design

Creating the Radiation Proof Human

Radiation is not always a bad thing. The sun after all is the ultimate energy source for life on Earth, without which the Earth would be a cold lifeless ball. But some forms of radiation are not helpful at keeping us alive, and can be downright dangerous. As we consider expanding our frontiers to new worlds, and leaving the safe confines of Earth's magnetic field, we will be confronted with far more radiation than we have evolved to manage. With the advance of genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR, we can and should start asking tough questions about changing our own DNA.  This is why some people have begun to seriously consider what a future human might look like for space exploration. In LikoLab's  Life-Centered Podcast, I always ask my interviewees:

"What if you could insert any gene or trait from another organism into humans, what would it be and why?"

The answers are often abstract, but in the last few weeks two real possibilities have popped up that might hold clues to what humans will look like when we head to the stars. 

Nano-Melanin Spheres from Fungi

Cryptococcus neoformans

Cryptococcus neoformans

One compelling concept was reported out of the Mars City Design Workshop where participants described the possibilities of engineering human tissue to super express melanin in a similar fashion to fungi that can withstand radiation at Chernobyl.  The fungi that withstand intense radiation have been found to have nano spheres of melanin (which is found throughout organisms) where the layers of melanin are the right shape to redirect and capture different forms of damaging radiation. This super-melanin human would not only be resistant to radiation but also people who expressed this trick would have black bones, tissue, hair, and even black irises. 

Tardigrade Dsup Protein

Tardigrade can withstand extreme conditions via  Nature

Tardigrade can withstand extreme conditions via Nature

Over expressing melanin nano-spheres is  just the beginning. We can look to other extreme organisms to find unique characteristics. One of the toughest organisms known is the tardigrade. This little guy lives to eat moss cells, and is only visible with a magnifying lens, but don't let his size fool you. The tardigrade can withstand decades without water, and be exposed to extreme radiation without missing a beat. Scientists just recently published a paper detailing a new class of proteins  called Dsup that appear to help the tardigrade achieve its x-ray defense mechanisms.  Further, they actually then went the next step and engineered human cells (in a petri dish) to express this protein and found that the human cells could suppress x-ray damage by up to 40% more than when compared to normal cells. I wonder if someone with this new gene will have a hankering for tasty moss?

 

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A Robot to Hug

Yesterday the Wyss Institute announced their new octopus inspired soft robot, the Octobot.  Octobot is a technological marvel, with no batteries, no electrical motors, no wheels, no saws, no lasers, it's just a beautifully sophisticated lump of jello - like us! In honor of this advance of soft robotics I wanted to share a short wish-list of a few organisms from the ocean deep that the brilliant minds at Wyss could help me turn into reality.

 

StarFish   Robot (Echinobot)

The most challenging robot on my wish-list is without a doubt the EchinoBot.  Starfish have a wonderfully bizzar system of locomotion that is perfect for soft robotics. The video above highlights a few of the more exciting opportunities for soft robotics inspired by the starfish. Tube feet are a spectacular use of what is essentially water balloons with muscles, yet they allow starfish to operate in high flow environments, open tough clams, and navigate complex terrain. Imagine house starfish that would clean out the air ducts? Or maybe we have robotic starfish in the ocean that provides sensor data of water quality?

The hard plates of the skeleton joined by muscle tissue is another exciting opportunity. What if our starfish robot could withstand extreme pressures, or be super resilient in the face of continuous collisions. I could imagine a starfish robot on any kids playground that could survive the wrath of a 2 year old yet also entertain for hours. 

 

Scallop Robot (Lopbot)

h best thing about the Lopbot is that the focus is really on the sensor network of eyes. Scallops are best known as tasty dinner items, but are a thriving part of the marine ecosystem. Their locomotion mechanism is surprisingly effective, and I think within soft robotics could be achieved more easily and more resiliently than with more traditional engineering approaches. Combining the locomotion with simple light sensor and a processor could enable a robotic scallop that behaves almost like the real thing. Besides the charming interaction, my hope is that a Lopbot could be useful not only in pools for kids, but for serious applications such self organizing sensors for water quality, or underwater acoustic applications. They might even change the behavior of other organisms around them, protecting underwater areas, or acting as 'scare crows' of the sea for the emerging field of ocean farming.

 

Jellyfish Robot (Jellybot)

Why wouldn't you want a Jellybot? Jellyfish are incredible, just ask Rebecca Helm of JellyBiologist, who for years has shared some of the most inspiringly geeky stories of jellyfish amazingness. A true huggable soft robot if there ever was one, the jellyfish itself is not to be underestimated. They have shut down nuclear power plants, and Rebecca points out they may even helps us clean micro-pollution from the ocean. With their efficient, and beautiful locomotion the Jellybot should also not be understimted as an ambassador for soft robots everywhere.

Two Tools to Unlock the Power of Biology for Innovation

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As someone who has been working in bio-inspired design since 2004, I have a few habits that I rely on to help me gather information about the crazy things living organisms have evolved to accomplish. I spend a good deal of time using search engines to find new insights, or research a particular area of interest. Earlier this year I was looking for a way to make a tool that would help me speed up this process and ran into Google Custom Search. GCS is a free service that allows you to pick the sites you want to search, add a few keywords, and it returns Google results from those pages. It's not perfect, but over the past six months I have found these custom search engines useful. In particular it has enabled be to get more complete searches done in the fraction of the time it used to take. The engines below are in permanent 'beta'. I'm always tweaking and updating them -> If you are interested in helping me refine these, let's get in touch. Enjoy.

 

Searching for Biomimicry Products

Sometimes you just want to know what bio-inspired products are out there. AskNature.org is the go to place for most people starting out, and while their database is huge and growing all the time, I have found their content to be limited on any single specific topic. As a result the search for products includes AskNature in the algorithm, but also asks a bunch of other sites what products are out there lately. I have kept this one pretty tight, and often it will return zero results, but if there is a result it will likely be a product.

 

 Biomimicry Examples

 

Details into Incredible Biology 

Sometimes you want to dig into a particular organism, function, insight, or really cool idea. This next search engine casts a much broader net over the Internet. While the 'Biomimicry Examples' engine might just return 7 hits, this engine will return 40,000. The beauty of this is that it helps you widen your search parameters, see new ideas, and gives you a bit more of a mountain of data to sort through that is highly likely to have some rich information. I use this one more often in my work to start to dig into new areas.

Digging Deeper