Tag Archives: bioinspired

Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Dr. Wei Lu’s work here. This April  15, 2010 posting features Lu’s most relevant previous work.) Here’s his latest ‘memristor’ work , from a May 22, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by how mammals see, a new “memristor” computer circuit prototype at the University of Michigan has the potential to process complex data, such as images and video orders of magnitude, faster and with much less power than today’s most advanced systems.

Faster image processing could have big implications for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars, says Wei Lu, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Lu is lead author of a paper on the work published in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology (“Sparse coding with memristor networks”).

Lu’s next-generation computer components use pattern recognition to shortcut the energy-intensive process conventional systems use to dissect images. In this new work, he and his colleagues demonstrate an algorithm that relies on a technique called “sparse coding” to coax their 32-by-32 array of memristors to efficiently analyze and recreate several photos.

A May 22, 2017 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about memristors and about the research,

Memristors are electrical resistors with memory—advanced electronic devices that regulate current based on the history of the voltages applied to them. They can store and process data simultaneously, which makes them a lot more efficient than traditional systems. In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit.

“The tasks we ask of today’s computers have grown in complexity,” Lu said. “In this ‘big data’ era, computers require costly, constant and slow communications between their processor and memory to retrieve large amounts data. This makes them large, expensive and power-hungry.”

But like neural networks in a biological brain, networks of memristors can perform many operations at the same time, without having to move data around. As a result, they could enable new platforms that process a vast number of signals in parallel and are capable of advanced machine learning. Memristors are good candidates for deep neural networks, a branch of machine learning, which trains computers to execute processes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

“We need our next-generation electronics to be able to quickly process complex data in a dynamic environment. You can’t just write a program to do that. Sometimes you don’t even have a pre-defined task,” Lu said. “To make our systems smarter, we need to find ways for them to process a lot of data more efficiently. Our approach to accomplish that is inspired by neuroscience.”

A mammal’s brain is able to generate sweeping, split-second impressions of what the eyes take in. One reason is because they can quickly recognize different arrangements of shapes. Humans do this using only a limited number of neurons that become active, Lu says. Both neuroscientists and computer scientists call the process “sparse coding.”

“When we take a look at a chair we will recognize it because its characteristics correspond to our stored mental picture of a chair,” Lu said. “Although not all chairs are the same and some may differ from a mental prototype that serves as a standard, each chair retains some of the key characteristics necessary for easy recognition. Basically, the object is correctly recognized the moment it is properly classified—when ‘stored’ in the appropriate category in our heads.”

Image of a memristor chip Image of a memristor chip Similarly, Lu’s electronic system is designed to detect the patterns very efficiently—and to use as few features as possible to describe the original input.

In our brains, different neurons recognize different patterns, Lu says.

“When we see an image, the neurons that recognize it will become more active,” he said. “The neurons will also compete with each other to naturally create an efficient representation. We’re implementing this approach in our electronic system.”

The researchers trained their system to learn a “dictionary” of images. Trained on a set of grayscale image patterns, their memristor network was able to reconstruct images of famous paintings and photos and other test patterns.

If their system can be scaled up, they expect to be able to process and analyze video in real time in a compact system that can be directly integrated with sensors or cameras.

The project is titled “Sparse Adaptive Local Learning for Sensing and Analytics.” Other collaborators are Zhengya Zhang and Michael Flynn of the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Garrett Kenyon of the Los Alamos National Lab and Christof Teuscher of Portland State University.

The work is part of a $6.9 million Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation project that aims to build a computer chip based on self-organizing, adaptive neural networks. It is funded by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

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

Sparse coding with memristor networks by Patrick M. Sheridan, Fuxi Cai, Chao Du, Wen Ma, Zhengya Zhang, & Wei D. Lu. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.83 Published online 22 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the interested, there are a number of postings featuring memristors here (just use ‘memristor’ as your search term in the blog search engine). You might also want to check out ‘neuromorphic engineeering’ and ‘neuromorphic computing’ and ‘artificial brain’.

A nano fabrication technique used to create next generation heart valve

I am going to have take the researchers’ word that these somehow lead to healthy heart valve tissue,

In rotary jet spinning technology, a rotating nozzle extrudes a solution of extracellular matrix (ECM) into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. By using a series of mandrels with different sizes, the manufacturing process becomes fully scalable and is able to provide JetValves for all age groups and heart sizes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

From a May 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The human heart beats approximately 35 million times every year, effectively pumping blood into the circulation via four different heart valves. Unfortunately, in over four million people each year, these delicate tissues malfunction due to birth defects, age-related deteriorations, and infections, causing cardiac valve disease.

