Smart city

What the city of the future can learn from nature

  • 01 Jun
    2017
  • 20 min

Our species is young, and our technology even younger. The first hominids adopted a bipedal posture some three million years ago on the plains of east Africa and the 7.5 billion of us alive today are all descended from a small group of Homo Sapiens Sapiens who survived a major catastrophe only 300,000 years ago. These are only a few micro-seconds on the vast timescale since life began on earth. In the long chain of evolution, we are the latest link in that chain to emerge. So it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that organisms which are far older than us have, over many dozens of millions of years of evolution, developed biological technology that is superior to anything we have so far been capable of inventing. Retro-bio-engineering – based on bio-engineering and biomimicry – has its roots in this observation. Velcro, air conditioners, diving suits, robots, aerodynamics – all these inventions were directly inspired by nature. Today, researchers are studying how living organisms function, with a view to developing materials and machines with increasingly high performance and environmental sustainability.

RETRO-BIO-ENGINEERING – a mixture of bioengineering and biomimicry

feuilles

Shutterstock

Zero pollution

Our technology can replace city lighting and signage, light shop windows, and can be used in the events industry, reducing our environmental footprint almost to zero
Sandra Rey

Sandra Rey

The number of environmentally-friendly initiatives now being put forward by various startups and research laboratories is rising steadily. Up to now these have basically been about improving existing technology so as to limit their impact on the environment as far as possible, but today the focus is increasingly on bio-engineering, with the aim of coming up with new solutions to tomorrow’s challenges.

Recent progress in bioluminescence, which is far more innovative when it comes to lighting than photovoltaic systems are, is a good example of the current biomimicry revolution. French startup Glowee has developed a bio-inspired lighting system which represents a major step forward in reducing energy consumption worldwide, and slashing the associated CO2 emissions. By using the gene coding for bioluminescence for bacteria living in symbiosis with squid, Glowee has developed a source of light in the form of bioluminescent living matter. Over 90% of all marine organisms – including algae, jellyfish, squid, cuttlefish, shrimps and most fish – are bioluminescent, as are some land animals. Bioluminescence, invented by nature over a hundred million years ago, is a chemical reaction produced by an operon, i.e. a unit of functioning DNA that harnesses together specific genes for a particular purpose, in this case to produce light.

 GLOWEE light

glowee

The way the Glowee technology works is that specifically luminescent genes are inserted into common bacteria which are both non-toxic and non-pathogenic. Once the bacteria have been engineered and grown, they are encapsulated into a transparent shell, alongside a medium composed of the nutrients they need to live and make light. The shells light up automatically as soon as it starts to get dark. They can be used on any surface, in a lamp, on a wall, incorporated into clothes, and into the headlights of a car. This bio-engineering gives 100% natural light with zero pollution. Glowee light thus uses an infinitely cultivatable resource composed of micro-organisms which, just as in nature, are able to reproduce. Other renewable energies we have today are far from reaching this level of efficiency. Moreover, bacterial superpower is not restricted to providing us with a pollution-free lighting source. In the long term, the micro-organisms developed by Glowee could be used for complementary applications such as purifying wastewater and capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Repairing the environment 

As they are living organisms, bacteria are also well-suited to playing an active role in cleaning up ecosystems, whenever a specific useful property of the bacteria is identified. For instance, the Ideonella sakaiensis bacterium, discovered in 2016 by a team of researchers from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University in Japan, is able to break down and ‘consume’ polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – which, in spite of its human health hazards, is still used massively in the production of throwaway wrapping, bags, bottles, transparent film, prosthetics and credit cards. The deconstruction process takes just a few months, whereas it would normally take a minimum of four hundred years for a plastic bag to completely dissolve in water. Teresa McNulty, a researcher at the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University, explains that she was attracted to biomimicry because “sustainability is kind of built-in at the core.”

the IDEONELLA SAKAIENSIS bacterium

bactérie
Kyoto Institute of Technology
"Because nature has carried out trillions of parallel, competitive experiments for millions of years, its successful designs are dramatically more energy efficient than the inventions we've created in the past couple of hundred years.
jay harman

Jay Harman

Sequencing the Ideonella sakaiensis genome has identified two enzymes which are produced by the bacterium in the presence of plastic. The two enzymes actually work together. One starts to degrade the plastic, the other completes the job, breaking the plastic down into tiny fragments. This is a veritable plastic-eating machine, which opens up brand new opportunities for cleaning up our oceans, lakes and watercourses. In addition, this discovery leads scientists to believe that other bacteria might have similar qualities.

Meanwhile, the humble squid might be able to provide a solution for entirely replacing plastic as we know it today, i.e. a petrochemical-based material that pollutes all the ecosystems on our planet. The small sharp ‘teeth’ surrounding this marine animal’s suckers contain proteins called suckerins, which possess exceptional properties that can be used when developing revolutionary bio-materials. A team of researchers at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has demonstrated that suckerins arrange themselves in dense, solid, light networks which are thermoplastic, meaning that they melt when heated and harden again when cooled. This property makes the material resistant, mouldable and reusable like thermoplastic synthetic polymers, which are the components of plastics.

the squid’s tiny teeth

calamar
DR

A new age of technology

The Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her…, [it] has the potential to change the way we make materials and harness energy. It’s a radically new approach.
janine

Janine Benyus

Biomimicry is currently providing inspiration across a large number of industrial sectors: energy, transport, agriculture, communications, textiles, computing, medicine, design, and architecture. And there are already a huge number of practical applications – from the smartphone batteries developed by Seokheun Choi, Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, which charge up naturally using the Shewanella oneidensis bacterium; to the biodegradable car Lina, made for the most part from flax fibre; to the Airbus wing design based on revolutionary aerodynamics inspired by birds of prey. Meanwhile airline company Lufthansa is improving the aerodynamics of its aircraft by using a sharkskin-type coating on the wings to reduce air resistance and consequently lower fuel consumption. All these discoveries show how we can completely reshape our approach to technology and increase overall efficiency, by plugging directly into nature’s inventions.

By Arnaud Pagès
Journaliste indépendant, spécialisé dans les nouvelles technologies