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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living Machines

Air Date: Week of

In this feature, Steve Curwood meets with bioengineers who are taking cues from nature's design to solve problems. Since nature is intelligent as well as often lethal, bioengineers encounter ethical issues as to how their research may be applied. Steve Curwood narrates this segment produced by Sandy Tolan.


CURWOOD: Human beings in Western civilization have always had a troubled relationship with nature. Fear and respect have long mixed with attempts to harness Nature's power, even to dominate her. "There are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use," wrote Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science, 4 centuries ago. "Secrets," he wrote, "which must be bound into service." Now, near the end of the millennium, scientists are turning with a new vigor to the secrets of the natural world, this time to understand how the simplicity and beauty of nature's design might suggest a way human beings can live more efficiently and ecologically. Some say by emulating nature, we can learn how to live in a greener world, but it may not be as simple as all that. Today on Living on Earth, we meet the bioengineers.

(A motor, swirling water)

HALLAHAN: This is the influent pipe. It comes in here and basically it's ...

CURWOOD: She stands in the shadow of dull gray concrete, the hulking bowels of San Francisco's Oceanside Sewage Treatment Plant. An ecologist beside her 18-wheel trailer opened up to display a row of blue steel tanks. She's overseeing an experiment to study how nature can clean human waste.

HALLAHAN: We built a food chain in here, and in the hope that we can turn what we consider waste back into something that will be of use to nature...

CURWOOD: Michelle Hallahan of the Cape Cod-based Ocean Arks Institute is studying how natural systems can clean city waste without huge, power guzzling sewage plants, without chemical laden sludge bound for landfills. This sewage is being treated by good bacteria that eat the coliform and other bad bacteria in a kind of marsh reproduced in these tanks.

HALLAHAN: So we have the good guys living in here, and they're reproducing. And it's their one function in life is just to grab an ammonia molecule and break it down for their food. And by doing this they turn it into nitrate.

CURWOOD: The water moves through willows, over pumice, between mosquito fish and tiny shrimp, through the rows of tanks. In the effluent water at the end of the process, darting fish clean enough to eat, big enough to sell at the market. This little ecosystem is turning bad water into good. They call it a living machine.

HALLAHAN: The idea of the living machine is to build an ecosystem using the tools of nature. So you go out into nature and you say guys, we need something to treat our sewage. Can you help us?

CURWOOD: The living machine was born through an ecologist's careful observation of nature. John Todd saw that marshes and ponds somehow were able to clean up dirty wastewater. So Mr. Todd brought together a team to study how human beings could replicate that process in a kind of natural sewage plant.

HALLAHAN: In some ways it's a movement toward doing things in the more natural sense, learning from nature and taking examples from nature. Looking at nature and seeing that it can clean its own stuff. I mean, man was on the earth long before, like sewage treatment plants ever came along and nature always dealt with man's waste long before we ever became, you know, big settled populations. So obviously the tools are out there, and we just need to find them and use them to our benefit. I think it's foolish not to be -- to be disregarding nature as just oh, something that's pretty. Obviously there's some intelligence there, that we're completely disregarding. We should be taking advantage of it.

CURWOOD: The intelligence of nature. The beauty of a living machine. Engineer Michael Triantafyllou was considering this a few years ago while having lunch with colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It's called Eels Pond. It's a little pond right in Woods Hole where the compass is, and we're going, we have lunches outside on the deck of one of the restaurants, yeah? And we sit around and we talk. And we can see the fishes.

CURWOOD: And that got Michael Triantafyllou to thinking: could engineers learn lessons from fish?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: Then we went to the market and we bought the tuna, a small tuna, just to see how it looks like.

CURWOOD: Okay, what did you see?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: Well, it's a masterpiece of design, first of all the skin is extremely smooth and shiny, and there are places on the body of the fish where it can retract inside its fins, so when it's swimming fast they don't protrude and don't disturb the flow at all.

CURWOOD: And so, from an engineer daydreaming on Cape Cod in 1990, fast forward now to 1996, to a long narrow pool in a basement lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meet Robo-Tuna, designed to emulate the great bursts of speed and maneuverability of the real thing.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It is an exact copy of a bluefin tuna hanging from the wall. It's about a meter and a half long.

CURWOOD: Here in MIT's Ocean Engineering Lab, diagrams of fish are taped to overhead pipes. Models of fish ribs and fish tails designed and redesigned lie on cluttered desks next to tool boxes on top of filing cabinets. Real fish in small tanks swim nearby fake fish in big tanks. Every week Dr. Triantafyllou, his brother George, and their students, come to watch their new creation.