Today, clinicians use either artificial prostheses or fixed animal and cadaver-sourced tissues to replace defective valves. While these prostheses can restore the function of the heart for a while, they are associated with adverse comorbidity and wear down and need to be replaced during invasive and expensive surgeries. Moreover, in children, implanted heart valve prostheses need to be replaced even more often as they cannot grow with the child.

A team lead by Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently developed a nanofiber fabrication technique to rapidly manufacture heart valves with regenerative and growth potential. In a paper published in Biomaterials, Andrew Capulli, Ph.D. and colleagues fabricated a valve-shaped nanofiber network that mimics the mechanical and chemical properties of the native valve extracellular matrix (ECM). To achieve this, the team used the Parker lab’s proprietary rotary jet spinning technology — in which a rotating nozzle extrudes an ECM solution into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. “Our setup is like a very fast cotton candy machine that can spin a range of synthetic and natural occurring materials. In this study, we used a combination of synthetic polymers and ECM proteins to fabricate biocompatible JetValves that are hemodynamically competent upon implantation and support cell migration and re-population in vitro. Importantly, we can make human-sized JetValves in minutes — much faster than possible for other regenerative prostheses,” said Parker.

A May 18,2017 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of Jetvalves,

To further develop and test the clinical potential of JetValves, Parker’s team collaborated with the translational team of Simon P. Hoerstrup, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which is a partner institution with the Wyss Institute. As a leader in regenerative heart prostheses, Hoerstrup and his team in Zurich have previously developed regenerative, tissue-engineered heart valves to replace mechanical and fixed-tissue heart valves. In Hoerstrup’s approach, human cells directly deposit a regenerative layer of complex ECM on biodegradable scaffolds shaped as heart valves and vessels. The living cells are then eliminated from the scaffolds resulting in an “off-the-shelf” human matrix-based prostheses ready for implantation.

In the paper, the cross-disciplinary team successfully implanted JetValves in sheep using a minimally invasive technique and demonstrated that the valves functioned properly in the circulation and regenerated new tissue. “In our previous studies, the cell-derived ECM-coated scaffolds could recruit cells from the receiving animal’s heart and support cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, tissue regeneration, and even animal growth. While these valves are safe and effective, their manufacturing remains complex and expensive as human cells must be cultured for a long time under heavily regulated conditions. The JetValve’s much faster manufacturing process can be a game-changer in this respect. If we can replicate these results in humans, this technology could have invaluable benefits in minimizing the number of pediatric re-operations,” said Hoerstrup.

In support of these translational efforts, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth. The team is also working towards a GMP-grade version of their customizable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing process that would enable deployment to a large patient population. In addition, the new heart valve would be compatible with minimally invasive procedures to serve both pediatric and adult patients.

The project will be led jointly by Parker and Hoerstrup. Parker is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Hoerstrup is Chair and Director of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM), Co-Director of the recently founded Wyss Translational Center Zurich and a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member.

Since JetValves can be manufactured in all desired shapes and sizes, and take seconds to minutes to produce, the team’s goal is to provide customized, ready-to-use, regenerative heart valves much faster and at much lower cost than currently possible.

“Achieving the goal of minimally invasive, low-cost regenerating heart valves could have tremendous impact on patients’ lives across age-, social- and geographical boundaries. Once again, our collaborative team structure that combines unique and leading expertise in bioengineering, regenerative medicine, surgical innovation and business development across the Wyss Institute and our partner institutions, makes it possible for us to advance technology development in ways not possible in a conventional academic laboratory,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

This scanning electron microscopy image shows how extracellular matrix (ECM) nanofibers generated with JetValve technology are arranged in parallel networks with physical properties comparable to those found in native heart tissue. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

JetValve: Rapid manufacturing of biohybrid scaffolds for biomimetic heart valve replacement by Andrew K. Capulli, Maximillian Y. Emmert, Francesco S. Pasqualini, b, Debora Kehl, Etem Caliskan, Johan U. Lind, Sean P. Sheehy, Sung Jin Park, Seungkuk Ahn, Benedikt Webe, Josue A. Goss. Biomaterials Volume 133, July 2017, Pages 229–241  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.04.033

This paper is behind a paywall.

The inside scoop on beetle exoskeletons

In the past I’ve covered work on the Namib beetle and its bumps which allow it to access condensation from the air in one of the hottest places on earth and work on jewel beetles and how their structural colo(u)r is derived. Now, there’s research into a beetle’s body armor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln according to a Feb. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Beetles wear a body armor that should weigh them down — think medieval knights and turtles. In fact, those hard shells protecting delicate wings are surprisingly light, allowing even flight.

Better understanding the structure and properties of beetle exoskeletons could help scientists engineer lighter, stronger materials. Such materials could, for example, reduce gas-guzzling drag in vehicles and airplanes and reduce the weight of armor, lightening the load for the 21st-century knight.

But revealing exoskeleton architecture at the nanoscale has proven difficult. Nebraska’s Ruiguo Yang, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and his colleagues found a way to analyze the fibrous nanostructure. …

A Feb. 22, 2017 University of Nebraska-Lincoln news release by Gillian Klucas (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes skeletons and the work in more detail,

The lightweight exoskeleton is composed of chitin fibers just around 20 nanometers in diameter (a human hair measures approximately 75,000 nanometers in diameter) and packed and piled into layers that twist in a spiral, like a spiral staircase. The small diameter and helical twisting, known as Bouligand, make the structure difficult to analyze.

Yang and his team developed a method of slicing down the spiral to reveal a surface of cross-sections of fibers at different orientations. From that viewpoint, the researchers were able to analyze the fibers’ mechanical properties with the aid of an atomic force microscope. This type of microscope applies a tiny force to a test sample, deforms the sample and monitors the sample’s response. Combining the experimental procedure and theoretical analysis, the researchers were able to reveal the nanoscale architecture of the exoskeleton and the material properties of the nanofibers.

Yang holds a piece of the atomic force microscope used to measure the beetle's surface. A small wire can barely be seen in the middle of the piece. Unseen is a two-nano-size probe attached to the wire, which does the actual measuring.

Craig Chandler | University Communication

Yang holds a piece of the atomic force microscope used to measure the beetle’s surface. A small wire can barely be seen in the middle of the piece. Unseen is a two-nano-size probe attached to the wire, which does the actual measuring.

They made their discoveries in the common figeater beetle, Cotinis mutabilis, a metallic green native of the western United States. But the technique can be used on other beetles and hard-shelled creatures and might also extend to artificial materials with fibrous structures, Yang said.

Comparing beetles with differing demands on their exoskeletons, such as defending against predators or environmental damage, could lead to evolutionary insights as well as a better understanding of the relationship between structural features and their properties.

Yang’s co-authors are Alireza Zaheri and Horacio Espinosa of Northwestern University; Wei Gao of the University of Texas at San Antonio; and Cheryl Hayashi of the University of California, Riverside.

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

Exoskeletons: AFM Identification of Beetle Exocuticle: Bouligand Structure and Nanofiber Anisotropic Elastic Properties by Ruiguo Yang, Alireza Zaheri,Wei Gao, Charely Hayashi, Horacio D. Espinosa. Adv. Funct. Mater. vol. 27 (6) 2017 DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201770031 First published: 8 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Brown recluse spider, one of the world’s most venomous spiders, shows off unique spinning technique

Caption: American Brown Recluse Spider is pictured. Credit: Oxford University

According to scientists from Oxford University this deadly spider could teach us a thing or two about strength. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Brown recluse spiders use a unique micro looping technique to make their threads stronger than that of any other spider, a newly published UK-US collaboration has discovered.

One of the most feared and venomous arachnids in the world, the American brown recluse spider has long been known for its signature necro-toxic venom, as well as its unusual silk. Now, new research offers an explanation for how the spider is able to make its silk uncommonly strong.

Researchers suggest that if applied to synthetic materials, the technique could inspire scientific developments and improve impact absorbing structures used in space travel.

The study, published in the journal Material Horizons, was produced by scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, together with a team from the Applied Science Department at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. Their surveillance of the brown recluse spider’s spinning behaviour shows how, and to what extent, the spider manages to strengthen the silk it makes.

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Oxford press release, which originated the news item,  provides more detail about the research,

From observing the arachnid, the team discovered that unlike other spiders, who produce round ribbons of thread, recluse silk is thin and flat. This structural difference is key to the thread’s strength, providing the flexibility needed to prevent premature breakage and withstand the knots created during spinning which give each strand additional strength.

Professor Hannes Schniepp from William & Mary explains: “The theory of knots adding strength is well proven. But adding loops to synthetic filaments always seems to lead to premature fibre failure. Observation of the recluse spider provided the breakthrough solution; unlike all spiders its silk is not round, but a thin, nano-scale flat ribbon. The ribbon shape adds the flexibility needed to prevent premature failure, so that all the microloops can provide additional strength to the strand.”

By using computer simulations to apply this technique to synthetic fibres, the team were able to test and prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the strength of the material.

William & Mary PhD student Sean Koebley adds: “We were able to prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the toughness of a simple synthetic sticky tape. Our observations open the door to new fibre technology inspired by the brown recluse.”

Speaking on how the recluse’s technique could be applied more broadly in the future, Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, expands: “Computer simulations demonstrate that fibres with many loops would be much, much tougher than those without loops. This right away suggests possible applications. For example carbon filaments could be looped to make them less brittle, and thus allow their use in novel impact absorbing structures. One example would be spider-like webs of carbon-filaments floating in outer space, to capture the drifting space debris that endangers astronaut lives’ and satellite integrity.”

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

Toughness-enhancing metastructure in the recluse spider’s looped ribbon silk by
S. R. Koebley, F. Vollrath, and H. C. Schniepp. Mater. Horiz., 2017, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6MH00473C First published online 15 Feb 2017

This paper is open access although you may need to register with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publishing site to get access.

Effective sunscreens from nature

The dream is to find sunscreens that don’t endanger humans or pollute the environment and it seems that Spanish scientists may have taken a step closer to making that dream a reality (from a Jan. 30, 2017 Wiley Publications press release (also on EurekAlert),

The ideal sunscreen should block UVB and UVA radiation while being safe and stable. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, Spanish scientists have introduced a new family of UVA and UVB filters based on natural sunscreen substances found in algae and cyanobacteria. They are highly stable and enhance the effectivity [sic] of commercial sunscreens.

Good news for sunseekers. Commercial [sic] available sunscreen lotions can very effectively protect from dangerous radiation in the ultraviolet [spectrum], but they need to be applied regularly and in high amounts to develop their full potential. One of the most critical issues is the limited stability of the UV filter molecules. Inspired by nature, Diego Sampedro and his colleagues from La Rioja University in Logrono and collaborators from Malaga University and Alcala University, Madrid, Spain, have screened a natural class of UV-protecting [blocking?] molecules for their possible use in skin protection. They adjusted the nature-given motif [sic] to the requirements of chemical synthesis and found that the molecules could indeed boost the sun protection factor of common formulations.

The natural sunscreen molecules are called microsporine-like amino acids (MAAs) and are widespread in the microbial world, most prominently in marine algae and cyanobacteria. MAAs are small molecules derived from amino acids, thermally stable, and they absorb light in the ultraviolet region, protecting the microbial DNA from radiation damage. Thus they are natural sunscreens, which inspired Sampedro and his colleagues to create [a] new class of organic sunscreen compounds.

Theoretical calculations revealed what is chemically needed for a successful design. “We performed a computer calculation of several basic scaffolds [..] to identify the simplest compound that fulfills the requisites for efficient sunscreens”, the authors write. The result of their search was a set of molecules which were readily synthesized, “avoiding the decorating substituents that come from the biosynthetic route.” Thus the small basic molecules can be tuned to give them more favorable properties.

The authors found that the synthesized compounds are characterized by excellent filter capacities in the relevant UV range. In addition they are photostable, much more than, for example, oxybenzene [sic] which is a widely used sunscreen in commercial formulations. They do not react chemically and dissipate radiation as heat (but not to such an extent that the skin temperature would rise as well). And, most importantly, when tested in real formulations, the sun protection factor (SPF) rose by a factor of more than two. Thus they could be promising targets for more stable, more efficient sunscreen lotions. Good news for your next summer vacation.

There’s some unusual phrasing so, I’m guessing that the writer it not accustomed to writing press releases in English. One other comment, it’s oxybenzone that’s often used as an ingredient in commercial sunscreens.

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

Rational Design and Synthesis of Efficient Sunscreens To Boost the Solar Protection Factor by Raúl Losantos, Ignacio Funes-Ardoiz, Dr. José Aguilera, Prof. Enrique Herrera-Ceballos, Dr. Cristina García-Iriepa, Prof. Pedro J. Campos, and Diego Sampedro. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 56, Issue 10, pages 2632–2635, March 1, 2017 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201611627 Version of Record online: 27 JAN 2017

© 2017 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

I have previously featured work on another natural sunscreen. In that case it was to be derived from English ivy (July 22, 2010 posting); there was an update on the English ivy work in a May 30, 2016 posting but the researcher has moved in a different direction looking at wound healing and armour as possible applications for the research.

Sea sponges don’t buckle under pressure

You wouldn’t think a sponge (the sea creature) was particularly tough but it is according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Judging by their name alone, orange puffball sea sponges might seem unlikely paragons of structural strength. But maintaining their shape at the bottom of the churning ocean is critical to the creatures’ survival, and new research shows that tiny structural rods in their bodies have evolved the optimal shape to avoid buckling under pressure.

