Category Archives: biomimcry

Cambridge University researchers tell us why Spiderman can’t exist while Stanford University proves otherwise

A team of zoology researchers at Cambridge University (UK) find themselves in the unenviable position of having their peer-reviewed study used as a source of unintentional humour. I gather zoologists (Cambridge) and engineers (Stanford) don’t have much opportunity to share information.

A Jan. 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the Cambridge research findings,

Latest research reveals why geckos are the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls — even larger climbers would require unmanageably large sticky footpads. Scientists estimate that a human would need adhesive pads covering 40% of their body surface in order to walk up a wall like Spiderman, and believe their insights have implications for the feasibility of large-scale, gecko-like adhesives.

A Jan. 18, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the thinking that led to the researchers’ conclusions,

Dr David Labonte and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that tiny mites use approximately 200 times less of their total body area for adhesive pads than geckos, nature’s largest adhesion-based climbers. And humans? We’d need about 40% of our total body surface, or roughly 80% of our front, to be covered in sticky footpads if we wanted to do a convincing Spiderman impression.

Once an animal is big enough to need a substantial fraction of its body surface to be covered in sticky footpads, the necessary morphological changes would make the evolution of this trait impractical, suggests Labonte.

“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet – our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a US size 114,” says Walter Federle, senior author also from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The researchers say that these insights into the size limits of sticky footpads could have profound implications for developing large-scale bio-inspired adhesives, which are currently only effective on very small areas.

“As animals increase in size, the amount of body surface area per volume decreases – an ant has a lot of surface area and very little volume, and a blue whale is mostly volume with not much surface area” explains Labonte.

“This poses a problem for larger climbing species because, when they are bigger and heavier, they need more sticking power to be able to adhere to vertical or inverted surfaces, but they have comparatively less body surface available to cover with sticky footpads. This implies that there is a size limit to sticky footpads as an evolutionary solution to climbing – and that turns out to be about the size of a gecko.”

Larger animals have evolved alternative strategies to help them climb, such as claws and toes to grip with.

The researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.

“We compared animals covering more than seven orders of magnitude in weight, which is roughly the same as comparing a cockroach to the weight of Big Ben, for example,” says Labonte.

These investigations also gave the researchers greater insights into how the size of adhesive footpads is influenced and constrained by the animals’ evolutionary history.

“We were looking at vastly different animals – a spider and a gecko are about as different as a human is to an ant- but if you look at their feet, they have remarkably similar footpads,” says Labonte.

“Adhesive pads of climbing animals are a prime example of convergent evolution – where multiple species have independently, through very different evolutionary histories, arrived at the same solution to a problem. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that it must be a very good solution.”

The researchers believe we can learn from these evolutionary solutions in the development of large-scale manmade adhesives.

“Our study emphasises the importance of scaling for animal adhesion, and scaling is also essential for improving the performance of adhesives over much larger areas. There is a lot of interesting work still to do looking into the strategies that animals have developed in order to maintain the ability to scale smooth walls, which would likely also have very useful applications in the development of large-scale, powerful yet controllable adhesives,” says Labonte.

There is one other possible solution to the problem of how to stick when you’re a large animal, and that’s to make your sticky footpads even stickier.

“We noticed that within closely related species pad size was not increasing fast enough to match body size, probably a result of evolutionary constraints. Yet these animals can still stick to walls,” says Christofer Clemente, a co-author from the University of the Sunshine Coast [Australia].

“Within frogs, we found that they have switched to this second option of making pads stickier rather than bigger. It’s remarkable that we see two different evolutionary solutions to the problem of getting big and sticking to walls,” says Clemente.

“Across all species the problem is solved by evolving relatively bigger pads, but this does not seem possible within closely related species, probably since there is not enough morphological diversity to allow it. Instead, within these closely related groups, pads get stickier. This is a great example of evolutionary constraint and innovation.”

A researcher at Stanford University (US) took strong exception to the Cambridge team’s conclusions , from a Jan. 28, 2016 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced [in 2014] that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.

Hawkes has created a video outlining the nature of his dispute with Cambridge University and US tv talk show host, Stephen Colbert who featured the Cambridge University research in one of his monologues,

To be fair to Hawkes, he does prove his point. A Nov. 21, 2014 Stanford University report by Bjorn Carey describes Hawke’s ingenious ‘sticky pads,

Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures each 100 micrometers long (about the width of a human hair).

The pads are connected to special degressive springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten.

“When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.”

As with actual geckos, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off. Simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason said.

The ability of the device to scale up controllable adhesion to support large loads makes it attractive for several applications beyond human climbing, said Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper.

“Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays,” Cutkosky said. “We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”

Previous work on synthetic and gecko adhesives showed that adhesive strength decreased as the size increased. In contrast, the engineers have shown that the special springs in their device make it possible to maintain the same adhesive strength at all sizes from a square millimeter to the size of a human hand.

The current version of the device can support about 200 pounds, Hawkes said, but, theoretically, increasing its size by 10 times would allow it to carry almost 2,000 pounds.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Stanford paper,

Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, Mark R. Cutkosky. Jurnal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675 Published 19 November 2014

This paper is open access.

