From robotic fireflies to okra patches, nature-inspired solutions for 2022

Even as animals and plants face widespread extinction from human-caused causes such as climate change, nature continues to inspire scientific discovery in unexpected ways.

“Nature has spent hundreds of millions of years optimizing elegant solutions to extremely complicated problems,” said Alon Gorodetsky, a biomedical engineer at the University of California, Irvine.

“So by looking at nature, we can shorten our development process and come to a valuable solution immediately,” he told AFP.

From food warmers made from squid skin to a lube made from cow mucus, here’s a selection of this year’s science inspired by nature.

Okra patches stop bleeding hearts

With a biodegradable patch made from sticky okra gel, it may now be possible to stop the bleeding hearts and livers of dogs and rabbits without bites.

Okra is a flaky green vegetable with a slimy texture that inspired Malcolm Xing of Canada’s University of Manitoba to make a medicinal glue out of it.

“Okra is a fantastic material,” Xing said.

In the July study, published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, researchers discovered that refining okra in a juicer and then drying it into a powder creates a potent bioglue that quickly forms a physical barrier and starts the blood-clotting process.

The researchers plan to test this patch on humans in the coming years.

Cow slime lubricant

Snot can make you feel disgusted, but laboratory tests found that a lubricant made from cow mucus showed promise in curbing the spread of certain sexually transmitted infections.

However, the study, published in Advanced Science in September, is very preliminary. It has not yet been tested on humans and should not replace other forms of protection such as condoms.

Researchers extracted mucus from cows’ salivary glands and turned it into a gel that binds and blocks viruses. Mucus is made up of a protein called mucin, which may have antiviral properties.

It is also both a solid and a liquid.

“As a solid, it can trap bacteria or viruses in the body. As a liquid, it can remove these pathogens from the body,” said study co-author Hongji Yan of Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

Robot Firefly

Fireflies lighting up the night sky inspired scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create tiny, insect-sized robots that emit light as they fly.

The glowing artificial muscles help the honeybee-sized robots communicate with each other, which could one day make them useful for search and rescue missions.

Although the robots can only work in a laboratory environment so far, researchers are excited about their potential future applications.

Cancer sniffing ants

There are an estimated 20 quadrillion ants in the world, and researchers have discovered that one species may be able to sniff out cancer in the human breast.

In a study conducted at the University of Sorbonne Paris Nord and published on the preprint server bioRxiv, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, scientists used a sugar water treat to teach ants to tell the difference between implanted mouse urine and no human smell tumors.

While dogs can be trained to use their super noses to detect cancer, it is expensive and time consuming.

Ants might be a cheaper, if less cute, alternative.

Squid skin tea cozy

Squid’s odd skin has inspired a packaging material that can keep coffee and food warm for as long or as little as desired, according to a study published in Nature Sustainability in March.

Squid have miniature organs called chromatophores that can drastically change size and also help them change color.

To mimic “these pigment-filled organs,” study co-author Alon Gorodetsky, of the University of California, Irvine, said they engineered “little islands of metal that you could move apart” and contract.

The heat level can then be controlled by how much the material is stretched.

“If you put it around a warm object — say, a coffee-filled mug or a hot sandwich — you can control the rate at which it cools,” he said.

“Nature really is the epitome of innovation and engineering,” Gorodetsky added.

© 2022 AFP

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