The rods, called strongyloxea spicules, measure about 2 millimeters long and are thinner than a human hair. Hundreds of them are bundled together, forming stiff rib-like structures inside the orange puffball’s spongy body. It was the odd and remarkably consistent shape of each spicule that caught the eye of Brown University engineers Haneesh Kesari and Michael Monn. Each one is symmetrically tapered along its length — going gradually from fatter in the middle to thinner at the ends.

Caption: Tiny rods found inside the bodies of orange puffball sea sponges have an interesting tapered shape. That shape, new research shows, turns out to be a match for the Clausen profile, a column shape shown to be optimal for resistance to buckling failure. Credit: Michael Monn, Haneesh Kesari / Brown University

A Jan. 4, 2017 Brown University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Using structural mechanics models and a bit of digging in obscure mathematics journals, Monn and Kesari showed the peculiar shape of the spicules to be optimal for resistance to buckling, the primary mode of failure for slender structures. This natural shape could provide a blueprint for increasing the buckling resistance in all kinds of slender human-made structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes to arterial stents, the researchers say.

“This is one of the rare examples that we’re aware of where a natural structure is not just well-suited for a given function, but actually approaches a theoretical optimum,” said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. “There’s no engineering analog for this shape — we don’t see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way. So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Function and form

Orange puffball sponges (Tethya aurantia) are native to the Mediterranean Sea. They live mainly in rocky coastal environments, where they’re subject to the constant stress of underwater waves and tidal forces. Sponges are filter feeders — they pump water through their bodies to extract nutrients and oxygen. To do this, their bodies need to be porous and compliant, but they also need enough stiffness to avoid being deformed too much.

“If you compress them too much, you’re essentially choking them,” Kesari said. “So maintaining their stiffness is critical to their survival.”

And that means the spicules, which make up the rib-like structures that give sponges their stiffness, are critical components. When Monn and Kesari saw the shapes of the spicules under a microscope, the consistency of the tapered shape from spicule to spicule was hard to miss.

“We saw the shape and wondered if there might be an engineering principle at work here,” Kesari said.

To figure that out, the researchers first needed to understand what forces were acting on each individual spicule. So Monn and Kesari developed a structural mechanics model of spicules bundled within a sponge’s ribs. The model showed that the mismatch in stiffness between the bulk of the sponge’s soft body and the more rigid spicules causes each spicule to experience primarily one type of mechanical loading — a compression load on each of its ends.

“You can imagine taking a toothpick and trying to squeeze it longways between your fingers,” Monn said. “That’s how these spicules see the world.”

The primary mode of failure for a structure with this mechanical load is through buckling. At a certain critical load, the structure starts to bend somewhere along its length. Once the bending starts, the force transferred by the load is amplified at the bending point, which causes the structure to break or collapse.

Once Kesari and Monn knew what forces were acting on the spicules and how they would fail, the next step was looking to see if there was anything special about them that helped them resist buckling. Scanning electron microscope images of the inside of a spicule and other tests showed that they were monolithic silica — essentially glass.

“We could see that there was no funny business going on with the material properties,” Monn said. “If there was anything contributing to its mechanical performance, it would have to be the shape.”

Optimal shape

Kesari and Monn combed the literature to see if they could find anything on tapering in slender structures. They came up empty in the modern engineering literature. But they found something interesting published more than 150 years ago by a German scientist named Thomas Clausen.

In 1851, Clausen proposed that columns that are tapered toward their ends should have more buckling resistance than plain cylinders, which had been and still are the primary design for architectural columns. In the 1960s, mathematician Joseph Keller published an ironclad mathematical proof that the Clausen column was indeed optimal for resistance to buckling — having 33 percent better resistance than a cylinder. Even compared to a very similar shape — an ellipse, which is slightly fatter in the middle and pointier at the ends — the Clausen column had 18 percent better buckling resistance.

Knowing what the optimal column shape is, Monn and Kesari started making precise dimensional measurements of dozens of spicules. They showed that their shapes were remarkably consistent and nearly identical to that of the Clausen column.

“The spicules were a match for the best shape of all possible column shapes,” Monn said.

It seems in this case, natural selection figured out something that engineers have not. Despite the fact that it’s been mathematically shown to be the optimal column shape, the Clausen profile isn’t widely known in the engineering community. Kesari and Monn hope this work might bring it out of the shadows.

“We see this as an addition to our library of structural designs,” Monn said. “We’re not just talking about an improvement of a few percent. This shape is 33 percent better than the cylinder, which is quite an improvement.”

