ABC science news: Learning from the genius of nature

Today I talked with The Age crossword setter and Letters & Numbers dictionary expert David Astle about all things nature on ABC Melbourne 774.


Listen from 1:10:23 at [expired]

Discovery inspired by nature a.k.a biomimicry is one of my absolute favourite topics. The gist is that nature has already solved many of the problems humans grapple with in the worlds of science, design, medicine, engineering, and business; and that it has 3.8 billion years of research and development under its belt. And maybe by applying a little humility, curiosity and creativity we can learn a thing or two from nature.


Could mosquitoes actually be useful?

We usually tend think of blood-sucking insects like mosquitos as irritating, disease-ridden and in some cases deadly. But maybe we should give them at least a little credit because they have actually inspired some beneficial new research led by the University of Sydney.


Scientists have known for some time that mosquito saliva contains a protein that prevents blood from clotting (even though this is just so they can drink more of our blood). But until now, they haven’t been able to effectively replicate this anti-clotting behaviour in the lab.

This new research has found that by modifying a protein that occurs in mosquito saliva with a sulfate, they can replicate this anti-clotting effect.

Why this is cool?

This modified protein has shown to be 100 times more effective than the non-modified proteins and opens the door to new, safe drugs that can be used to treat conditions like deep vein thrombosis, stroke and other blood clot related diseases.

Research is still lab-based though, so it may be some time before we see mosquito spit-based blood thinners on the market.

Sexual dimorphism = extinction?

This story isn’t actually about biomimicry, but I reckon the findings could definitely lead to some biomimetic applications in the human world.

New research from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has indicated that the where there is a bigger difference between the males and females of a species, the greater the risk of extinction for that species. Think the large, bright plumages exhibited by male peacocks compared to their far more demure female counterparts, or the pronounced difference in size between male and female elephant seals.



The causes are still being investigated but one idea is that it takes a lot of energy to build large, ornamental traits usually exhibited in the animal world in order to attract a mate – energy that may be better suited to adapting to the challenges of a changing environment.

Maybe humanity could learn something from this example. Perhaps we can exert less energy on accumulating assets to impress the people around us and instead put more focus into adapting to the challenges of our own changing environment ... and climate.