Looking Back on IB 411


For the past eight weeks I have been immersed in the world of Bioinspiration through Maryanne Alleyne’s online course through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In this time I have learned a great deal about biology, nature, and myself.

The field of bioinspiration involves taking cues from the many wonders of nature and incorporating them into our everyday lives. Through our knowledge of the natural world we are able to improve upon manmade constructions in ways that continue to amaze. Scientists around the globe are finding ways to take natural phenomena and put them to use to better mankind.

From building robots that can crawl like cockroaches to artificial leaves that are able to mimic photosynthesis, it certainly seems that bioinspiration is the future. Soon we could have robotic jellyfish cleaning up oil spills and viruses powering our cell phones. The rush is on to find novel ways to make use of nature’s wonders.

Throughout this course I have been forced to think long and hard about nature and its uses in everyday life. Sometimes the process has been long and arduous and the results subpar, other times I’ve found myself extremely proud with the end-product. To think so abstractly is not an easy process, and often I’ve found myself amazed at the ideas put forth by some of the brilliant researchers I’ve been introduced to through the last eight weeks. 

I feel this course has spurred forth a latent creativity hiding within myself. This blog was initially started to chronicle my journey through IB 411, but I fully intend to continue occasionally blogging when ideas spring into my head (and I have the free time to research).

My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to devote to this class. Regardless, the lessons learned herewithin will likely stick with me for many years to come.

Bridging the Gap Between Biology and Engineering


Currently being developed by Professor Li Shiu and colleages at the University of Toronto engineering department is BIDLab, a search tool that can be used to locate biological information in Laymens terms to solve engineering problems.

Shu found that oftentimes engineers draw incorrect analogies when attempting to innovate from biology. BIDLab is an attempt to remedy this situation by providing a search engine through which engineers can make appropriate analogies in regards to biological processes that might benefit their ongoing projects. This tool can provide simple information that can inspire and guide engineers to technological advancement.

The system matches engineering functions with biological keywords derived from introductory biology texts. An engineer can enter a function for which they would like to find a biological analogy for and pull up a number of search results. This would be extremely useful in any bio-inspired project to find examples of mechanical functions in nature explained in simple terms.






A Bio-Inspired Building


Incorporating ideas from nature into architecture is a fascinating prospect that could lead way to many original, eco-friendly building designs in the future. If I were to design my own office building, I would include the following:

Photovoltaic (PV) Cells – PV cells are able to take sunlight and directly produce electricity. This would be my first step in creating my building, as it would cut down on pollutants greatly.

Closed-loop systems – Systems such as this treat waste as a valuable commodity. Rather than continuously depleting resources, you take what your waste and repurpose it with it eventually cycling back into the system via some mechanism. One example would be a close-loop system for treating solid and liquid wastes such as the one being developed by ecologists at the NIOO building as discussed in this module:

Purification of toilet waste. Source: NIOO

Heat regulation – There are many mechanisms seen in nature through which thermoregulation is accomplished. For example, if the building were in a very warm, dry climate then perhaps it could be designed similar to Lithops or stone plants. 

Stone plants (Lithops)

Stone plants. Source: yellowcloud/flickr.com

A majority of the plant is underground which keeps it cool. The top is able to let light through so that photosynthesis can continue. 

Another option would be insulation based off the silk nests of Easter tent caterpillars. These nests are able to capture sunlight and keep the internal temperature comfortably above that of the outside.

Eastern tent caterpillars

Silk nest of Easter tent caterpillar. Source: Mark Killner/Flickr.com




Unmanned Underwater Vehicles


Collective behaviour: the AquaJellies show how autonomous actions of individual systems can result in an overall system

Swarm behavior is a concept familiar to many of us. A prime example is the tight-knit groups of fish, otherwise known as schools, we’ve mostly all seen when we were first introduced to the world of biology. Fish are able to gather into amazing patterns and seemingly move as one throughout the watery depths. This ability to self-organize has inspired scientists to develop robots that are able to collaboratively navigate waters in a similar manner and fight pollution.

The company Festo has developed a robot called AquaJelly that is able to autonomously navigate in groups using infrared sensors. When one of these artificial jellyfish comes into close proximity with another, it senses this and changes course to avoid a collision. As one jellyfish “decides” what action to take next, others will begin to follow it just as seen in natural swarm behavior. These robots are able to monitor the conditions of the water around them such as temperature and depth, and the data can be reviewed from a smartphone (1, 2). These robots can be used for the purposes of wastewater treatment and to make waterworks management more efficient.

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego are also in the process of creating autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) that they would also like to use in the future to monitor water conditions after oil spills and other pollutants are introduced (3).


(2) http://www.festo.com/cms/en_corp/9772_10378.htm#id_10378

(3) “Naturally Robotic.” Discover 29.8 (2008): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.



An essential part of survival as a species is cooperation. In nature, there are many amazing examples of collaboration resulting in increased welfare of the whole. However, “smart swarms” are not limited to ants and honey bees. They can be used very effectively in many social and business situations we face every day.

The whole concept of “diversity of information,” and its apparent advantages over individual smarts (1) is one example of a way collaboration could be implemented in the classroom or board room. In general, this would mean encouraging students to actively bounce ideas off one another in an attempt to solve problems requiring critical thinking skills. Research has found that by weighing the ideas put forth by various individuals, group mates are better able to come to logical, intuitive, and creative solutions than if they had done so individually. This is akin to the way honey bees “house hunt,” wherein scouts go out looking for new locales in which to build nests, then relay this logistical information to other scouts which in turn check out the potential new home and report back. This method prevents any one bee (or person, in the above example) from dominating decision making (2).