In particular, the shape would be particularly useful in a new generation of materials made from nanoscale truss structures. “It would be easy to 3-D print the Clausen profile into these materials, and you’d get a tremendous increase in buckling resistance, which is often how these materials fail.”

Lessons from nature

The field of bio-inspired engineering began at a time when many people viewed adaptive evolution as an unceasing march toward perfection. If that were true, scientists should find untold numbers of optimal structures in nature.

But the modern understanding of evolution is a bit different. It’s now understood that in order for a trait to be conserved by natural selection, it doesn’t need to be optimal. It just needs to be good enough to work. That has put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm for bio-inspired engineering, Kesari and Monn say.

However, they say, this work shows that nearly optimal structures are out there if researchers look in the right places. In this case, they looked at creatures from a very old phylum — sea sponges are among the very first animals on Earth — with plenty of time to evolve under consistent selection pressures.

Sponges are also fairly simple creatures, so understanding the function of a given trait is relatively straightforward. In this case, the spicule appears to have one and only one job to do — provide stiffness. Compare that to, for example, human bone, which not only provides support but must also accommodate arteries, provide attachment points for muscles and house bone marrow. Those other functions may cause tradeoffs in adaptations for strength or stiffness.

“With the sponges, you have lots of evolutionary pressure, lots of time and opportunity to respond to that pressure, and functional elements that can be easily identified,” Kesari said.

With those as guiding principles, there may well be more ideal structures out there waiting to be found.

“This work shows that nature can hit an optimum,” Kesari said, “and the biological world can still be hiding completely new designs of considerable technological significance in plain sight.”

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

A new structure-property connection in the skeletal elements of the marine sponge Tethya aurantia that guards against buckling instability by Michael A. Monn & Haneesh Kesari. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 39547 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep39547 Published online: 04 January 2017

This paper is open access.

Kesari and Monn have researched sea sponges previously as can be seen in my April 7, 2015 posting, which highlights their work on strength and Venus’ flower basket sea sponge.

Steering a synthetic nanorobot using light

This news comes from the University of Hong Kong. A Nov. 8, 2016 news item on Nanowerk throws some light on the matter (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of researchers led by Dr Jinyao Tang of the Department of Chemistry, the University of Hong Kong, has developed the world’s first light-seeking synthetic Nano robot. With size comparable to a blood cell, those tiny robots have the potential to be injected into patients’ bodies, helping surgeons to remove tumors and enabling more precise engineering of targeted medications. The findings have been published in October [2016] earlier in leading scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology (“Programmable artificial phototactic microswimmer”).

An Oct. 24, 2016 University of Hong Kong press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

It has been a dream in science fiction for decades that tiny robots can fundamentally change our daily life. The famous science fiction  movie “Fantastic  Voyage” is a very good example, with a group of scientists driving their miniaturized nano-submarine inside human body to repair a damaged brain. In the film “Terminator  2,” billions of nanorobots were assembled into the amazing shapeshifting body: the T-1000. In the real world, it is quite challenging to make and design a sophisticated nanorobot with advanced functions.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded to three scientists for “the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” They developed a set of mechanical components at molecular scale which may be  assembled into  more complicated nanomachines  to  manipulate single  molecule such as DNA or proteins in the future. The development of tiny nanoscale machines for biomedical applications has been a major trend of scientific research in recent years. Any breakthroughs will potentially open the door to new knowledge and treatments of diseases and development of new drugs.

One difficulty in nanorobot design is to make these nanostructures sense and respond to the environment. Given each nanorobot is only a few micrometer in size which is ~50 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, it  is very difficult  to  squeeze  normal electronic sensors and circuits into  nanorobots with reasonable price. Currently, the only method to remotely control nanorobots is to  incorporate tiny magnetic inside the nanorobot and guide the motion via external magnetic field.

The  nanorobot developed by Dr Tang’s team use light as the propelling  force, and is the first research team globally to explore the light-guided nanorobots and demonstrated its feasibility and effectiveness. In their paper published in Nature  Nanotechnology, Dr Tang’s team  demonstrated  the  unprecedented ability of these light-controlled nanorobots as they are “dancing”  or even spell a word under light control. With a novel  nanotree structure, the nanorobots can respond to the light shining on it like  moths  being drawn to flames. Dr Tang described the motions as if “they can “see” the light and drive itself towards it”.

The team gained inspiration from natural green algae
for the nanorobot design. In nature, some green algae have evolved  with  the  ability  of  sensing  light  around  it.  Even just a single cell, these green  algae can sense the intensity of light and swim  towards the light source for photosynthesis. Dr  Jinyao  Tang’s team successfully developed the nanorobots after over three years’ efforts. With a novel nanotree structure, they are composed of two  common and low-price semiconductor materials: silicon  and titanium oxide. During  the  synthesis, silicon  and titanium oxide are shaped into nanowire and then further arranged into a tiny nanotree heterostructure.