To be fair to the Cambridge researchers, It’s stretching it a bit to say that Hawke’s gecko gloves allow someone to be like Spiderman. That’s a very careful, slow climb achieved in a relatively short period of time. Can the human body remain suspended that way for more than a few minutes? How big do your sticky pads have to be if you’re going to have the same wall-climbing ease of movement and staying power of either a gecko or Spiderman?

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Cambridge paper,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1519459113

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an open access preprint version, which may differ from the PNAS version, available,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J Crosby, Duncan J Irschick, Walter Federle. bioRxiv
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/033845

I hope that if the Cambridge researchers respond, they will be witty rather than huffy. Finally, there’s this gecko image (which I love) from the Cambridge researchers,

 Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

4D printing: a hydrogel orchid

In 2013, the 4th dimension for printing was self-assembly according to a March 1, 2013 article by Tuan Nguyen for ZDNET. A Jan. 25, 2016 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University news release (also on EurekAlert) points to time as the fourth dimension in a description of the Wyss Institute’s latest 4D printed object,

A team of scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has evolved their microscale 3D printing technology to the fourth dimension, time. Inspired by natural structures like plants, which respond and change their form over time according to environmental stimuli, the team has unveiled 4D-printed hydrogel composite structures that change shape upon immersion in water.

“This work represents an elegant advance in programmable materials assembly, made possible by a multidisciplinary approach,” said Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D., senior author on the new study. “We have now gone beyond integrating form and function to create transformable architectures.”

In nature, flowers and plants have tissue composition and microstructures that result in dynamic morphologies that change according to their environments. Mimicking the variety of shape changes undergone by plant organs such as tendrils, leaves, and flowers in response to environmental stimuli like humidity and/or temperature, the 4D-printed hydrogel composites developed by Lewis and her team are programmed to contain precise, localized swelling behaviors. Importantly, the hydrogel composites contain cellulose fibrils that are derived from wood and are similar to the microstructures that enable shape changes in plants.

By aligning cellulose fibrils (also known as, cellulose nanofibrils or nanofibrillated cellulose) during printing, the hydrogel composite ink is encoded with anisotropic swelling and stiffness, which can be patterned to produce intricate shape changes. The anisotropic nature of the cellulose fibrils gives rise to varied directional properties that can be predicted and controlled. Just like wood, which can be split easier along the grain rather than across it. Likewise, when immersed in water, the hydrogel-cellulose fibril ink undergoes differential swelling behavior along and orthogonal to the printing path. Combined with a proprietary mathematical model developed by the team that predicts how a 4D object must be printed to achieve prescribed transformable shapes, the new method opens up many new and exciting potential applications for 4D printing technology including smart textiles, soft electronics, biomedical devices, and tissue engineering.

“Using one composite ink printed in a single step, we can achieve shape-changing hydrogel geometries containing more complexity than any other technique, and we can do so simply by modifying the print path,” said Gladman [A. Sydney Gladman, Wyss Institute a graduate research assistant]. “What’s more, we can interchange different materials to tune for properties such as conductivity or biocompatibility.”

The composite ink that the team uses flows like liquid through the printhead, yet rapidly solidifies once printed. A variety of hydrogel materials can be used interchangeably resulting in different stimuli-responsive behavior, while the cellulose fibrils can be replaced with other anisotropic fillers of choice, including conductive fillers.

“Our mathematical model prescribes the printing pathways required to achieve the desired shape-transforming response,” said Matsumoto [Elisabetta Matsumoto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss]. “We can control the curvature both discretely and continuously using our entirely tunable and programmable method.”

Specifically, the mathematical modeling solves the “inverse problem”, which is the challenge of being able to predict what the printing toolpath must be in order to encode swelling behaviors toward achieving a specific desired target shape.

“It is wonderful to be able to design and realize, in an engineered structure, some of nature’s solutions,” said Mahadevan [L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., a Wyss Core Faculty member] , who has studied phenomena such as how botanical tendrils coil, how flowers bloom, and how pine cones open and close. “By solving the inverse problem, we are now able to reverse-engineer the problem and determine how to vary local inhomogeneity, i.e. the spacing between the printed ink filaments, and the anisotropy, i.e. the direction of these filaments, to control the spatiotemporal response of these shapeshifting sheets. ”

“What’s remarkable about this 4D printing advance made by Jennifer and her team is that it enables the design of almost any arbitrary, transformable shape from a wide range of available materials with different properties and potential applications, truly establishing a new platform for printing self-assembling, dynamic microscale structures that could be applied to a broad range of industrial and medical applications,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS [School of Engineering and Applied Science’.

