Category Archives: biomimcry

A lotus root-inspired hydrogel fiber for surgical sutures

By FotoosRobin – originally posted to Flickr as Lotus root, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4826529

The lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) rhizome (mass of roots) is not the prettiest part of the lotus but its fibers (and presumably fiber from other parts of the lotus plant) served as inspiration for a hydrogel that might be used as a surgical suture according to a Jan. 14, 2021 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

“The lotus roots may break, but the fiber remains joined”—an old Chinese saying that reflects the unique structure and mechanical properties of the lotus fiber. The outstanding mechanical properties of lotus fibers can be attributed to their unique spiral structure, which provides an attractive model for biomimetic design of artificial fibers.

In a new study published in Nano Letters, a team led by Prof. Yu Shuhong from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) reported a bio-inspired lotus-fiber-mimetic spiral structure bacterial cellulose (BC) hydrogel fiber with high strength, high toughness, excellent biocompatibility, good stretchability, and high energy dissipation.

A Jan. 14, 2021 University of Science and Technology of China press release on the Chinese Academy of Sciences website (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the new hydrogel in more detail,

Unlike polymer-based hydrogel, the newly designed biomimetic hydrogel fiber (BHF) is based on the BC hydrogel with 3D cellulose nanofiber networks produced by bacteria. The cellulose nanofibers provide the reversible hydrogen bonding network that results in unique mechanical properties.

The researchers applied a constant tangential force to the pretreated BC hydrogel along the cross-sectional direction. Then, the two sides of the hydrogel were subjected to opposite tangential forces, and local plastic deformation occurred.

The hydrogen bonds in the 3D network of cellulose nanofibers were broken by the tangential force, causing the hydrogel strip to twist spirally and the network to slip and deform. When the tangential force was removed, the hydrogen bonds reformed between the nanofibers, and the spiral structure of the fiber was fixed.

Benefited from lotus-fiber-mimetic spiral structure, the toughness of BHF can reach ?116.3 MJ m-3, which is more than nine times higher than those of non-spiralized BC hydrogel fiber. Besides, once the BHF is stretched, it is nearly non-resilient.

Combining outstanding mechanical properties with excellent biocompatibility derived from BC, BHF is a promising hydrogel fiber for biomedical material, especially for surgical suture, a commonly used structural biomedical material for wound repair.

Compared with commercial surgical suture with higher modulus, the BHF has similar modulus and strength to soft tissue, like skin. The outstanding stretchability and energy dissipation of BHF allow it to absorb energy from the tissue deformation around a wound and effectively protect the wound from rupture, which makes BHF an ideal surgical suture.

What’s more, the porous structure of BHF also allows it to adsorb functional small molecules, such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatory compounds, and sustainably release them on wounds. With an appropriate design, BHF would be a powerful platform for many medical applications.

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

Bio-Inspired Lotus-Fiber-like Spiral Hydrogel Bacterial Cellulose Fibers by Qing-Fang Guan, Zi-Meng Han, YinBo Zhu, Wen-Long Xu, Huai-Bin Yang, Zhang-Chi Ling, Bei-Bei Yan, Kun-Peng Yang, Chong-Han Yin, HengAn Wu, and Shu-Hong Yu. Nano Lett. 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c03707 Publication Date:January 5, 2021 Copyright © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mother-of-pearl self-assembles from disorder into perfection

Courtesy: Mother-of-pearl Courtesy: Technische Universitaet (TU) Dresden

Mother-of-pearl (also known as nacre) research has been featured here a few times (links at the end of this post). This time it touches on self-assembly, which is the source of much interest and, on occasion, much concern in the field of nanotechnology.

In any case, the latest mother-of-pearl work comes from the Technische Universität (TU) Dresden (Technical University of Dresden), located in Germany. From a January 4, 2021 news item on phys.org,

In a new study published in Nature Physics, researchers from the B CUBE—Center for Molecular Bioengineering at TU Dresden and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble [Grance] describe, for the first time, that structural defects in self-assembling nacre attract and cancel each other out, eventually leading to a perfect periodic structure.

A January 4, 2021 Technische Universität (TU) Dresden press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the reason for the ongoing interest in mother-of-pearl and reveals an unexpected turn in the research,

Mollusks build shells to protect their soft tissues from predators. Nacre, also known as the mother of pearl, has an intricate, highly regular structure that makes it an incredibly strong material. Depending on the species, nacres can reach tens of centimeters in length. No matter the size, each nacre is built from materials deposited by a multitude of single cells at multiple different locations at the same time. How exactly this highly periodic and uniform structure emerges from the initial disorder was unknown until now.

