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Convergence: Biomimicry before it was cool

Hello Germinature,

Thank you to those who are returning readers and I would welcome newcomers interested in this thing we call biomimicry. This being my first post I realize that many of you do not know who I am. My name is Stephen Howe I am an incoming fellow and I will be working with Bendix. For the moment that is all I will say about myself but I would encourage you to read my contributor bio.

Given enough creativity Biomimicry can be applied to any facet of one’s daily life. I encountered this first hand when considering what would be the topic of my first post. I have just moved into a fixer upper in the Akron region and have been working to improve it. At the DXY Tangent event I was talking about my projects with the other fellows. I had asked them what should I write about, Daphne looked at me and said “anything you want…you could talk about how biomimicry interacts with your yard work.” I wasn’t sure how serious she was but the next day I found myself working closely with this tool in my yard. The marine biologist in me couldn’t help but connect that tool with this fish.

Copyright 2013 Simon Fraiser University CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

I wondered if in fact the person who invented the hedge trimmer was inspired by the sawfish? The short answer is no. Hedge trimming has been necessary ever since hedges were used as fences in the middle ages. Mechanical trimmers first used spinning blades and then single sided reciprocators followed by the final form the double bladed reciprocator. If you want to know more here is a link to an article outlining the history of the hedge trimmer. I was not observing biomimicry per se but in fact an example of convergence.

Convergence is an evolutionary phenomenon in which a similar adaptation is derived independently in unrelated groups of organisms. The textbook example of convergence is the torpedo shaped body plan seen in fish and aquatic birds and mammals. In order to escape predators and acquire food these organisms need to efficiently move through water. Because water is much denser than air the properties of fluid dynamics will bear heavily on how these organisms are shaped. Being fusiform reduces drag allowing the body to cut efficiently through the water minimizing the energy required and maximizing the speed of the organism.

My favorite example of convergence is the camera eye. The camera eye, a complex light bending information gathering structure, is found in some species of jellyfish, annelid, snail, spider and cephalopod. Not to mention all of the vertebrate clades. Each of these clades independently developed this kind of eye to effectively utilize light as a means of information gathering. What’s more is it seems that in each phyla these types of eyes first were developed by active hunters giving them a much greater visual acuity than other types of eye. To get the full story of the eye and to read about a plethora of astounding examples of convergence I would highly suggest reading Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.

The natural world has physical laws and constraints and the biotic world will always strive to live within those constraints in the most efficient way possible. In many cases, there are only one or a few adaptive paths available that conform to these physical laws and so we see many different lineages arriving at the same solution. This in essence is convergence.

Humankind has managed to push our way against these currents by implementing massive amounts of energy and using exotic processes, we put people on the moon, split atoms, and moved mountains. But in doing so we have exhausted many important resources and generate huge quantities of harmful byproducts. However, if we work within the cosmic system we can do things sustainably and efficiently. Fortunately we have a vast databank on how to solve our problems. We live on planet earth and face the same challenges that every other organism on the planet faces. These lineages have been perfecting their adaptations for countless generations. We, observing the world around us, can emulate these living road maps on how to navigate the physical laws of the universe. In essence, Biomimicry is applied convergence; we use it as a lens through which we seek solutions to the challenges we face.

Talking about Biomimicry

It’s mind-blowing that it’s already been three years since Bill, Emily and I started the adventure of pursuing our PhDs in Biomimicry. Time has flown by. It definitely has been a challenge being part of the first cohort, but it has also been very rewarding and exciting seeing the program development first hand.

Having seven new PhD students starting this year, doubling our team, is one of those very exciting achievements! We can’t wait to collaborate with everyone, grow our knowledge by learning from the diverse backgrounds of the new students, and have interesting Biomimicry discussions and trips together.

Another rewarding accomplishment is that we are being invited more and more to give talks about our Biomimicry adventure. There is a growing interest in NEOhio to learn more about Biomimicry and be part of this movement.

In June, I was honored to share the stage with René Polin, President and Founder of Balance Inc, a design firm in Cleveland, to share our “Untold” experience at TEDxCLE. In our talk, “From Spiders to Elevators: Leveraging Biomimicry in the Design studio”, we share what it was like for a Biologist to work with a Design firm from both perspectives.

