The Secrets of Life Database
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  • Seals, whales, walruses and little mummy all happily splash about in the chilly ocean
    kept warm by a thick layer of blubber. Sea otters, however, are just as happy swimming in freezing waters, even though they are quite streamlined.

    The secret is their amazing fur coats – roughly 1,000 times more dense than human hair – which traps air bubbles and insulates the creature from the cold.

    No one had ever studied the fur’s mechanics, until a team of researchers at MIT examined otter and beaver fur. Their results could herald a range of new bio-inspired materials, including furry wetsuits!

    The researchers found that individual otter hairs hold air between them trapping warm pockets of air.

    Currently, wetsuits are made of heavy rubber materials, but if you could make a suit from a textile that traps the same thickness of air as the thickness of a typical rubber suit, it would be ten times as insulating and significantly more lightweight.

  • One scientist thinks he’s found part of the solution to our energy crisis deep in the ocean. Frank Fish (his real name!), a fluid dynamics expert and marine biologist at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, noticed something remarkable about the flippers of humpback whales. Humpbacks have cricketball-size bumps on the forward edge of their limbs, which cut through the water and allow whales to glide through the ocean with great ease. But according to the rules of hydrodynamics, these bumps should put drag on the flippers, ruining the way they work.

    Professor Fish decided to investigate. He put a 12-foot model of a flipper in a wind tunnel and watched, amazed.The bumps, called tubercles, made the flipper even more aerodynamic. It turns out that they were positioned in such a way that they actually broke the air passing over the flipper into pieces, like the bristles of a brush running through hair. Fish’s discovery, now called the “tubercle effect,” not only applies to fins and flippers in the water, but also to wings and fan blades in the air.

    Based on his research, Fish designed bumpy-edge blades for fans, which cut through air about 20 percent more efficiently than standard ones. He’s now launched a company called Whalepower to manufacture them and will soon begin licensing its energy-efficient technology to improve fans in industrial plants and office buildings around the world. But Fish’s big fish is wind energy. He believes that adding just a few bumps to the blades of wind turbines will revolutionize the industry, making wind power more valuable than ever.

  • The suckers of an octopus’s tentacles are highly sensitive wonderful pieces of machinery. So much so that scientists are studying them in relation to one of the most delicate areas of surgery: soft tissue transplantation.

    This is the process in which organs and tissues are moved from one part of the body to another — either within the same person or between a donor and a recipient — to restore essential bodily functions or even to save lives.
    At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, U.S., researchers watched the way an octopus picks up both wet and dry objects of all shapes, using small pressure changes in its suckers. This led them to create what they call a manipulator, which looks a bit like a tiny sink plunger!

    The ‘suction’ end is flat and has a temperature-responsive layer of soft hydrogel (a bit like thick jelly). It is attached to an electric heater in the handle. When the heater is turned on, the hydrogel warms up, which makes it shrink. The hydrogel is then pressed against a sheet of tissue that doctors want to pick up and the heater is turned off. As a result, the hydrogel expands again and, in a movement rather like that of the octopus, it creates suction. The tissue is then lifted and gently placed on the target.
    The heater is switched on again, making the hydrogel shrink and release the sheet. The entire process takes about ten seconds, which is an astonishing 180 times faster than normal — all thanks to an octopus’s sucker. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a fascinating area of research.

  • Tiny snow flea’s transplant power Snow fleas aren’t actually fleas —they don’t bite and they are actually very good for the environment! You’re more likely to notice them during the winter months, when they can be seen jumping around on snow. Snow fleas can survive sub-zero temperatures without freezing and contain a secret that could extend the ‘shelf life’ of organs used for transplants.

    Normally, the cold makes ice crystals form inside the cells of plants and animals. When these crystals grow, they draw water out of the surrounding cells, which destroys their structure, ultimately killing the cell.
    However, snow fleas contain unique molecules called antifreeze proteins (AFPs) which stop cell damage when things get a little too chilly by lowering the freezing point of the water in the cells.