Nacre formation starts uncoordinated with the cells depositing the material simultaneously at different locations. Not surprisingly, the early nacre structure is not very regular. At this point, it is full of defects. “In the very beginning, the layered mineral-organic tissue is full of structural faults that propagate through a number of layers like a helix. In fact, they look like a spiral staircase, having either right-handed or left-handed orientation,” says Dr. Igor Zlotnikov, research group leader at the B CUBE – Center for Molecular Bioengineering at TU Dresden. “The role of these defects in forming such a periodic tissue has never been established. On the other hand, the mature nacre is defect-free, with a regular, uniform structure. How could perfection emerge from such disorder?”

The researchers from the Zlotnikov group collaborated with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble to take a very detailed look at the internal structure of the early and mature nacre. Using synchrotron-based holographic X-ray nano-tomography the researchers could capture the growth of nacre over time. “Nacre is an extremely fine structure, having organic features below 50 nm in size. Beamline ID16A at the ESRF provided us with an unprecedented capability to visualize nacre in three-dimensions,” explains Dr. Zlotnikov. “The combination of electron dense and highly periodical inorganic platelets with delicate and slender organic interfaces makes nacre a challenging structure to image. Cryogenic imaging helped us to obtain the resolving power we needed,” explains Dr. ‘Alexandra] Pacureanu from the X-ray Nanoprobe group at the ESRF.

The analysis of data was quite a challenge. The researchers developed a segmentation algorithm using neural networks and trained it to separate different layers of nacre. In this way, they were able to follow what happens to the structural defects as nacre grows.

The behavior of structural defects in a growing nacre was surprising. Defects of opposite screw direction were attracted to each other from vast distances. The right-handed and left-handed defects moved through the structure, until they met, and cancelled each other out. These events led to a tissue-wide synchronization. Over time, it allowed the structure to develop into a perfectly regular and defect-free.

Periodic structures similar to nacre are produced by many different animal species. The researchers think that the newly discovered mechanism could drive not only the formation of nacre but also other biogenic structures.

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

Dynamics of topological defects and structural synchronization in a forming periodic tissue by Maksim Beliaev, Dana Zöllner, Alexandra Pacureanu, Paul Zaslansky & Igor Zlotnikov. Nature Physics (2021) First published online: 17 September 2020 Published: 04 January 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

As promised here are the links for One tough mother, imitating mother-of-pearl for stronger ceramics (a March 14, 2014 posting) and Clues as to how mother of pearl is made (a December 15, 2015 posting).

Water and minerals have a nanoscale effect on bones

Courtesy: University of Arkansas

What a great image of bones! This December 3, 2020 University of Arkansas news release (also on EurekAlert) by Matt McGowan features research focused on bone material looks exciting. The date for the second study citation and link that I have listed (at the end of this posting) suggests the more recent study may have been initially overlooked in the deluge of COVID-19 research we are experiencing,

University of Arkansas researchers Marco Fielder and Arun Nair have conducted the first study of the combined nanoscale effects of water and mineral content on the deformation mechanisms and thermal properties of collagen, the essence of bone material.

The researchers also compared the results to the same properties of non-mineralized collagen reinforced with carbon nanotubes, which have shown promise as a reinforcing material for bio-composites. This research aids in the development of synthetic materials to mimic bone.

Using molecular dynamics — in this case a computer simulation of the physical movements of atoms and molecules — Nair and Fielder examined the mechanics and thermal properties of collagen-based bio-composites containing different weight percentages of minerals, water and carbon nanotubes when subjected to external loads.

They found that variations of water and mineral content had a strong impact on the mechanical behavior and properties of the bio-composites, the structure of which mimics nanoscale bone composition. With increased hydration, the bio-composites became more vulnerable to stress. Additionally, Nair and Fielder found that the presence of carbon nanotubes in non-mineralized collagen reduced the deformation of the gap regions.

The researchers also tested stiffness, which is the standard measurement of a material’s resistance to deformation. Both mineralized and non-mineralized collagen bio-composites demonstrated less stability with greater water content. Composites with 40% mineralization were twice as strong as those without minerals, regardless of the amount of water content. Stiffness of composites with carbon nanotubes was comparable to that of the mineralized collagen.

“As the degree of mineralization or carbon nanotube content of the collagenous bio-composites increased, the effect of water to change the magnitude of deformation decreased,” Fielder said.