Another important aspect of natural smart swarms that should be incorporated into our everyday lives is the concept of adaptability. Adaptability simply means that, while it may be wise to plan for many inevitabilities, you will never be able to forsee everything that comes your way. It is imperative that you are able to quickly adapt (especially in the workplace) when changes arrive. Deborah Gordon details the amazing adaptability (and self-organizing capacities) of ants in the Ted talk featured in this module. At one point she placed toothpicks near the entrance of the ants’ nest and monitored what happened. She observed a greater recruitment of “maintenance” ants, which led to a subsequent decrease in the frequency of other job types (3). They were able to efficiently adapt and collaborate to tackle this new impediment to their job. If only your coworkers could be this helpful!


(1) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130247631

(2) http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/1892

(3) http://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_gordon_digs_ants.html

Virus Batteries


In the near future it may be possible to charge your cell phone battery or your car using a genetically engineered virus. 

Researchers at UC Berkeley have recently engineered a virus that is able to produce an electrical current strong enough to power small electronics when subjected to stress. They created a small electrode that, upon being tapped, begins to produce electricity (4). Over at MIT, Angela Belcher and her colleagues are using viruses in the hopes of creating batteries able to produce three times the energy of current lithium ion models. In order to do so, they have introduced virus M13 into their prototype batteries. M13 is then able to attract nearby metallic molecules along with water essentially creating larger, more conductive nanowires. More surface area means more energy output.

Success would mean affordable, portable generators for the masses. Belcher et al. hope to implement their research in cars in the future, greatly increasing electric-powered mileage, which would effectively cut down on carbon emissions. While virus-powered cars are an ambitious undertaking, perhaps these viral energy conduits could be put to use in smaller electronics in the nearer-future, such as MP3 players, phones, and computers. Gone could be the days of multiple charging cables, replaced by a simple tap to power your electronics.

Virus batteries could potentially eliminate fossil fuel emissions from automobiles and make a dramatic difference in our environment by adding a sustainable energy source to our arsenal – something that is sorely needed. 

The research regarding viral batteries is still relatively new and it will most likely be quite a while before we have biologically-powered cars.


(1) http://www.sciencemag.org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/content/312/5775/885.full.pdf

(2) http://www.sciencemag.org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/content/324/5930/1051.full.pdf

(3) http://www.kurzweilai.net/better-batteries-through-biology

(4) http://www.tomshardware.com/news/science-research-battery-virus-charge,15617.html

Harnessing the Power of Plants




Basics of photosynthesis. Source: Tracy Wilson, Science.HowStuffWorks.com


Photosynthesis is a concept I’m sure many of you are aware of. It is often one of a schoolchild’s first forays into the scientific world. At its most basic, photosynthesis is the process by which plants (and some algae) take carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, and produce carbohydrate and molecular oxygen. Sunlight is obtained by chlorophyll, the pigment which gives plants their green color, which initiates the entire process. Often times, the photosynthetic reaction is written as follows:


CO2 + H2O + Sunlight = C6H12O6 (glucose) + O2


The products of photosynthesis, sugar and oxygen, are essential to life on this planet. It is no surprise then that this incredibly efficient mechanism of energy production has become a hotbed for research in the scientific community.


Many researchers are currently looking into the possibilities of cost-effective artificial photosynthesis (AP). While a novel pursuit, there has yet to be much success in this regard. The main issues facing scientists are monetary concerns, as the materials needed to artificially harvest CO2, H2O and photons of sunlight are quite expensive. Add to this the fact that energy production via fossil fuels is much cheaper in comparison, and scientists definitely have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, certain sectors of the scientific community are still hard at work on making AP a reality, such as the company Sun Catalytix, who have developed an eco-friendly artificial leaf capable of sun harvesting. While they have yet to achieve prices comparable to that of fossil fuel energy production, they are headed in the right direction. It’s safe to say that the implementation of artificial photosynthesis (and the subsequent move from fossil fuels that would result) would be a momentous step for humankind.


Of course, it’s never wise to put all of your eggs into one basket. In that regard it is important that we look into other ways in which we can incorporate aspects of photosynthesis into technology. As it turns out, some animals are able to mimic photosynthesis. Remember those photosynthetic algae I mentioned earlier? Those come into play now in a huge way. Consider the sacoglossan sea slug Elysia chlorotica, for example:




The solar-powered sea slug, Elysia chlorotica. Sourcehttp://eol.org/pages/450768/overview


This creature is able to “steal” the chloroplasts from algae, incorporate them into its own body, and continue photosynthesizing for as long as a year afterwards. Many other animals are capable of stealing or sharing chloroplasts and creating their own energy as a result. How exactly it is done is not completely understood, however this does raise some interesting questions. Primarily, is there a way we can take chloroplasts and incorporate them into light harvesting technology? Or better yet, can we mass produce synthetic chloroplasts and incorporate them into technology such as the silicon leaf created by Sun Catalytix? The future is bright, and artificial photosynthesis is becoming a more realistic possibility by the day.










Cruz S, Calado R, Serôdio J, Cartaxana P. Crawling leaves: photosynthesis in sacoglossan sea slugs. Journal Of Experimental Botany [serial online]. December 15, 2013;64(13):3999-4009. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 20, 2013.