Here’s an animation from the Wyss Institute illustrating the process,

And, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Biomimetic 4D printing by A. Sydney Gladman, Elisabetta A. Matsumoto, Ralph G. Nuzzo, L. Mahadevan, & Jennifer A. Lewis. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4544 Published online 25 January 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Revolutionary ‘smart’ windows from the UK

This is the first time I’ve seen self-cleaning and temperature control features mentioned together with regard to a ‘smart’ window, which makes this very exciting news. From a Jan. 20, 2016 UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) press release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolutionary new type of smart window could cut window-cleaning costs in tall buildings while reducing heating bills and boosting worker productivity. Developed by University College London (UCL) with support from EPSRC, prototype samples confirm that the glass can deliver three key benefits:

Self-cleaning: The window is ultra-resistant to water, so rain hitting the outside forms spherical droplets that roll easily over the surface – picking up dirt, dust and other contaminants and carrying them away. This is due to the pencil-like, conical design of nanostructures engraved onto the glass, trapping air and ensuring only a tiny amount of water comes into contact with the surface. This is different from normal glass, where raindrops cling to the surface, slide down more slowly and leave marks behind.
Energy-saving: The glass is coated with a very thin (5-10nm) film of vanadium dioxide which during cold periods stops thermal radiation escaping and so prevents heat loss; during hot periods it prevents infrared radiation from the sun entering the building. Vanadium dioxide is a cheap and abundant material, combining with the thinness of the coating to offer real cost and sustainability advantages over silver/gold-based and other coatings used by current energy-saving windows.
Anti-glare: The design of the nanostructures also gives the windows the same anti-reflective properties found in the eyes of moths and other creatures that have evolved to hide from predators. It cuts the amount of light reflected internally in a room to less than 5 per cent – compared with the 20-30 per cent achieved by other prototype vanadium dioxide coated, energy-saving windows – with this reduction in ‘glare’ providing a big boost to occupant comfort.

This is the first time that a nanostructure has been combined with a thermochromic coating. The bio-inspired nanostructure amplifies the thermochromics properties of the coating and the net result is a self-cleaning, highly performing smart window, said Dr Ioannis Papakonstantinou of UCL.

The UCL team calculate that the windows could result in a reduction in heating bills of up to 40 per cent, with the precise amount in any particular case depending on the exact latitude of the building where they are incorporated. Windows made of the ground-breaking glass could be especially well-suited to use in high-rise office buildings.

Dr Ioannis Papakonstantinou of UCL, project leader, explains: It’s currently estimated that, because of the obvious difficulties involved, the cost of cleaning a skyscraper’s windows in its first 5 years is the same as the original cost of installing them. Our glass could drastically cut this expenditure, quite apart from the appeal of lower energy bills and improved occupant productivity thanks to less glare. As the trend in architecture continues towards the inclusion of more glass, it’s vital that windows are as low-maintenance as possible.

So, when can I buy these windows? (from the press release; Note: Links have been removed)

Discussions are now under way with UK glass manufacturers with a view to driving this new window concept towards commercialisation. The key is to develop ways of scaling up the nano-manufacturing methods that the UCL team have specially developed to produce the glass, as well as scaling up the vanadium dioxide coating process. Smart windows could begin to reach the market within around 3-5 years [emphasis mine], depending on the team’s success in securing industrial interest.

Dr Papakonstantinou says: We also hope to develop a ‘smart’ film that incorporates our nanostructures and can easily be added to conventional domestic, office, factory and other windows on a DIY [do-it-yourself] basis to deliver the triple benefit of lower energy use, less light reflection and self-cleaning, without significantly affecting aesthetics.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said: This project is an example of how investing in excellent research drives innovation to produce tangible benefits. In this case the new technique could deliver both energy savings and cost reductions.

A 5-year European Research Council (ERC) starting grant (IntelGlazing) has been awarded to fabricate smart windows on a large scale and test them under realistic, outdoor environmental conditions.

The UCL team that developed the prototype smart window includes Mr Alaric Taylor, a PhD student in Dr Papakonstantinou’s group, and Professor Ivan Parkin from UCL’s Department of Chemistry.

I wish them good luck.

One last note, these new windows are the outcome of a 2.5 year EPSRC funded project: Biologically Inspired Nanostructures for Smart Windows with Antireflection and Self-Cleaning Properties, which ended in Sept.  2015.

Clues as to how mother of pearl is made

Iridescence seems to fascinate scientists and a team at Cornell University is no exception (from a Dec. 4, 2015 news item on Nanowerk),

Mother nature has a lot to teach us about how to make things.

With that in mind, Cornell researchers have uncovered the process by which mollusks manufacture nacre – commonly known as “mother of pearl.” Along with its iridescent beauty, this material found on the insides of seashells is incredibly strong. Knowing how it’s made could lead to new methods to synthesize a variety of new materials with as yet unguessed properties.

“We have all these high-tech facilities to make new materials, but just take a walk along the beach and see what’s being made,” said postdoctoral research associate Robert Hovden, M.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’14. “Nature is doing incredible nanoscience, and we need to dig into it.”

A Dec. 4, 2015 Cornell University news release by Bill Steele, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Using a high-resolution scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM), the researchers examined a cross section of the shell of a large Mediterranean mollusk called the noble pen shell or fan mussel (Pinna nobilis). To make the observations possible they had to develop a special sample preparation process. Using a diamond saw, they cut a thin slice through the shell, then in effect sanded it down with a thin film in which micron-sized bits of diamond were embedded, until they had a sample less than 30 nanometers thick, suitable for STEM observation. As in sanding wood, they moved from heavier grits for fast cutting to a fine final polish to make a surface free of scratches that might distort the STEM image.

