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biomimicry

noun [uncountable]

the study of systems and substances used in nature in order to find solutions to other human and technical problems

'From robot snakes to breathable mattresses designed after honeycombs, more innovative designs are using the art and science of biomimicry. The field of biomimicry has already given consumers hundreds of products and devices that are based on nature.'

International Business Times 20th November 2011

How could you protect something from infection without using antibiotics? Apparently the Galapagos shark has the answer! The shark maintains a skin free from bacteria because of the shape of its scales, which make it impossible for bacteria to grow. Now consider if the same principle were applied to the shape of certain objects or fittings used in a hospital. They would stay 'cleaner', you could then avoid the heavy use of antibiotics, and thereby minimize the risk of 'superbugs' such as MRSA. The concept underpinning ideas such as this – taking inspiration from nature in order to solve problems in the material world – is now referred to as biomimicry.

biomimicry can even be applied to social issues, such as for example by examining insect communities and their robust self-organization, division of labour, food, care of the young

Biomimicry is the practice of examining nature from a variety of perspectives – its systems, processes, models or elements – and emulating what happens there in order to solve a practical human problem. The application of biomimicry is very wide-ranging, and it's likely that many of us will have come across examples without even realising it. I live in York, home of the UK's National Railway Museum, which has a permanent exhibit of the Japanese high-speed train Shinkansen, popularly referred to as the 'Bullet train'. Interestingly, it transpires that biomimicry was involved in the train's design. Engineers took inspiration from the beak of a bird, the kingfisher, in order to shape the train's nosecone. Just as a kingfisher dives noiselessly into water, the train can emerge from a tunnel without making extremely loud bursts of noise.

If I've whetted your appetite and you'd like to see more instances of biomimicry in action, check out this link, which provides some other fascinating examples, including the adhesive abilities of mussels in relation to glue! In addition to solving technical problems, biomimicry can even be applied to social issues, such as for example by examining insect communities and their robust self-organization, division of labour, food, care of the young, etc.

Biomimicry is also sometimes referred to as biomimetics, with a corresponding adjective biomimetic often used to describe man-made processes and substances that imitate nature. There's also some evidence for use of the term biomimicrist to refer to people specializing in this kind of research.

Background – biomimicry and biomimetics

Humans have always looked to nature for ideas about solving problems, and so the concept of biomimicry (or biomimetics) existed many centuries before the word itself, one of the most obvious early examples being the study of birds in order to develop human 'flying machines'. A particularly famous 20th century application of biomimicry was in the invention of Velcro™ by Swiss engineer Georges De Mestral, who had the idea after examining the hundreds of tiny hooks within the seeds of the burdock plant, which kept sticking to his clothes and his dog's fur when they were out hunting.

Contemporary use of the term biomimicry is mainly attributed to the US scientist Janine Benyus, who featured it as the subject and title of her book Biomimicry:Innovation Inspired by Nature (William Morrow 1997). The term is derived from the Greek bios, meaning 'life' (compare e.g. biology) and mimikos, meaning 'mime' or 'imitate'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 16th January 2012.

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