An Engineer’s Dream

I used to be an engineer. If, at that time, I had managed to invent a robot that could assemble itself into an environment-adapted design, made from self-repairing multi-function materials, I’d have been right pleased with myself. In design, life gives us something of a “gold standard” to aim for. Swiping design / engineering / technology ideas from living things is called biomimetics, and it’s how I got drawn into the biological sciences. I’ve wound in a few different directions since then, but keep coming back to being fascinated by life as an adaptive, self-assembling system. That’s a bit cool.

Bone is a great example. Before I started studying them, I used to think of bones pretty much as rigid, unchanging things. After all, when an animal is buried in “good” conditions, the bones are about all that’s left to dig up. But in fact, bone is an engineer’s dream: when you load it more heavily than it’s used to, it gets stronger; when it’s unloaded (like in zero gravity), it streamlines itself; and when it’s damaged, it can repair itself so well that it can even end up stronger than before.

The structure of a bone shows how life is self-optimising, using the most economical design to get the job done, and adapting form to suit function. German (Prussian at the time) clever-chap, Julius Wolff, observed this in the 19th century; he also noted how the architecture of “spongy” bone (eg the bone in a lamb chop or the ends of a chicken leg-bone) follows the pattern of load transmission.

Likewise, Rudolph Virchow (who worked at the same hospital as Wolff – the Charité in Berlin) reported how the structure of blood vessels relates to the amount of blood flow. We get more blood vessels where a greater supply is needed, and arteries and veins get wider when the flow through them gets faster.

It’s even easier to see this sort of adaptation in the plant world: plants grow towards light, their roots grow towards water, and trees on a windswept coast are sculpted into a shape that minimises their chance of getting blown over.

But my biosciencing to date has been in the medical realms of bones and blood vessels, so you’ll be seeing more from me on those. The next couple of research projects I’m cooking up will be investigating how living tissues organise themselves. I’ll be taking you with me as I find out what is known about tissue formation and what’s left to be discovered.

The first question: if I put myself on Dr Nick’s “window to weight-gain” diet, how does my skin keep up with my increasing waistline?

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