To stay on the topic of TEDx Talks, Emily will be giving one on September 29th, at TEDxUniversityofAkron. She will be sharing her Biomimicry insights and how it is to be “Breaking the Mold”.

Finally, Kelly has been selected to present her work on Biomimicry curriculum development at the 8th annual Biomimicry Education Summit in Austin, TX, on October 4th, which is held just prior to the SXSW Eco Conference.

Keep posted for more exciting news, and please share with other Biomimicry enthusiasts.

The Gap in Biomimetic Materials

In trying to find natural systems to study for my dissertation project, I’ve noticed what I see as a gap between knowledge and products. This trend is similar to what Bill described a couple of weeks ago with spider silk. We see many cool natural materials, but we don’t know exactly how to make them yet. For instance, earlier this year, a new contender for the stronger natural material was discovered in limpet teeth. The tensile strength of this biomineralized material was measured to be 3.0 to 6.5 GPa.1 To put that in perspective, that is about 100 times stronger than typical polymers and even 5 times stronger than steel.2-3 We know the mineralized goethite structure is high strength, and we know some of the mechanisms of biomineralization. However, having an unbreakable plate based on the limpet tooth may be a ways off.

I think there are a few factors which create this gap from inspiration to products. One is the ways in which we create our products. Melting and quenching is common throughout metals and polymers with casting, injection molding, extruding, etc. If we want to make nanoscale designs or objects we can use lithography, deposition, and other techniques. Nature uses nearly ambient temperature and self-assembly to create hierarchical materials over many length scales. Unless we can find scalable methods to produce hierarchy, we will not be able to create products based on these cool natural materials (or they will have very niche applications).

This leads into what I really think will be the limiting factor for biomimetic materials: complexity. Natural materials are not simple. There are many factors influencing a wide variety of functions. For instance, take the gecko adhesion system. It provides a directional, reversible, non-matting, non-sticky by default, and self-cleaning adhesion system which attaches strongly with minimal preload and detaches quickly and easily.4 The early thought for the gecko adhesion system was to look at the hair structure. The first synthetic versions simply created small pillars to try to achieve the Van der Waals adhesion characteristic of the gecko adhesion system.5-6 However, just copying one aspect of the gecko structure did not lead to all of the properties listed above. As more research was performed on the gecko itself, more aspects of the setae were discovered, which led to shifts in the synthetic versions. Two notable examples are the addition of spatulae for the pillars and oriented synthetics.7-8

I think we will need to be patient with the research of biomimetic materials. The systems which we are trying to mimic are complicated, and it would be hasty to believe that our first shot at a synthetic material without sufficient knowledge of the natural system will produce a successful product. It will take time, but proper understanding of the natural system will help to highlight the structures necessary to produce desired functions within synthetics. In addition, producing synthetics as we go can help illuminate the structures responsible for functions as well. If we realize that we may not get it right on the first try, then we can create realistic expectations for the realm of biomimetic materials. There are biological materials out there with fascinating properties, and with time, I believe we will be able to learn from nature and synthesize our own materials.

 

 

Asa H. Barber, Dun Lu, Nicola M. Pugno. J.R. Soc. Interface 2015 12 20141326; DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1326.Published 18 February 2015.

http://www.engineershandbook.com/Tables/steelprop.htm

http://www3.nd.edu/~manufact/MPEM_pdf_files/Ch10.pdf

Autumn, K. “Properties, Principles, and Parameters of the Gecko Adhesive System.” Biological Adhesives. Springer: (2006).

Sitti, M. and Fearing R. IEEE-Nano. (2002)

Geim et al. Nature Materials. (2003)

Lee et al. Applied Physics Letters. (2008)

Northen et al. Adv. Mater. (2008)

Summer Problem Based Learning

GLBio has been pitching in with regional teachers from around Ohio to help develop Biomimicry-inspired Problem Based Learning curriculum, an instructor’s day is packed, between meeting testing requirements and fulfilling all the daily student/learner educational needs.  Biomimicry can be a method to condense/magnify learning and help to ignite passion in learners to discover.  A workshop offered this summer by GLBio was created to help instructors develop meaningful learner-driven curriculum that could meet all their classroom needs.  In addition to offering ample real information and explanation of the biomimetic method, the workshop content demonstrates how biomimicry is an aid to teach existing subjects with nature as co-teacher, not an additional subject in and of itself.