    After studying snow fleas, scientists have now managed to develop synthetic AFPs. These could be critical in preserving organs for transplant surgery. AFPs (if injected into the organs, for example) would allow them to be stored at lower temperatures without them freezing.

    With thousands of people waiting for a transplant — it’s estimated there are currently 7,000 in the UK — the ability to transport organs farther afield, or being able to store them for longer periods, is vital. As well as its potential for use in organ transplants, the researchers suggest it could help to increase frost resistance in plants, and inhibit crystallization in frozen foods.

  • Rich in nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen, whale faeces help to fertilise the upper waters of the ocean and provide the starting point for marine food chains across the world. However, with whale populations reduced to as little as 5% of their historic levels by the impact of whaling, there simply isn’t enough to go around.

    To prevent the oceans from being caught short, an international team of researchers are set to release artificial whale poo into the Indian Ocean in the coming months, according to New Scientist.

  • Close-up views of the side and top of harbour seal whiskers reveal that they are not circular, but wavy and elliptical. Seals have an incredible ability to track their prey underwater thanks to the unique geometry of their whiskers. When a seal swims forward, the animal’s whiskers did not appear to vibrate, as most cylindrical objects do.

    Recreating the complex shape of Seal whiskers have inspired cheaper and more effective flow sensors for unmanned underwater vehicles that could monitor currents and detect disturbances in the water.
    Engineer, Aidan Rinehart, said. “There’s some really amazing things happening in nature, and we don’t even really know most of the time.”

    When water flows around an irregular structure, it forms a lazy zigzag wake that makes the structure rattle. These vibrations damage almost everything put in the water, from the columns of wind turbines to the risers on oil rigs, and they cost a fortune—British Petroleum estimates that countering the damage eats up 10% of their multi-billion dollar budget for deep-sea projects.

    The proportions of the whisker, produced by millions of years of natural selection, were precisely what several different groups of engineers had calculated to be ideal for reducing vibration. Evolution and human problem solving had collided at the same solution.
    Research published by Cleveland, Ohio, engineers explains how a seal’s whiskers could teach us how to build bridge struts and oil wells that last longer underwater.

    Findings from the research could also help reduce the cost of building wind turbine towers.

  • Many studies have shown scorpion venom to be effective as a pain reliever and as a treatment for illnesses such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, certain types of cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Some scorpion venom has antibacterial properties too. The venom can kill bacteria like staphylococcus and also drug-resistant strains of the tuberculosis bacteria. Scorpion venom is also being used to attack the malaria parasites found inside mosquitos.

    Researchers created “tumour paint” by attaching fluorescent molecules to scorpion venom. When they bind to cancer cells, they essentially light them up, allowing doctors to precisely locate and assess the extent of malignant growths in the body. The medication selectively binds to brain tumour cells but not to healthy cells in the case of brain tumours. This permits brain surgeons to see malignant tissue more easily during surgery. The toxin produced by the ‘deathstalker’ Scorpion allows researchers to see clumps of cancer just 200 cells large – making it 500 times more sensitive than MRI scans.

    A new robot has been built to extract venom faster and more safely than ever before. Mouad Mkamel and his team of reserachers designed the robot and explains “It is designed to extract scorpion venom without harming the animal and to provide more safety for the experimenters.”

    Scorpion venom is one of the most precious materials in the world – a gallon would cost about $39 million to produce. Researchers are focused on identifying the crucial ingredients in the venom and producing it in a synthetic form.

  • Jellyfish have already inspired ideas for bird-safe wind turbines and artificial hearts, but now a team of researchers has studied jellyfish’s tentacles to design a better way to capture dangerous cancer cells roving through the human bloodstream. Jellyfish use long tentacles, or arms with sticky patches, to snag tiny prey. Observing this, inspired scientists to design a device that latches onto proteins found in certain leukemia cells as well as in lung and colon cancers.

    Identifying metastatic cancer cells earlier would help doctors personalise their patients’ treatment. And for leukemia patients, it could one day help doctors to judge if a treatment is working without resorting to painful bone-marrow sampling.

