Amazing complex processes in biology

Amazing complex processes in biology

3:34 AM, 27th January 2012
Amazing complex processes in biology
Using an electron microscope it’s possible for the human eye to see in minute detail the foot of the fruit fly – an appendage that is just about the same width as a human hair.

CAMBRIDGE, UK: The sensors at the foot of fly can detect both chemical and mechanical changes in the environment. These sensors are far smaller and more sophisticated than man-made chemical sensors which are generally capable of detecting only single types of substances. Dr Chris Forman, Associate Researcher, Cambridge University works to unlock some of the mysteries that lie behind the staggeringly complex processes in biology.“I want something with a big yuck factor to show the remarkable level of integration that exists in the natural world. On a nano-scale the beetle’s eye and the fly’s foot reveal a stunning complexity that simply eludes current manufacturing,” said Forman.

His vision is that, by understanding molecular self-assembly and mixing this with the ability to perform arbitrary chemistry, we could make radically diverse structures for many purposes from the same restricted set of materials as natural systems. This would make it easier for each local community to be in balance with its immediate environment while achieving its economic goals, and sharing the knowledge of how to do this around the world could allow a global harmony to emerge naturally, one molecule at a time. Such visionary holistic ideas are just one aspect of the fast-developing field known as biomimetics.

All organisms are made from the same basic materials- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on. What drives them to grow, and what makes them so amazingly diverse, is the information stored in their genes and the compartmentalisation that provides a context to that information. Forman believes that science might one day enable us to create products as complex as IPods and computers in our living rooms, designed for our own immediate needs and made from local material. In the energy sector viruses and enzymes are being used to organise batteries or capture solar energy. Sectors such as food and textiles are already biologically-based.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a closed loop economy- a system that is self-sustaining with respect to material, in which the same material loops around and around the economy and is endlessly powered by sunlight alone. On each cycle the precise form and function of the material is determined solely by the individual for whatever purpose they have need of there and then, and the job of industry and regulation is to enable them to do it harmlessly. One way of achieving such a closed loop is to create what is known as an industrial ecology, in which companies trade waste for mutual benefit.

The best known example is the city of Kalundborg in Denmark, in which industries as diverse as energy, plaster-board manufacturing, road construction and pig-farming have collaborated to achieve economic and ecological efficiency. By shrinking a city-wide industrial ecology into a volume the size of a cell, the need to transport raw materials and products over long distances is removed, and the energy required to process the material is reduced to the point where sunlight can be used directly.

© University of Cambridge News

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