Throughout time, the study and appreciation of nature has brought about quite a few fascinating inventions. From a bird’s ability to fly to a tree’s ability to effectively absorb water from the ground, this world is filled with incredibly useful and most importantly, inherently naturally occurring systems. Because of this, these natural systems have inspired innovations for human advancement through a process called biomimicry.
Essentially, biomimicry is the process of using nature to find innovative ways to solve human challenges. If something is functional in nature, it makes sense to simply copy the natural mechanism instead of make something entirely new to achieve the same effect with humans—why reinvent the wheel, right?
Flying birds inspired humans to take flight to the skies, leading to the development of planes. Burrs (those little brown stickers that get stuck to your hiking clothes) were an inspiration for Velcro, which was constructed in the exact fashion that a burr latches onto clothing using a hook and loop system. Recently, researchers have been looking into ways to make needles less painful by studying mosquitoes, known for their ability to extract blood through their proboscis, or their small needle-shaped mouth, while you’re none the wiser.
To recap, biomimicry is when humans take something natural and “mimic” its mechanics to manufacture something that can benefit humans.
Recent biomimetic developments
As you can imagine, several laboratories have been investigating various avenues of biomimicry topics to improve on human medicine. For instance, researchers have been looking into ways to improve neural interfaces via small machinery designed to interact with the nervous system, with the goal of aiding in vital biological functions. Similarly, antimicrobial nanomaterials have been improved by the development of materials that mimic the shape of different kinds of bacteria.
The realm of cancer therapeutics has also received a lot of attention in the biomimicry space, as there is a mechanism called immunogenic cell death (ICD) that researchers believe they can use to eliminate tumor cells. ICD is a natural process within all cells involving intracellular complexes, which are conglomerates of organelles and proteins that communicate with one another to relay messages within a cell. ICD can be triggered by specific intracellular signals and pathways, such as those associated with endoplasmic reticulum stress, when cells are deemed non-useful by the body. For instance, this can happen once a cell has reached a senescent state and no longer serves a purpose in the tissue it once contributed to.
What are some of the most successful ways biomimicry has been used in science?
Receptor signaling and investigating cellular functions
Protein receptor signaling is one of the most fascinating biomolecular mechanisms at the molecular scale; involving a protein receptor at the cell surface and a molecule (i.e., a ligand) that binds and attaches to the receptor. Through years of researching and understanding how G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) bind extracellular ligands to initiate changes within a cell, scientists have used this biomolecular knowledge to construct “custom” protein receptors that can be inserted into cells of the body. These custom-designed protein receptors are specifically constructed so that they respond only to a specific drug, either naturally occurring or synthetic.
This very mechanism inspired the creation of their names: designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs, or DREADDs (we know, it's a bit ominous). Once inserted into the membrane of a cell, DREADDs can be manipulated to “turn on” or “turn off” by increasing or decreasing the concentration of the designer drug required to activate these receptors.
Through a process called receptor mediated endocytosis, receptors on the extracellular surface capture whatever drug or protein it encounters, and internalize them into the cellular space. In doing so, the activated DREADD triggers the opening of channels and other intracellular processes that lead to cellular activity or inhibition, depending on the intent. In its entirety, this biomimetic technology has presented a significant breakthrough approach in the ability to study cell dynamics and signaling in real-time.
Understanding organ function and cellular communication
There is an interesting method of research that fully encompasses biomimicry technology, which is used to study natural bodily processes entirely within a model system. This is called organ-on-a-chip technology, and some of the latest research has focused on researching the cardiovascular system. Bioengineers have utilized our knowledge of the cardiovascular system such as heart cells (i.e., cardiomyocytes) and blood vessels to manufacture small chips that contain cell cultures of these cells and tissues, which can then be used to study biological processes and mechanisms.
On a similar front, brain-on-a-chip technology has been developed to allow scientists to understand the way the brain communicates and how brain cells generate and utilize energy in a more controlled fashion. By mimicking these organ systems, scientists are paving the way to the future of scientific discovery.
Cancer therapeutics & regenerative medicine
As you could imagine, tapping into the body’s natural disease and immune processes to specifically target specific areas is immensely helpful in cancer research. For instance, tumor cells tend to capture and accumulate large amounts of a blood serum protein called albumin. Using receptor mediated endocytosis, scientists formulated a biological complex that contains albumin and a drug used to kill tumor cells, which piggybacks on the albumin protein highly likely to end up in a tumor cell. As a result, the tumor-killing drug gets a one-way ticket directly to the tumor to carry out its fatal actions on the tumor cell. This tumor targeting potential of biomimetics has provided a promising outlook on cancer therapeutics.
Researchers have also developed a system of nanozymes (extremely small enzymes) that’s been designed to scavenge oxygen from within the cell. These nanozymes were built by taking advantage of our knowledge about antioxidant compounds that remove oxidated by products from mitochondrial energy-producing processes. As a result, researchers may have tapped into a new realm of nanomedicine, whereby these nanozymes can aid in a cell’s recovery from oxidative damage, which is often required in regenerative medicine.
More benefits of biomimicry
If we think about the ingestion process, it becomes clear as to why biomimicry has its advantages, especially with regard to drug absorption and metabolism.
Importantly, the ingestion of food and pharmaceuticals that are not naturally formed require the body to adapt its metabolic processes to break down the molecular components of these products, as they may seem foreign to the body’s tissues. At the same time, these extra adaptive mechanisms require energy and may even contribute to cellular stress, especially when considering highly processed foods like fast food cheeseburgers and the like. Lastly, for the same reasons adaptive mechanisms kick in, manufactured products (more so in the context of pharmaceuticals) are broken down significantly by the liver, resulting in a fraction of the original amount reaching the blood stream. As such, it can be difficult to reach maximally optimal concentrations of orally ingested non-natural compounds without utilizing some form of biomimicry to ensure its safe delivery to the destination within the body.
In contrast, biomimetic compounds can facilitate digestion by improving absorption rate, thereby allowing these products to reach optimal blood concentrations with lower original amounts of compound. This is likely due to the familiarity of biomimetic compounds by the body, enabling for more natural metabolic processes to engage and decompose the biomimetic product.
As you’d expect with life, however, it’s not always that easy to find solutions to complex problems.
One caveat of biomimicry is that the field itself has faced complications in its implementation—or how various biomimetic innovations can actually be used in the real world. Indeed, inspiration exists all around us, but a major breakthrough only happens when there’s an actual transfer of inspiration into implementation, which is complex and can take a very long time. As with all research and science, there could be a missing piece of the puzzle that won’t even be discovered in itself for years to come.
Despite this drawback, biomimicry is a booming field, and more is understood about this process each and every day. It is surely going to provide significant scientific leaps and improvements on modern day technology and bioengineering.