Dr Tang said: “Although the current nanorobot cannot be used for disease treatment yet, we are working on the next generation nanorobotic system which is more efficient and biocompatible.”

“Light is a more effective option to communicate between microscopic world and macroscopic world. We can conceive that more complicated instructions can be sent to nanorobots which provide scientists with a new tool to further develop more functions into nanorobot and get us one step closer to daily life applications,” he added.

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

Programmable artificial phototactic microswimmer by Baohu Dai, Jizhuang Wang, Ze Xiong, Xiaojun Zhan, Wei Dai, Chien-Cheng Li, Shien-Ping Feng, & Jinyao Tang.  Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.187 Published online 17 October 2016

So, this ‘bot’ seems to be a microbot or microrobot with some nanoscale features. In any event, the paper is behind a paywall.

Slip sliding away—making surfaces bacteria can’t grasp onto

Here’s another biomimicry story with a connection to Harvard University. From a Nov. 1, 2016 Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Implanted medical devices like catheters, surgical mesh and dialysis systems are ideal surfaces on which bacteria can colonize and form hard-to-kill sheets called biofilms. Known as biofouling, this contamination of devices is responsible for more than half of the 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections in the United States each year.

In a report published in Biomaterials today, a team of scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University has demonstrated that an innovative, ultra-low adhesive coating prevented bacteria from attaching to surfaces treated with it, reducing bacterial adhesion by more than 98 percent in laboratory tests.

“Device related infections remain a significant problem in medicine, burdening society with millions of dollars in health care costs,” said Elliot Chaikof, MD, PhD, chair of the Roberta and Stephen R. Weiner Department of Surgery and Surgeon-in-Chief at BIDMC and an associate faculty member at the Wyss Institute. “Antibiotics alone will not solve this problem. We need to use new approaches to minimize the risk of infection, and this strategy is a very important step in that direction.”

The self-healing slippery surface coatings – known as ‘slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces’ (SLIPS) – were developed by Joanna Aizenberg, PhD, a Wyss Institute core faculty member, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at SEAS at Harvard University. Inspired by the carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plant that uses the slippery surface of its leaves to trap insects, Aizenberg engineered surface coatings that work to repel a variety of substances across a broad range of temperature, pressure and other environmental conditions. They are stable when exposed to UV light, and are low-cost and simple to manufacture. The current study is the first to demonstrate that SLIPS not only limit the ability of bacteria to adhere to surfaces, but also impede infection in an animal model.

SLIPS has been mentioned here before, most recently in a March 2, 2016 posting and before that in an Oct. 14, 2014 posting which appears to be precursor work for this latest research.

Getting back to the Nov. 1, 2016 news release, here’s more about plans for SLIPS and about recent trials,

“We are developing SLIPS recipes for a variety of medical applications by working with different medical-grade materials, ensuring the stability of the coating, and carefully pairing the non-fouling properties of the SLIPS materials to specific contaminates, environments and performance requirements,” said Aizenberg. “Here we have extended our repertoire and applied the SLIPS concept very convincingly to medical-grade lubricants, demonstrating its enormous potential in implanted devices prone to bacterial fouling and infection.”

In a series of trials, the researchers tested three SLIPS lubricants for their anti-adhesive qualities. First, they incubated disks of SLIPS-coated medical material ePTFE – a microporous form of Teflon – in a broth of Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), a generally harmless bacterium found in the nose and on skin, but one of the most common causes of hospital-acquired infections. After 48 hours, the three variations of SLIPS-treated disks demonstrated 98.3, 99.1 and 99.7 percent reductions in bacterial adhesion.

To test the material’s stability, the scientists performed the same experiment after soaking the SLIPS-coated samples for up to 21 days in a solution meant to simulate conditions inside a living mammal. After exposing these disks to S. aureus for 48 hours, the researchers found similar, nearly 100 percent reductions in bacterial adhesion.

Widely used clinically, medical mesh is particularly susceptible to bacterial infection. In another set of experiments to test the material’s biocompatibility, Chaikof and colleagues implanted small squares of SLIPS-treated mesh into murine models, injecting the site with S. aureus 24 hours later. Three days later, when the researchers removed the implanted mesh, they found little to no infection, compared with an infection rate of more than 90 percent among controls.

