October 31, 2004


JFS Biomimicry Interview Series: No.1 First interviewee:Manabu Akaike

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.26 (October 2004)
Technologies Learned from Living Things: Concepts and Examples - Front Line Reports

To introduce our new JFS Biomimicry Interview Series, we bring you a memorable interview with Manabu Akaike, president of Universal Design Intelligence Inc. In his book "Nature-Tech -- A Snail Can Tell (available in Japanese only)," Akaike advocates Nature-tech, technology learned from nature.

Q. What is Nature-tech?

Our scientific technology has so far focused on synthetic chemicals created by consuming energy under conditions of high temperature and pressure. This approach obviously has extremely high entropy and a tremendous impact on the environment. Meanwhile, living organisms in nature create remarkably sophisticated products using only light elements such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, which exist in nature under conditions of normal ambient temperatures and atmospheric pressure.

We need Nature-tech, designs we can learn from other living things. Nature-tech requires an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses basic science, applied science, and engineering.

Q: What led you to this idea?

I have always been genuinely intrigued by the way living creatures manufacture their productions. I specialized in embryology in graduate school and studied genetic mechanisms and cytogenesis, the process that induces organ formation. Later on, when I was assisting Professor Makoto Sahara (Director of the National Museum of Japanese History) with his analysis of relics from the Jomon Period (13,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.), a small woven basket that had been lacquered was discovered.

Japanese lacquer, which forms a tough covering through the action of enzymes with light, is a typical example of Nature-tech. I was struck by the discovery that Japanese people in ancient times possessed the technology to apply the functional capabilities of other living creatures. Another factor leading me to the idea of Nature-tech was an awareness of the challenges ahead for business. The technologies developed by living things for survival in special environments constitute an enormous resource for industry.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an outline of a helicopter inspired by hovering bees. Parachutes took their cue from spiders, and gliders from praying mantises. The Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO), a research project initiated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, aims to design a flying machine that imitates insects called thrips, which grow hair on their wings, a completely innovative concept in this field.

Citing another example, Shunji Yamanaka and his team are currently developing a next-generation automobile, called the "Hallucigenia 01." This project is an attempt to create a truly mobile vehicle that can run sideways, turn on a dime, descend and ascend steps, and so on, by decentralizing the drive, or the central processing unit (CPU) that controls the vehicle. (Japanese)

This idea follows the dispersive microanatomy model of Hallucigenia, a crustacean that lived 550 million years ago. These examples show that there are infinite possibilities for learning new designs by studying living creatures.

Q. What else are you watching in this field?

Micro-machines, or nano-robots, are being developed to deliver and administer drugs directly to the affected area of the body. However, because these miniscule devices are greatly affected by physical forces such as viscosity and surface tension, a new type of propulsion system needs to be developed. Dr. Yukio Magariyama, chief scientist at the National Food Research Institute, is focusing his research on a type of nematode, or spirochete, that can swim freely despite its micro-size. By studying this organism's motion, Dr. Magariyama hopes to learn how to utilize the mechanism by which the nematode's mobility improves as resistance increases.

I'm also paying special attention to Dr. Takayuki Nagashima, assistant professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture, and his research on new ways of using silk. Dr. Nagashima has scientifically verified that silk, especially silk produced by wild silkworms, has high ultraviolet (UV) ray blocking capabilities.This finding has led to the manufacture of parasols and cosmetics using wild silk that can block almost all UV radiation. Furthermore, research on analyzing wild silk structure at the nano-level is underway with the aim of creating wild silk artificially.

Another study I find interesting is being conducted by the National Institute of Aerobiological Sciences and Meiji Seika Co., and focuses on the cellulolytic enzyme, or cellulase, of termites, which eat decomposed wood. I'm also watching anti-cancer drug research being done by Professor Koichi Suzuki of Iwate University. Professor Suzuki's research uses diapause hormones excreted by butterflies when they transform from a larvae into an adult.

Q. What do you think will be the key to greater interest in technology learned from living things in future?

The research involving the Hallucigenia crustacean I mentioned just now is the outcome of collaboration between an engineer and a designer. This illustrates that two essential factors will be participation of biologists and other scientists involved in basic research, and collaboration among different fields of expertise.

It will also be important to utilize the outcomes of Nature-tech research not just for a single application or over the short term, but also for multiple applications and over the medium- to long-term. Single-use applications, such as making biodegradable plastics by extracting lignin from woody biomass or generating power by producing methane gas from livestock waste, are very limited.

Rather, a cascading business approach could be developed that incorporates established industries and the society at large. For instance, Japanese cypress wood thinned from tree plantations can be chipped for use in manufacturing highly functional tatami mats. When the mats are discarded, termite cellulase can be used to decompose it into useful material. After that, it can be used as a biomass energy source, or converted into another useful material using biotechnology.

This new type of approach can offer secondary and tertiary uses with value being added each time, minimizing costs and energy consumption and blending into the current social and industrial structure. We can learn from natural technology that has survived and proven to be safe and functional over 3.7 billion years of organic evolution. This initiative will contribute to building a society in which synthetic chemicals are no longer created, and global resources external to the local ecosystem are no longer carelessly brought in.

(Interviewer Kazunori Kobayashi)