Nature's bounty: Army-funded lab looks to plants and animals to inspire cutting edge research.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Venus' flower basket, a white tubular sponge that resides one mile down in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, is prized among some Asian cultures for its skeleton's delicate lattice-work.
In Japan, it was once given as a wedding gift, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But scientists at the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, an Army-funded consortium of university researchers, believe the sponge could be prized for much more than its beauty.
That hard skeleton is fiberglass. And finding out how nature manufactures glass without furnaces may unlock new cost-efficient ways to make such materials.
"Sponge-inspired [technologies] can have varied applications because it's a completely new way of synthesizing materials," said David H. Gay, director of technology at the institute.
The way biological organisms such as the sponge make glass differs greatly from modern manufacturing plants, which require great amounts of energy.
Researchers at the institute are solving the mystery of how the deep sea dwelling organism makes glass and constructs complex patterns. They hope their findings may one day revolutionize material manufacturing.
The institute is leaning on a network of researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It is a "virtual" institute, not a brick-and-mortar laboratory, but the director Daniel Morse has an office at UCSB's Marine Biotechnology Laboratory, which is a few yards away from the Pacific shore. Downstairs, the lab maintains dozens of aquariums containing marine life.
When they needed a Venus' flower basket sample, he didn't need to wander far.
The sponge "illustrates the theme of the institute.... biological inspiration leading to technological innovation," Morse said.
"The idea that biology--through millions of years of evolution--has developed solutions for the synthesis of complex materials, energy harnessing and transduction, sensing and for information processing," he added.
The lab's core funding comes from the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, which pays the institute about $6.5 million per year to conduct basic research. It is part of a network of similar university-based laboratories such as the computer simulations-focused Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology at MIT and the Institute for Advanced Technology at the University of Texas-Austin.
ICB's roster of about 60 researchers concentrates on solving longstanding problems that the natural world may have already worked out.
Gay said it is a relatively inexpensive way for the military to tap into the research talent that universities can offer. The Institute for Collaborative Biology, for example, boasts of having two John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius" award recipients and one Nobel Prize winner.
This comes at a time when military laboratories are having a difficult time attracting the "best and the brightest" scientists, according to preliminary findings of a Jason Group report, which is examining how the military carries out basic research.
"Civilian career paths in the DoD research labs and program management are not competitive to other opportunities in attracting outstanding young scientists and retaining the best people," according to a briefing released at the National Defense Industrial Association Disruptive Technologies conference.
Since the institute is not a brick-and-mortar lab, it has little overhead and can spend more on this basic research, Morse said.
"These biological solutions--if we can dissect them and reveal the underlying mechanisms--offer new pathways for development of technology solutions to problems that are of importance to the Army as well as society at large," Morse said.
The Venus' flower basket may offer up more cost efficient ways to reproduce glass and fiberglass.
One attribute Morse noted while holding up the skeleton is how strong it is.
The creature makes minimal use of material in this lattice architecture for maximal stress dissipation, he said.
"This is an energy dispersive structure," he noted. "Like the inner core of an airplane wing."
The work builds upon research into the abalone shell, which is made up of chalk, minerals and proteins. Separately they are not hard materials, but when put together, they are 3,000 times stronger than their components.
The team investigating the sponge found that each cell uses simple building blocks that are cemented together. All this information to build the larger structure is genetically encoded in its DNA.
The proteins, responsible for the synthesis of this glass, self-assemble by recognition of genetically encoded complimentary patches on the surfaces of the proteins. They interact and lock together in a fractal pattern. This pattern, like branches of a tree, seems random, but is not. The result is a perfectly structured cylinder of protein that serves as a catalyst and template for the glass fibers.
"One of the challenges in bio- and nanotechnology today is how does genetic coding lead to higher linear sequences, and how the final results of these activities lead to hierarchical assemblies of complex three-dimensional structures like this," Morse said.
The application could lead to less expensive ways for industry to manufacture semi-conductors.
"If we learn how biology solves the problem, then we can approach it from a completely different angle," Morse said.
Organisms such as bamboo also make silicon, a substance that is used in everything from hand cream to tires to computer chips. And yet it is a labor intensive, energy consuming process that involves crushing and smelting quartz and caustic chemicals to remove the material.
The animal kingdom has inspired other technological solutions that the military could use, although Morse stressed that the labs do not do any research in weapons or munitions. Although it counts the Defense Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research amongst its other clients, it does not participate in any top secret programs. All of its findings are published in open sources, he noted.
Such is the case of research into the common housefly.
Anyone who has tried to swat one knows they are elusive targets, but why?
The pest happens to have the most rapidly adaptive flight control system yet known.
"Within 100th of a second, the fly can respond to a gust of wind and change direction with remarkable agility," Morse said.
An investigative team at Caltech, Michael Dickinson and Richard Murray, looked at the information processing pathways from the insect's eyes and wind sensors, which are basically the bristles on the body.
They found that these wind sensors circumvented the fly's brain and send messages directly to the flight control muscles. They took the model of a fly's neuronal pathways, reduced it to an engineering control diagram, and used that to pattern the circuitry on a chip.
This chip may help micro-unmanned aerial vehicles improve their performance when flying outdoors.
One of the advantages of micro-UAVs is their size, Gay pointed out. But that's also a disadvantage outside. They work great in a lab, but "wind gusts can overwhelm them."
Geckos found scurrying across walls in the tropics also offer some interesting possibilities.
Biologists have always found it remarkable that the lizards can hold up their weight on a wall, and run at the same time. Their feet have an unusual adhesive that can stick to any surface, and it's a reversible adhesive.
Gay said, "getting something to stick is easy enough; getting something to stick and let go is a little more" challenging.
One of the world's foremost experts on surface forces, UCSB chemical engineering professor Jacob Israelachvili, is on the institute's staff.
The gecko inspired him to produce a micro-electrical mechanical device that can grip and let go using atomic interactions.
This application can be used for small robots to crawl up walls. But in the civilian world, a manufacturer in a clean room, for example, can use such a gripper to pick up and let go of delicate parts without the use of human hands.
Gay said the institute is uniquely interdisciplinary and relies on a mix of bio-technologists, molecular biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers working on these problems.
"That's why we're able to in some cases, use some advanced biological approaches to dissect the problem, then use chemists, physicists and engineers to solve the problem."
Taking these biologically inspired solutions from nature, a university lab and then transferring them into the real-world where they can make in impact is another challenge. The so-called "Valley of Death," where good ideas die for lack of funding or knowledge of how to make them into practical, marketable products, is a long-standing problem when it comes to basic research.
The institute, during its five years of existence, can't brag of any real-world "homeruns" yet, but Morse notes that its work has resulted in about a dozen spin-off companies.
About half of them are working with Army laboratories. Others are working with private sector companies to transfer the technology.
It will be up to them to take the technology to the next level.
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