“Today, patients who receive implants often require antibiotics to keep the risk of bacterial infection at bay,” the authors wrote. “SLIPS coatings one day could obviate the widespread use of antibiotics and minimize the development of antibiotic resistant micro-organisms.”

“SLIPs have many promising medical applications that are in a very early stage of evaluation,” said Chaikof. “Clearly, there’s more work to be done before its introduction into the clinic, but this is one of a few studies that reinforces the exciting opportunities presented by this strategy to improve device performance and clinical outcomes.”

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

An immobilized liquid interface prevents device associated bacterial infection in vivo by Jiaxuan Chen, Caitlin Howell, Carolyn A. Haller, Madhukar S. Patel, Perla Ayala, Katherine A. Moravec, Erbin Dai, Liying Liu, Irini Sotiri, Michael Aizenberg, Joanna Aizenberg, Elliot L. Chaikof. Biomaterials Volume 113, January 2017, Pages 80–92  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2016.09.028

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ocean-inspired coatings for organic electronics

An Oct. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the advantages a new coating offers and the specific source of inspiration,

In a development beneficial for both industry and environment, UC Santa Barbara [University of California at Santa Barbara] researchers have created a high-quality coating for organic electronics that promises to decrease processing time as well as energy requirements.

“It’s faster, and it’s nontoxic,” said Kollbe Ahn, a research faculty member at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and corresponding author of a paper published in Nano Letters.

In the manufacture of polymer (also known as “organic”) electronics—the technology behind flexible displays and solar cells—the material used to direct and move current is of supreme importance. Since defects reduce efficiency and functionality, special attention must be paid to quality, even down to the molecular level.

Often that can mean long processing times, or relatively inefficient processes. It can also mean the use of toxic substances. Alternatively, manufacturers can choose to speed up the process, which could cost energy or quality.

Fortunately, as it turns out, efficiency, performance and sustainability don’t always have to be traded against each other in the manufacture of these electronics. Looking no further than the campus beach, the UCSB researchers have found inspiration in the mollusks that live there. Mussels, which have perfected the art of clinging to virtually any surface in the intertidal zone, serve as the model for a molecularly smooth, self-assembled monolayer for high-mobility polymer field-effect transistors—in essence, a surface coating that can be used in the manufacture and processing of the conductive polymer that maintains its efficiency.

An Oct. 18, 2016 UCSB news release by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, provides greater technical detail,

More specifically, according to Ahn, it was the mussel’s adhesion mechanism that stirred the researchers’ interest. “We’re inspired by the proteins at the interface between the plaque and substrate,” he said.

Before mussels attach themselves to the surfaces of rocks, pilings or other structures found in the inhospitable intertidal zone, they secrete proteins through the ventral grove of their feet, in an incremental fashion. In a step that enhances bonding performance, a thin priming layer of protein molecules is first generated as a bridge between the substrate and other adhesive proteins in the plaques that tip the byssus threads of their feet to overcome the barrier of water and other impurities.

That type of zwitterionic molecule — with both positive and negative charges — inspired by the mussel’s native proteins (polyampholytes), can self-assemble and form a sub-nano thin layer in water at ambient temperature in a few seconds. The defect-free monolayer provides a platform for conductive polymers in the appropriate direction on various dielectric surfaces.

Current methods to treat silicon surfaces (the most common dielectric surface), for the production of organic field-effect transistors, requires a batch processing method that is relatively impractical, said Ahn. Although heat can hasten this step, it involves the use of energy and increases the risk of defects.

With this bio-inspired coating mechanism, a continuous roll-to-roll dip coating method of producing organic electronic devices is possible, according to the researchers. It also avoids the use of toxic chemicals and their disposal, by replacing them with water.

“The environmental significance of this work is that these new bio-inspired primers allow for nanofabrication on silicone dioxide surfaces in the absence of organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and toxic reagents,” said co-author Roscoe Lindstadt, a graduate student researcher in UCSB chemistry professor Bruce Lipshutz’s lab. “In order for practitioners to switch to newer, more environmentally benign protocols, they need to be competitive with existing ones, and thankfully device performance is improved by using this ‘greener’ method.”

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

Molecularly Smooth Self-Assembled Monolayer for High-Mobility Organic Field-Effect Transistors by Saurabh Das, Byoung Hoon Lee, Roscoe T. H. Linstadt, Keila Cunha, Youli Li, Yair Kaufman, Zachary A. Levine, Bruce H. Lipshutz, Roberto D. Lins, Joan-Emma Shea, Alan J. Heeger, and B. Kollbe Ahn. Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (10), pp 6709–6715
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03860 Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but the scientists have made an illustration available,

An artist's concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen

An artist’s concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen