Improving Ourselves Using Nature

October 27, 2016

Humans have only been practicing science for a couple of hundred years yet nature has had the benefit of 3 billion years to design, test and perfect some of the strongest, most flexible and adaptive materials. That is an impressive track record.

Imagine if we could harness nature’s hidden power and combine animal and plant material that could transform how we live?

The following article is inspired by the amazing work performed by Obed Shoseyov, a nanobiotechnologist and his team at the Hebrew University in Israel, hereafter referred to as the “Team”.

Sequoia trees are named after Sequoyah, a 19th century Cherokee silversmith who essentially invented an alphabet making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. These trees can grow to about 75 metres tall with a trunk diameter of around 8 metres and live in extreme weather conditions, yet this massive living organism is made up of sugar – tiny nanofibers called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). On a weight basis this fibre is about 10 times stronger than steel, amazingly light and even conducts electricity. It could be used to make thin and flexible screens, filters to purify all types of liquids, bendable batteries, ultra-absorbent foam gels and build body armour for armed forces.

The problem is that there are no commercial sources for NCC so the Team started working on developing a process to produce NCC on an industrial scale. Cutting down trees to obtain NCC would not be feasible therefore their focus turned to the sludge produced by the paper industry. This sludge numbers in the millions of tons annually and is normally used as a landfill which causes a huge environmental problem. To the Team in Israel, this was a goldmine and they are now producing NCC from paper sludge.

Fleas are world champion jumpers and they owe this status to resilin which is a protein and is basically the most elastic substance that we know of. Fleas produce this protein and store it in their hind legs which allows them to jump higher, further, faster and for longer than any other animal. If a flea was scaled up to the size of a human it could jump over 300m in distance while attaining a height of over 200m. Resilin loses hardly any energy to the environment – in fact if a ball of resilin was dropped from 100m it would bounce back up to 97m. Potential uses are spinal disc implants, heart valve substitutes and high efficiency industrial rubbers and springs.

How do you catch fleas to extract this resilin? You can’t – they jump around too much, but our very creative Team only needed to catch one. They extracted the DNA, read it to understand how to make resilin and then cloned it into a plant allowing production on a grand scale.

Why stop there – what if NCC and resilin were combined? When the most elastic material from the animal kingdom is combined with the strongest from the plant kingdom a super material is produced – strong, elastic and transparent.

The next generation of sports shoes could allow athletes to run faster, jump higher and faster, all while not wearing out at the usual rate. Basketball players would require less physical effort to reach the net and sprinters would be able to maximise every stride during a race.

We have all dropped a tablet or smartphone and even with protective cases the screens are still very fragile. Screens could be made incorporating this new hybrid material and be able to handle far more abuse.

The most exciting prospect for using super-materials is in the medical field. Synthetic medical implants have been used for quite a long time and have enabled many people to live ordinary lives, but implants do not always last a human lifetime and sometimes fail after a short period of time.

Future human use
All living cells whether from the plant or animal kingdom are self-assembling as the DNA in each cell contains specifically coded building blocks. Each cell knows what to do whether it is to build bone, create organs or produce blood. Nature has created cells that do not need any outside assistance – they just get on with their pre-determined job.

Collagen type 1 is the human body’s most abundant protein and is found mostly in tendonsligaments and skin. It is also found in bonesintervertebral discs, scar tissue and teeth. Collagen has been used for some time in cosmetic use as dermo-fillers and in medical use for replacement heart valves, so if you are looking at replacing human body parts collagen is the first choice. The biggest problem is where to source collagen – currently it is obtained from dead pigs, cows and sometimes human cadavers meaning collagen is basically made from old re-used body tissues.

That’s not good enough – we need to find a safer and more reliable source of collagen. Our industrious Team has a solution – they have cloned the 5 human genes responsible for making Collagen type 1 into a tobacco plant. The resulting plant now has the ability to produce brand new human collagen – the plants are grown for around 2 months, the leaves harvested and then sent to a factory where the collagen is extracted.

Now we have a large supply of human collagen that can be used as bone fillers for extreme fractures, spinal fusions and even a gel for use by diabetics suffering from foot ulcers. Collagen fibres have subsequently been developed that are 6 times stronger than the Achilles tendon. This is impressive stuff, but what about something better? You guessed it – how about adding resilin to these collagen fibres?

Now artificial tendons and ligaments can be created using this super-fibre that are approximately 300% tougher and more elastic. What this means is that in the future when a patient receives a replacement tendon or ligament they will have better performance after surgery than they had before the injury.

The future is bright – using what nature has given us, we will be able to produce replacement body parts that perform better than a donor part.