Images with nanometer-scale resolution revealed that the organism builds nacre by depositing a series of layers of a material containing nanoparticles of calcium carbonate. Moving from the inside out, these particles are seen coming together in rows and fusing into flat crystals laminated between layers of organic material. (The layers are thinner than the wavelengths of visible light, causing the scattering that gives the material its iridescence.)

Exactly what happens at each step is a topic for future research. For now, the researchers said in their paper, “We cannot go back in time” to observe the process. But knowing that nanoparticles are involved is a valuable insight for materials scientists, Hovden said.

Here’s an image from the researchers,

Electron microscope image of a cross-section of a mollusk shell. The organism builds its shell from the inside out by depositing layers of calcium carbonate nanoparticles. As the particle density increases over time they fuse into large flat crystals embedded in layers of organic material to form nacre. Courtesy: Cornell University

Electron microscope image of a cross-section of a mollusk shell. The organism builds its shell from the inside out by depositing layers of calcium carbonate nanoparticles. As the particle density increases over time they fuse into large flat crystals embedded in layers of organic material to form nacre. Courtesy: Cornell University

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanoscale assembly processes revealed in the nacroprismatic transition zone of Pinna nobilis mollusc shells by Robert Hovden, Stephan E. Wolf, Megan E. Holtz, Frédéric Marin, David A. Muller, & Lara A. Estroff. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 10097 doi:10.1038/ncomms10097 Published 03 December 2015

This is an open access paper.

How tarantulas get blue

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

Cobalt Blue Tarantula [downloaded from http://www.tarantulaguide.com/tarantula-pictures/cobalt-blue-tarantula-4/]

That’s a stunning shade of blue on the tarantula and now scientists can explain why these and other ‘spiders’ are sometimes blue, from a Nov. 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists recently discovered that tiny, multilayer nanostructures inside a tarantula’s hair are responsible for its vibrant color. The science behind how these hair-raising spiders developed their blue hue may lead to new ways to improve computer or TV screens using biomimicry.

A Nov. 30, 2015 University of California at San Diego news release by Annie Reisewitz, which originated the news item, explains more,

Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and University of Akron found that many species of tarantulas have independently evolved the ability to grow blue hair using nanostructures in their exoskeletons, rather than pigments. The study, published in the Nov. 27 issue of Science Advances, is the first to show that individual species evolved separately to make the same shade of a non-iridescent color, one that doesn’t change when viewed at different angles.

Since tarantulas’ blue color is not iridescent, the researchers suggest that the same process can be applied to make pigment replacements that never fade and help reduce glare on wide-angle viewing systems in phones, televisions, and other devices.

“There is strikingly little variety in the shade of blue produced by different species of tarantulas,” said Dimitri Deheyn, a Scripps Oceanography researcher studying marine and terrestrial biomimicry and coauthor of the study. “We see that different types of nanostructures evolved to produce the same ‘blue’ across distant branches of the tarantula family tree in a way that uniquely illustrates natural selection through convergent evolution.”

Unlike butterflies and birds that use nanostructures to produce vibrant colors to attract the attention of females during display courtship, tarantulas have poor vision and likely evolved this trait for a different reason. While the researchers still don’t understand the benefits tarantulas receive from being blue, they are now investigating how to reproduce the tarantula nanostructures in the laboratory.

The tarantula study is just one example of the biomimicry research being conducted in the Deheyn lab at Scripps Oceanography. In a cover article in the Nov. 10 of Chemistry of Materials, Deheyn and colleagues published new findings on the nanostructure of ragweed pollen, which shows interesting optical properties and has possible biomimicry applications. By transforming the pollen into a magnetic material with a specialized coating to give it more or less reflectance, the particle could adhere in a similar way that pollen does in nature while being able to adjust its visibility. The researchers suggest this design could be applied to create a new type of tagging or tracking technology.

Using a high-powered microscope, known as a hyperspectral imaging system, Deheyn is able to map a species’ color field pixel by pixel, which correlates to the shape and geometry of the nanostructures and gives them their unique color.

“This unique technology allows us to associate structure with optical property,” said Deheyn. “Our inspiration is to learn about how nature evolves unique traits that we could mimic to benefit future technologies.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Blue reflectance in tarantulas is evolutionarily conserved despite nanostructural diversity by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Todd A. Blackledge. Science Advances  27 Nov 2015: Vol. 1, no. 10, e1500709 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500709

This paper appears to be open access.

Omnidirectional fish camouflage and polarizing light

I find this camouflage technique quite interesting due to some nice writing, from a Nov. 19, 2015 Florida Atlantic University (FAU) news release on EurekAlert,

The vast open ocean presents an especially challenging environment for its inhabitants since there is nowhere for them to hide. Yet, nature has found a remarkable way for fish to hide from their predators using camouflage techniques. In a study published in the current issue of Science, researchers from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and collaborators show that fish scales have evolved to not only reflect light, but to also scramble polarization. They identified the tissue structure that fish evolved to do this, which could be an analog to develop new materials to help hide objects in the water.

HBOI researchers and colleagues collected more than 1,500 video-polarimetry measurements from live fish from distinct habitats under a variety of viewing conditions, and have revealed for the first time that fish have an ‘omnidirectional’ solution they use to camouflage themselves, demonstrating a new form of camouflage in nature — light polarization matching.

“We’ve known that open water fish have silvery scales for skin that reflect light from above so the reflected intensity is comparable to the background intensity when looking up, obliquely at the fish, as a predator would,” said Michael Twardowski, Ph.D., research professor at FAU’s HBOI and co-author of the study who collaborated with co-author James M. Sullivan, Ph.D., also a research professor at FAU’s HBOI. “This is one form of camouflage in the ocean.”

Typical light coloring on the ventral side (belly) and dark coloring on the dorsal (top) side of the fish also can help match intensity by differential absorption of light, in addition to reflection matching.

Light-scattering processes in the open ocean create spatially heterogeneous backgrounds. Polarization (the directional vibration of light waves) generates changes in the light environment that vary with the Sun’s position in the sky.

Polarization is a fundamental property of light, like color, but human eyes do not have the ability to sense it. Light travels in waves, and for natural sunlight, the direction of these waves is random around a central viewing axis. But when light reflects off a surface, waves parallel to that surface are dominant in the reflected beam. Many visual systems for fish have the ability to discriminate polarization, like built-in polarized sunglasses.

“Polarized sunglasses help you see better by blocking horizontal waves to reduce bright reflections,” said Twardowski. “The same principle helps fish discriminate objects better in water.”

Twardowski believes that even though light reflecting off silvery scales does a good job matching intensity of the background, if the scales acted as simple mirrors they would impart a polarization signature to the reflected light very different from the more random polarization of the background light field.

“This signature would be easily apparent to a predator with ability to discriminate polarization, resulting in poor camouflage,” he said. “Fish have evolved a solution to this potential vulnerability.”

To empirically determine whether open-ocean fish have evolved a cryptic reflectance strategy for their heterogeneous polarized environments, the researchers measured the contrasts of live open-ocean and coastal fish against the pelagic background in the Florida Keys and Curaçao. They used a single 360 degree camera around the horizontal plane of the targets and used both light microscopy and full-body video-polarimetry.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of Science magazine where the researchers’ study can be found issued a Nov. 19, 2015 news release on EurekAlert further describing the work,

… The study’s insights could pave the way to improvements in materials like polarization-sensitive satellites. Underwater, light vibrates in way that “polarizes” it. While humans cannot detect this vibrational state of light without technology, it is becoming increasingly evident that many species of fish can; lab-based studies hint that some fish have even adapted ways to use polarization to their advantage, including developing platelets within their skin that reflect and manipulate polarized light so the fish are camouflaged. To gain more insights into this form of camouflage, Parrish Brady and colleagues measured the polarization abilities of live fish as they swam in the open ocean. Using a specialized underwater camera (…), the researchers took numerous polarization measurements of several open water and coastal species of fish throughout the day as the sun changed position in the sky, causing subsequent changes in the polarization of light underwater. They found that open water fish from the Carangidae fish family, such as lookdowns and bigeye scad, exhibited significantly lower polarization contrast with their backgrounds (making them harder to spot) than carangid species that normally inhabit reefs. Furthermore, the researchers found that this reflective camouflage was optimal at angles from which predators most often spot fish, such as from directly below the fish and at angles perpendicular to their length. By looking at the platelets of open water fish under the microscope, the team found that the platelets align well on vertical axes, allowing fish to reflect the predictable downward direction of light in the open ocean. Yet the platelets are angled in way that diffuses light along the horizontal axis, the researchers say. They suggest that these different axes work together to reflect a wide range of depolarized light, offering better camouflage abilities to their hosts.

The AAAS has made available a video combining recordings from the researchers and animation to illustrate the research,

Be sure you can hear the audio as this won’t make much sense otherwise.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Open-ocean fish reveal an omnidirectional solution to camouflage in polarized environments by Parrish C. Brady, Alexander A. Gilerson, George W. Kattawar, James M. Sullivan, Michael S. Twardowski, Heidi M. Dierssen, Meng Gao, Kort Travis, Robert Ian Etheredge, Alberto Tonizzo, Amir Ibrahim, Carlos Carrizo, Yalong Gu, Brandon J. Russell, Kathryn Mislinski, Shulei Zha1, Molly E. Cummings. Science 20 November 2015: Vol. 350 no. 6263 pp. 965-969 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5284

This paper is behind a paywall.

Heart urchin shells and air

This is a microscale (1 millionth) rather than a nanoscale (1 billionth) story but I find the idea of shells that are mostly composed of air quite intriguing. From a Nov. 10, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Materials researchers love sea creatures. Mother-of-pearl provokes ideas for smooth surfaces, clams inspire gluey substances, shark’s skin is used to develop materials that reduce drag in water, and so on. Researchers have now found a model for strong, lightweight materials by diving below the sea surface to investigate a sea urchin cousin known as the heart urchin.