(Cranking sounds)

CURWOOD: First it's lowered by a winch into the water.

(Cranking continues)

CURWOOD: And then, silently, the mechanical tuna swims in the current, swishing its tail like a real bluefin tuna.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The basic principle is that fish, by wiggling their bodies, create eddies. They create moving parts of water, which are swirling. Which are all down their body. And by the time they reach their tail, the tail just repositions those eddies. In the process they reduce drag on their body, and their tail becomes more efficient.

CURWOOD: Dr. Triantafyllou comes off as quiet, almost shy. Yet he's a pioneer in an emerging science. It's called biomimesis, or mimicking nature. The idea is that there's more to gain from respecting and emulating nature than in trying to defeat it.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The fish has achieved perfection in swimming. Fish have developed a way of manipulating the flow around their body over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. By replaying the living organism, we're able to watch and record things that would take us years of study in the laboratory. That's the excitement. By imitating nature, the ultimate goal is to find out what is behind it. In the long run we will not like to make the ships look like tunas. We would like the ships to use the principles that make the tunas go fast.

CURWOOD: The engineer believes his research could bring about the day when real ships start and turn, accelerate and stop, just like their fleshy counterparts. But for many potential funders, this is too dreamy a notion to support with real research dollars. Today there are few places where this kind of wide-eyed inquiry can still get support.

CURWOOD: Who supports your research?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The major support comes from the Office of Naval Research.

CURWOOD: What do you think the Navy wants to get out of this?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: The Navy wants always to be at the forefront, and this is one avenue that will lead to new ways of achieving this excellence in washing and propulsion.

CURWOOD: Do you see this as part of a weapons system?

TRIANTAFYLLOU: It could lead to all sorts of obligations. Has no immediate goal. Right now we're at the point where we are discovering those mechanisms. The application will follow in a few years.

CURWOOD: But to others, it's dangerous not to make the connection between the research and the institution that's paying for it.

NOBLE: On the face of it, the fact that this is being done by the Navy should raise some concerns. The Navy has a mission, a military mission.

CURWOOD: David Noble is a professor of history at York University in Toronto. A former MIT professor, Dr. Noble says technology is by nature indifferent to potential implications. So the engineer needs to be guided by a moral compass. The problem, he says, is that too often researchers don't consider the consequences of their work.

NOBLE: The reason they all go to work for the military or so many of them have, is because the military's the biggest playpen, you know, sandbox around, because of the money. So that the enthusiasms of these scientists are indulged by the military. The scientists are given the appearance that they are free to do whatever they want. That in fact is never the case. Their results all have to be reported to their sponsor. We live in an age in which weapons are made by people who don't make weapons.

CURWOOD: The Wright Brothers, of course they invented an airplane, and it gets people around very quickly, but people drop bombs from them, too.

TRIANTAFYLLOU: You have always to think about this, but I think those decisions are made when you go to the polls and you vote, and you make sure that proper people take proper care of their situation. Otherwise you cannot prevent something from being discovered.

CURWOOD: Scientists and engineers argue that the quest to learn nature's secrets is unstoppable. And no matter who supports their work, they say, social benefits ultimately flow out of military research. Think of computers, the Internet, radar, and microwaves. They all started with military dollars. Dr. Triantafyllou believes Robo-Tuna could someday transform the shipping industry, bringing dramatic efficiencies in the use of fuels. Possibilities abound, say the researchers, whether it's the macro-engineering to craft a robotic fish or the microscopic science that unlocks the genetic code of a spider's silk.

(A large sliding door)

KAPLAN: This is a deep freezer where we keep our biological materials, and it's basically -80 degrees Celsius, approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And --

CURWOOD: David Kaplan stands beside the deep freeze in a science building at Tufts University. He reaches into the wisps of cold vapor and pulls out a tiny plastic bottle. In it, argiope aranchia, a large yellow and black spider, whose silk may hold the key to another kind of natural step for science.

KAPLAN: We try and understand both the protein chemistry and the genetics of spider silk designs and then synthesis and eventually assembly. The silks are very intriguing because of the mechanical properties that they exhibit. Not only are they exceptionally strong, but they're also very flexible, and this is not a combination of mechanical properties that you see with synthetic materials.

CURWOOD: Through microscopes, Dr. Kaplan and his students squint at the images of spiders magnified 100 times, examining the silk that comes out of the abdomens, and then extracting the silk-producing glands in order to clone the genes. The genetic material could someday be inserted into plants via biotechnology. If they can do this, they'll be able to mass-produce a material found today only in a spider's web strong as steel, flexible as chewing gum.

KAPLAN: If we can understand at the molecular level how these kinds of fibers are assembled, then we can learn a lot about how to design better fibers or more unique fibers for the future, so we can make better biomedical implant materials, better scaffolding for tissue engineering, or simply better fibers for high-strength ropes or textiles, rugs, other applications.

CURWOOD: Eventually this research, Dr. Kaplan says, could also have important environmental benefits.

KAPLAN: No longer do we want to just make materials and keep them around. We want to create material life cycles that are more compatible with the natural environment. The fact that you can use a biological system to create these kinds of proteins to make very nice fibers, very strong fibers, is an advantage, because you can use renewable resources as the source of synthesis, and let the biological system, a bacterium, a plant, do the work to create the material. When you're done with the material, it can go back into the environment and be reused, recycled, without any additional new burden created for the environment.

CURWOOD: Like the makers of Robo-Tuna, Dr. Kaplan says he's on the cusp of an emerging movement of scientists who devote their energies to copying nature.

KAPLAN: Material scientists particularly are starting to realize that there is a lot to be learned from biology that can help, and this is a new direction for a lot of scientists where they start to look to biology for new insight, new inspiration.

CURWOOD: Of course, nature has long inspired the designs of man. Centuries ago, Leonardo DaVinci was studying birds for his early designs of flying machines. Author and professor David Noble says perhaps this is a return to a pre-industrial perspective that is more in sympathy with its surroundings. But that in itself, Professor Noble says, holds no great promise.

NOBLE: I mean, people got their poisons from nature. When they had poison darts, where did their poison come from? When people studied and observed nature and found out how certain plants or certain snakes, what have you, had poison that they could use to kill people, and they used it, and they were very sympathetic in their understanding of nature and very, you know, intimate in their observation and mimicking it, okay, is that good?

CURWOOD: The same could be said for the use of petroleum and uranium, both natural substances. The essential question, says Dr. Noble, is what social end is being served?

NOBLE: Good is an ethical notion. Good for what? Good for whom?

CURWOOD: So far, one of the few applied uses of spider silk, for example, has been as the crosshairs of a rifle. But let's consider another real-world example of copying nature, here on this factory floor in central Maine.

(Manufacturing noises)

ANDERSON: Essentially the operation produces no waste. All the waste is recycled into the process.

KING: It's like a closed loop.

ANDERSON: Closed, yes.

CURWOOD: The factory gleams, it's so new. It's the size of a football field, and everywhere you look the long rows of robotic arms spin twine onto spools at high speed.

(Spinning sounds)

CURWOOD: It's the christening of a yarn factory, and the CEO is giving the governor a tour.

KING: Is it fair to say this is the most modern textile facility now today in the world?

ANDERSON: Without a question, yes. Without a question. [Someone echoes: "Without question."] And probably as environmentally, sensitively designed and constructed as anything that you could find anywhere in the world, too.

KING: That's great.

CURWOOD: Ray Anderson, CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Corporation, is taking Maine Governor Angus King through his state-of-the-art textile factory. A few years ago, after reading Paul Hawkens' book The Ecology of Commerce, Mr. Anderson had an epiphany and decided to devote his carpet company with its 5,000 employees and $800 million in annual sales to the vision of sustainability. His company is incorporating the notion of turning bad waste into good product, just as John Todd's living machines. He's working with Hawken and green designer William McDonough. The idea is to become more efficient by mimicking how nature works, cycling and recycling materials, so that waste equals food. It's a kind of industrial metabolism.

ANDERSON: Look around, you don't find a speck of lint or dust in the air. Normally in textile operations you've got a lot of waste generated going to a landfill. Here we've invested in a facility that makes no waste. This -- heat that goes out the stack, it's the ambient heat, and there's product that goes out the back door, and that's -- that's it.

CURWOOD: Reusing your waste, closing the loop, respecting nature. One day, Mr. Anderson wants to drive this factory with solar and wind power. Ray Anderson wants his business to be in keeping with his broader goal of walking more lightly on the earth.

ANDERSON: Our company's on this course to try to get to the top of that mountain we call sustainability.

KING: That's exactly the direction. And it can be done. And you can make a buck at the same time.

ANDERSON: It's a long way to the top, though. (Laughs. Spinning sounds continue.)


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