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Molecular bionics – inspirations from the microworld for the macroworld

Knowledge about the molecular organisation of structural and functional biological properties has led to the establishment of a new field of research: molecular bionics. Everything that can be learnt from the macromolecular observation of interesting natural phenomena is complemented in this field by observations on the smallest, i.e. molecular level. Processes and materials that have been optimised in the course of evolution are thus able to stimulate technical innovations on a new and much broader basis than previously possible.

Bionics is no longer an exotic field of research. Ever since the success of the lotus effect, if not before, the broader public and not just the scientific community are aware of bionics. According to a 2009 survey by the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer IAO, engineers and managers all believe that bionics can be used for a broad range of topics. The most frequently cited topics in the survey were “materials” (20%), “form” (22%) and “building and construction” (19%).

Molecular bionics is an emerging field of research which opens up a new dimension that not only provides us with inspirations from the molecular understanding of macroscopically visible phenomena, but also with a whole new range of possibilities. Molecular structures provide models for new materials with highly specific characteristics and for materials that can fulfil structural and metrological requirements. In addition, molecular bionics provides insights into novel functions that can be used to reach certain goals more rapidly, more safely and more cheaply, for example by combining different materials with each other.

Baden-Württemberg programme funds molecular bionics

Inspirations from the past: fossil barnacles such as those that adhere to sea urchin shells. © J. Nebelsick, University of Tübingen

Molecular bionics also makes use of biological inventions and principles where creativity is an important factor. The idea behind bionics is not to copy biomolecules and functions exactly as they are, but to open up new approaches. The fact that the growing demand for new materials and technical functional solutions coincides with the rapidly growing knowledge about molecular relationships is a happy coincidence that must not be allowed to go to waste.

For precisely this reason the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Education, Research and the Arts launched the “Molecular Bionics” funding programme in 2009. The programme is aimed at uncovering the innovation potential of molecular bionics for different areas of application and getting knowledge-based economically feasible developments underway. The majority of the projects presented here are projects that are funded under this programme. Numerous other projects of this kind are also being carried out at academic, industrial and non-university research institutions. They will all contribute to the establishment of an internationally competitive competence in the field of bioinics in the southwest of Germany.

One thing is clear: a lot of further research is required, and solutions need to be found for bionic problems. Such solutions are not associated per se with fewer risks neither are they necessarily more environmentally friendly than traditional technical solutions. Each issue needs to be assessed on a case-to-case basis that also takes financial aspects into consideration. Novel technical systems are always weighed up financially against traditional alternatives, if such alternatives exist. Some of the new approaches are so visionary and innovative that there is practically no competition – simply because nothing comparable exists on the market. The combination of biological and inorganic materials is one such approach. Materials such as these offer so many new opportunities that it is impossible to assess their future potential. 

New materials – molecular bionic inspirations

At the Institute of Technical Biochemistry at the University of Stuttgart, biomolecules are used as an inspiration for new ideas where they are regarded as potential functional components of materials with particular properties that will in future be developed. Layer systems consisting of metal compounds and peptide layers can for example be used in innovative electronic switching and sensor systems. Focus is not only put on developing better systems or systems that are optimised for use in special applications; another crucial aspect is the search for inexpensive ways to produce such systems, for example through biological methods using viruses such as bacteriophages.

Researchers from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg are focusing on the concrete technical application of peptides: they are developing peptide-based diodes for use in a bionics-inspired synthetic photosystem.

One project being carried out by researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) also focuses on the use of peptides, albeit in a different context. The production of highly diverse and highly specific peptides from amino acids is one of living nature’s brilliant biochemical synthesis abilities. The KIT researchers use peptides as flexible and specific recognition and binding structures for target molecules in assays used in biological and medical research. Laser-based “peptide printers” that are able to print peptides on biochips at relatively low cost are already available. These peptide printers already reduce the price of synthesising individual peptides by a factor of ten. The KIT team is focused on the development of innovative chip printers that enable the low-cost production of high-density peptide arrays with between 500,000 and one million arbitrary peptides.

Huge market potential for molecular bionic analytics

A team at the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Tübingen focuses on the development of innovative test systems. The researchers are developing a method to produce molecularly imprinted polymers and integrate them into robust systems for use in biotechnological process analytics. Such systems would for example make it possible to continuously determine the concentration of metabolites that are generated during fermentation.

In a departure from the standard research issue of the development of light, researchers from the Institute of Laser Technologies in Medicine and Metrology (ILM) in Ulm are investigating the effect of light on a broad range of materials. The bionic approach is derived from symbiotic relationships between corals and algae. The scientists are investigating how corals carry out intelligent light management for their algal partners, which in turn provide the corals with chemical energy. The investigation of how light spreads in scattering tissue, for example in the morphologically diverse layers of algae, could be of major interest for numerous technical applications and for the development of materials that protect against UV radiation.

The fibre optic effects of polar bear fur might also be used for technical innovations. Another ILM project focuses on the possibility of whether and how a photochemical process can be used to glue together human tissue. The results have the potential to generate new solutions for wound treatment.

A team of zoologists, geologists and chemists from the University of Tübingen are focusing on adhesion systems. They are searching the animal kingdom for adhesion systems with particular properties: ones that are effective under special conditions, for example in salt water, or which are reversible or particularly strong. The discovery of animal models is expected to speed up the development of novel adhesion systems for technical applications. Researchers from the University of Freiburg are focusing on form-fit and positive-fit intelligent adhesive bonds, which are also found in natural models. 

The term “bionics”

The term bionics was first used in the 1960s and combines the terms biology and technology to describe the ability to implement a function found in nature in technological applications. The coining of the term bionics is attributed to the US Air Force colonel Jack Steele who was the first to use the term at a conference in 1960.

It is worth noting that neither the term bionics nor the associated field of research are clearly or exactly defined. In other words, the study of bionics is an open, highly interdisciplinary field of research in which functions and structures found in nature are creatively used for human applications.

The term “biomimetics” essentially refers to the same thing as the term bionics, with the slight difference that the first term is preferred when referring to chemical reactions.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/molecular-bionics-inspirations-from-the-microworld-for-the-macroworld