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It is no coincidence that airplanes remind us of birds, or that the only things that seem capable of sticking to fabric, as well as Velcro does, are the burs from plants. The shape of birds and the design of their wings still inspire novel aviation equipment today, and Velcro was specifically created to mimic the tiny hooked structures that allow burs to securely attach themselves to an animal’s fur in order to ensure seed dispersal. Biomimicry or biomimetics is the imitation of biological designs with the goal of solving even our most complex problems. The applications are endless and include fields ranging from nanotechnology to building design to fashion to medicine. Although the discussion of this topic could (and does) fill entire books, here are just a few examples of ocean-inspired biomimicry.
A team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is studying the shell structure of the windowpane oyster, Placuna placenta, with the hope of producing a hard, lightweight, transparent armor that “resists mechanical penetration but is also optically clear,” just like the shell of the mollusk. The unique nanostructure of the shell allows it to localize damage, preventing it from compromising the structural integrity of the entire shell. A human armor like this could be nearly invisible and would be capable of withstanding multiple hits without collapsing.
The concept of a bioluminescent bulb is of growing interest as it would require no energy to power and would be a renewable source of cold light with no waste production or pollution. This idea was inspired by the bioluminescent marine bacterium, Vibrio fischeri. In a study recently conducted at the University of Madison, three undergraduate students genetically engineered E. coli bacteria that were capable of glowing just like V. fischeri and created a “biobulb.” This light source would essentially be a closed system containing several species of microorganisms where “each organism plays a role in the recycling of vital nutrients that each of the other microbes need to survive.” The bulb would be recharged by natural light, allowing the food organisms to grow and reproduce or “recharge” the system.
Sharkskin has been a model for more aerodynamic cars and wetsuits.
The surface topography of sharkskin and its incredible ability to ward off bacterial and parasitic infections prompted the Florida-based biotechnology company Sharklet Technologies, to develop its very own micro-textured adhesive film. The film is covered in microscopic diamond-shaped bumps, a characteristic that “prevented dangerous microorganisms…from establishing colonies large enough to infect humans.” This synthetic sharkskin does not actually kill the pathogens, but prevents them from colonizing the surface. Sharkskin has also been the model for more aerodynamic cars and wetsuits.
With so many brilliant colors and textures, it isn’t hard to see why fashion designers are inspired by marine life.
Then, there is of course fashion.
The underwater world is full of colors, textures, and structures that lend themselves incredibly well to being imitated in cloth. American luxury label Rodarte is known to have created an entire line of high fashion dresses inspired by the elegance and beauty of Siamese fighting fish, also called bettas. During Paris Fashion Week in 2016, haute couture designer Alberta Ferretti presented an entire collection influenced by the ocean. “I explored different moods inspired by the sea – that part of the earth with its fascinating fluidity,” she said. Also moved by the stunning beauty of sea life is recognized fashion designer Luly Yang, who has an entire couture collection called Ocean. According to Luly, the style of her Ocean collection is exemplified by “movements fluid, ethereal, and vibrant, with attributes of jellyfish, sharks, and coral, bringing the mysteries of the deep to the surface.” There are endless forms both spectacular and unusual to imitate in the underwater world, and I have no doubt that fashion designers will continue to explore these options for decades to come.
Marine debris in the form of recycled ocean plastic trash is becoming a textile of choice for a growing number of products.
Outside the world of couture, the ocean is inspiring the creation of new fabrics and materials. Oceans trash actually. Plastic pollution is a monumental issue in the world with 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into our seas annually, and companies are beginning to make good use of this refuse by upcycling ocean plastic. Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans to create a sneaker made from recycled ocean trash. According to Adidas, “We are working with Parley to transform marine plastic pollution into high performance sportswear, spinning the problem into a solution. The threat into a thread.” Fourth Element, a scuba diving brand that makes technical gear and lifestyle clothing, utilizes textiles created from recycled ghost fishing nets. The quality of their products is superb, and the styling is comfortable and modern, all the while helping to remove stray monofilament nets from the ocean that formerly captured marine creatures and damaged ocean ecosystems. The sunglasses company, Norton Point, launched a line of eco-friendly sunglasses in 2016 made out of high-density polyethylene taken from the ocean and recycled, as part of their “Sea Plastic Differently” campaign. In an effort to produce less plastic in the first place, Saltwater Brewery made edible six-pack rings out of barley to reduce plastic in the ocean and protect marine life. Clif Bar also changed their packaging from shrink wrap to 100% recycled paperboard.
Jellyfish are a constant source of inspiration both technologically and aesthetically.
There scarcely exists a human problem that has not already been solved by nature; we need only to keep our minds open and the answers will present themselves in some of the most seemingly unlikely forms. There are many more incredible examples of biomimetic designs, including but certainly not limited to, those inspired by marine species. Consider keyword searching for boxfish body, mollusk glue, mantis shrimp claw, spider silk, lizard skin, gecko feet, butterfly scales, and bat echolocation in relation to biomimicry to get a broader look at the amazing design solutions that can be found in nature.
Alex Rose holds a B.S. in Biology, a M.S. in Aquatic Biology, and has a wide variety of experience in the biological sciences including but not limited to bioacoustics research, exhibit construction, science writing, teaching, public presentation, and aquatic animal husbandry and breeding. Alex is also a professional violinist, photographer, Explorers Club Fellow, PADI Divemaster, and lover of all things aquatic. She is currently the Science Editor and a principle writer for Ocean Geographic Magazine, the Managing Editor for Ocean Geographic Explorers (OGX) and is a free-lance science writer and editor as well. Alex also composes violin pieces for use in ocean themed films and exhibitions. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s precious marine habitats through diving, writing, photography, education, and research.
She founded Blue Ring at the beginning of 2017 in an effort to create a new method of ocean conservation accessible to and inclusive of everyone who wants to better understand and protect our seas.
View the colorful video, Our Ocean, Our Future.
“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”
– John F. Kennedy
Photo Credits: © Alex Rose.