Turning to Biomimicry: The Unrecognized Importance of Studying Animals

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Picture Credit: Jiuguang Wang | Snake Robot at Robotics Institute | 2011 | Flickr

What comes to mind when you think of biology and making a difference in the world? Cancer research, gene therapy, or the treatment of diseases are generally the most common responses since these fields never fail to generate public buzz. Unsurprisingly, most people probably didn’t think about the study of animals. Zoology is the field responsible for that objective. Or at least it used to be.

Truth be told, zoology is not an area of study that attracts much attention or respect. In the eyes of most people, studying animals for a living seems more like a hobby or even a career fantasy that a naive child would imagine having as an adult. Unless you want to work for a zoo, some might say, it’s silly and unrealistic. Working with animals just seems too much like playing and lacks the seriousness that biochemistry, genetics, and medicine entails. Even on the Internet, the most common answer to why one should study zoology is “because it’s fun.” Another common answer is “because we must protect endangered species.” Given these rather lukewarm responses, it’s no wonder that most people don’t associate zoology with making an impact in the world.

Yet despite signs of zoology’s rapidly fading reputation, the study of animals is still going strong. It just happens to fall under a plethora of different names.

“Zoology is already dead,” stated John Long, Jr., a biology and cognitive science professor at Vassar College. “This old field has been pulled apart and its pieces put into new disciplines like biomimicry, animal behavior, evolution, biomechanics, biorobotics, […and etc.] While we call the study of animals ‘zoology,’ no one calls themselves a ‘zoologist’ anymore.”

While the term “zoology” is now considered outdated, the study of animals has spread across a wide range of different fields from robotics to cognitive science. Scientists and engineers alike have started to use animals to learn more about the workings of machines and the world. This integration has led to more far-reaching contributions to society than one might expect. Of the many categories, two main fields come to mind: robot biomimicry and animal-inspired innovations.

Robot biomimicry refers to machines or robots that imitate the structure and behavior of real animals in a way that takes advantage of that animal’s survival skill. Scientists and engineers study the design and mechanics behind different animals and attempt to make a simpler yet more efficient copies of the mechanism. For example, a team of scientists at Stanford researched how geckos use their toes to climb vertically in order to design a robot that can easily scale walls. A gecko’s toe contains hundreds of flap-like ridges, each of which has millions of tiny hairs with even tinier split ends. This special feature allows geckos to utilize weak attractive or repulsive forces called “van der Waals” forces in order to stick to walls and ceilings on a molecular level. Using an adhesive that incorporates the same strategy, the Stanford team is currently building robots that can climb rough concrete as well as smooth glass surfaces, making them perfect for reaching places that humans cannot normally access.

Similarly, roboticist Howie Choset of Carnegie Mellon University teamed up with researchers to study the locomotion of sidewinders, a species of desert snakes, to build a robot that can travel across rough terrains without getting stuck in ruts. By studying patterns in a sidewinder’s movements, Choset and his team not only built a robot that can help archaeologists explore dangerous archaeological sites, but they also learned more about the snake species in general.

On the other hand, animal-inspired designs use aspects of certain animals to improve something we already have. For instance, scientists at Harvard University have looked into why humpback whales are so agile in the water despite weighing more than 60,000 pounds. They later found that the bumps on the whale’s flippers allow whales to swim with great speed and flexibility. Excited with their discovery, the team designed turbine blades with similar bumps that were so effective at reducing drag, that Canada’s largest producer of ventilation fans licensed the design. This animal-inspired innovation will also be applied to transportation devices. For example, improvements can be made to stabilize airplanes and boost the speed of submarines.

Of course, there are countless other stories of researchers inspired by the creativity found in animals. In Japan, the design of a kingfisher bird’s bill was studied to improve the country’s famous bullet trains. Boat companies around the world are researching shark skin to design boats that are both faster and self-cleaning. Some experts even believe that examining the bioluminescence from fireflies or deep-sea squids could lead to an eco-friendly replacement of public street lamps. Studying animals allows us to use nature as our guide to create revolutionary designs and products. Every species possesses a unique survival mechanism or trait molded by countless centuries of evolution, and many of these could benefit humanity in unimaginable ways. Tapping into this rich reserve of creativity is our way to find new ideas when our own brainstorming comes up dry.

With all this promise, why does the study of animals suffer from such a dearth of public awareness and excitement? It could be because so many people maintain the stereotype that working with animals is synonymous to just playing with them. The preconception of this type of work as a lackadaisical, frivolous endeavor unfortunately remains deeply embedded in society.