A Nov. 9, 2015 University of Copenhagen press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

Heart urchins (Echinocardium cordatum), also known as sea potatoes, measure up to 5 cm in diameter, are heart shaped and burrow in sand. They extend a channel to feed upon organic particles from the waters above their burrow. Like “regular” sea urchins, these “irregular” heart urchins are soft creatures that use their calcium carbonate exoskeletons to protect their otherwise edible bodies from predation. And as it turns out, their shells are unexpectedly robust.

The idea to study heart urchin shells dawned upon a vacationing Müter while he was walking down a Croatian beach. The paper-thin urchin shells were washed up onto the beach, and Müter [Dirk Müter, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry’s NanoGeoScience research group] observed that they had astonishingly few blemishes despite being so thin.

To understand the sturdy calcium carbonate shells, Müter and his colleagues used a relatively new technology called x-ray microtomography. The technique was used to create three-dimensional images of the material contents, without having to break the shells up into pieces. The x-ray images are so fine that it is possible to distinguish structures of less than one-thousandth of a millimetre. This ultra fine resolution proved decisive in coming to understand the shell’s strength.

Anyone who has ever broken a piece of chalk knows that calcium carbonate is fragile. And, heart urchin shells consist of more air than chalk. In fact, as one gets up close to the shell material, it begins to resemble soapsuds. The material consists of an incredible number of microscopic cavities held together by slender calcium carbonate (chalk) struts. There are between 50,000 and 150,000 struts per cubic millimetre, and in some areas, the material is composed of up to 70% air.

Calcium carbonate can be many things, from unyielding marble to the soft and somewhat brittle chalk that we use to write with. While heart urchin shells and writing chalk share a similar porosity, the urchin shells are up to six times stronger than chalk. Müter’s studies demonstrate that heart urchin shells have a structure that nears a theoretical ideal for foam structure strength – a must for a creature that has evolved to withstand life under 10 metres of water and an additional 30 centimetres of sand.

Müter explains that to their great surprise, heart urchin shell strength varied between shell regions due to greater or lesser concentrations of struts within specific regions, not because of thinner or thicker struts.

“We found an example of a surprisingly simple construction principle. This is an easy way to build materials. It allows for great variation in structure and strength. And, it is very near optimal from a mechanical perspective,” states Assistant Professor Dirk Müter.

Müter and his NanoGeoScience colleagues expect that their new insights will serve to improve shock- absorbent materials among other outcomes.

Here is Müter holding up a sea potato or sea heart,

Caption: The heart urchin lives its entire life dug into the sea bottom. Its fragile looking calcium shell needs to withstand the combined pressure of half a meter of sand and a couple of meters water. Dirk Müter of University of copenhagen Department of Chemistry, discovered, that this makes it one of the toughest creatures known. Credit Photo: Jes Andersen/University of Copenhagen

Caption: The heart urchin lives its entire life dug into the sea bottom. Its fragile looking calcium shell needs to withstand the combined pressure of half a meter of sand and a couple of meters water. Dirk Müter of University of copenhagen Department of Chemistry, discovered, that this makes it one of the toughest creatures known. Credit Photo: Jes Andersen/University of Copenhagen

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Microstructure and micromechanics of the heart urchin test from X-ray tomography by D. Müter, , H.O. Sørensen, J. Oddershede, K.N. Dalby, and S.L.S. Stipp. Acta Biomaterialia Volume 23, 1 September 2015, Pages 21–26 doi:10.1016/j.actbio.2015.05.007

This paper is behind a paywall.

Structural colo(u)r with a twist

There’s a nice essay about structural colour on the Duke University website (h/t Nanowerk). Long time readers know my favourite piece of writing on the subject is by Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist magazine which I profiled here in a Feb. 7, 2013 posting.

This latest piece seems to have been written by Beverley Glover and Anika Radiya-Dixit and it is very good. From the Oct. 27, 2015 Duke University blog posting titled, Iridescent Beauty: Development, function and evolution of plant nanostructures that influence animal behavior,

Iridescent wings of a Morpho butterfly

Creatures like the Morpho butterfly on the leaf above appear to be covered in shimmering blue and green metallic colors. This phenomenon is called “iridescence,” meaning that color appears to change as the angle changes, much like soap bubbles and sea shells.

In animals, the physical mechanisms and function of structural color have been studied significantly as a signal for recognition or mate choice.

Glover, one of the post’s authors, is a scientist who believes there may be another reason for iridescence,

On the other hand, Beverley Glover believes that such shimmering in plants can actually influence animal behavior by attracting pollinators better than their non-iridescent counterparts. Glover,Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden,  presented her study during the Biology Seminar Series in the French Family Science Center on Monday [Oct. 26, 2015] earlier this week.

Hibiscus Trionum

The metallic property of flowers like the Hibiscus Trionum above are generated by diffraction grating – similar to the way CD shines – to create color from transparent material.

In order to observe the effects of the iridescence on pollinators like bees, Glover created artificial materials with a surface structure of nanoscale ridges, similar to the microscopic view of a petal’s epidermal surface below.

Nanoscale ridges on a petal's epidermal surface.

