Being nature inspired

Being nature inspired

October 9, 2013

October 9, 2013

Welcome to our blog! For this initial entry, I thought it might be fun to tackle the essence of our science because one of the questions we get asked the most by the community and visitors is: What exactly is Biodesign?

Scientists have long looked at nature for inspiration, attracted by its mystery, its beauty, and its grand design. Almost 170 years ago, Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle, a voyage of discovery that would transform not only science, but man’s worldview of life on Earth. “There is a grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin wrote, in which “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Scientists have been hard at work ever since to unravel nature’s inner workings to unlock its secrets, from simple viruses to the mighty blue whale.

Now, Arizona, the youngest state in the continental United States, is assembling its own vigorous journey of discovery in the evolution of the modern research university as part of ASU President Michael Crow’s vision of the New American University. And it is in these extravagantly diverse biological structures and functions that one of the primary vessels of Crow’s vision, the Biodesign Institute, draws its inspiration.

When the Biodesign Institute started a decade ago, President Crow remarked during its grand opening that: “The culture of this institute will look at nature in a different way, with more respect, with more awe, with more honor, and design from nature the kind of solutions that we need to make our lives better.”

To understand biologically-inspired design, from which the Biodesign Institute derives its name, think of Lego blocks. With those little interlocking pieces, anyone can build a nearly limitless variety of structures.

Similarly, every living system shares a common building set – molecular building blocks that are assembled to produce an infinite array of plants, animals and microbes. And nature doesn’t play favorites. A life-threatening virus is built from the same basic materials as cells in the body that it attacks and scientists who now use the same genetic coding to devise new medicines to combat disease.

The essence of biodesign is really about understanding the rules by which nature designs things. Every life form on the planet has the same genetic code, composed of four letters: A, T, C and G. It’s just the way you put those letters together – in the case of human beings, 3 billion of those letters – that gives you every life form on the planet.

In nature’s role as Earth’s master architect, an almost 4 billion-year trial-and-error process has refined all of our planet’s living organisms, functions and materials. Of all the science writers, I think the great physican-entymologist-poet-essayist, Lewis Thomas, best summarized nature's trial-and-error approach: "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music." — In The Medusa and the Snail

One tiny change can create cascading effects. As the tools to observe these processes have improved, researchers are beginning to see how such adaptations can cause or solve problems. And by putting biologists in the same room as engineers, physicists, physicians, bioinformaticians, and a myriad of scientific disciplines, we can reimagine these molecular Legos and build solutions to some of society’s most urgent problems: clean water, energy, the environment, health and medicine, and infectious diseases, to name a few of the themes our scientists are working on.

This “biodesign” approach can be found as the inspiration for our scientists like Roy Curtiss, who has tamed the leading food-poisoning bacterium, salmonella, and turned it from a "foe into a friend" as professor Curtiss likes to say, to development next-generation, low-cost vaccines against diseases like pneumonia.

Or Bruce Rittmann, who works to clean contaminants from water, a problem where 1.1 billion people still do not have access to safe drinking water.  His team has identified bacteria that remove harmful toxins from the water supply. What we consider environmental contaminants, the bacteria munch on for food, and render harmless byproducts. Rittmann's team is now expanding on these capabilities to use microorganisms to turn waste into a renewable alternative form of energy.

Or Karen Anderson, a talented physician-scientist who is harnessing our immune system as a powerful sentinel for the early detection of cancer.

Now, with the debut of our new Design Rules blog, we hope to peel back the onion, and give you an insider’s look at the culture, science, and educational environment of our unique, multi-disciplinary Biodesign Institute. We hope you will marvel as we have at the amazing progress our talented scientists are making and look forward to offering you the opportunity to hear from and provide feedback to a variety of blog contributors and perspectives---students, scientists, faculty, administrators and many others.

Science has, at its heart, always been about the quest to understand the world around us. While the tools available to do this have improved dramatically, each era of revelation inevitably also discloses new layers of complexity. For this reason, scientists will continue to marvel at the elegance of living systems with the same intensity that caused Charles Darwin in 1839 to proclaim, “There is a grandeur in this view of life.”

We hope you enjoy our scientific journey!


Written by: Joe Caspermeyer