  • The Black Butterfly, with wings that are very efficient at absorbing rather than reflecting light, could be the key to boosting the efficiency of a promising type of lower cost photovoltaic technology which converts sunlight into electrical energy.
  • Butterfly wings have inspired the colour displays for e-readers. Qualcomm created the first full-colour, video-friendly e-reader prototype based on the way butterfly wings can still gleam in the brightest sunlight. The display, known as Mirasol, works by reflecting light, instead of transmitting light from behind the screen the way LCD monitors do. The screen can be read in bright sunlight and has longer battery life too! Butterfly wings have also inspired: high-tech textiles, self-cleaning surfaces, cosmetics, and security tags.
  • Spider silk is one of nature’s most amazing materials. It’s five times stronger than steel by weight. Spider silk is both elastic and lightweight. It must be sticky in certain areas to catch prey, and non-sticky in others to allow the spider to run across it. Scientists have recently developed a medical device that mimics this property: a flexible, sticky tape that can be peeled away from an injury without hurting the tissue beneath. The adhesive material could be beneficial for attaching tubes or sensors to newborn babies and on the elderly’s delicate skin.

    But here’s a brief list of all the other inventions spider’s silk have inspired!
    • Bullet-proof clothing.
    * Wear-resistant lightweight clothing.
    * Ropes, nets, seat belts, parachutes.
    * Rust-free panels on motor vehicles or boats.
    * Biodegradable bottles.
    * Bandages, surgical thread.
    * Artificial tendons or ligaments, supports for weak blood vessels.

  • Scientists aiming to document the effects of climate change in the icy waters of Greenland’s Baffin Bay sought the assistance of narwhals, the so-called “unicorns of the ocean” noted for their single 9-foot tusks and ability to survive freezing water.
    Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the University of Washington, and her colleagues fitted thermometers and satellite transmitters to 14 narwhals and followed them while they spent the winter in the Bay in 2010. The resulting data set was the most thorough collection of water temperature data for the area ever collected. Until now, this has been difficult to accurately study.
  • Scientists believe that sharks could inspire a new type of surface that can attack bacteria. Researchers have designed a coating that is infused with antimicrobial agents with the patterned diamond-like texture of shark skin.
    Fighting bacteria is an ongoing battle, resulting in more than 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths in the USA every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    Sharklet AF™ is a coating designed to mimic a shark’s skin reducing the ability of bacteria to adhere to surfaces. The shark skin surfaces with TiO2 nanoparticles exposed to UV light for one hour killed off over 95 percent of E. coli and 80 percent of Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Giraffes have discovered a solution to a condition that kills millions of people each year: high blood pressure. Scientists are only beginning to understand their secrets, which include compressed organs, changed heart rhythms, blood storage — even the biological equivalent of support stockings.
    Giraffes naturally have extremely high blood pressure which would create all kinds of issues in humans, including heart failure, kidney failure and swelling in the legs. This is due to their extremely long necks, which means their heart has to pump blood has a long way, fighting against gravity.
    In people, chronic high blood pressure causes a thickening of the heart muscles. The left ventricle of the heart becomes stiffer and less able to fill again after each stroke, leading to a disease known as diastolic heart failure. Researchers have found that the left ventricles in Giraffes also become thicker, but without the stiffening, or fibrosis, that would occur in people. This discovery is now inspiring biomedical scientists to think about the problem in new ways and to find novel approaches to a far-too-common disease.
    And…
    A condition in pregnancy called pre-eclampsia can lead to severe complications that include liver damage, kidney failure and detachment of the placenta. Yet giraffes fare just fine. A team of researchers are hoping to study the placentas of pregnant giraffes to understand and replicate these unique adaptations.
  • A unique antibody produced by llamas could be developed as a new frontline treatment against COVID-19 and could be taken by patients as a simple nasal spray.
    Llamas, alpacas, camels and other members of the camelid family produce a class of antibodies that allow scientists to determine the structures of otherwise impossible-to-study proteins in the body, understand how those proteins malfunction in disease, and design new drugs that act on them.
    Dr Andrew Bourne, Director of Partnerships at EPSRC, said:
    “Utilising the unique properties of llamas’ nanobodies, this research could lead to an important new form of treatment for COVID-19 that is cheaper to produce and easier to administer.”

