provides many different sensory experiences that promote brain development, which are just not replicable with virtual play.

– A big and frankly terrifying question is what might happen if a generation becomes completely disconnected from the natural world… This goes back to the “Ethos” of Biomimicry. You care for things you love. But you can only treasure nature if you have had great interactions with it.

Message? Stop staring at your computer screen and act. You can start by looking at his website: https://projectwildthing.com (oh no, wait, that’s requires you to sit at your computer…but still go have a look when you have time).

New Biomimicry Fellow

My name is Michael Wilson. I enrolled in the Polymer Science program at the University of Akron in the fall of 2014 and was accepted as a biomimicry fellow in the spring of 2015. My adviser is Ali Dhinojwala, and my corporate sponsor is Lubrizol.

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I became inspired by my high school chemistry teacher to study materials and I knew that I wanted to do research in making and examining materials which would help the environment. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee in Materials Science/Engineering and German Language/Literature. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I periodically heard stories about the study of natural materials, and I always found them quite interesting. One example which really stuck out to me was how tough shells were primarily made of the same material as sidewalk chalk, which is brittle and breaks easily. It was amazing to hear what solutions had arisen for improvement of mechanical properties!

When I came to the University of Akron, I saw the research of Dr. Dhinojwala. I was enthralled by how cool the research sounded! Before then, I did not know that there was a field devoted to the study of biomimicry, as I had always heard about emulating natural materials in a random fashion. The thing that really caught my attention was that the method of learning from nature not only provides technological advancement, but also allows us to discover more about the world and our place in it. It intersected my fascination with natural materials and my desire to help the environment. I am excited by this opportunity, and I hope that I can share some of that excitement with you all.

Distaste for Waste

The Dieline is a packaging design website that promotes packaging innovations and serves as a forum where packaging designers can discuss trends in the field. Last week an article was posted to the site, titled “The Future Of Packaging: From Brand Design To Biomimicry.” The article discussed a vision of what packaging might be 100 years from now; a vision that, among other things, forecasted widespread use of biomimetic, biodegradable membranes for packaging.

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Fruit peel-inspired WikiPearl packaging, an edible packaging design for liquids, mousses, and emulsions made from natural food particles held together by electrostatic charges and a small amount of natural polymer.

The article was less about biomimicry than the title had me hoping, but one salient point made it worth the read:

“If we go right back to the earliest form of packaging, some 14,000 years ago, we find cups made from human skulls – fashioned through real skill, pure resourcefulness and inherent sustainability. The skull cups referenced earlier may have sounded grotesque but so now are the overly excessive design cues and material wastefulness used to support brand identity, perceived innovation and differentiation.

If as a society we can accept that what is ultimately grotesque is not waste but wastefulness, what feats of sustainability could we accomplish? Could we put aside our distaste for waste and our aversion to scavenging and make use of some of our abundant ‘nastiness’? Scavengers like the maggot – a central character in a previous germiNature post authored by Adam – have found success with this strategy. If we put the right glasses on, our vile waste streams start to look like rivers of gold. Nature is a master of closed loop systems. Let’s take her lead and design ourselves a better world.