The study of animals and bio-inspired designs

August 26th 2022
Jeremy D. Bailoo

Did you know that the study of animals often leads to a host of other applications beyond cures for humans? One field in particular, that of bio-inspired designs, often receives far less attention than it should—but is an amazing example of how the study of animals can lead to the application of such knowledge in research and development to solve technical problems and to develop technical inventions and innovation. For example, we recently wrote about how decades of study of woodpeckers informed the design characteristics of sport safety devices, such as helmets. Similarly, the aerodynamic front of the Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen, was inspired by a beak of the Kingfisher bird

Source: Engineer Eiji Nakatsu was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher for the design of Japan’s 200-mph Bullet train (bottom).

And, the study of how Geckos climb vertically up walls without falling has led to the production of a material called GeckSkinTM which can hold up to 700 pounds on a smooth surface, such as glass. In fact, the sheer number of examples of bio-inspired designs are myriad, and span the fields of Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Physics, Architecture—to name a few. 

Now researchers at Harvard are using bioinspired design to tackle one of the greatest problems of our time—the creation of easily degradable plastic products. One product in particular, Shrilk, is “made using a material called chitosan (found in shrimp shells) and a protein from silk called fibroin that mimics the microarchitecture of insects’ exoskeletons. Shrilk can be used to manufacture objects without the environmental damage caused by conventional synthetic plastics, and it rapidly biodegrades when placed in compost, releasing nitrogen-rich nutrient fertilizer. Because chitosan and fibroin are both used in FDA-approved devices, Shrilk also may be useful for creating implantable foams, films, and scaffolds for surgical closures, wound healing, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine applications.”

The result — a plastic product that degrades readily with low environmental impact. Did you know that humans have produced roughly 8,300 million metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, the vast majority of which has been thrown out as waste.

Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

So, when you think about the innumerable and immeasurable ways that animal research benefits not only our day to day lives, but also that of the world, you can add one more area to that list—that of bioinspired designs.

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