For instance in my recent lessons shared at the NIHF (National Inventors Hall of Fame) school, I covered a unit based on the Living Machine® system*.  The nature of the lesson is designed to be one of original discovery and self-guided learning, where a teacher could embed any desired learning outcomes:

  • The learning aids arrive with a silver case and prepackaged boxes. They would explain that the supplies arrived as a challenge for the students to try to meet.  The aids would further state that they knew very little about the challenge, except that if the students chose to take it on they were required to follow through.  The aids would make it clear that they are in the dark as much as the students and that any information gathered was going have to be done by the class.
  • The box is filled with unknowns, samples of mud and water, wetland plants with and without labels.
  • The silver case contains limited information supplied by five different companies about individual company needs.
  • The class would determine for themselves the potential for the Living Machine®as one of many possible solutions, individually finding the information themselves through trying to address the common needs of the separate companies.
  • The class would have opportunity to ask further directed questions of the companies and to research the problems until they all had the solutions needed.
  • Individual group presentations, as well as working living machine®models (or other models if the class went another route), would be constructed at the lesson’s end.

*(The Living Machine® is an intensive bioremediation system invented in 1979 that can also produce beneficial byproducts, such as re-use­quality water, ornamental plants and plant products—for building material, energy biomass, animal feed.  Aquatic and wetland plants, bacteria, algae, protozoa, plankton, snails and other organisms are used in the system to provide specific cleansing or trophic functions.)

The unit I offered at NIHF was completely learner-driven and cross-disciplinary.  Mathematics was used to identify company needs from supplied graphs and could be used in further iterations to calculate flow rates, and interpret graphs of water usage, and waste if a class had more time.  Language arts was utilized to make clear presentations, and working prototypes were engineered.  The class could then explore the principles of design used in biomimicry to measure the effectiveness of all of their solutions.  The lesson allowed the students to tap into all their knowledge to complete the challenges.  The Living Machine® was one of the more intensive unit plans; several other lessons conducted in Lorain County and different Ohio school districts by GLBio education fellows and project managers brought biomimicry into the classroom in easy, digestible chunks, each of these offering compelling opportunities for educators to meet their classroom learning outcomes.  Some of these were shared at the summer workshop.  Projects included:

The penguin supercavitation lesson:

  • Where a young class of Kindergarten students explored how penguins can swim faster with the use of air bubbles.
  • The class of young learners tested models in water that helped to illustrate the faster movement of objects through air as opposed to water (to make the connection to the increased speed of the penguin water movement).
  •         Once the idea was understood the learners brainstormed possible ideas for ways that people could develop and use the same idea.
  • The lesson was very kinesthetic with the students pretending to bundle up in warm clothing for their adventure and looking on the globe for the route to be taken.
  • An opportunity for non-standard measurement (a tool for number-sense building) was used as learners tried to imagine how many of them, arms outstretched would make up the length of albatross wings.

The Stay Cool Design Challenge

  • Creature Cards were handed out that showed various plants and animals that have unique ways of keeping cool.
  • Based upon the creature cards charrette teams brainstormed ideas for products that people could make to cool a variety of objects (like houses and cars).
  • At the end of a period teams pitched their ideas for products to one another.

The Classic Package Design Lesson with a Twist

  • This multi-day lesson allows groups to study how organisms in nature protect and “package” themselves.
  • Much like the traditional egg drop challenge with tape and straws and so forth, this lesson more closely examines objects like the egg itself, helicopter maple seeds or honeybee hives and other natural packages.
  • After much work and research the class presents their ideas to the community at large at a public event, some having built actual models to accompany their solutions and discoveries.

Each lesson aided the exploration of existing curriculum (whether math and language arts, wetland science, infrastructure and community planning, non-standard measurement methods, geography, Antarctic inhabitants, scientific experimentation methods, engineering or critical thinking), instead of adding to the already heavy curriculum requirements teachers faced.  Students, teachers, and coaches were thrilled at the level of participation and involvement in all cases.  The summer workshop explored all of these lessons and brought educators together to discover new ideas and approaches to their classrooms.  The summer’s first educator’s professional development session began June 15th and ran through June 19th.  This annual event brought educators in from across Northeast Ohio and will only continue to grow.