In the first set of experiments, Glover and her team marked bees with paint to follow their behavior as they set the insects to explore iridescent flowers. Some were covered in a red grating – containing a sweet solution as a reward – and others with a blue iridescent grating – containing a sour solution as deterrent. The experiment demonstrated that the bees were able to detect the iridescent signal produced by the petal’s nanoridges, and – as a result – correctly identified the rewarding flowers.

It’s worth reading the Oct. 27, 2015 Duke University blog posting to just to see the pictures used to illustrate the ideas and to find out about the second experiment.

Nanotechnology-enabled flame retardant coating

This is a pretty remarkable demonstration made more so when you find out the flame retardant is naturally derived and nontoxic. From an Oct. 5, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Inspired by a naturally occurring material found in marine mussels, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have created a new flame retardant to replace commercial additives that are often toxic and can accumulate over time in the environment and living animals, including humans.

An Oct. 5, 2015 University of Texas news release, which originated the news item, describes the situation with regard to standard flame retardants and what makes this new flame retardant technology so compelling,

Flame retardants are added to foams found in mattresses, sofas, car upholstery and many other consumer products. Once incorporated into foam, these chemicals can migrate out of the products over time, releasing toxic substances into the air and environment. Throughout the United States, there is pressure on state legislatures to ban flame retardants, especially those containing brominated compounds (BRFs), a mix of human-made chemicals thought to pose a risk to public health.

A team led by Cockrell School of Engineering associate professor Christopher Ellison found that a synthetic coating of polydopamine — derived from the natural compound dopamine — can be used as a highly effective, water-applied flame retardant for polyurethane foam. Dopamine is a chemical compound found in humans and animals that helps in the transmission of signals in the brain and other vital areas. The researchers believe their dopamine-based nanocoating could be used in lieu of conventional flame retardants.

“Since polydopamine is natural and already present in animals, this question of toxicity immediately goes away,” Ellison said. “We believe polydopamine could cheaply and easily replace the flame retardants found in many of the products that we use every day, making these products safer for both children and adults.”

Using far less polydopamine by weight than typical of conventional flame retardant additives, the UT Austin team found that the polydopamine coating on foams leads to a 67 percent reduction in peak heat release rate, a measure of fire intensity and imminent danger to building occupants or firefighters. The polydopamine flame retardant’s ability to reduce the fire’s intensity is about 20 percent better than existing flame retardants commonly used today.

Researchers have studied the use of synthetic polydopamaine for a number of health-related applications, including cancer drug delivery and implantable biomedical devices. However, the UT Austin team is thought to be one of the first to pursue the use of polydopamine as a flame retardant. To the research team’s surprise, they did not have to change the structure of the polydopamine from its natural form to use it as a flame retardant. The polydopamine was coated onto the interior and exterior surfaces of the polyurethane foam by simply dipping it into a water solution of dopamine for several days.

Ellison said he and his team were drawn to polydopamine because of its ability to adhere to surfaces as demonstrated by marine mussels who use the compound to stick to virtually any surface, including Teflon, the material used in nonstick cookware. Polydopamine also contains a dihydroxy-ring structure linked with an amine group that can be used to scavenge or remove free radicals. Free radicals are produced during the fire cycle as a polymer degrades, and their removal is critical to stopping the fire from continuing to spread. Polydopamine also produces a protective coating called char, which blocks fire’s access to its fuel source — the polymer. The synergistic combination of both these processes makes polydopamine an attractive and powerful flame retardant.

Ellison and his team are now testing to see whether they can shorten the nanocoating treatment process or develop a more convenient application process.

“We believe this alternative to flame retardants can prove very useful to removing potential hazards from products that children and adults use every day,” Ellison said. “We weren’t expecting to find a flame retardant in nature, but it was a serendipitous discovery.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bioinspired Catecholic Flame Retardant Nanocoating for Flexible Polyurethane Foams by Joon Hee Cho, Vivek Vasagar, Kadhiravan Shanmuganathan, Amanda R. Jones, Sergei Nazarenko, and Christopher J. Ellison. Chem. Mater., 2015, 27 (19), pp 6784–6790 DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.5b03013
Publication Date (Web): September 9, 2015
Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall. It should be noted that researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi and the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR)-National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, India were also involved in this work.

Nature-inspired but not really, a new design rule for nanostructures

It’s fascinating to observe the news release writer’s attempt to package this research as biomimetic when the new design rule is not found in nature. An Oct. 7, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily provides an introduction to the work from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,

Scientists aspire to build nanostructures that mimic the complexity and function of nature’s proteins. These microscopic widgets could be customized into incredibly sensitive chemical detectors or long-lasting catalysts. But as with any craft that requires extreme precision, researchers must first learn how to finesse the materials they’ll use to build these structures. A new discovery is a big step in this direction. The scientists discovered a design rule that enables a recently created material to exist.

An Oct. 7, 2015 Lawrence Berekeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, features more detail about the research and the writer’s gyrations,

The scientists discovered a design rule that enables a recently created material to exist. The material is a peptoid nanosheet. It’s a flat structure only two molecules thick, and it’s composed of peptoids, which are synthetic polymers closely related to protein-forming peptides.

