Air, Earth, Fire and Water…and Kim Kardashian

Biomimicry Innovation Lab
Predict
Published in
6 min readFeb 14, 2022

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“Between the tropics and the frozen poles lies a region dominated by relentless change in the form of the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. Each one presents plants with huge challenges, from ice and snow to raging fires; from intense competition to surprising enemies. This is a world of astonishing variety and vibrant colour. To survive here plants must use strategy, deception and remarkable feats of engineering. Most importantly, they must get their timing right.” — Seasonal Worlds — BBC The Green Planet

Where to watch — https://www.bbcearth.com/shows/the-green-planet

“Four seasons in one day”, as Crowded House famously sang. We witnessed four seasons in 45 minutes in another incredible exploration of the plant kingdom on the BBC. Sir David Attenborough and the team took us from winter through to winter again, exploring the seasonal changes that govern many in the plant kingdom. Despite many adaptations developed by the plants to harness the transient opportunities for germination, growth and reproduction, climate change is disrupting these rhythms of life at an unprecedented rate. How might we learn from their ways of harnessing climate uncertainty to restore planetary boundaries under this complex environmental crisis?

Dandelions

During this episode, we saw a myriad of seed dispersal mechanisms, some through partnerships with various pollinators and others using sophisticated mechanics that enhance the mobility of their seeds. The dandelion has undoubtedly one of the most economic dispersal mechanisms. Their ‘parachute’ or pappus is a disc of bristles that can carry the seed considerable distances in the gentlest breezes. As the seed falls, the air passing through the pappus forms a stable vortex ring held above the pappus. This increases the drag on the seed, with its pappus, by a factor of four or more, linking it more firmly into the movement of the surrounding air. Thus the seed is transported more effectively, transforming its immediate surroundings using no energy and no extra material. Magic indeed! The theoretical possibility of a stable vortex has been known for some time, but this is the first time it has been observed. Moreover, it reveals the practicality of sub-miniature drones and micro-robotics for swarm sensing.

Tongue orchids

Image: Tongue Orchid

Doesn’t it ring a bell when seeing the Male Thynnid Wasp prefer the simulated female Tongue Orchid’s version of the female wasp over the real one? Like most males, the wasp goes for the Superstimulus or Supernormal Stimulus — an exaggerated version of the actual thing. This “over-attractiveness” is a tendency present in many animals, including ourselves. It is exploited by junk food or video games and probably accounts for some of Kim Kardashian’s popularity! Behavioural scientists have used this effect when making biomimetic robots with deceptions such as body size, motion pattern or colour that provide a superstimulus to particular species — for example, using male fish robots in different colours to study female bluefin killifish’s courtship behaviour and preferences in the face of animated stimulus. Similarly, a scientific review uncovers the advantages of using biomimetic models (e.g. Faux Frog doppelgangers) to study responses to multisensory signals such as the higher complexity of imitated behaviours and the range from a standard stimulus to a supernormal stimulus that elicits a diversity of responses.

The Day’s Eye follows the sun

Image: Field of daisies

Aren’t you fascinated by the sun-chasing movements of daisy flowers? Heliotropism (following the sun) was known in Ancient Greece. However, the mechanism behind it remains an unresolved mystery. For example, some suggest that warmth can be attractive to pollinators; others reckon it might promote pollen germination, growth of the pollen tube and seed production. Nonetheless, it’s a source of innovative ideas. In the plant, special cells pump potassium ions into the motor cells of the pulvimus in the flexible joint underneath the flower, causing those cells to absorb water by osmosis, expand and move the flower. This mechanism has inspired researchers to create water filtration membranes that mimic the motor cells’ osmotic process and photo-actuated solar-tracking photovoltaic panels for higher energy yield.

Aquaporins

Maintaining water content in plants is crucial to withstand uncertain climates and attacks by animals such as the sapsucker, a bird. The episode shows that millions of controllable pores (stomata) on leaves serve as a channel for the transpiration of water vapour. Probably, aquaporins (the channel protein for water transport in the cell membrane) in plant cells play a key role in regulating the turgor pressure of the cell. This pressure expands the cell within the confining cell wall, adjusting the opening and closing of the stomata. This sophisticated water regulating mechanism has inspired many research and industrial applications in membrane technologies. Aquaporin’s uniqueness in high selectivity and exceptional flux outperforms many existing artificial membranes with a tradeoff between permeability and filtration. The Danish company, Aquaporin A/S, uses aquaporin’s natural filtration and selective structures to create biomimetic water treatment membranes with high energy efficiency.

Mycorrhizal Network

Video: How Fungi Can Help Clean Up Pollution — Novobiom by the Biomimicry Institute

How exciting is it to learn about nature’s equivalent of the Internet — the “Wood-wide Web”! The expansive underground mycorrhizal network forms; this interconnected fabric of resources that sends signals constantly flowing across the forest. This intricate network has inspired researchers in various fields, such as the underground water system, circular economy models and even smart solar grids. The mycelium network, the vegetative part of a fungus, has initiated opportunities in regenerative biomanufacturing, such as bioremediation materials and sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based materials. For example, Biohm and Mylo create insulation materials and artificial leather grown from mycelium. The Belgian startup, Novobiom, is using this bioremediation potential to remove toxic materials from the soil.

Pinecones

There are around 615 coniferous tree species. We saw the Giant Sequoia (or Redwood) at the end of the episode. Their seed packaging (pine cones) has ensured the giant forest’s continuous thriving and regeneration over the millennia. In particular, its agile response to environmental moisture fluctuation inspires a new way of imagining responsive materials. The primary mechanism behind this reactivity is the difference in the hygroscopic swelling properties of two adjacent tissue areas. By replicating this mechanism, researchers can create various adaptive materials without extra energy costs, such as adaptive fabrics, active textiles and responsive shading systems. In addition, the research team at ICD University of Stuttgart are continuing to explore the use of composite materials and laminates in construction.

It is mesmerising to see the highly sophisticated mechanisms and fine-tuned symbiotic partnerships evolved by plants to adapt to and harness seasonal changes worldwide. However, in a rapidly changing period due to human activities, the Anthropocene, the climate changes dramatically, challenging the adaptability of many species. Can we use lessons from the resilience of plants to improve our stewardship of the landscape and so harmonise better with the requirements for their and our continued existence?

Nature-inspired innovation is an idea that has been around for centuries. Still, it’s only recently started to make waves in the design industry. It borrows principles from nature and applies them to human-made systems. One of the most exciting things about nature-inspired innovation is its potential applications in new technologies — something we’re seeing more of every day! What other technologies can you think of? Leave your comments below.

By Yuning Chen, Richard James MacCowan, and Julian Vincent.

Biomimicry Innovation Lab is a foresight and biofuturist innovation consultancy that actively works in next-generation agriculture, manufacturing and urban solutions worldwide. Have a look at our latest research on ‘The State of Nature-inspired Innovation in the UK’ in collaboration with the angel and venture capitalists, the Nadathur Group.

We are exploring a range of projects relating to ecosystem services, planetary health and direct air carbon capture (DACC) with projects in South Africa, Madagascar and India utilising our evolving model, Project FIN.

Want to know more? Schedule an introductory call — https://bit.ly/bioinnlab.

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Biomimicry Innovation Lab
Predict
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