Growing a Network

I wanted to take the time this week to briefly reflect on how much Biomimicry has grown as a discipline and give a public service announcement to attest to that fact. Although we are still in the nascent stages of growth when it comes to a discipline, I think it’s impressive to see the scope of just how much Biomimicry has grown. I sometimes think of us as the mighty, yet highly underrated cellular slime mold network: we can impressively exist individually, but working in sync, we form networks with nodes and highly efficient links to form a remarkable superorganism sharing information and resources.

In a regularly cited Biomimicry example, professor Atsushi Tero of Hokkaido University placed oat flakes in the same position as major cities along the Tokyo subway network. Upon placing slime mold onto a flake, the network grew to closely resemble that of the Tokyo subway system. Biomimicry 3.8, in my mind-map, was the first “oat flake” and from this first bit of nourishment, the network has grown to a number of hubs around the world in an extraordinarily short duration of time.

A testament to the reach of whence we first started, is the upcoming SXSWEco event and the 8th annual Biomimicry Education Summit in October, with Biomimicry being a key theme running throughout the conference. There are a remarkable eight panels or talks that specifically focus on Biomimicry. Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Institute of Art’s own Doug Paige will be a co-speaker, and four of us fellows traveling to Austin to attend.   An event like this bringing so many Biomimicry-focused minds together will only serve to strengthen the overall network of the Biomimicry superorganism and make our “oat flake” hubs and resulting connections stronger.

Is synthetic spider silk a reality?

Argiope trifasciataSince my last few blog posts have been all about structural colors, today let’s switch gears and talk about one of my long time personal interests – spider silk. This blog post should serve as an introduction to the efforts that have been made and difficulties encountered when trying to create a synthetic version of spider silk.

First of all, let’s make it clear that spider silk is not a single material. Rather, it’s a class of many different materials. A common orb weaving spider can produce 6-8 different kinds of silk, depending on the species and how you define it. Among them, the most broadly studied and the most “magical” one is the dragline (major ampullate) silk – a long time engineering marvel from nature and the “holy grail” for material scientists that they still have no idea how to synthetically reproduce. What makes the dragline silk so unique and a hot field for Biomimicry is that it is the toughest (both in strength and elasticity) material on earth. Period. There’s no “but”…

However, spiders are territorial and prone to cannibalization. Hence, they cannot be farm-reared economically in large enough quantities and density for silk harvesting as shown in the movie “The Amazing Spider-Man”, or like we have done with domestic silkworms for thousands of years.

Second, the spider silk proteins (spidroins) are a family of very large molecules, averaging around 300 kDa in molecular weight. That’s about 3000 amino acids, or around 9 kbp of DNA just for the encoding region (the gene would be even bigger if it included introns and the regulatory regions). Since the dawn of biotechnology, scientists have been trying to reproduce spidroins in other organisms using genetic engineering techniques. However, there’s no way of doing that with the complete spidroin genes – they’re just too large! Fortunately, spidroins are composed of segments of similar repeats (but not exact replicates), so scientists just inserted a portion of the spidroin genes, expressed fragments of the spidroins, and hoped they work. They have done so successfully in many different organisms, including (but not limited to) goat, silkworm, tobacco, and E. coli. However, when fragments of the full spidroins are inserted, these organisms expectedly don’t produce silk possessing the same toughness as natural dragline silks.

Even if we develop means to reproduce the full version dragline spidroin with biotechnology, we still don’t know much about how to process this raw material. Current knowledge in this aspect is very limited. We know roughly that the pH gradient of the environment, ionic strength (salt concentration), shear stress, spinning speed, and tension when spinning are all contributing factors for the mechanical property of the final silk fiber. But exactly what and how they contribute is still a big mystery. And that’s exactly the reason why trying to re-create a synthetic version of spider silk is still one of the more popular focuses in Biomimicry.

