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Speaker spotlight - Dr Chris Forman

Dr Chris Forman, nano-biophysicist from the University of Cambridge, explains how mimicking biology could improve our own technology and eliminate pollution at the same time.

You can hear more from Chris during the Cambridge Science Festival event Can iPods grow on trees?

CSF: What drew you to this area of science? 

CF: The need to circularise our economy and power it with renewable energy!

My first job in satellite communications helped me to see Earth as a single system. I realised that we must make the transition to a circular economy which requires us to recycle ‘all’ our matter and power ourselves with renewable energy and biology is really good at this.

When you see Earth as a single system you realise that there is no other future that is available.  It's a bit like figuring out the edges to a jigsaw puzzle – you get an appreciation of the big picture and it helps you to see through all the other possibilities.  The only thing that it is physically possible to do on Earth is convert matter from one state to another using energy.  If you can't turn your material outputs back into raw materials then everything you do will grind to halt when your raw material stock runs out. Our primary energy source is stored in materials (coal, gas, oil) so the same argument applies to our energy. We'll run out of that too unless we renew it. It's that simple! A no brainer!

Fortunately for us, biology has figured out how to handle this situation with bells on. It’s obvious that any organism whose food runs out will die. So the species that can survive are the ones whose food is regenerated by the other creatures in the ecosystem in a never ending cycle. Of course, each creature must give its waste products back to the environment to feed the creatures that are feeding it! Every individual organism must eventually die so that all the species can live on. Such a network, called an ecosystem, arises spontaneously and within it every creature has evolved to live in the waste streams of the others. Of course, environments change and the ecosystems, which are very adaptable, can react to that.  We need to do the same for industry: circularise it as a priority and in such a way that it can adapt to changing demands without losing circularity. Then the economy can carry on forever, even if each product or service eventually terminates, or lots of them terminate simultaneously, which happens in an economic down turn.

CSF: How long have we been mimicking nature in our inventions?

CF: Since we first came down from the trees, and probably before that! The earliest concrete example I can think of is clothes. Animals have fur to keep warm and at some point we began to borrow their skin to keep warm. Later, we figured out how to make our own clothes from natural fibres and replaced animal furs with something more convenient, and thus was born fashion. Indeed, some cultures use bird plumage to reflect the status of an individual, just like birds do! I'm sure there are more ancient and better examples still – ask an archaeologist! The point is that biomimicry is hardly new.

The better we get at looking at biology the more creative we can be. Biology has had more than a billion trillion trillion ‘cell-years’ of experimental time to develop some very subtle and creative solutions.  By comparison modern humans have had ‘at the most’ 100 trillion human-years of experience in total (a billion humans x 100,000 years), most of which was spent arguing about who was the boss or who was going out with whom. A large chunk of this experience has been in the last 200 years.

Therefore, biology has way more experience at surviving under the planetary conditions than we do and I think we would do well to learn more before we destroy our ecosystems even more. I guess I feel about the human race the way a parent might feel about a child trying to stick their finger in the electricity socket. It makes me angry when I have to tell them for the umpteenth time not to do that!!

CSF: Can you provide some current examples in which we mimic nature?

CF: There's dozens! Flight is the obvious one. Velcro was inspired by seeds sticking to dog fur. There's some really interesting temperature control vanes on an exhibition building in Yeosu South Korea that was inspired by the way that petals open and close on a flower known as the Bird of Paradise; it’s called Flectofin, and due to way that the metal blades are creased you only need a tiny amount of energy to open and close the shutters on a huge building.  The ‘Technical Plant Stem’ is a strong, lightweight and flexible tube made using clever winding of bundles of polymer fibres at different angles that mimic the way that material is organised in bamboo, to give variable density cross-sections. There have been reduced mass water bottles, designed from the way that tree stems twist, that use less material, look cool and are stronger than conventional water bottles. Self-cleaning windows use nano-structures inspired by the self-cleaning lotus leaf. Water harvesting surfaces emulate the carapace of desert beetles. Surgical implements that mimic the ovipositor of various insects. There are many, many more!

CSF: What kind of biological materials do we currently use in technology or other areas?

CF: Some schools of biomimetism take a principle from biology and then apply that principle in different context such as the Flectofin or Technical Plant Stem described above.  I guess that the most widespread technologies involving actual biomaterials would include textiles and construction (silk, wood, wool, cotton, etc).  The most advanced mainstream product in consumer technology is probably enzymes in washing powders.

