Nature inspires innovation in students

February 9, 2009

Founder to present lecture as part of inaugural year of biomimicry-related activities

For the students in ASU’s InnovationSpace program, the ability to field academic curve balls is a course requirement.

For two semesters, upper-division majors in industrial design, visual communication design, business and engineering leap their disciplinary hurdles and team up to develop new product ideas. In the course of their studies, engineering students are introduced to such topics as product branding. Visual communication students attend lectures on supply-chain management. Product designers learn the ABCs of circuit boards and stress calculations.

But tutorials for students on butterfly coloration? Burdocks? Beetles?

Looking to nature for new ways to solve human problems is the foundation of an emerging discipline known as biomimicry. In the fall 2008 semester, InnovationSpace embarked on a major initiative to introduce the principles of biomimicry into the program’s curriculum.

As partners in this endeavor, the program enlisted biologists and engineers from the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute as well as biology graduate students from ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

“We recognize that consumer products are a major factor in environmental degradation,” says InnovationSpace project leader Prasad Boradkar. “Products often are manufactured in quantities numbering in the millions. From the factory floor to the landfill, they can have enormous downsides for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soils we cultivate. Nature provides students with a limitless – and largely untapped – reservoir of potential innovation. At the same time, it can inspire more benign ways of producing the products and services we need.”

InnovationSpace faculty members have used a combination of lectures, classroom workshops and studio consultations to introduce biomimicry to students. The goal is to help students make the leap from nature’s ways to applications in design, business and engineering.

Fortunately, ingenious examples are not hard to come by. The Australian company Pax Scientific, for example, manufactures fans that feature museum-quality design – and top engineering performance. The machines are 50 percent more energy efficient and 75 percent quieter than competing products in the marketplace. Their inspiration: the whorled pattern of a nautilus shell.

After studying the shape and skeletal structure of the boxfish, a common coral reef resident, engineers at Daimler Chrysler designed an aerodynamic automobile whose weight could be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without sacrificing performance. The car zooms from 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds.

Mimicking the surface structure of lotus leaves, one of the most water-repellant plants on Earth, manufacturers have developed a line of fabrics, paint and glass that are almost self-cleaning.

Some bio-inspired innovation is unfolding right on the ASU campus.

Take the work of Nate Morehouse, a biology graduate student who served as an InnovationSpace teaching assistant during the fall semester. His work on butterfly coloration has attracted the likes of Xerox Corp. Download Full Image

It turns out that the surface of a butterfly’s wings is covered with a series of ladderlike structures. Clustered on their rungs are tiny football shapes. To create vivid hues, some butterflies use these nano-sized configurations to manipulate light. This ability to create structural color interests businesses such as Xerox, which is looking for cheaper and more environmentally friendly ways to produce a brilliant chromatic palette.

The highlight of this inaugural year of biomimicry-related activities is a visit by biomimicry founder Janine Benyus, one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment for 2007. Benyus galvanized popular interest in biomimicry with her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.”

Through her Montana-based consultancy, the Biomimicry Guild, Benyus has brought biologists to the design table at organizations such as Boeing, Nike, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, S.C. Johnson, NASA, Patagonia and HOK, one of the world's largest architectural firms.

Benyus conducted an intensive workshop with InnovationSpace students, and delivered a public lecture Feb. 10 “What Would Nature Do? Biomimicry as a Path to Sustainability.”  The event was sponsored by InnovationSpace in cooperation with the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Officials at InnovationSpace plan to incorporate biomimicry as part of its core curriculum far beyond this kickoff year.

“Biomimicry will open our students’ eyes to the potential for innovation in the everyday world that surrounds them,” Boradkar says. “As Dieter Gurtler, one of Daimler Chrysler’s top engineers, puts it: ‘By looking at nature, you come up with ideas you could never have thought of on your own.’ ”

The InnovationSpace biomimicry initiative is supported by grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and ASU’s Pathways to Entrepreneurship program.

Lisa Robbins

editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Stroke drug might improve learning, memory

February 9, 2009

A drug used to improve blood flow to the brain also could help improve learning and memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study by a team of Arizona scientists, including two researchers from Arizona State University.

Hydroxyfasudil, also known as Fasudil, has been used for more than 10 years to help protect the brain in stroke patients by dilating blood vessels when blood flow is curtailed.

Now, a team of Arizona psychologists, geneticists and neuroscientists report in the current issue of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience that hydroxyfasudil improved spatial learning and working memory in middle-aged rats when negotiating a complicated maze. The findings suggest that hydroxyfasudil may be involved in similar cognitive processes in humans involving the hippocampus, a part of the brain that has been shown to decline in patients with age-related disorders.

“Fasudil shows great promise as a cognitive enhancer during aging,” said Heather Bimonte-Nelson, a co-author of the Behavioral Neuroscience paper and an ASU assistant professor of psychology. “The effects in our aging-animal model were robust, showing enhancements in both learning and two measures of memory. The possibility that these findings may translate to benefits to human brain health and function is very exciting.”

“If Fasudil proves to be safe and effective in enhancing learning and memory, it could represent a viable new option for the prophylactic treatment of disorders with a cognitive decline component,” said Matthew Huentelman, one of the authors and a member of TGen, Phoenix. “This could include diseases like Alzheimer’s, as well as general age-related impairment.”

Clinical trials are being explored in the areas of cognitive impairment and dementia, the researchers said.

Although far from proving anything about human use of the drug, the findings support the scientific quest for a substance that could treat progressive cognitive impairment, cushion the impact of aging, or even enhance learning and memory throughout one’s life span.

In the study, the researchers gave daily injections of hydroxyfasudil to middle-aged (17-18 months old) male rats, starting four days before behavioral testing and continuing throughout testing. Injection made it easy to give the drug to rats, but people take it in the form of a pill.

Rats were tested on a water radial-arm maze, which assessed how well they remembered which of the radiating arms had a reward, a sign of accurate spatial learning and working memory. Rats given a high dose of hydroxyfasudil successfully remembered more items of information than those given a low dose. Both dosed groups performed significantly better than control-group rats given saline solution. For every test of learning, the scores of the low-dose group fell between the scores of the no-dose and high-dose groups, meaning that learning and memory boosts depended on the size of the dose.

Fasudil, is known to protect the brain by dilating blood vessels when blood flow is curtailed. In the body, Fasudil breaks down into the more potent hydroxyfasudil molecule, which the authors hypothesize may alter memory by affecting the function of a gene called KIBRA. The authors recently demonstrated that KIBRA might play a role in memory in healthy young and late-middle-aged humans.

Hydroxyfasudil inhibits the activity of Rho-kinase enzymes, which have been shown to inhibit Rac, a vital protein that supports key cellular functions. The authors speculated that blocking Rho-kinase enables Rac, in turn, to activate more of an enzyme called protein kinase C-zeta, which may in turn affect the KIBRA protein.

Joshua Talboom, an ASU graduate student, was also part of the research team. Download Full Image

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications