What is Biomimicry, and Why is it Important?

A beautiful picture of sun filtering through dense green forests by Kunal Shinde on Unsplash
A beautiful picture of sun filtering through dense green forests by Kunal Shinde on Unsplash

When one looks at the history of life on this planet, they can tell humanity is only the most recent vignette in a story that is multiple volumes long. In the trillions of years before we evolved into existence, nature blossomed into an advanced civilization of interconnected species iterating through replication, mutation, and death. Now, we are established on this planet, and the ignorance of our self-proclaimed cleverness has hidden from our senses these naturally evolved lessons that quite literally encapsulate us.

Biomimicry is the idea that humanity will either be a failed trial, because it refuses to cooperate with Earth’s natural parameters, or be a trial that adapts. A trial that utilizes the sentience it has evolved to possess, and realizes that the smartest thing to do is follow the rules.

There are three aspects of nature we can mimic: ecosystems, form, and process.

Form

A picture of clams, mussels, and alga on stone in a tide pool in South Africa by Birger Strahl
“Shells, mussels, and alga on stone” in South Africa by Birger Strahl on Unsplash

The first successful fetal surgery was performed in 1981 by a pediatric surgeon named Michael Harrison. He bypassed a urethral blockage, which had the potential to inflict fatal kidney damage on the fetus. Forty years later, fetal surgery has advanced tremendously, though one seemingly insurmountable problem has continuously detracted from the progress. Fetuses live and grow in the amniotic sac, which protects the fetus as they are nourished by and grow within nutrient-rich amniotic fluid. When any fetal surgery is performed, the amniotic sac must be pierced, which leads to higher risk of sac-rupture, and premature birth. Pre-existing medical adhesives are unable to help because they are ineffective in the watery environment of the amniotic sac, and suturing would lead to more holes in the membrane. In an attempt to solve this problem, doctors at Berkeley began examining byssal threads, specifically in the mussel, because of their aquatically-adhesive properties, and low toxicity levels. Byssal threads are what tether bivalves to a substrate. The bivalves’ muscular foot, located at the back of its protective shell, allows it to guide strong threads of collagen-like proteins from the byssus gland, which secretes them, to the substrate.

Mussels of the genus evolved in harsh aquatic environments with thrashing waves and textured surfaces. As a result, their byssal threads are tough and their adhesive properties are highly efficacious in water. These strong aquatically-adhesive properties are made possible by the large amino acid, dihydroxyphenylalanine, or Levodopa, commonly referred to as l-DOPA. This amino acid is a precursor to catecholamines- hormones created by your adrenal glands- like dopamine, because it converts into said catechols upon passing the blood-brain barrier. As a drug, it is most notably used to treat Parkinson’s disease, but we can mimic the ’s use of l-DOPA to make forays in fetal surgery. Using l-DOPA as the base for a biomimetic, synthetic adhesive, Berkeley researchers hope to lower the probability of complication as a result of amniotic sac-puncture. Currently, Berkeley researchers are exploring a pre-sealing technique, in which a needle is inserted between the uterine wall and the fetal membrane, and then biomimetic adhesive is injected onto the planned puncture site. This is called tenting, as the uterine wall drapes over the adhesive in a tent-like shape. Then, when the amniotic sac is punctured in surgery, risk of sac-rupture is significantly lower, as the adhesive acts as an extra layer of protection.

This is an example of form-mimicry, where one observes a biological form and its evolved function, and consciously emulates it to solve a problem. Other examples of this include the mimicry of a gecko’s toe-pads to create more effectively reusable adhesives, specifically for applications in space; Mercedes’ mimicry of the box-fish’s shape, to create a more aerodynamic car; and even the Wright brother’s mimicry of eagles when designing the first airplane.

Process

“Sunset at Clingmans Dome” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, United States by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash
“Sunset at Clingmans Dome” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, United States by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash

Stars create energy in a remarkably simple and self-contained manner. Because they are so big, the pressure from their core supplies atoms with heat millions of degrees fahrenheit and hotter, which causes the electrons and nuclei of said atoms to separate. Subsequently, this creates an extremely hot plasma composed of free electrons and free nuclei. Being positively charged, nuclei normally repel each other, but in these extremely fast, scorching conditions, the nuclei ram into each other, and then fuse, releasing energy in the process. The hope is that we can feasibly mimic this process on Earth through Nuclear Fusion.