Surprisingly, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the study of animals and environmentalism. In his essay, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”, historian Richard White affirms that the public disdain towards environmentalism stems from its perceived detachment from work. Whether it’s logging, mining, or ranching, many environmentalists protest these encroaching forms of industry and argues that nature should be left pristine and untouched. While the popular slogan of “save the forest” isn’t a bad message, prioritizing the purity of a piece of land over the livelihood of other people has left a negative impression of the movement as a whole. It sends a disturbing signal that a person’s right to enjoy nature and its beauty overrules a person’s will to work in order to feed a family and find success. As White remarks, “Nature has become an arena for human play and leisure. Saving an old-growth forest or creating a wilderness area is certainly a victory for some of the creatures that live in those places, but it is just as certainly a victory for backpackers and a defeat for loggers. It is a victory for leisure and a defeat for work.”

Although White’s paper had stirred up some controversy among environmentalists, there has been a noticeable shift towards environmental work that directly benefits society. Environmentalism now provides a larger focus towards chemical tests on water sources and technology that benefits both nature and humans. As White had stated in his paper, environmentalists have to promote a form of environmentalism that directly promotes the progress of society for the movement to be taken seriously.

Similarly, the study of animals is currently going down the same path. In accordance with the rise of new animal-inspired inventions, a greater focus towards benefiting society may change the public outlook on the field. Thus, we should promote discussions on creative solutions inspired by nature rather than place emphasis on how fun it is to work with animals. Answering how and why different animals survive and flourish in a world ruled by natural selection could inspire wonder within people and ultimately ignite public interest.

After all, research into animals is perhaps humankind’s greatest source of ingenuity and imagination. With it, revolutionary ideas infused with the genius of nature await humankind in the future.

Originally published on April 23, 2016, in Boilerplate MagazineWhen Humans Don’t Have All the Answers – A Turn to Biomimicry

A Bright, Eco-Friendly Future: Bioluminescence as Our Next Light Source

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Picture Credit: Lit by Bioluminescence | Glowee

Imagine a world where the streets glow with a dreamlike shade of blue as if you’re walking in the presence of ethereal spirits wandering the city. While that image sounds too mythical to be real, one start-up company is working to create this otherworldly environment for the future. Glowee, a French company planning on harnessing the power of bioluminescent bacteria, has officially debuted after successfully crowd-funding in May 2015. Their goal: to replace the electric street lamps of France with blue microbial lamps.

Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to generate light in the dark. This is different from fluorescence, which involves absorbing light from an external source and immediately re-emitting a modified version of that light. While fluorescence is a physical process, bioluminescence is a chemical one that occurs due to an enzyme, luciferase. In the biochemical reaction, luciferase catalyzes the light-emitting pigment luciferin with oxygen in order to create light. For humans, bioluminescence has the potential to be­come a valuable source of renewable energy.

Consider the latest global push towards reduc­ing CO2 emissions and fighting climate change. At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders came to an agreement that everyone must do everything they can to cut down our energy consumption. While politicians can promise to limit emissions, real progress cannot occur with­out a viable green energy solution. Rather than an immediate transition to green energy, what if we tackled the problem one chunk at a time? This is where inspirations from nature and the creativity of science mesh together. For instance, biolumi­nescence doesn’t require any electricity to pro­duce light. Given this fact, researchers are investi­gating engineered bioluminescence as a possible alternative to regular street lighting.

Replacing electric lamps with bioluminescent ones may seem almost trivial in the face of cut­ting global energy consumption, but reducing the number of public street lamps is a very necessary first step. In truth, lighting up the streets every night is an incredibly expensive task. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. spent a total of $11 billion on outdoor lighting in 2012, 30 percent of which went to waste in areas that didn’t use or need that light. Furthermore, a recent research study determined that there are currently about 300 million total streetlights around the world and that num­ber will grow to 340 million by 2025. With such severe drawbacks that come with electrical lighting, the use of bioluminescent light is a way to alleviate some if not most of that cost.

Today, the race to find the best form of engi­neered bioluminescence continues to bring us various creative inventions and solutions. At Syr­acuse University, a small team of scientists led by Rabeka Alam discovered a way to chemically at­tach genetically-altered luciferase enzymes from fireflies directly onto the surface of nanorods to make them glow. In a process they called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), the nanorod produces a bright light whenever the luciferase enzyme interacts with the fuel source and can produce different colors depending on the size of the rod. According to one scientist on the team, “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be in­serted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

On the other side of the world, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has been working to­gether with the tech company Bioglow to create bioluminescent trees to light up the streets. Incorporating important re­search from the University of Cambridge, Roose­gaarde and his team spliced DNA containing the light-emitting properties from bioluminescent organisms into the chloroplasts of plants. As a re­sult, those plants can produce both luciferase and luciferin that allows them to glow at night.