    The latest technology allows scientists to look for potential medicines in the natural world without collecting or harming a single animal. You can observe them, or use their DNA.

  • The gastric-brooding frog is the only known frog to give birth through its mouth (nice!). It lays its eggs before swallowing them, so gestation takes place in its stomach. During gestation, the frog appears able to suppress its stomach acid production. This discovery may have significant implications for the treatment of peptic ulcer disease.
    Professor Mike Archer from the University of New South Wales said, “She would open her mouth and out would pop little frogs. The first people that saw that were aghast. By the time anybody got excited about it, suddenly it was extinct.”
    No wild specimens have been reported since 1981.
    However, Scientists at the University of Newcastle and University of New South Wales announced in March 2013 that the frog would be the subject of a cloning attempt, referred to as the ”Lazarus Project”, to resurrect the species. Embryos were successfully cloned, and the project eventually hopes to produce a living frog.
  • The cone snail has some of the most powerful venom on the planet. It’s a mixture of more than a hundred different toxins. These toxins block the signals that tell the muscles to contract, paralyzing the victim. Cone snail species can create up to 140,000 peptide compounds, many of which could be useful as human treatments. However, only a few hundred have been identified.
    One chemical, ziconotide, is thought to be 1,000 times more effective than morphine (and it’s not addictive) and has been demonstrated to give considerable pain relief for advanced cancer and AIDS patients in clinical studies. In studies, another cone snail chemical has been found to protect brain cells from death during periods of reduced blood flow.
    It might be a game-changing treatment for those who have had a stroke or suffered a brain injury, and it could even help patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Cone snail peptides might also be used to create therapies for urinary incontinence and heart problems.
    Sadly, because cone snails are endangered (due to habitat degradation and the enormous value placed on their exquisite shells by collectors) medical research may lose out on future groundbreaking new medications.
  • A Woodpecker can pound its head at into tree trunks 12,000 times per day, at speeds of 6 to 7 m/s. With each peck, a woodpecker can absorb more than ten times the force it would take to give a human a concussion, and yet, despite this frequent, high speed head banging, the birds experience no brain damage! Woodpeckers’ brains are protected against harm by a range of structural modifications, according to researchers. For example, the area of their skulls closest to their brains is thicker and spongier, particularly near the forehead and at the back of the brain. They also have a horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone that wraps around the skull, maybe acting as a seatbelt to protect the brain from bouncing about upon impact. Industrial designer, Anirudha Surabhi, has created a radical, new, super-strong Kranium bike helmet, which protect cyclists’ heads by mimicking features of the woodpecker’s distinctive anatomy. It uses a lining made out of material that isn’t commonly seen in bicycle helmets: cardboard. It’s a special dual density cardboard with an internal honeycomb structure. According to laboratory tests, the Kranium liner absorbs three times as much force as polystyrene helmets, and, because 90% of the liner is air, it’s also 15% lighter. Force India, a Formula 1 team, has asked Surhabi to design helmets for its pit crew. (2014)
  • The North American porcupine has around 30,000 barbed quills to defend against predators. These quills penetrate the skin more effectively than a hypodermic needle, and their small backwards-facing barbs at the tip make them tough to take out. Jeffrey Karp of Harvard University and his colleague Robert Langer have been researching quill design that may lead to improved surgical staples, wound dressings, and adhesives. Drugs and chemicals could be delivered through patches adhering to the skin using hollow versions of quill-inspired needles. Scientists are also experimenting with biodegradable materials that can be broken down in the body once they are no longer required.
  • A shocked sea cucumber’s reaction has sparked the development of a novel material that might one day be used to make brain implants. The capacity of the Sea Slug to morph might aid in the development of therapeutic devices for individuals suffering from Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or spinal cord injury. The material can go from hard to flexible in a matter of seconds, and it might be utilised to create enhanced brain electrodes that are stiff initially implanted but supple inside the body. Currently, several research groups are working to construct “artificial nerve systems” to treat various illnesses.