The bio-composites made of collagen and carbon nanotubes were also found to have a higher specific heat than the studied mineralized collagen bio-composites, making them more likely to be resistant to thermal damage that could occur during implantation or functional use of the composite. Like most biological materials, bone is a hierarchical – with different structures at different length scales. At the microscale level, bone is made of collagen fibers, composed of smaller nanofibers called fibrils, which are a composite of collagen proteins, mineralized crystals called apatite and water. Collagen fibrils overlap each other in some areas and are separated by gaps in other areas.

“Though several studies have characterized the mechanics of fibrils, the effects of variation and distribution of water and mineral content in fibril gap and overlap regions are unexplored,” said Nair, who is an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Exploring these regions builds an understanding of the structure of bone, which is important for uncovering its material properties. If we understand these properties, we can design and build better bio-inspired materials and bio-composites.”

Here are links and citations for both papers mentioned in the news release,

Effects of hydration and mineralization on the deformation mechanisms of collagen fibrils in bone at the nanoscale by Marco Fielder & Arun K. Nair. Biomechanics and Modeling in Mechanobiology volume 18, pages57–68 (2019) Biomech Model Mechanobiol 18, 57–68 (2019). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10237-018-1067-y First published: 07 August 2018 Issue Date: 15 February 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

A computational study of mechanical properties of collagen-based bio-composites by Marco Fielder & Arun K. Nair. International Biomechanics Volume 7, 2020 – Issue 1 Pages 76-87 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/23335432.2020.1812428 Published online: 02 Sep 2020

This paper is open access.

Spider web-like electronics with graphene

A spiderweb-inspired fractal design is used for hemispherical 3D photodetection to replicate the vision system of arthropods. (Sena Huh image)

This image is pretty and I’m pretty sure it’s an illustration and not a real photodetection system. Regardless, an Oct. 21, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes the research into producing a real 3D hemispheric photodetector for biomedical imaging (Note: A link has been removed),

Purdue University innovators are taking cues from nature to develop 3D photodetectors for biomedical imaging.

The researchers used some architectural features from spider webs to develop the technology. Spider webs typically provide excellent mechanical adaptability and damage-tolerance against various mechanical loads such as storms.

“We employed the unique fractal design of a spider web for the development of deformable and reliable electronics that can seamlessly interface with any 3D curvilinear surface,” said Chi Hwan Lee, a Purdue assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. “For example, we demonstrated a hemispherical, or dome-shaped, photodetector array that can detect both direction and intensity of incident light at the same time, like the vision system of arthropods such as insects and crustaceans.”

The Purdue technology uses the structural architecture of a spider web that exhibits a repeating pattern. This work is published in Advanced Materials (“Fractal Web Design of a Hemispherical Photodetector Array with Organic-Dye-Sensitized Graphene Hybrid Composites”).

An Oct. 21, 2020 Purdue University news release by Chris Adam, which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

Lee said this provides unique capabilities to distribute externally induced stress throughout the threads according to the effective ratio of spiral and radial dimensions and provides greater extensibility to better dissipate force under stretching. Lee said it also can tolerate minor cuts of the threads while maintaining overall strength and function of the entire web architecture.

“The resulting 3D optoelectronic architectures are particularly attractive for photodetection systems that require a large field of view and wide-angle antireflection, which will be useful for many biomedical and military imaging purposes,” said Muhammad Ashraful Alam, the Jai N. Gupta Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Alam said the work establishes a platform technology that can integrate a fractal web design with system-level hemispherical electronics and sensors, thereby offering several excellent mechanical adaptability and damage-tolerance against various mechanical loads.

“The assembly technique presented in this work enables deploying 2D deformable electronics in 3D architectures, which may foreshadow new opportunities to better advance the field of 3D electronic and optoelectronic devices,” Lee said.

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

Fractal Web Design of a Hemispherical Photodetector Array with Organic‐Dye‐Sensitized Graphene Hybrid Composites by Eun Kwang Lee, Ratul Kumar Baruah, Jung Woo Leem, Woohyun Park, Bong Hoon Kim, Augustine Urbas, Zahyun Ku, Young L. Kim, Muhammad Ashraful Alam, Chi Hwan Lee. Advanced Materials Volume 32, Issue 46 November 19, 2020 2004456 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202004456 First published online: 12 October 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mystery of North American insect bioluminescent systems unraveled by Brazilian scientists

I’ve always been fond of ‘l’ words and so it is that I’m compelled to post a story about a “luciferin-luciferase system” or, in this case, a story about insect bioluminescence.

