Biological Engineering Principles

The level of control that organisms exercise over the materials properties of structural inorganic biomaterials is unparalleled in modern engineering. Even more tantalizing is the organisms’ ability to form multifunctional materials that are optimized to perform structural, optical, mechanical and other functions – almost unrelated from the engineering point of view. 

Our studies suggest that these properties originate from a sophisticated structural design achieved by the interplay between inorganic minerals and organic biological macromolecules. Our research is aimed at studying biological composite materials and understanding how biology arranges simple minerals and polymers into complex architectures. 

Among organisms that attract our attention are: deep-sea sponges that construct damage-resistant structural glasses; brittlestars with skeletons optimized for both mechanical and optical performance; a slimy biofilm that turns out to be one of the best liquid-repellent materials known.

Often nature’s solutions to engineering problems are so different from our conventional ways of thinking that the most fruitful way to investigate them is not immediately obvious.

We are therefore engaged in a continuous dialogue: we study the biological material itself to begin to understand its underlying principles, adapt these concepts to design a bio-inspired architecture, and then apply insights from the designed system to guide further investigation of the biological system.

Monn MA, Weaver JC, Zhang T, Aizenberg J, Kesari H. New functional insights into the internal architecture of the laminated anchor spicules of Euplectella aspergillum. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 2015;112 (16) :4976-4981.Abstract
To adapt to a wide range of physically demanding environmental conditions, biological systems have evolved a diverse variety of robust skeletal architectures. One such example, Euplectella aspergillum, is a sediment-dwelling marine sponge that is anchored into the sea floor by a flexible holdfast apparatus consisting of thousands of anchor spicules (long, hair-like glassy fibers). Each spicule is covered with recurved barbs and has an internal architecture consisting of a solid core of silica surrounded by an assembly of coaxial silica cylinders, each of which is separated by a thin organic layer. The thickness of each silica cylinder progressively decreases from the spicule’s core to its periphery, which we hypothesize is an adaptation for redistributing internal stresses, thus increasing the overall strength of each spicule. To evaluate this hypothesis, we created a spicule structural mechanics model, in which we fixed the radii of the silica cylinders such that the force transmitted from the surface barbs to the remainder of the skeletal system was maximized. Compared with measurements of these parameters in the native sponge spicules, our modeling results correlate remarkably well, highlighting the beneficial nature of this elastically heterogeneous lamellar design strategy. The structural principles obtained from this study thus provide potential design insights for the fabrication of high-strength beams for load-bearing applications through the modification of their internal architecture, rather than their external geometry.
Li L, Kolle S, Weaver JC, Ortiz C, Aizenberg J, Kolle M. A highly conspicuous mineralized composite photonic architecture in the translucent shell of the blue-rayed limpet. Nat. Commun. 2015;6 :6322.Abstract
Many species rely on diverse selections of entirely organic photonic structures for the manipulation of light and the display of striking colours. Here we report the discovery of a mineralized hierarchical photonic architecture embedded within the translucent shell of the blue-rayed limpet Patella pellucida. The bright colour of the limpet’s stripes originates from light interference in a periodically layered zig-zag architecture of crystallographically co-oriented calcite lamellae. Beneath the photonic multilayer, a disordered array of light-absorbing particles provides contrast for the blue colour. This unique mineralized manifestation of a synergy of two distinct optical elements at specific locations within the continuum of the limpet’s translucent protective shell ensures the vivid shine of the blue stripes, which can be perceived under water from a wide range of viewing angles. The stripes’ reflection band coincides with the spectral range of minimal light absorption in sea water, raising intriguing questions regarding their functional significance.
Mayzel B, Aizenberg J, Ilan M. The Elemental Composition of Demospongiae from the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba. PLoS ONE. 2014;9 (4) :e95775.Abstract

Trace elements are vital for the growth and development of all organisms. Little is known about the elemental content and trace metal biology of Red Sea demosponges. This study establishes an initial database of sponge elemental content. It provides the necessary foundation for further research of the mechanisms used by sponges to regulate the uptake, accumulation, and storage of metals. The metal content of 16 common sponge species was determined using ICP measurements. A combination of statistical methods was used to determine the correlations between the metals and detect species with significantly high or low concentrations of these metals. Bioaccumulation factors were calculated to compare sponge metal content to local sediment. Theonella swinhoei contained an extremely high concentration of arsenic and barium, much higher (at least 200 times) than all other species and local sediment. Hyrtios erecta had significantly higher concentration of Al, Cr, Fe, Mn, Ti and V than all other species. This is due to sediment accumulation and inclusion in the skeleton fibers of this sponge species. Suberites clavatus was found to contain significantly higher concentration of Cd, Co, Ni and Zn than all other species and local sediment, indicating active accumulation of these metals. It also has the second highest Fe concentration, but without the comparably high concentrations of Al, Mn and Ti that are evident in H. erecta and in local sediment. These differences indicate active uptake and accumulation of Fe in S. clavatus, this was also noted in Niphates rowi. A significantly higher B concentration was found in Crella cyatophora compared to all other species. These results indicate specific roles of trace elements in certain sponge species that deserve further analysis. They also serve as a baseline to monitor the effects of anthropogenic disturbances on Eilat’s coral reefs.

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