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Five Key Lessons from PMB 190: Biomimicry

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In Spring 2011, CNR offered the new University-wide seminar, “Biomimicry: How Would Nature Do That?” sponsored by Qualcomm. Tom McKeag, founder and president of BioDreamMachine, served as lecturer, and was assisted by faculty members Lewis Feldman (Plant and Microbial Biology) and Robert Full (Integrative Biology). Feldman said the class “aimed to take a problem-solver’s approach to viewing the treasure trove of ideas that exist in nature, and to analyze the opportunities and constraints that exist in the practice of bio-inspired design.”

Breakthroughs asked Feldman and McKeag to share Five Key Lessons they hope will stay with the students—and with you. According to McKeag, “Technologies that incorporate these approaches will have a decided advantage in a resource-limited world.”

1. Be self-sufficient: Provided with light, water, CO2, and a few basic minerals, plants are totally self-sufficient.Fungi come in three body plans. These include single cells, as in the yeasts; the filaments of the mushrooms and molds; and the flagellated cells of water molds, which resemble animal sperm.

2. Be responsive: Plants, rooted as they are in their environments, have developed many ways of sensing and measuring changes in their surroundings and conditions, and responding adaptively.

3. Surf for free: Organisms take advantage of existing thermodynamic pathways in order to optimize their metabolic success. Soaring birds, drifting larvae, even prairie dogs ride the waves.

4.Be energy-smart: When solving problems, nature tends to use information and structure more often than large amounts of (expensive) energy.

5. Solve for contradictions: Some of the cleverest designs in nature and technology resolve contradictions—for example, the high strength and low weight exhibited in bird bones. A fast path to innovation is to head straight for a problem’s central conflicts and try to solve them first.

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