Recently, a handful of start-ups claim that they have gotten really close to being able to mass produce and commercialize some kind of synthetic versions of spider silk in economically viable ways. Without a doubt, they all attracted funding from big time investors. Some of them are summarized very well in this article. However, remember that what makes spider silk such a unique and desired material is its toughness. Therefore, the most revolutionary applications/products of spider silk should tap into that potential head-on and fully utilize this property to solve problems that otherwise cannot be addressed with other materials. All other benefits, such as biocompatibility, biodegradability, breathability, weight, (potential) anti-microbial properties, and eco-friendly attributes are just secondary functions, and add-ons. Because for every secondary function of spider silks listed above, we can probably find some other organisms that do it better than spider silk. Since it’s still difficult to have a synthetic version of spider silk that possesses comparable toughness to the natural spider silk, those start-ups are mostly promoting the secondary functions of spider silks in their spider silk products. Hence, for me, the spider silk products from those start-up companies will stay within a niche market with novelty or gimmick factors, rather than in a consumer market with practical, applied functionalities in the foreseeable future.

Polar bear fur informs optimization strategies for textile based solar collectors

I am glad to announce my first biomimicry publication in the journal Energy and Buildings and would like to give a short overview of it. The paper is titled “Solar Heat Harvesting and Transparent Insulation in Textile Architecture Inspired by Polar Bear Fur” and summarizes the main findings of my master’s thesis that I finalized in 2012. I was a biomimetics student at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences in Austria during that time but did the experimental part of the thesis within an internship at the Institute of Textile Technology and Process Engineering in Denkendorf (ITV Denkendorf), Germany.

The research focus of the paper is on the optimization of a textile-based solar collector system that could build the envelope of future textile-based buildings. Conventional solar collectors are usually built from heavy, rigid materials but alternative materials such as textiles allow for lightweight and material efficient solar collector system design. The proposed collector was inspired by the heat harvesting mechanism of polar bear fur. The polar bear is known for its efficient heat trapping properties, enabled by a dense fur of transparent and hollow hair that lets light pass through to the bear’s skin. The skin of the polar bear is black and absorbs light passing though the transparent fur. The emitted heat is trapped close to the bear’s body, due to a dense underfur including several air cavities for insulation. These principles were adapted to create a multi-layer arrangement of technical textiles and foils. Two transparent ETFE-membranes were used as the upper layers of the system. ETFE is known for its insulating properties but also lets light pass through due to its transparency. Underneath the ETFE-membranes a 1 cm thick air-permeable spacer fabrics textile provides space for an air-buffer. Underneath the spacer fabrics layer a black silicon layer analogous to the polar bear’s skin absorbs the majority of the incoming light. The emitted heat is trapped inside the system due to the air-buffer within the spacer fabrics layer as well as the heat insulating material properties of ETFE. Underneath the black silicon absorber an additional layer of insulation foam minimizes heat loss to the environment. For the purpose of heat transfer, an air flow was generated by a fan inside the air-permeable spacer fabrics layer. The air inside this layer heats up while it moves along the collector and can be piped to a thermo-chemical energy storage system for long-term retention of thermal energy. This concept could inform new self-sufficient, textile-based buildings that harvest all of their energy during summer months and spend this energy during winter. The ITV Denkendorf built a successful prototype building based on the principles described.

The main goal of the study was to test different parameter changes such as air-flow velocities, irradiation intensities and material arrangements on the output temperature of the collector. Temperatures up to 150 C° could be generated using the proposed system. It was also shown that the proposed system is totally independent from ambient temperatures and would work even in sub-zero temperatures if direct solar radiation is available. In the paper, I also discuss further biomimetic strategies that could be considered for additional energetic optimization such as the trapping and guiding of diffuse light via optical fibers or antireflective surface coatings inspired by the moth-eye effect, for example. If you are interested in learning more you can access my paper on ScienceDirect.

Defining Biomimicry

Delving into literature for design inspired by nature, one encounters many different words describing different processes. When I had begun writing this, I expected to be able to easily determine the differences between the words in the literature so that I could provide clear definitions in this post. However, complicated systems cannot be accurately boiled down into one facet to provide a clear and simple definition. This is true in both defining and practicing biomimicry. If anything, this is the most important lesson I learned in trying to define the terms below. The striking issue I came across, is that the word biomimicry seemed to be used in two different ways, which is a little confusing. In this post I hope to provide a possible resolution to eliminate the confusion surrounding the word biomimicry. I also tried to produce adequate definitions below to the many other terms associated with the field, so if you are not familiar with the terms, perhaps you can learn something. After I define the terms, I will discuss in more detail the overall picture that I see.