The design rule controls the way in which polymers adjoin to form the backbones that run the length of nanosheets. Surprisingly, these molecules link together in a counter-rotating pattern not seen in nature. [emphasis mine] This pattern allows the backbones to remain linear and untwisted, a trait that makes peptoid nanosheets larger and flatter than any biological structure.

The Berkeley Lab scientists say this never-before-seen design rule could be used to piece together complex nanosheet structures and other peptoid assemblies such as nanotubes and crystalline solids.

What’s more, they discovered it by combining computer simulations with x-ray scattering and imaging methods to determine, for the first time, the atomic-resolution structure of peptoid nanosheets.

“This research suggests new ways to design biomimetic structures, [emphasis mine]” says Steve Whitelam, a co-corresponding author of the Nature paper. “We can begin thinking about using design principles other than those nature offers.”

The news release goes on to note the previous work which this newest research builds on and provides yet more detail about the latest and greatest,

Peptoid nanosheets were discovered by Zuckermann’s group five years ago. They found that under the right conditions, peptoids self assemble into two-dimensional assemblies that can grow hundreds of microns across. This “molecular paper” has become a hot prospect as a protein-mimicking platform for molecular design.

To learn more about this potential building material, the scientists set out to learn its atom-resolution structure. This involved feedback between experiment and theory. Microscopy and scattering data gathered at the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, also a DOE Office of Science user facility located at Berkeley Lab, were compared with molecular dynamics simulations conducted at NERSC.

The research revealed several new things about peptoid nanosheets. Their molecular makeup varies throughout their structure, they can be formed only from peptoids of a certain minimum length, they contain water pockets, and they are potentially porous when it comes to water and ions.

These insights are intriguing on their own, but when the scientists examined the structure of the nanosheets’ backbone, they were surprised to see a design rule not found in the field of protein structural biology.

Here’s the difference: In nature, proteins are composed of beta sheets and alpha helices. These fundamental building blocks are themselves composed of backbones, and the polymers that make up these backbones are all joined together using the same rule. Each adjacent polymer rotates incrementally in the same direction, so that a twist runs along the backbone.

This rule doesn’t apply to peptoid nanosheets. Along their backbones, adjacent monomer units rotate in opposite directions. These counter-rotations cancel each other out, resulting in a linear and untwisted backbone. This enables backbones to be tiled in two dimensions and extended into large sheets that are flatter than anything nature can produce.

“It was a big surprise to find the design rule that makes peptoid nanosheets possible has eluded the field of biology until now,” says Mannige [Ranjan Mannige, a postdoctoral researcher at the Molecular Foundry]. “This rule could perhaps be used to build many more unrealized structures.”

Adds Zuckermann [Peptoid nanosheets were discovered by Zuckermann’s group five years ago. They found that under the right conditions, peptoids self assemble into two-dimensional assemblies that can grow hundreds of microns across. This “molecular paper” has become a hot prospect as a protein-mimicking platform for molecular design.

To learn more about this potential building material, the scientists set out to learn its atom-resolution structure. This involved feedback between experiment and theory. Microscopy and scattering data gathered at the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, also a DOE Office of Science user facility located at Berkeley Lab, were compared with molecular dynamics simulations conducted at NERSC.

The research revealed several new things about peptoid nanosheets. Their molecular makeup varies throughout their structure, they can be formed only from peptoids of a certain minimum length, they contain water pockets, and they are potentially porous when it comes to water and ions.

These insights are intriguing on their own, but when the scientists examined the structure of the nanosheets’ backbone, they were surprised to see a design rule not found in the field of protein structural biology.

Here’s the difference: In nature, proteins are composed of beta sheets and alpha helices. These fundamental building blocks are themselves composed of backbones, and the polymers that make up these backbones are all joined together using the same rule. Each adjacent polymer rotates incrementally in the same direction, so that a twist runs along the backbone.

This rule doesn’t apply to peptoid nanosheets. Along their backbones, adjacent monomer units rotate in opposite directions. These counter-rotations cancel each other out, resulting in a linear and untwisted backbone. This enables backbones to be tiled in two dimensions and extended into large sheets that are flatter than anything nature can produce.

“It was a big surprise to find the design rule that makes peptoid nanosheets possible has eluded the field of biology until now,” says Mannige. “This rule could perhaps be used to build many more unrealized structures.”

Adds Zuckermann, [Ron Zuckermann directs the Molecular Foundry’s Biological Nanostructures Facility.] “We also expect there are other design principles waiting to be discovered, which could lead to even more biomimetic nanostructures.”

They might have been better off describing the work as “bioinspired” but it is a tricky thing to describe and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out of describing this discovery which is based on observations from nature but follows no rule found in nature.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Peptoid nanosheets exhibit a new secondary-structure motif by Ranjan V. Mannige, Thomas K. Haxton, Caroline Proulx, Ellen J. Robertson, Alessia Battigelli, Glenn L. Butterfoss, Ronald N. Zuckermann, & Stephen Whitelam. Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature15363 Published online 07 October 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.