The content of this post was inspired by a thoughtful discussion with colleagues Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, Bill Hsiung, Peter Niewiarowski, and Matt Kolodziej.
We spend a lot of time talking about the technological output of biomimicry – the latest and greatest gizmos inspired by nature. But biomimicry is more than a one-way knowledge transfer from biology to technology; it’s best appreciated as a circulation of knowledge between the two. Biomimicry drives new knowledge back to biology, because a deeper understanding of a biological system arises from the attempt to emulate it. This phenomenon has been termed ‘reverse biomimicry.’
Biomimicry results in powerful tests of biological hypotheses, leading to a more complete understanding of the biology, and improved biomimetic innovations. For example, fundamental discoveries made approximately 15 years ago about the mechanics of how geckos stick to surfaces transformed a millennia long fascination about these creatures into a capability to actually create gecko-inspired synthetic adhesives. By 2005, scientists had produced materials from carbon nanotubes that mimicked the structure and mechanics of gecko toepads (which are covered in tiny branching hairs called setae) with such high fidelity that the synthetic ‘gecko tape’ stuck even better than a real-life gecko. However, what is amazing about the gecko system is that it remains functional through thousands of cycles of stick and release; it functions well on smooth, rough, wet, and dry surfaces; and it is non-fouling. Gecko-inspired synthetics have not been able to simultaneously capture all of these performance characteristics, but the quest for such functionality has driven new discoveries about the gecko system. Gecko skin, previously thought to be made entirely of the protein β-keratin, actually includes lipids, which may be fundamental to the unmatched overall performance of the gecko’s adhesive system. Research on gecko adhesion now includes exploration of how the presence of lipids in gecko skin might influence the resilience, compliance, and wear of the gecko adhesive system, all features that are desirable for biomimetic adhesives.
In your own practice have you experienced the ‘reverse biomimicry’ phenomenon?