Biomimicry – Biomimicry really has two definitions: general and specific. The general is the umbrella term for using natural inspiration to innovate new designs, whether tangible (such as spider silk inspired materials) or intangible (such as swarm intelligence inspired business structures). The specific term describes the practice of utilizing the “Life’s Principles” as defined by the organization Biomimicry 3.8, most notably sustainability.1-2 An example of the more specific type of biomimicry is the Land Institute, as highlighted in Janine Benyus’s book. The Land Institute considers the plant growth of grasslands (the local system) to create sustainable agriculture.

Biomimetics – This term stems from the same root words as biomimicry, but is used more in the engineering and technology spheres. For instance, the Aizenberg group at Harvard refers to themselves as the Biomineralization and Biomimetics lab.4 Biomimetics does not depend on the life’s principles as set forth by Biomimicry 3.8, but studies natural systems with varying degrees of systems thinking. Natural processes and functions are examined to understand the underlying aspects. Using this knowledge, synthetic systems are produced which hopefully have similar functions.

Bio-inspired design – The inspiration from nature with respect to a particular function or form. An understanding of the entire system is not necessarily required as long as the technology developed from the idea is improved in some fashion. An example of this is Velcro. To me, bio-inspired design is usually a part of biomimetics, but also falls under the general definition of biomimicry. What makes bio-inspired design its own from the other fields is its particular emphasis on simplifying the natural system into one particular function, such as the kingfisher bird inspired bullet train. The aerodynamics of the beak were really the only important factor necessary from the natural system.

Bioutilization – Integrating natural materials which provide some desired function into design. The easiest example of this is using wool for clothing. The wool provides protection from the elements for the sheep, and provides that same function in clothing. Bioutilization, in a sense, still creates functions in technologies from nature’s designs. A similar term, but subset of bioutilization is bio-assistance. In this case, the organism is domesticated in order to harvest a desired material.5

Biotechnology – ”[Harnessing] cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”6

Each of the terms I defined above has the same overall goal (inspiration from nature), so it would be wise to create a unified word, which may facilitate discussion about the topic of inspiration from nature. This is one place we could apply the general definition of biomimicry. The worry I have in the multiple definitions of biomimicry is that the connotations of sustainability may fall upon designed systems which do not contain sustainability as an aspect. I think connecting all of the fields with a different general word other than biomimicry would provide an overall term which can be used to cover all of the different methods. Perhaps, I think using the term bioinspiration, as used by Dr. Whitesides in his recent review7, will help to provide an overall term. The use of a general term will help clear up the definition of the word biomimicry to eliminate this general/specific focus, and give people a word to describe the entire field of inspiration from nature. That way, when discussing biomimicry, we can keep sustainability embedded within it, and eliminate misunderstandings.

[1] http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry/

[2] http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/blog/2015/01/biomimicry-bioutilization-biomorphism/

[3] http://www.landinstitute.org/

[4] http://aizenberglab.seas.harvard.edu/index.php?&wh=1366x667x1366x768

[5] http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003625.html

[6] https://www.bio.org/articles/what-biotechnology

[7] Whitesides GM. 2015 Bioinspiration: something for everyone. Interface Focus 5: 20150031. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2015.0031

“Pack Power” in The Economist

There are evolutionary advantages to living in a social group. Groups cooperate to hunt large prey, rear young, and defend territory. Group members experience reduced exposure to predation (safety in numbers), easier access to reproductive partners, and a rich learning environment. There are also evolutionary disadvantages to living in a social group, including increased exposure to disease and parasites…one would think. However, ecologists are learning this might not be a true in all cases.

The Science & Technology section of the May 30, 2015, issue of The Economist included an article titled Pack Power about grey wolves living in Yellowstone National Park. In 2007, a contagious and potentially deadly disease called mange began spreading through this population. Mange is caused by parasitic mites. Ecologists expected mange to appear more frequently in larger wolf packs because the more group members the greater the chance that one of the group contracts the disease and spreads it to his pack-mates. However, this is not what they found. Infection risk did not vary by pack size. Wolves living in large packs were no more likely to catch mange than wolves living in small packs or solitary wolves.