However, that is all about to change with the advent of synthetic biology. We will soon be able to engineer new kinds of materials for all kinds of applications – be that synthetic food, synthetic construction materials or synthetic textiles. My suggestion is that we may even be able to build hi-tech devices using this kind of technology and that's what my talk is all about. How far can we take biology in this direction?

CSF: How would mimicking biology eliminate pollution?

CF: Biology uses a limited palette of materials for all organisms whether they are trees, fungi, animals or otherwise. That facilitates the ability for networks of organisms to exchange materials via common reservoirs such as air, ocean and soil. What's super clever is that by combining the same few materials in different ways, like Lego, one can achieve a vast range of completely different functionalities from wood to bone or muscle to hair.  If we were to emulate such a process, we would have to reduce the number of materials and learn how to combine feedstocks in ever-cleverer ways to generate a vast diversity of products.  If the base materials that we selected were the same as the ones that biology used, then our waste products would enrich the environment instead of polluting it. So, really we don't have a choice about what materials we use either given that our natural environment is already dictated to us.

CSF: What other potential future applications could biomimicry have?

CF: How long is a piece of string? In the near future, biomimicry will be concentrating mainly on base materials and feedstock developments.  Medium future hi-tech applications will revolve around sensing and drug delivery. However, once we have developed actuation as well as sensing, then we will be able to make our materials behave with novel functionality, and then the scope for applications increases considerably. This question is a bit like asking what kind of apps will there be on smart phones in the future, on the day that the transistor was invented! We had no idea!

CSF: Will there a come a time when technology will be in complete harmony with biological systems?

CF: I hope so! But it won't happen on its own; it would have to be an intentional decision on the part of lawmakers.  It isn't going to happen merely because some people would pay more for products that protected nature.  Most people will pay the least for the product that suits their purpose, and if that product harms nature then they won't care, or even know about it. In other words, free market economics isn't going to make it happen as fast as it needs to. Conceivably free market economics could make it happen in the future when natural environments become a scarce resource. When we've destroyed most of the environments around us, people will pay a premium to live in emulated or conserved natural environments, and those environments will have special rules to preserve them that way and because people are paying a premium to live in those environments they will strictly observe the rules they need to, to keep it that way. My prediction is that living naturally will become a status symbol in a totally free market world. I point to the Chinese millionaire who just bought a chunk of land in the US before it is 'developed'.

I guess technology and nature would harmonise sooner if people had to pay for the cost of protecting nature as well as the cost of their product. One way of doing that would be through taxation or regulation; the cost of a taxation or regulation that forced a company to fix environmental damage would be passed on to consumers. Solutions that didn't damage the environment in the first place would then be cheaper than their evil cousins, and so everyone would win. Demand greener products from manufacturers!  My suggestion is that using biological materials and approaches might make it easier for companies to succeed under these conditions.

CSF: In the future, do you think machines and biology could merge entirely into one entity, for example in the film Terminator?

CF: Absolutely.  Biological cells are basically complicated machines. They take energy and do work on matter, just like a steam engine. If entropy doesn't increase over all they stop functioning. The same rules apply to technology as they do to biology.

One can think of this process going in two directions:  either human technology merging with nature or natural components merging with human technology.  Prosthetic limbs, implants, glasses and clothes are all examples of the former and things like microbes in yoghurt or beer production are an example of the latter.  Ultimately, we might get so good at synthetic biology that you can't really distinguish between living tissue and technology any more. One could conceive of entirely new organs, eyes that were sensitive to infrared or new glands for helping to metabolise poisons or produce synthetic drugs. A bioreactor in the basement to convert waste into useful materials and, instead of a fridge, a device that makes food in situ a bit like the replicators on the Star Ship enterprise.  A tiny step that has been proposed recently in this direction is a yoghurt containing bacteria that produces an excess of tryptophan to help treat depression.

At the moment, we use biology to produce individual drugs and chemicals; like alcohol in beer, or ethanol from cellulose in biofuel applications, but ultimately, we will be able to make bulk materials like wood and bone, and after that maybe our houses will be made from things like sea shell? Maybe if we can learn to sense and actuate these kinds of inorganic structural materials; we could then produce devices that grew and behaved like biology but stopped short of being alive, served our own purpose, and enriched the natural ecosystems in which they were embedded.