  • Malaria causes severe illness in 500 million people worldwide each year, and kills more than one million. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population are at risk of the disease. But, thanks to the Sea Cucumber, we now have a new weapon against this widespread disease. Sea cucumbers could provide a potential new weapon to block transmission of the malaria parasite. The slug-like creature produces a protein, lectin, which impairs development of the parasites. To stimulate the mosquitoes to produce lectin, the researchers fused part of the gene from the sea cucumber which produces the protein with a gene from the insect. Ultimately, one aim of our field is to find a way of genetically engineering mosquitoes so that the malaria parasite cannot develop inside them”Professor Bob Sinden, Imperial College London.
  • Geckos have an incredible ability to stick to surfaces. Some studies suggest the over-engineered reptiles can hold hundreds of times their own body weight. The remarkable adhesive abilities of geckos and mussels have been combined to create a super-sticky material. Unlike other adhesives inspired by the nimble reptiles, “geckel” can attach to both wet and dry surfaces. Tests showed that the material could be stuck and unstuck more than 1,000 times, even when used under water. Its staying power comes from coating fibrous silicone, similar in structure to a gecko’s foot, with a polymer that mimics the “glue” used by mussels. “I envision that adhesive tapes made out of geckel could be used to replace sutures for wound closure, and may also be useful as a water-resistant adhesive for bandages and drug-delivery patches,” said Professor Phillip Messersmith.
  • The future of space exploration could lie in biomimetics, where engineering meets biology. In effect, it steals nature’s evolutionary tricks to create revolutionary applications. One creature under observation is the Flying squirrel a creature well known for their ability to glide between trees at the top of a forest canopy. The flying squirrels and gliding possums have a membrane of skin extending between the wrist and ankle on each side of the body. When the animal launches itself from a high branch it spreads its limbs wide apart and the taut membranes act as a parachute: the great gliding possum can make leaps covering 100 metres in this way. Keith Paskins of the University of Bath, is trying to mimic flying squirrels for use in unmanned crafts. By incorporating jumping as a flying squirrel does, the craft could conserve energy by using gliding to fly to the surface.
  • A protein that gives fleas their incredible leaping ability might be used to heal damaged arteries. Scientists have harnessed the gene that makes resilin to develop a super-strong rubbery polymer that may be used in surgery. Resilin allows fleas to leap great distances, and it also permits flies to beat their wings at up to 200 times per second.
    The artificial form of the polymer endures stress and bounces back into shape outperforming even the highest-grade rubber. According to the researchers, it might be used to replace similar elastic material in the walls of damaged arteries.
  • The venom of scorpions is essential in a breakthrough treatment for a type of brain cancer that is otherwise incurable. Researchers have created a “man-made” scorpion venom that can be used to treat brain tumours. Scientists have devised a method for isolating the essential proteins and peptides in venom so that they may be utilised to inhibit cancer cell development. The venom serves as a vehicle for delivering radioactive iodine to tumour cells that remain after surgery. Human trials began in 2020.
  • Researchers are to examine whether different types of snake venom contain chemicals that could prevent heart attacks and strokes. The British Heart Foundation is to fund research being carried out by a joint team from Oxford, Birmingham and Liverpool Universities. Heart attacks and strokes are caused by the clogging up of arteries with fatty material. This can lead to tearing in the weakened blood vessel walls, and the formation of clots. If the clots then become jammed in the blood vessels, they can cut off blood supply to the heart or brain, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. Snake venom is already known to contain a variety or toxins which can either bring on or stop this process.
  • Researchers believe that a medication derived from rattlesnake venom might effectively cure stroke sufferers. According to the researchers, Ancrod, an investigational medicine, decreases blood levels of a blood-clotting substance and may be able to reverse the effects of a stroke. It may also protect against future strokes and is less likely to cause internal bleeding than currently available clot-busting drugs, according to the researchers. It helped 42% stroke patients recover their physical and mental abilities within three hours in a trial of 500 participants.
