As the old saying goes, mother knows best. Many scientists, however, would argue that Mother Nature knows best.
Increasingly, researchers are turning to nature for inspiration and innovative solutions to human problems. From “green” cement to sustainable architecture to self-cleaning paint products, scientists and inventors are tapping into the power of this new field—biomimicry—to help them design more effective products.
Although there are many ways in which nature has inspired innovation, a hot topic among scientists studying biomimicry is bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms.
Studying species ranging from deep-ocean dwellers—including fish, bacteria, and jellies—to fireflies, researchers are examining bioluminescent properties with an eye toward their potential human uses. While researchers are confident they understand the science of bioluminescence in nature, taking that property out of its biological environment and repurposing it for the human world has proven tricky.
“Evolution does a very good job of designing things to do what it wants them to do,” says Theo Sanderson, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom.
The difficulty is in adapting these properties for new uses.
“We have a light-emitting system that is very good at functioning in the context of a bacterium and to emit the amount of light a bacterium needs to emit. When you transfer that over to other systems, there will be quite different biochemistry.”
Sanderson’s experience with bioluminescence and biomimicry dates to 2010, when he and his colleagues at Cambridge University entered the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
“We imagined that perhaps in the future, rather than erecting streetlights, people might be able to plant glowing trees,” he says.
To explore this idea, the team did some genetic modification. They took part of the DNA sequence of Aliivibrio fischeri, a bioluminescent bacterium that lives in symbiosis with squid, and inserted it into Escherichia coli, allowing E.coli to give off light. The project was cleverly dubbed “E. glowli.”
Though the Cambridge team ultimately wasn’t able to produce bioluminescent trees, the “BioBrick” they did produce was later used by researchers at Peking University as part of the 2011 iGEM. The Peking researchers used the BioBrick to allow bacteria in different flasks to communicate by sending light signals.
Other researchers are exploring different potential applications for bioluminescence.
Mathew Maye, a chemist at Syracuse University, works with an interdisciplinary team to explore bioluminescent properties at the nanoscale. Simply put, Maye’s team wants to “use biology for non-biological purposes.”
Maye and his team use luciferase—an enzymefirst identified in fireflies—to carry out their experiments. When luciferase interacts with luciferin, a related compound, the chemical reaction produces light.
Maye’s team is exploring applications that include identifying the presence of certain toxins within a system and lighting extremely small spaces. Currently, the team is trying to “completely understand the process and to judge the complete brightness of the system.”
One issue that both Maye and Sanderson have confronted is how to make the light system self-sustaining. As Sanderson says, “We don’t know how to make the fuel that the luciferase runs on [luciferin], and that means that it’s expensive to work with because you have to add that fuel.”
Until researchers find a way to make the system “recyclable,” we may not see bioluminescent technology used to light our streets.
Serious breakthroughs, however, may be around the corner.
“We’re continually finding new, interesting scientific discoveries . . . that will help us to design the next generation,” says Maye. “. . . I would say that there will be some type of bioluminescent lighting within the next five to ten years. Especially if you can make it somehow replenishable or recyclable.”
The iGEM competition, which launched Sanderson into the field of biomimicry, is held annually and supported by partners like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and software giant Autodesk. Maye’s research is funded in part by the Air Force and the Department of Defense. With the wide variety of potential applications for this technology, it’s no wonder both publicand private industry are lining up to find out how they can take advantage of this emerging knowledge.
Beyond the many practical applications of bioluminescent technology, biomimicry has captured researchers’ attention based on something far more fundamental: human curiosity.
As Sanderson says, “When you see what nature can achieve and the amazing diversity of things it can do—emitting light, producing incredibly strong substances—if you imagine what mankind could do if it could harness that power, it’s an exciting area to work in.”
Darknet, also known as dark web or darknet market, refers to the part of the internet that is not indexed or accessible through traditional search engines. It is a network of private and encrypted websites that cannot be accessed through regular web browsers and requires special software and configuration to access.
The darknet is often associated with illegal activities such as drug trafficking, weapon sales, and hacking services, although not all sites on the darknet are illegal.
Examples of darknet markets include Silk Road, AlphaBay, and Dream Market, which were all shut down by law enforcement agencies in recent years.
These marketplaces operate similarly to e-commerce websites, with vendors selling various illegal goods and services, such as drugs, counterfeit documents, and hacking tools, and buyers paying with cryptocurrency for their purchases.
Anonymity: Darknet allows users to communicate and transact with each other anonymously. Users can maintain their privacy and avoid being tracked by law enforcement agencies or other entities.
Access to Information: The darknet provides access to information and resources that may be otherwise unavailable or censored on the regular internet. This can include political or sensitive information that is not allowed to be disseminated through other channels.
Freedom of Speech: The darknet can be a platform for free speech, as users are able to express their opinions and ideas without fear of censorship or retribution.
Secure Communication: Darknet sites are encrypted, which means that communication between users is secure and cannot be intercepted by third parties.
Illegal Activities: Many darknet sites are associated with illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, weapon sales, and hacking services. Such activities can attract criminals and expose users to serious legal risks.
Scams: The darknet is a hotbed for scams, with many fake vendors and websites that aim to steal users’ personal information and cryptocurrency. The lack of regulation and oversight on the darknet means that users must be cautious when conducting transactions.
Security Risks: The use of the darknet can expose users to malware and other security risks, as many sites are not properly secured or monitored. Users may also be vulnerable to hacking or phishing attacks.
Stigma: The association of the darknet with illegal activities has created a stigma that may deter some users from using it for legitimate purposes.
AI, or artificial intelligence, refers to the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that would normally require human intelligence, such as recognizing speech, making decisions, and understanding natural language.
Virtual assistants: Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are examples of virtual assistants that use natural language processing to understand and respond to users’ queries.
Recommendation systems: Companies like Netflix and Amazon use AI to recommend movies and products to their users based on their browsing and purchase history.
Efficiency: AI systems can work continuously without getting tired or making errors, which can save time and resources.
Personalization: AI can help provide personalized recommendations and experiences for users.
Automation: AI can automate repetitive and tedious tasks, freeing up time for humans to focus on more complex tasks.
Job loss: AI has the potential to automate jobs previously performed by humans, leading to job loss and economic disruption.
Bias: AI systems can be biased due to the data they are trained on, leading to unfair or discriminatory outcomes.
Safety and privacy concerns: AI systems can pose safety risks if they malfunction or are used maliciously, and can also raise privacy concerns if they collect and use personal data without consent.