For Glowee, the plan is to harness biolumines­cence by using Aliivibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria found in certain marine animals like the Hawaiian bobtail squid. They first produce a gel containing the bioluminescent bac­teria along with various nutrients that keep the bacteria alive. Then, the gel is used to fill small, transparent containers, allowing the light to glow through. This method not only makes the light source wireless but also customizable depending on its purpose and design. These bioluminescent lamps would certainly appeal to shop owners in France, especially since the French government recently passed a law that forces all businesses to turn off their lights at 1 a.m. to fight light pollution.

Unfortunately, despite countless efforts towards perfecting engineered bioluminescence, it may still be a long while before our streets are lit by genetically-altered plants or bacteria. The two main obstacles in this endeavor are the rel­atively dim nature of the lights as well as their short lifespan. Even with Glowee’s bio-lights, the company’s current prototype can only produce light up to three days. Some argue that the cost and production of these bioluminescent products greatly overshadow their benefits, saying that such eco-friendly alternatives can never catch up to electrical lighting. While there may be lim­itations, all these projects by businesses and in­stitutions signify the public’s growing desire for real change.

A lot of these projects were funded not by the government but by Kickstarter and other funding platforms. Perhaps many of the backers were just mesmerized by the aesthetic appeal, but the public nevertheless recognizes the potential behind engineered bioluminescence. With continuous effort and scientific innovation, a town or a neighbor­hood powered by living organisms instead of electricity can be a reality. By following the ghost­ly blue light ahead, we would take a tremendous first step towards a world where humans and na­ture can truly coexist.

Originally published on March 30, 2016, in The Miscellany News: Scientists note perks of bioluminescence

Losing Our Last Resort: The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

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Picture Credit: Bubonic Plague Bacteria | The National Library of Medicine

As we head into 2016, we have much to feel grateful for in this modern age. Technological marvels such as computers and high-speed Internet define an era of advancement that has exponentially sped up our society’s growth and capabilities. But amidst this impressive and fast-paced development, one crucial feature of humankind’s modern society is perilously close to collapsing. Of the many things we take for granted in the 21st century, protection against bacteria probably ranks the highest in terms of human impact. Of course, given our track record against such killer pathogens, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Our species has lost repeatedly to plagues and disease since the start of human history. Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms are our oldest enemy.

When it comes to fatal illnesses, a large portion of human history was spent without an adequate solution. In Europe, terrors such as the Bubonic Plague brought death to every door and we had no way of fighting back. It wasn’t until 1796 that our first real counterattack came with the invention of vaccines by English physician Edward Jenner. About 120 years later, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, a powerful antibiotic produced by the blue Penicillium fungi, cementing our defenses against the pathogens and saving millions of lives.

But the bad news is that we only thought we vanquished our invisible adversaries. In fact, they have only gotten stronger. You see, microorganisms like bacteria are not like fearsome monsters that disappear once you slay them. They’re much tinier, but there are so many of them that they are almost impossible to completely eradicate. And thanks to evolution, the ones that survive due to some bizarre mutation multiply uncontrollably until we’re faced with an upgraded version of our old foe. Every time this has happened in the past, scientists have responded with stronger, more toxic antibiotics, which deadly bacteria eventually thwart. Thus, advancements in antibiotics have always led to more resistant bacterial strains with new ways to survive, causing an endless microbiological arms race that’s becoming more tenacious with each cycle.

So, how long until our microbial enemies catch up to our highly sophisticated, advanced medicine? A hundred years? Two hundred? Actually, they already have. In a recent study conducted this year, a team of experts in China discovered strains of E.coli bacteria in livestock that could not be killed by antibiotics. Normal, right? Except the antibiotics in question were polymyxins, a class of antibiotics that have remained effective for the past sixty years since its discovery. These drugs represent the most potent of our arsenal against bacterial infections, our “last resort,” and they have proven to be useless against this new, impervious strand.

Upon further investigation, the team identified the gene responsible as MCR-1. Unfortunately, they also found this gene in 15% of the meat samples from food markets and 21% of livestock in Southern China over the span of four years. Even worse, the E.coli with this gene has already moved onto humans. Of the 1,322 samples from patients with bacterial infections, 16 of them had the MCR-1 gene.

According to Mark Woolhouse, a Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria are already causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people every year. Taking the spread of the MCR-1 gene into consideration, that number will surely increase in the future. This could very well start an era of “pandrug-resistant” bacteria or, as some others have called it, the “antibiotic apocalypse.”

But how did this become such a widespread problem so quickly? It turns out that the MCR-1 gene is found on plasmids, a mobile form of DNA that can jump from one organism to another. Therefore, bacteria can easily spread this gene to other bacteria through a process called horizontal gene transfer, which is the primary reason why antibiotic resistance is a problem in the first place. This is an awfully serious development since bugs like E.coli are “the most common form of hospital-acquired infection.” Scientists worry that there may soon come a time when more patients become ill from bacterial infections and doctors won’t be able to do a thing about it.

To emphasize, this isn’t just some isolated, freak incident. A study from 2011 similarly found that the number of cases involving bacteria resistant to carbapenems, one of strongest type of antibiotics in our possession, has increased dramatically from just 3 cases in 2003 to 333 cases in 2010. That’s an increase of over 11,000% in just 7 years.

Experts have been worrying about this day since they realized bacteria could adapt to penicillin. Sure, scientists can just make a new, even stronger antibiotic, but unfortunately, we have long since passed the age of rapid antibiotic development — in fact, we’ve fallen several decades behind. In truth, our advancement in medicine has been steadily slowing down to a plateau, and bacteria have finally caught up and passed us.

It is rather ironic that this terrible news came in the middle of the first World Antibiotic Awareness Week. Just when this global campaign was trying to raise awareness and encourage strict regulations on antibiotics, this study further shows the urgency of the situation. But as much as this crisis seemed inevitable, it really wasn’t. Just as in any story with a moral, we essentially did this to ourselves. Almost every one of us contributed to this situation without even being aware of it. Because you see, the main reason why everything spiraled out of control was because of our love of meat.

It turns out that we have been using antibiotics beyond recklessly in the agriculture industry. According to reports, farmers around the world feed 63,000 tonnes of antibiotics to pigs, cattle, and chicken every year. That number is estimated to grow by 67% to 106,000 tonnes by 2030. That’s right: we have been feeding humanity’s most powerful antibiotics, our last resort against disease, into the mouths of livestock by the truckload. This is because people all over the world have been growing more prosperous in recent years, causing them to buy more meat products. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), people in developing countries “now eat 50 per cent more meat per person, on average, than they did in 1983.” Livestock– including fish as well as eggs and dairy since they also come from livestock– has become a fast-growing market that we no longer can live without or get enough of.

Thanks to skyrocketing demand, quick and efficient factory farms have become the norm. In order to keep the animals alive and fat, these farms feed them high doses of antibiotics. A whopping 80% of antibiotics consumed in the United States go towards livestock and America is only in second place. On the list of excessive antibiotics use, China is the worst offender, consuming 50% more than the U.S. with a total of 15,000 tonnes per year, and that number is projected to double by 2030. India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria are all showing a worrisome upward trend in antibiotic use as well.

Even if countries started banning the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock, it’s too late to preserve antibiotics that already exist. Epidemiologists compare that to “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.” By the time resistant bacteria are multiplying in humans (which they are), the problem is way beyond the control of farmers.

There are other contributors to this problem besides livestock. Any unnecessary use of antibiotics only serves to further tip the scale in favor of deadly bacteria. Careless use of antibiotics to treat colds and the flu contribute to antibiotic resistance, since those sicknesses are caused solely by viruses, not bacteria. Overall, it seems lack of knowledge is the biggest factor in all this. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that 64% of everyday people who thought they knew about antibiotic resistance believed that antibiotics could be used for colds and the flu.

However, our doom isn’t quite sealed yet. Despite the grim forecast, experts still say that rigorously limiting the use of antibiotics could help greatly. The US Food and Drug Administration states that while banning antibiotics in animals may not stop all resistant strains, it can prevent bacterial infections like Salmonella, which sometimes infects meat, eggs, and dairy, from reaching the same danger levels. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise people to take their antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes them, to never share leftover antibiotics, and to not ask for antibiotics if the doctor doesn’t think they’re necessary.

While the situation does look bleak now, it still holds more hope than it did before the creation of vaccines and penicillin. Unlike before, we have weapons and defenses that stand a chance against one of the most powerful forces of nature. Under a united effort, humankind can still achieve a turnabout of miraculous proportions.

Originally published on January 28, 2016, in Boilerplate Magazine: Losing Our Last Resort

The Contagious Nature of Cancer

 

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Picture Credit: Richard Harris | Soft-Shell Clams | 2015 | KERA News

 

If there is one word that strikes fear into peo­ple’s hearts and conveys a haunting image of sickness and death, it’s cancer. According to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and the International Agency for Re­search on Cancer (IARC), this disease is a glob­al epidemic that kills 7.6 million people every year, 4 million of whom are below the age of 69. Even worse, experts predict that the death toll is projected to increase to 6 million lives per year by 2025. Scientists are continuing to pursue different fields of research that can shed new light on the nature of this deadly disease. Recently, experts have come across a horrifying discovery: cancer may be contagious.

With every new insight bringing us closer to putting an end to cancer, this finding proves to be a terrifying yet valuable piece of infor­mation. This discovery originated in the 1970s when scientists were puzzled by the outbreak of leukemia in soft-shell clams along the east coast of North America. They found that this type of cancer could be spread to healthy clams by injecting them with the blood of cancer-stricken clams. For decades, research­ers concluded that a virus was transmitting the cancer. It wasn’t until 2015 that a team of experts lead by Stephen Goff from Columbia University finally pinpointed the answer: the cancer itself was spreading to other clams. This meant that the clam leukemia originated from a single host and somehow gained the ability to survive and thrive in other hosts.

As the second leading cause of death in the U.S., a top cause worldwide, cancer was thought to have a single saving grace: its non-infectious nature. While a tumor may outwit all attempts to stop its growth in a patient, the cancer ul­timately dies with its host, unable to infect another victim. However, the idea of cancer being transferred to new hosts is nothing new. In 1964, researchers at the National Cancer In­stitute performed an experiment where they harvested cancer cells in hamsters and injected them into healthy hamsters to encourage the cancer’s evolution. After numerous cy­cles, the tumor developed into a “super tumor” that could spread from hamster to hamster, without a needle, through social contact.

Regarding human cases, there have been a handful of documented cases where doctors, surgeons, and laboratory work­ers accidentally pricked themselves with a sur­gical instrument infected with cancer cells and had tumors proliferate in the wounded area. In almost all these cases, the infected person had to undergo emergency surgery before the tumor grew out of control.

However, these examples were extremely rare, freak incidents caused by accidents and human tampering. Cancer isn’t known for spreading naturally. It may be triggered by a carcinogenic chemical, bacteria or a virus, but the actual cancer cells shouldn’t be able to move from host to host like a pathogen. Yet, with the discovery of the clam leukemia’s contagious nature, the number of known exceptions to this commonly-held belief has increased to three.

The other two exceptions belong to dogs and Tasmanian devils, an aggressive species of marsupial found in Australia. For dogs, the tumor cells are physically transmitted during sexual contact where the tearing of genital tissues provide a bridge for the cancer . This condition, called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT), originated 11,000 years ago from a single dog and has been circulating ever since. With Tasmanian devils, a cancer known as Devil facial tumor (DFT) disease has been spreading as they fight and bite each other’s faces. Having emerged from a single source, this contagious cancer has been completely ravaging the Tas­manian devil population and has ultimately put them on the endangered-species list.

What makes the clam leukemia worrying is that, unlike dogs or Tasmanian devils, this type of cancer is not spread through physical con­tact. Instead, it’s speculated that the clams are drawing in floating cancer cells as they sieve food from the water. It may not be a quick or efficient way for cancer cells to transmit themselves to other hosts, but it’s bound to happen eventually. Goff and his team are already in search of other species that are affected by cancer spread in a similar man­ner. They have already found similar instances in other mollusks in European waters as well as a contagious cancer that affects cockles.

It is terrifying to imagine cancer evolving into a transmissible contagion, especially one that can get into our water supply and cause tumors through contaminated drinking water. However, scientists have relieved fears, stating that no case of cancer naturally transferring to humans has been observed and that transmissible cancers still remain very rare. In addition, natural immunity in humans prevents hu­man-to-human cancer transmissions.

However, what’s worrying is that this scientific revela­tion is just one addition to a growing trend of cases on contagious cancer. In 2013, a man from Medellin, Colombia was diagnosed with can­cer thanks to the spread of cancer cells from a cancer-ridden tapeworm inhabiting the man’s body. On November 2015, scientists study­ing DFT disease found a second type of con­tagious cancer in the Tasmanian devils, mark­ing the discovery of two transmissible cancers within just 30 years.

Whether or not cancer is truly contagious to humans, it’s important to keep track of the progress being made in this field of research. Any development may cause huge shock-waves in the scientific community and prepare us for a grim future ahead. Even if cancer can’t be spread from person to person, researching how tumors are spread in animals can provide more insights on its mechanism and prevention. Whichever direction this research takes, the scientific community should bring more focus on this issue and expand its efforts in finding answers. The idea of contagious cancer may be frightening, but more extensive study could ultimately yield new insights and perhaps even the eternally sought-after cure.

Originally published on March 2, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch reveals implications of clam cancer