  • A primitive worm could help to screen new medicines, according to research. Scientists have genetically modified nematode worms (C. elegans) so they avoid and crawl away from certain chemicals. The UK/Dutch team believes the worms could help to provide a simple method for looking at the effectiveness of compounds for new drugs. Nematode worms are less than 1mm long and live in the soil feeding on bacteria. Through receptors in their nerves, they can detect and avoid harmful chemicals in their environment and so could help scientists understand screen new drugs for potential problems. In the future the worms could be modified to carry a range of different human receptors that scientists are targeting for new drugs.
  • A boy with a rare illness has been given a new lease of life thanks to a groundbreaking treatment using protein from hamsters. Oliver Moody, from Leeds, has Hurler Syndrome and is missing a vital enzyme which breaks down harmful chemicals in his organs. The condition causes a build-up in the sufferer’s cells causing symptoms such as impaired hearing and vision and skeletal deformities, and over time causes progressive damage and disease. The treatment, which uses the genetically-modified proteins from Chinese hamsters, helps clear his body of toxins so he can lead a normal life.
  • Just one metre square of a new super-sticky material inspired by gecko feet could suspend the weight of an average family car, say its inventors. The plastic, known as Synthetic Gecko, has been developed by researchers at aerospace and defence firm BAE Systems.
  • A drug made from the ocean’s sea squirt may help those with a rare form of cancer, research suggests.Two patients treated with the drug saw their tumours disappear completely, while others saw their tumours shrink. Microbes that live within the sea squirt produce certain compounds which have been extracted to produce the drug. Dr Emma Knight, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This early-stage research highlights the potential of tapping into Nature’s resources for future cancer treatments.”
  • The ability of worms to convert potentially harmful fats into helpful ones might be harnessed to cut heart disease and strokes. Doctors believe that the worm chemical could help protect the arteries of patients undergoing heart surgery by damping down potentially damaging inflammation. Nematode worms, despite their tiny size, appear to be better at coping with Omega-6 fatty acids – a fat which contributes to blocked arteries in humans. The worms naturally convert Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease inflammation in blood vessels, and help prevent the formation of blockages. Scientists in the US have found that a particular chemical made by the worm appears to have a beneficial effect on human cells in a test tube.
  • Scientists have found a gene in a primitive worm that may give vital clues about the development of cancer. The gene, in the nematode worm, is similar to the human breast and ovarian cancer gene BRCA1.
    BRCA1 is known to stop cancer by repairing damaged DNA, but how it does this is not known, this soil-dwelling nematode has less than a thousand cells and is around one millimetre in length – but it may provide the answer.
    Professor Robert Souhami, director of clinical and external affairs at Cancer Research UK, said: “Studying the BRCA1 counterpart in the worm will accelerate our understanding of how defects in this gene can lead to breast cancer and in the future will offer possibilities for prevention and treatment.”
  • A tropical worm could one day help to relieve the pain of millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis and similar diseases.
    Researchers in Scotland have found that secretions from a parasitic worm, called a filarial nematode, have an anti-inflammatory effect.They believe the discovery could help people with autoimmune diseases – conditions where the body’s own immune system attacks itself for no apparent reason.The worm lives off humans and is carried by hundreds of millions of people in the tropics, where the incidence of autoimmune disease is much lower. Professor William Harnett, who has led the study, described the finding as exciting. “It still seems ironic, however, that a parasitic worm, which lives off humans may also provide a means to relieve suffering for millions of people… The prospect of treating painful inflammatory diseases with a drug that doesn’t completely suppress the patient’s immune system is a major medical breakthrough.”
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