Caption: Researchers isolated molecules present in the larvae of the fungus gnat Orfelia fultoni Credit: Vadim Viviani, UFSCar

A September 9, 2020 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 11, 2020) announces research into ‘blue’ bioluminescence,

Molecules belonging to an almost unknown bioluminescent system found in larvae of the fungus gnat Orfelia fultoni (subfamily Keroplatinae) have been isolated for the first time by researchers at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The small fly is one of the few terrestrial organisms that produce blue light. It inhabits riverbanks in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. A key part of its bioluminescent system is a molecule also present in two recently discovered Brazilian flies.

The study, supported by Paulo Research Foundation – FAPESP, is published in Scientific Reports. Five authors are affiliated with UFSCar and two with universities in the United States.

The bioluminescent systems of glow-worms, fireflies and other insects are normally made up of luciferin (a low molecular weight molecule) and luciferase, an enzyme that catalyzes the oxidation of luciferin by oxygen, producing light. While some bioluminescent systems are well known and even used in biotechnological applications, others are poorly understood, including blue light-emitting systems, such as that of O. fultoni.

“In the published paper, we describe the properties of the insect’s luciferase and luciferin and their anatomical location in its larvae. We also specify several possible proteins that are possible candidates for the luciferase. We don’t yet know what type of protein it is, but it’s likely to be a hexamerin. In insects, hexamerins are storage proteins that provide amino acids, besides having other functions, such as binding low molecular weight compounds, like luciferin,” said Vadim Viviani, a professor in UFSCar’s Sustainability Science and Technology Center (CCTS) in Sorocaba, São Paulo, and principal investigator for the study.

The study was part of the FAPESP-funded project “Arthropod bioluminescence“. The partnership with United States-based researchers dates from a previous project, supported by FAPESP and the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with Vanderbilt University (VU), located in Nashville, Tennessee.

In addition to luciferin and luciferase, researchers began characterizing a complex found in insects of the family Keroplatidae, which, in addition to O. fultoni, also includes a Brazilian species in the genus Neoditomyia that produces only luciferin and hence does not emit light.

Because they do not use it to emit light, the luciferin in O. fultoni and the Brazilian Neoditomyia has been named keroplatin. In larvae of this subfamily, keroplatin is associated with “black bodies” – large cells containing dark granules, proteins and probably mitochondria (energy-producing organelles). Researchers are still investigating the biological significance of this association between keroplatin and mitochondria.

“It’s a mystery,” Viviani said. “This luciferin may play a role in the mitochondrial energy metabolism. At night, probably in the presence of a natural chemical reducer, the luciferin is released by these black bodies and reacts with the surrounding luciferase to produce blue light. These are possibilities we plan to study.”

Brazilian cousins

An important factor in the elucidation of the United States insect’s bioluminescent system was the discovery of a larva that lives in Intervales State Park in São Paulo in 2018. It does not emit light but produces luciferin, similar to O. fultoni (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/29066).

In their latest study, the group injected purified luciferase from the United States species into larvae of the Brazilian species, which then produced blue light. The nonluminescent Brazilian species is more abundant in nature than the United States species, so a larger amount of the material could be obtained for study purposes, especially to characterize the luciferin (keroplatin) present in both species.

In 2019, the group discovered and described Neoceroplatus betaryensis, a new species of fungus gnat, in collaboration with Cassius Stevani, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-USP). It was the first blue light-emitting insect found in South America and was detected in a privately held forest reserve near the Upper Ribeira State Tourist Park (PETAR) in the southern portion of the state of São Paulo. A close relative of O. fultoni, N. betaryensis inhabits fallen tree trunks in humid places (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/31797).

“We show that the bioluminescent system of this Brazilian species is identical to that of O. fultoni. However, the insect is very rare, and so it’s hard to obtain sufficient material for research purposes,” Viviani said.

The researchers are now cloning the insect’s luciferase and characterizing it in molecular terms. They are also analyzing the chemical structure of its luciferin and the morphology of its lanterns.

“Once all this has been determined, we’ll be able to synthesize the luciferin and luciferase in the lab and use these systems in a range of biotech applications, such as studying cells. This will help us understand more about human diseases, among other things,” Viviani said.

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

A new brilliantly blue-emitting luciferin-luciferase system from Orfelia fultoni and Keroplatinae (Diptera) by Vadim R. Viviani, Jaqueline R. Silva, Danilo T. Amaral, Vanessa R. Bevilaqua, Fabio C. Abdalla, Bruce R. Branchini & Carl H. Johnson. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 9608 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-66286-1 Published 15 June 2020

This paper is open access.

Viburnum and a new kind of structural colo(u)r

I love structural colo(u) and the first such story here was this February 7, 2013 posting, which is where you’ll find the image below,

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

Those berries are stunning especially when you realize they are part of a long-dead Pollia plant. Scientist, Rox Middleton of University of Bristol (UK) was studying the structures that render the Pollia plant’s berries (fruit) blue when she decided to study another, more conveniently accessible plant with blue fruit. That’s when she got a surprise (from an August 11, 2020 article by Véronique Greenwood for the New York Times),

Big, leafy viburnum bushes have lined yards in the United States and Europe for decades — their domes of blossoms have an understated attractiveness. But once the flowers of the Viburnum tinus plant fade, the shrub makes something unusual: shiny, brilliantly blue fruit.

Scientists had noticed that pigments related to those in blueberries exist in viburnum fruit, and assumed that this must be the source of their odd hue. Blue fruit, after all, is rare. But researchers reported last week in Current Biology that viburnum’s blue is actually created by layers of molecules arranged under the surface of the skin, a form of what scientists call structural color. By means still unknown, the plant’s cells create thin slabs of fat [emphasis mine] arranged in a stack, like the flakes of puff pastry, and their peculiar gleam is the result.

Rox Middleton, a researcher at University of Bristol in England and an author of the new paper, had been studying the African pollia plant, which produces its own exotic blue fruit. But viburnum fruit were everywhere, and she realized that their blue had not been well-studied. Along with Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and other colleagues, she set out to take a closer look at the fruit’s skin.

The pollia fruit’s blue is a form of structural color, in which light bounces off a regularly spaced arrangement of tiny structures such that certain wavelengths, usually those that look blue or green to us, are reflected back at the viewer. In pollia fruit, the color comes from light interacting with thin sheets of cellulose packed together. At first the team thought there would be something similar in viburnum. But they saw no cellulose stacks.

The research team has concluded that all it comes down the arrangement of fat molecules, which are also responsible for the cloudier, metallic blue in viburnum berries,

Caption Closeup of viburnum tinus. Credit: Rox Middleton Courtesy University of Cambridge

I encourage you to read Greenwood’s August 11, 2020 article in its entirety. For those who like more details, there are two press releases. The first is an August 6, 2020 University of Cambridge press release on EurekAlert. Middleton completed the ‘Virbunum’ research while completing her PhD at Cambridge. As mentioned earlier, Middleton is currently a researcher at the University of Bristol and they issued an August 11, 2020 press release touting her accomplishment.

Finally, for the insatiably curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Viburnum tinus Fruits Use Lipids to Produce Metallic Blue Structural Color by Rox Middleton, Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, Yu Ogawa, Gianni Jacucci, Edwige Moyroud, Paula J. Rudall, Chrissie Prychid, Maria Conejero, Beverley J. Glover, Michael J. Donoghue, Silvia Vignolini. Current Biology DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.005 Published:August 06, 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Effective anti-icing with nanostructures modeled on moth eyes

According to an August 4, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily the ‘Ice-phobic’ properties of moths’ eyes have inspired a new technology,

Researchers have been working for decades on improving the anti-icing performance of functional surfaces. Ice accumulation on aircraft wings, for instance, can reduce lifting force, block moving parts and cause disastrous problems.

Research in the journal AIP [American Institute of Physics] Advances, from AIP Publishing, investigates a unique nanostructure, modeled on moth eyes, that has anti-icing properties. Moth eyes are of interest because they have a distinct ice-phobic and transparent surface.

An August 4, 2020 AIP news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into how they fabricated ‘moth-like eye’ structures at the nanoscale,

The researchers fabricated the moth eye nanostructure on a quartz substrate that was covered with a paraffin layer to isolate it from a cold and humid environment. Paraffin wax was chosen as a coating material due to its low thermal conductivity, easy coating and original water repellency.

“We evaluated the anti-icing properties of this unique nanostructure covered with paraffin in terms of adhesion strength, freezing time and mimicking rain sustainability,” said Nguyen Ba Duc, one of the authors.

Ice accumulation on energy transmission systems, vehicles and ships in a harsh environment often leads to massive destruction and contributes to serious accidents.

The researchers found the moth eyes nanostructure surface coated in paraffin exhibited greatly improved anti-icing performance, indicating the advantage of combining original water repellency and a unique heat-delaying structure. The paraffin interfered in the icing process in both water droplet and freezing rain experiments.

The number of air blocks trapped inside the nanostructure also contributed to delaying heat transfer, leading to an increase in freezing time of the attached water droplets.

“We also determined this unique nanostructure sample is suitable for optical applications, such as eyeglasses, as it has high transparency and anti-reflective properties,” said Ba Duc.

The high transparency and anti-reflective effects were due to the nanostructure being modeled on moth eyes, which have these transparent and anti-reflective properties.

Ice accumulation on a bare coated, nanostructure (NS) and nanostructure covered in paraffin (NSP) samples after a freezing test CREDIT: Nguyen Ba Duc

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

Investigate on structure for transparent anti-icing surfaces by Nguyen Ba Duc and Nguyen Thanh Binh. AIP Advances 10, 085101 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0019119

This paper is open access.

Elinor Wonders Why—teaching biomimicry to children aged 3 to 6 years old

This new US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series for children was first announced a year in advance in a May 29, 2019 PBS news release,

Today [May 29, 2019], PBS KIDS announced the animated series ELINOR WONDERS WHY, set to premiere Labor Day [September 7] 2020. ELINOR WONDERS WHY aims to encourage children to follow their curiosity, ask questions when they don’t understand and find answers using science inquiry skills. The main character Elinor, the most observant and curious bunny rabbit in Animal Town, will introduce kids ages 3-5 to science, nature and community through adventures with her friends. This new multiplatform series, created by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson and produced in partnership with Pipeline Studios, will debut nationwide on PBS stations, the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel and PBS KIDS digital platforms. 

The stories in ELINOR WONDERS WHY center around Elinor and her friends Ari, a funny and imaginative bat, and Olive, a perceptive and warm elephant. As kids explore Animal Town, they will meet all kinds of interesting, funny, and quirky characters, each with something to teach us about respecting others, the importance of diversity, caring for the environment, and working together to solve problems. In each episode, Elinor models the foundational practices of science inquiry and engineering design — including her amazing powers of observation and willingness to ask questions and investigate. When she encounters something she doesn’t understand, like why birds have feathers or how tiny ants build massive anthills, she just can’t let it go until she figures it out. And in discovering the answers, Elinor often learns something about nature’s ingenious inventions and how they can connect to ideas in our designed world, and what it takes to live in a community. ELINOR WONDERS WHY encourages children and parents to ask their own questions and experience the joy of discovery and understanding together.

Starr Rhett Rocque’s Sept. 7, 2020 article for Fast Company offers more detail,

Elinor Wonders Why is a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]-based cartoon series created by Daniel Whiteson, a physicist and astronomer, and Jorge Cham, a cartoonist and robotics engineer. They’re both parents of small children, so they understand how to encourage curiosity through science and how to break down complex concepts.

Cham and Whiteson have been partners for years, working together on PhD Comics, which is a webcomic, YouTube, and podcast universe dedicated to PhD student humor. Linda Simensky, head of content for PBS Kids, had been a fan of their work, and when the opportunity to create a preschool science show that focuses on biomimicry came up, she figured they’d be great for the job.

“Biomimicry is basically taking things that you learn in nature and in the outdoors and in the natural world, and using them for inventions and for innovation science,” says Simensky. “The classic example that they use in the pilot is how Velcro was designed. Basically, it was inspired by someone getting burdock stuck to his pants, and that’s what inspired Velcro, so that’s the classic example of finding something in nature that solves a problem that you need to solve in real life.”

Elinor Wonders Why centers around Elinor (named after Cham’s daughter), a curious and observant rabbit living in Animal Town who goes on various adventures. In the upcoming premiere, Elinor plays hide-and-go-seek with her friends and finds out how animals hide in nature. …

Rocque went on to interview Cham, Whiteson, and Simensky,

FC: Describe the overall process of “dumbing down” highly sophisticated content for a younger audience. Was it harder than you thought?

JC: There was definitely a learning curve, but fortunately everyone at PBS, our team of science and education specialists have been great collaborators and guides. We don’t really believe in the phrase “dumbing down.” …

DW: Something important for us was to make each episode about a single question that a real kid would have. We looked for topics that any typical kid would think, “Huh, I do wonder why that is?” The kinds of questions they might ask when they look at their own world, like, “Why do birds have feathers?” or “Why do lizards sit in the sun?” It’s also important for us that the kids in the show play an active part in finding the answers, so we pick questions that kids could answer themselves using basic scientific thinking and simple tools, simple experiments, making observations, and comparing and contrasting. This made the questions and answers accessible, and also hopefully provides a model for them to follow at home.

LS: The part of it that’s the hardest is getting everything to work for the same age group. That’s the first thing. So, when you’re doing that, you’re doing several things at a time. You’re coming up with the idea for the show and you have to make sure that you know exactly who your age group is, and in the case of Elinor, it’s kids between the ages of 3 and 6. That’s a typical preschool group, and that includes kids who are in kindergarten, and even within 3 to 6, that’s obviously a pretty big range of kids. …

PBS does have an Elinor Wonders Why website but some of the materials (videos) are restricted to viewers based in the US. As for broadcast times, check your local PBS station, should you have one.

