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.







[7] Whitesides GM. 2015 Bioinspiration: something for everyone. Interface Focus 5: 20150031.

“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.

Meet the 2015 Biomimicry Fellows

This coming Fall will start a very exciting school year! Because we’re expecting the largest cohort of Biomimicry Fellows (7 new fellows) since Daphne, Emily, and I started the Biomimicry Fellowship Program in The University of Akron in 2012. Yes, you read that right! It’s already been three full years since I first came to North East Ohio and experienced my first white winter. It’s hard to believe how fast time has passed. It’s also a bit scary to admit that I’m a “senior” student in the PhD program now. I can almost still remember the excitement that I felt when I started this journey.

Speaking of excitement~ I asked the new fellows to send me some blurbs to describe their feelings about becoming a Biomimicry Fellow. Read along, to see who they are, and how they feel in their own words.

Stephen Howe (CA, USA) | Bendix

Stephen Howe

For me the process of selection felt a little drawn out. I got to the point where I had to just let go and not worry about it. My acceptance email came unexpectedly on a Friday at lunch. I quite literally jumped out of my seat and took a little while to regain my composure and explain what was happening to a bewildered friend sitting with me. I then took the rest of the day to find all of my friends call my family and tell everyone the good news. In short it was a good day.


Ariana Rupp (Portugal) | Nottingham Spirk

Ariana RuppI am still processing what it means to be a Biomimicry Fellow. The majority of my acquaintances find the word “Biomimicry” extraterrestrial. This makes me feel too out-of-the-box sometimes, especially when I try to explain the excitement I get from being granted such unique opportunity.

Now that we are about to explore a complex research area, it is true that my first reaction was apprehension, just like an awkward fledgling suddenly pushed out of the nest. However, not knowing which skies we will be discovering in the future definitely turns the flying test into an amusing experience.

Derek Miller (IA, USA) | MC2 STEM

Derek Miller

I was incredibly thrilled to know that I’m going to be taking part in this biomimicry fellowship! I’m excited to be a part of something that can combine all areas of discipline with the wisdom of nature, and turn it into something that promotes sustainability for our future. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with the teachers at MC2 High School on integrating this way of thinking into their curriculum, and look forward to collaborating with the students as they come up with their own innovative solutions.


 Banafsheh Khakipoor (Iran) | TBD

Banafsheh Khakipoor

I had been thinking about becoming a biomimicry fellow for the past two years, it was one of those super satisfaction moments, to know am going to be part of something that has a meaning for me!



Sarah Han (CA, USA) | Goodyear

Sarah Han

Hi, I’m Sarah Han, an entomologist from California ready to start a whole new adventure. I was thrilled to learn that I had been accepted into UA as a Biomimicry fellow since it was exactly the kind of program that I had been looking for but wasn’t sure existed. 

 I’m very grateful that I will have the unique experience that being in this program entails, and can’t wait to start learning new things, meeting people, and spreading the practice of biomimicry.


Rebecca Eagle-Malone (OH, USA) | Cleveland Metroparks Zoo


“After much anticipation, finding out that I was going to be a Biomimicry fellow was very exciting! I admit that I feel a bit nervous at this new adventure, but I always love to take a challenge! Working with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo will fulfill a lifelong dream for me; I strongly believe in the mission of Cleveland Metroparks and look forward to continuing to be a part of that! “



Lamalani Siverts (CA, USA) | TBD

Lamalani SivertsI am thrilled to join the University of Akron as a Biomimicry Fellow.  The grad students and faculty generated more excitement with every interaction during the admissions process and I felt an overwhelming sense of joy when I read the admissions offer.  The Biomimicry team values were what I was seeking in a lab and I know that I will thrive with their support.  I felt comforted knowing that my future will be secure and that my career will help in making a more sustainable planet.  I’m very excited to utilize my diverse experience in biology, business, and education in a program that feels like the perfect fit for me.

Last but not least, an honorable mention (the +1, since you already read some of his blogposts here).
Started in Spring 2015, we have ……

Michael Wilson (TN, USA) | Lubrizol

Michael Wilson“I was thrilled the day when everything was settled, and I finally became a biomimicry fellow. It is something that I never would have expected when I began my undergraduate career, but I am very glad that my graduate school path has taken me here. The interdisciplinary aspect of the field leaves me very excited about the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives. I am optimistic that these perspectives will help guide my research into something that is worthwhile not only with respect to my own enjoyment, but worthwhile in helping to create a more sustainable future.”

Abuja City Project

Nigeria celebrated 100 years of unity in January 2014. On this momentous occasion a number of future projects were announced by the presidency. One of those projects is the design of a biomimetic city that will be built from scratch on a 1000ha unpopulated area close to the Nigerian capital Abuja. The project will be funded by the private sector and involves companies and agencies such as Biomimicry South Africa, In/formal South and Smartland International. The goal of the project is to build a city that demonstrates the harmony of nature and humankind but also to show how we can learn from nature and embed nature’s design principles in our everyday life. The city is supposed to function as an ecosystem including principles such as circular metabolism, weblike food chains, a great diversity of species and functions, adaptive and modular decentralized infrastructure, cooperative relationships across socio-economic boundaries, quality information feedback loops, and development integrated with growth.



A team of designers will take a look at natural systems and structures that can inform principles for a revolutionary city design. The key insight is to realize a natural, non-static system with constant flows of energy, nutrients, materials and information. The focus will be on the utilization of available resources that can be reused to eliminate the exploitation of habitat. Furthermore, the city will be built as a cluster of self-sufficient and independent cells that can grow and divide. The cells will be designed as self-organized and decentralized structures that can adapt and respond to their needs and the needs of the units around them. The same principles will also be incorporated into the individual building structures throughout the city. Water will flow freely throughout the city embedded into green belts that will follow the natural hydrology. This will allow for urban agriculture, reducing the need to import resources from outside the cell. The edges of the waterways will serve as bio-filters where wastewater will be turned into clean drinking water. Also, the transportation system of the proposed city will be inspired by nature. First priority will be given to pedestrians and non-motorized transport. Pubic transport will connect the residents with other locations outside of their cell. Motorized vehicles will only be introduced where absolutely necessary to achieve the goal of a zero emission transportation system. More information is available on the website of Biomimicry South Africa.

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?