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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines Summary The ability of biological systems to carry out extremely complex functions in a vast array of environments has long inspired scientists to create synthetic systems that work with similar precision and efficiency. While a lack of understanding of how biological systems function has hampered their ability to make such materials and devices, scientists are nonetheless using an expanding toolbox of new ways to measure, manipulate, and compute properties of matter, living and nonliving. These efforts are beginning to uncover the principles that govern how biological systems work. Application of the principles uncovered by these investigations will one day allow scientists to create synthetic materials, processes, and devices that can carry out tasks with the precision of biological systems. As demonstrated by the opportunities and examples presented in this report, now is a very exciting time for research at the intersection of the biological and materials sciences. Practical design of biologically inspired materials has the potential to improve the well-being of people everywhere and our nation’s economic competitiveness by addressing some of the most urgent national challenges. Biomolecular materials and processes may improve medical therapeutics, allow the creation of reliable sensors to detect biological and chemical threats, and facilitate the transition to energy independence. To realize these opportunities and fully harness the potential of biology to inform the development of materials and processes, further advances in fundamental physics, chemistry, and materials science will be required. Three closely related strategies for the creation of new materials and systems may help to realize the potential of biomolecular materials and processes: biomimicry, bioinspiration, and bioderivation.
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines Biomimicry. This strategy relies on first learning the mechanistic principle used by a living system to achieve a particular function. One then attempts to adapt that principle to achieve similar function in a synthetic material. One example is the encoding of information into building blocks when they are synthesized. One can also try to create materials that mimic whole cells in their response to external stimuli. Such materials could be used in devices for detecting hazardous biological and chemical agents. Bioinspiration. Merely knowing that a task can be achieved by a living system can inspire scientists to develop a synthetic system that performs the same function, even if the synthetic system uses a scheme quite different from that employed by the biological system. Nature provides examples of systems whose exceptional properties and performance might be replicated for all sorts of applications. The adhesive gecko’s foot, the self-cleaning lotus leaf, and the fracture-resistant mollusk shell have all fueled interest in smart biological materials. Yet attempts to create synthetic analogs have been largely unsuccessful, in part because our fundamental understanding of the biological systems is limited. Bioderivation. This strategy involves using an existing biomaterial in concert with an artificial material to create a hybrid. A prominent example is the incorporation of biologically derived proteins into polymeric assemblies for targeted drug delivery. Progress will be facilitated by the efforts of research agencies, the scientific community, and other stakeholders. In particular, five recommended steps will help to overcome the scientific challenges associated with these strategies and to translate the resulting knowledge into achievements of social and economic value. The synergistic application of approaches traditionally considered to belong to distinct disciplines will be called for. While such concerted efforts are already emerging in isolated cases, substantial interagency and interdepartmental cooperation in support of interdisciplinary research and development (R&D) efforts will be needed. Recommendation 1: The Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other relevant departments and agencies should jointly sponsor programs of innovative research at the intersection of different disciplines. Initiatives of this type will provide incentives for universities to work across traditional departmental boundaries. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should take the lead in coordinating such programs.
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines Physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers need to work together to create new biomaterials and technologies. Educating scientists and engineers so they can work at the intersection of these fields is crucial. Recommendation 2: University physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, mathematics, and engineering departments and medical schools should jointly examine their curricula, identifying ways to prepare scientists and engineers for research at the intersection of the physical sciences, engineering, and the life sciences. The educational programs being created should be evaluated from a wide range of viewpoints, including input from leaders in industry and at the national laboratories. Communication between scientists and engineers from different disciplines is hampered by difficulties in understanding methods, concepts, and jargon. Mechanisms that facilitate communication across and between disciplines are essential. Recommendation 3: DOE, NIH, NSF, and other relevant departments and agencies should support the development of 1- or 2-week summer courses to train physical scientists and engineers in the tools and concepts of biology and medicine and, conversely, biologists in the tools and concepts of the physical sciences. Special attention should be given to finding ways of communicating fundamental physicochemical concepts to biologists using the mathematical knowledge common to the biology community. Such summer courses would help bridge the physical and life sciences communities, allowing them to exploit research opportunities at the intersection of the fields. Fundamental research is necessary to realize the applications envisaged in this report and could lead to yet-unimagined technological applications, but the translation of new discoveries into useful products is also crucial. Thus both fundamental and applied research should be carried out. Recommendation 4: DOE, NIH, NSF, and other relevant departments and agencies should collaborate to link fundamental research with commercial applications. While it is imperative to recognize and exploit the connections between fundamental advances and opportunities to transition them into practice, curiosity-driven fundamental research on outstanding unsolved questions should be encouraged, because it could lead to unforeseen technological advances. It is difficult for a single laboratory to house the diverse instrumentation and expertise required for interdisciplinary research in biomolecular materials and
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Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines processes. Standard equipment in biology laboratories, for example, is not usually found in engineering laboratories and vice versa. Further, many researchers do not in any case have access to facilities, shared or private, containing such equipment and instrumentation. National facilities that house clusters of moderately sophisticated instrumentation and individuals with the associated expertise are important for fostering interdisciplinary research in biomolecular materials and processes. Recommendation 5: DOE should continue to evaluate the effectiveness of recently created facilities to provide access to midrange instrumentation and computational facilities for the advancement of interdisciplinary research in nanoscience and technology. Based on what is learned from this evaluation, analogous, but distinct, centers could be created to facilitate research in biomolecular materials and processes.