Filmmaking beetles wearing teeny, tiny wireless cameras

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny camera that can ride aboard an insect. Here a Pinacate beetle explores the UW campus with the camera on its back. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Scientists at Washington University have created a removable wireless camera backpack for beetles and for tiny robots resembling beetles. I’m embedding a video shot by a beetle later in this post with a citation and link for the paper, near the end of this post where you’ll also find links to my other posts on insects and technology.

As for the latest on insects and technology, there’s a July 15, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

In the movie “Ant-Man,” the title character can shrink in size and travel by soaring on the back of an insect. Now researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny wireless steerable camera that can also ride aboard an insect, giving everyone a chance to see an Ant-Man view of the world.

The camera, which streams video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second, sits on a mechanical arm that can pivot 60 degrees. This allows a viewer to capture a high-resolution, panoramic shot or track a moving object while expending a minimal amount of energy. To demonstrate the versatility of this system, which weighs about 250 milligrams — about one-tenth the weight of a playing card — the team mounted it on top of live beetles and insect-sized robots.

A July 15, 2020 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail (although I still have a few questions) about the work,

“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”

Typical small cameras, such as those used in smartphones, use a lot of power to capture wide-angle, high-resolution photos, and that doesn’t work at the insect scale. While the cameras themselves are lightweight, the batteries they need to support them make the overall system too big and heavy for insects — or insect-sized robots — to lug around. So the team took a lesson from biology.

“Similar to cameras, vision in animals requires a lot of power,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s less of a big deal in larger creatures like humans, but flies are using 10 to 20% of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing. To help cut the cost, some flies have a small, high-resolution region of their compound eyes. They turn their heads to steer where they want to see with extra clarity, such as for chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”

To mimic an animal’s vision, the researchers used a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera that can sweep across a field of view with the help of a mechanical arm. The arm moves when the team applies a high voltage, which makes the material bend and move the camera to the desired position. Unless the team applies more power, the arm stays at that angle for about a minute before relaxing back to its original position. This is similar to how people can keep their head turned in one direction for only a short period of time before returning to a more neutral position.

“One advantage to being able to move the camera is that you can get a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “We can track a moving object without having to spend the energy to move a whole robot. These images are also at a higher resolution than if we used a wide-angle lens, which would create an image with the same number of pixels divided up over a much larger area.”

The camera and arm are controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone from a distance up to 120 meters away, just a little longer than a football field.

The researchers attached their removable system to the backs of two different types of beetles — a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle. Similar beetles have been known to be able to carry loads heavier than half a gram, the researchers said.

“We made sure the beetles could still move properly when they were carrying our system,” said co-lead author Ali Najafi, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “They were able to navigate freely across gravel, up a slope and even climb trees.”

The beetles also lived for at least a year after the experiment ended. [emphasis mine]

“We added a small accelerometer to our system to be able to detect when the beetle moves. Then it only captures images during that time,” Iyer said. “If the camera is just continuously streaming without this accelerometer, we could record one to two hours before the battery died. With the accelerometer, we could record for six hours or more, depending on the beetle’s activity level.”

The researchers also used their camera system to design the world’s smallest terrestrial, power-autonomous robot with wireless vision. This insect-sized robot uses vibrations to move and consumes almost the same power as low-power Bluetooth radios need to operate.

The team found, however, that the vibrations shook the camera and produced distorted images. The researchers solved this issue by having the robot stop momentarily, take a picture and then resume its journey. With this strategy, the system was still able to move about 2 to 3 centimeters per second — faster than any other tiny robot that uses vibrations to move — and had a battery life of about 90 minutes.

While the team is excited about the potential for lightweight and low-power mobile cameras, the researchers acknowledge that this technology comes with a new set of privacy risks.

“As researchers we strongly believe that it’s really important to put things in the public domain so people are aware of the risks and so people can start coming up with solutions to address them,” Gollakota said.

Applications could range from biology to exploring novel environments, the researchers said. The team hopes that future versions of the camera will require even less power and be battery free, potentially solar-powered.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a first-person view from the back of a beetle while it’s walking around. There are so many questions you could explore, such as how does the beetle respond to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?” Iyer said. “But also, insects can traverse rocky environments, which is really challenging for robots to do at this scale. So this system can also help us out by letting us see or collect samples from hard-to-navigate spaces.”

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Johannes James, a UW mechanical engineering doctoral student, is also a co-author on this paper. This research was funded by a Microsoft fellowship and the National Science Foundation.