Still more interesting was the discovery that wolves living in large packs were five times less likely to die of mange compared to wolves that contracted the disease while living alone. Ecologists believe the higher survival rate among sick wolves living in large groups is due to social support. Pack-mates help sick wolves find and catch food, preventing starvation. I wonder if there is another, perhaps even stronger contributing factor. There is mounting evidence for social structuring of the microbiome. The microbiome is the community of bacteria living in an animal’s gut, mouth, skin and elsewhere on its body that help it digest food, make vitamins, and fight disease. Through physical interaction, animals share their microbiomes. For example, baboons that groom each other more frequently have more similar microbiomes. A wolf living in a large pack has more social relationships and presumably more physical contact with other wolves. Therefore, he may have access to a greater variety of health-promoting bacteria, resulting in a more diverse microbiome better suited for combatting illness. This hypothesis warrants testing.

As we learn more about the role of the microbiome in fending off disease, how might this new knowledge inspire biomimetic behavioral preventive therapies?

Project Drawdown

I have a few regrets in life.  One is not eating a cronut in Vegas when I had the chance (I’ve yet to come across the elusive cronut in Northeast Ohio). But I can really only think of one major one (and it’s awesomely nerdy): I regret that I missed being present at the 2014 People’s Climate March. I should have done the completely un-nerdy thing and skipped classes to be a part of this historic occurrence. I even blogged about it here at the time.   We’re at a critical point in history with climate change. We have an opportunity to give up, or fight back. Either way, we determine the climate outcome(s) for future generations.

Reading much of the climate news is depressing, particularly when we know the science and we know there are measures we can take to mitigate, but for various social reasons, things simply don’t get done in an effectual manner. I actually give climate scientists, particularly those that work in the realm of science and policy (Michael Mann of the infamous Hockey Stick comes to mind) huge props for keeping their motivation going. My motivation to continue making a positive difference with climate change was waning – until I found the UA Biomimicry program. The central reason I like biomimicry so much is that we can find innovative solutions to pressing problems, by learning from and working with nature – not just capitalizing from nature. It gives hope and optimism for the future.

This summer, for my own research endeavors, I’m exploring more in depth about urban resilience and climate change adaptation and mitigation techniques, particularly looking at the urban heat island effect and associated biomimetic solutions. At the same time as organizing my research, I came across Project Drawdown – a huge collaborative undertaking of environmentalist/entrepreneur/author/many other hats Paul Hawken and his main co-author Amanda Ravenhill. Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 11.54.48 amProject Drawdown takes a pragmatic, deliberate, measured, systemic approach to climate solutions to “drawdown” atmospheric greenhouse gases. The enterprise calls on a coalition of individuals to contribute to making a positive impact by deploying the technologies that we already have, but figuring out how to do it on the global scale.   Some of the solutions include rotational grazing, smart glass, and (a favorite of mine) educating girls. Each solution will also have a critical policy implementation component, as well.

Just as I’m incredibly pleased to be a part of the University of Akron’s Biomimicry program, I’m delighted to have another “academic family” in Project Drawdown, giving me an opportunity to be surrounded by and learn from even more incredible, optimistic, and talented people. A few weeks ago, I was recently accepted as Drawdown Fellow, working on Green and White Roof solutions. In the summer Drawdown Fellows cohort orientation last week, Paul gave a motivating speech conveying the importance and urgency of our generation to do something about climate change. There was one idiom emphasized that I continue to live by: No Regrets. We have an astounding opportunity to help mitigate climate change before we hit the climate tipping point(s). Working with the people at UA and Project Drawdown certainly gives me hope and keeps me motivated to work my ass off for finding meaningful biomimetic solutions to climate change and drawing down our greenhouse gases for a better, healthier environment for my kid and the rest of those that will inherit the Earth after us. And if in the process of leading the no-regrets-with-climate-change lifestyle, I happen to check “getting arrested in an act of civil disobedience protesting fossil fuels,” off the bucket list, then I know I truly won’t have any regrets. But please send bail money and cronuts.