There are a few ways we can replicate celestial energy creation. The first is through a magnetic confinement reactor, which uses a magnetic field to push plasma into a scorching, thick, and circular chamber, which creates the pressure needed for the atoms to degrade and the nuclei to fuse. The second way is through inertial confinement, which uses pulses from a powerful laser to explode a fuel pellet, and create the temperatures needed for fusion to occur. Both fusion reactors would use isotopes of Hydrogen and Helium as fuel, making it extremely sustainable. For reference, one glass of seawater, which is brimming with hydrogen and helium, could create as much energy as one barrel of oil.

Another great example of process mimicry is CRISPR, a gene editing tool created by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier. CRISPR mimics the bacterium, ’s use of an extremely precise, DNA cutting enzyme called Cas9. utilizes Cas9 to incorporate viral DNA into its own genome, allowing it to create a working genetic memory of all the viruses it has fought off. Harnessing the power of the Cas9 enzyme, we can eradicate genetic disease and genetically modify crops. While this technology has the power to save and feed millions of people, it also has the power to normalize dangerous environmental practices, which illuminates how biomimicry is naught without context. This will be further discussed in the next section. Mimicking process allows us to integrate micro-systems into a greater environment. This often means they are safe, sustainable, and highly efficient, as they have been iterated upon for millions of years.

Ecosystems

“Tree in Forest of Plants” by Veeterzy on Unsplash
“Tree in Forest of Plants” by Veeterzy on Unsplash

Ecosystem mimicry is the most significant and the most radical form of biomimicry, not only because it is the most complex, but because it is the only form of biomimicry that can be meaningfully and proactively sustainable. This is because the insatiable roots of free market capitalism have penetrated form and process mimicry. As M. Pedersen Zari and J.B. Storey write, “while Velcro mimics how burs of certain plants attach to animal fur, the product itself is made from petrochemicals and is not typically recycled or recyclable.” Contrastingly, Ecosystem mimicry is so diametrically opposed to the linear manner in which capitalist societies use and then discard their resources, that it is effectively protected from corruption. Ecosystem mimicry encapsulates the meat and morality of biomimicry, as it takes inspiration from entire naturally evolved systems to revolutionize entire sectors of society, ranging from agriculture to architecture to the economy.

As it pertains to agriculture, ecosystem mimicry is vitally important to the health of our species, and to our planet. Janine Benyus captivatingly details the painful ways in which we are torturing the environment and poisoning ourselves through till agriculture in her book, The first chapter of her book can be summarized in four interconnected and dysfunctional root problems which are nourishing the dying and now flaming tree that is our agricultural industry. One, physical wrongs: plowing, planting monocultures of annual crops, and the evisceration of our planet’s soil- which is an extreme tragedy as Benyus mournfully describes. Two, chemical wrongs: the extreme utilization of biocides that pollute the soil and nearby bodies of water, cause cancer, and create environmental stressors that encourage the evolution of both super-weeds and super-rodents. Three, the genetic manipulation of our crops to tolerate our physical and chemical wrongs, and four, the moral and legislative corruption that allows the first three root causes to occur and mutate into ever-gruesome monstrosities. Benyus goes on to highlight how we can mimic local ecosystems and utilize perennials and polycultures to transmogrify global agricultural industries. In America, we mimic prairies and in Japan they are looking into something called “do nothing” agriculture. I highly recommend reading Benyus’s to understand the nuances of these problems and their proposed solutions.

The third root cause- gene editing in agriculture- is notable because it provides insight into the importance of context and thoroughness that is reflected in Ecosystem mimicry. Imagine a child trying to fit a triangle into a square box, and then getting a saw to cut the triangle so it will fit. This is the scenario CRISPR has created within the agricultural industry. Though it has been the catalyst of significant and life-altering medical discoveries, in agriculture, CRISPR is severely damaging. Without it, we may have noticed the cube laying next to us much sooner.

As described through the tenets of evolution and natural selection, a species’ malleable evolutionary future is shaped like clay on a wheel by the surrounding environment. In this way, each species has its own purpose, as well as its own place through which it is interconnected with other species. A species’s place is its evolved context. Without its context, the species will have no predators to control its population, nor prey to nourish its numbers. Philosophically, a species’s context is what gives it meaning, as, if there is no system, what is the point of the one? This melodic contextual balance is the one lesson humanity is blind to, and yet must learn, and it is the key to ecosystem mimicry.

A biomimic and innovator at The Knowlege Society.

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