I’m surprised there’s no funding from a military agency as the military and covert operation applications seem like an obvious pairing. In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wireless steerable vision for live insects and insect-scale robots by Vikram Iyer, Ali Najafi, Johannes James, Sawyer Fuller, and Shyamnath Gollakota. Science Robotics 15 Jul 2020: Vol. 5, Issue 44, eabb0839 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abb0839

This paper is behind a paywall.

Video and links

As promised, here’s the video the scientists have released,

These posts feature some fairly ruthless uses of the insects.

  1. The first mention of insects and technology here is in a July 27, 2009 posting titled: Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 4. The mention is in the second to last paragraph of the post. Then,.
  2. A November 23, 2011 post titled: Cyborg insects and trust,
  3. A January 9, 2012 post titled: Controlling cyborg insects,
  4. A June 26, 2013 post titled: Steering cockroaches in the lab and in your backyard—cutting edge neuroscience, and, finally,
  5. An April 11, 2014 post titled: Computerized cockroaches as precursors to new healing techniques.

As for my questions (how do you put the backpacks on the beetles? is there a strap, is it glue, is it something else? how heavy is the backpack and camera? how old are the beetles you use for this experiment? where did you get the beetles from? do you have your own beetle farm where you breed them?), I’ll see if I can get some answers.

Chameleon skin (nanomaterial made of gold nanoparticles) for robots

A June 17, 2020 news item on Nanowerk trumpets research into how robots might be able to sport chameleon-like skin one day,

A new film made of gold nanoparticles changes color in response to any type of movement. Its unprecedented qualities could allow robots to mimic chameleons and octopi — among other futuristic applications.

Unlike other materials that try to emulate nature’s color changers, this one can respond to any type of movement, like bending or twisting. Robots coated in it could enter spaces that might be dangerous or impossible for humans, and offer information just based on the way they look.

For example, a camouflaged robot could enter tough-to-access underwater crevices. If the robot changes color, biologists could learn about the pressures facing animals that live in these environments.

Although some other color-changing materials can also respond to motion, this one can be printed and programmed to display different, complex patterns that are difficult to replicate.

This video from the University of California at Riverside researchers shows the material in action (Note: It gets more interesting after the first 20 secs.),

A June 15, 2020 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release (also on EurekAlert but published on June 17, 2020) by Jules Bernstein, which originated the news item, delves further,

Nanomaterials are simply materials that have been reduced to an extremely small scale — tens of nanometers in width and length, or, about the size of a virus. When materials like silver or gold become smaller, their colors will change depending on their size, shape, and the direction they face.

“In our case, we reduced gold to nano-sized rods. We knew that if we could make the rods point in a particular direction, we could control their color,” said chemistry professor Yadong Yin. “Facing one way, they might appear red. Move them 45 degrees, and they change to green.”

The problem facing the research team was how to take millions of gold nanorods floating in a liquid solution and get them all to point in the same direction to display a uniform color.

Their solution was to fuse smaller magnetic nanorods onto the larger gold ones. The two different-sized rods were encapsulated in a polymer shield, so that they would remain side by side. That way, the orientation of both rods could be controlled by magnets.

“Just like if you hold a magnet over a pile of needles, they all point in the same direction. That’s how we control the color,” Yin said.

Once the nanorods are dried into a thin film, their orientation is fixed in place and they no longer respond to magnets. “But, if the film is flexible, you can bend and rotate it, and will still see different colors as the orientation changes,” Yin said.

Other materials, like butterfly wings, are shiny and colorful at certain angles, and can also change color when viewed at other angles. However, those materials rely on precisely ordered microstructures, which are difficult and expensive to make for large areas. But this new film can be made to coat the surface of any sized object just as easily as applying spray paint on a house.

Though futuristic robots are an ultimate application of this film, it can be used in many other ways. UC Riverside chemist Zhiwei Li, the first author on this paper, explained that the film can be incorporated into checks or cash as an authentication feature. Under normal lighting, the film is gray, but when you put on sunglasses and look at it through polarized lenses, elaborate patterns can be seen. In addition, the color contrast of the film may change dramatically if you twist the film.

The applications, in fact, are only limited by the imagination. “Artists could use this technology to create fascinating paintings that are wildly different depending on the angle from which they are viewed,” Li said. “It would be wonderful to see how the science in our work could be combined with the beauty of art.”

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

Coupling magnetic and plasmonic anisotropy in hybrid nanorods for mechanochromic responses by Zhiwei Li, Jianbo Jin, Fan Yang, Ningning Song & Yadong Yin. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 2883 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16678-8 Published: 08 June 2020

This paper is open access.