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Chris Wood
Casey Research, LLC

When Nature Talks, Technologists Listen

By Chris Wood and Drake Galland

In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral had his “Eureka!” moment. He was walking through the woods while on a hunting trip in the Alps when he noticed that he and his dog were both covered in burrs. Intrigued by the stickiness of these little things, de Mestral decided to examine some of the burrs under a microscope when he got home. What he found was an unassuming marvel of nature—hundreds of hooks that naturally grab onto the tiny loops covering fur and clothing.

De Mestral thought he could take a cue from nature and create a two-sided fabric fastener system based on this design—one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other with soft loops like the fur and clothing. After a number of years of research and development, the first “hook-and-loop fastener” was born. De Mestral called his invention Velcro (a combination of the French words velours, meaning velvet, and crochet, meaning hook) and received his first patent for it in 1955.

Today, Velcro products can be found virtually everywhere, and the company is an early example of the rapidly growing field of bionics—the application of methods and systems found in nature to create technology. Below we highlight a few other interesting examples of technologies inspired by or coming directly from nature that have the potential to influence your life today and in the years to come.

Sharklet

This is a technology with great potential to help in the fight against superbugs like MRSA without adding to the drug-resistance problem from the overuse of antibiotics. The Sharklet surface is designed to mimic the microbe-resistant properties of shark skin. It was originally invented by materials scientist Dr. Anthony Brennan, who, in his quest to find out how to stop algae from clinging to submarine and ship hulls, noticed that large, slow-moving sharks, despite living in the same environment as whales, do not have algae buildup on their bodies. This inspired Dr. Brennan to study an impression of shark skin using an electron microscope. He noticed that its surface was comprised of a distinct ribbed diamond pattern. The first time he and his team tested this pattern as a material surface, they found that it reduced green algae settlement by 85% compared to smooth surfaces. From there they improved the tech and applied it to bacterial control. The microscopic pattern creates a surface that bacteria have a hard time growing on.

Nowadays the private company founded by Brennan, Sharklet Technologies, claims that Sharklet reduces bacterial contamination on surfaces by approximately 90%. The company puts the pattern into adhesive-backed films to use on frequently touched surfaces and manufactures it into medical devices and consumer goods.

GeckSkin

Another animal skin-based technology, Geckskin, is a new super-adhesive inspired by the gecko’s ability to grip and climb on nearly any surface—even upside down. According to the group behind the technology from University of Massachusetts Amherst, it’s made of simple commodity materials and “is so powerful that an index-card sized piece can hold 700 pounds on a smooth surface, such as glass, yet can be easily released, and leaves no residue.”

GeckSkin mimics the gecko foot, which is covered by millions of little hairs called setae. They in turn feature microscopic projections called spatulae. Setae have been the focus of previous attempts by scientists to replicate the gecko’s ability to adhere to smooth surfaces. The going theory is that the spatulae are sticky primarily because of something called van der Waals forces, certain types of intermolecular attraction that are beyond the scope of this article.

But the UMass Amherst team, led by polymer scientist Alfred Crosby and biologist Duncan Irschick, hypothesized that there was more to the story. Looking beyond the setae and considering the gecko foot as a whole, they determined that a stiff tendon directly integrated into the skin is also critical. So that’s what they set out to build.

Crosby and Irschick created a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric. As in a natural gecko foot, the fabric is woven into a synthetic tendon. The design allows the pad to drape over a surface to maximize contact and take advantage of van der Waals forces, while at the same time maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom. It uses everyday materials that aren’t soft and gooey like traditional adhesives. Not only does the invention work, but you can use it over and over again without leaving a mark on the surface you adhere it to.

GeckSkin opens up opportunities for adhesion that we’ve never considered before. In May of this year, for example, a 200-pound man scaled a 25-foot glass wall using only two GeckSkin climbing paddles. The military utility is obvious, but we’re also likely to see very widespread civilian applications of this technology in the years to come.

Medicine

Perhaps the most game-changing technologies inspired by nature are the drugs and other biomedical products that come from studying it.

Take venom, for example. Scientists think that the proteins and peptides found in venom will ultimately yield not just a few novel drugs, but entire classes of drugs. It’s currently being studied to treat everything from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and pain.

Modern venom-based treatments have been around since the mid-1970s, beginning with the development of the first ACE inhibitor (derived from Brazilian pit-viper venom) to control high blood pressure. But to date, only about 1,000 venom toxins have been scrutinized for medicinal value, and just half a dozen or so venom-derived medications have been approved by the FDA. According to toxinologist and herpetologist Zoltán Takács: “There could be upwards of 20 million venom toxins out there waiting to be screened. It’s huge. Venom has opened up whole new avenues of pharmacology.”

Some examples of ongoing research today that could bear fruit in the years ahead include: using an ingredient in deathstalker scorpion venom to help in the treatment of brain cancer; injecting a synthetic version of a peptide isolated from tarantula venom to improve muscle activity in patients with muscular dystrophy; and treating arthritis with cobra venom.

But venom isn’t the whole story, of course. What if I told you that one quart of the blue blood from a horseshoe crab has an estimated market value of $15,000? It’s true. Several decades ago scientists discovered that the immune system of the horseshoe crab could be useful to the biomedical industry. It has a compound in its blood—called Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL)—which fights off infections. LAL causes the blood to bind and clot when exposed to bacterial endotoxins (a component of gram negative bacteria such as E. coli), and it’s this reaction that makes LAL (and thus horseshoe crab blood) so valuable.

Why? Because, about 50 years ago, scientists recognized that some sterile solutions still caused fevers (or pyrogenic responses) when injected into humans. They found that these so-called “injection fevers” were caused by bacterial endotoxins which can remain in the solutions even after sterilization. They also found, however, that the solutions could be screened for endotoxins by injecting a small amount of the solution into rabbits. If the rabbit got a fever, the solution was thrown out. So the rabbit test, along with sterilization, became two critical tools of the pharmaceutical industry.

Today, the rabbit test is mostly gone. Scientists now can simply test sterile solutions in a test tube containing LAL. If a clotting reaction occurs, they know the solution contains bacterial endotoxins and can’t be used in humans. Thus LAL helps millions of people by ensuring that intravenous drugs, vaccines, and medical devices like pacemakers and prosthetics are free of bacterial contamination.

We could go on and on with similar examples, like how the sugar trehalose found in the water bear—an extremophile that can survive for decades without water in hostile environments—can drastically increase the shelf life of vaccines and certain blood products. But we think you get the idea.

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