Experts: Mark Tibbitt (ETH Zürich)
Bioinspiration and biointegration involve making use of nature and copying its most important functions, so as to develop new kinds of materials, structures and processes, in which human-made living systems are combined with conventional ones. The possible future applications are manifold, ranging from architecture to industry, through to medicine, and offer great opportunities for the economy and society. Swiss researchers at universities and firms are in an excellent position to overcome the imminent technical challenges in this interdisciplinary field.
Nature as a source of inspiration and guide for building new types of systems: Bioinspiration involves the development of advanced materials, devices and structures modelled on nature, which has optimised itself over millions of years. Bioinspiration is about characterising these natural models, abstracting the most important functions and emulating them. In contrast, the aim of biomimicry is to exactly replicate the observed features.
Biointegration means integration of living systems into conventional materials or processes, whereby the living systems can also be human-made and modelled on nature. This results in biohybrid systems, which have the potential to combine and span different scales of length: biology’s nanometre scale at on one end, with the structural scale of devices at the other end of the scale.
Bioinspiration and biointegration play an important role in biotechnology, in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and in material development, as well as in architecture, diagnostics, industrial processes and the circular economy.
Bioinspiration has been used intensively for years, as the following examples show: Insects and plants whose surfaces repel water, proteins and other substances have served as inspiration (and still do) for the development of advanced materials on whose surfaces no organisms settle (see article Antimicrobial surfaces) or which are water-repellent. Inspired by the self-organised compartmentalisation of biological systems, meaning division into subdomains with different conditions, self-organising monolayers have been developed, which are used to study wetting, adhesion and lubrication. Starfish served as a model for collaborative robots’ pneumatic and soft gripper arms.
The use of biointegration is less widespread and usually only takes place on a laboratory scale. The most advanced example is that of biologically motivated production processes, such as the production of antibodies using microorganisms (see article Synthetic biology) and cancer therapy based on modified immune cells. Biointegration is also used in the production of biofuels, since microorganisms play a key role.
The possible future applications are manifold. Genetically modified bacteria that carry out industrial processes with less energy than today are conceivable. Microorganisms could be used in the environment and in medicine as biosensors, registering and displaying CO2 content or other variables, for example. In architecture, living systems could be integrated into buildings’ structures, enabling them to sense and respond to the environment. In general, artificially made living systems could take over the function of something that used to be chemical; this is not only of interest for medicine, but also for sustainable products and processes.
The future applications offer great opportunities for business and society: In this field, industrial processes become more modular and can be adapted to needs more easily, promising better energy efficiency, simpler reintegration of materials into natural cycles and increased product sustainability in general. Before commercialisation, there is still a lot of research work to be done, for which Switzerland is in an excellent position as an interdisciplinary location.
In order for the described opportunities to become reality, a number of technical hurdles have to be overcome. Living systems adapt to the environment and keep evolving; achieving stable and reproducible processes will be a major challenge. In addition, living systems are susceptible to contamination and require a lot of space and time, which is likely to make the processes more expensive. The interfaces between living and conventional systems, for instance in buildings, are also difficult to realise. Generally speaking, the possibilities that living systems give rise to are also challenges.
Caution is necessary when mixed systems are used in nature and in the body, as living systems are being placed in locations where they do not naturally occur. This can have unexpected effects and requires strict control, especially in the early stages. There are also ethical issues to consider if a fully functional synthetic system that imitates neurons is constructed. The use of genetically modified organisms is strictly regulated in Europe, which prevents negative excesses but also limits the possibilities.
Large-scale initiatives, such as ALIVE at ETH Zurich and the National Centre of Competence in Research "Bio-Inspired Materials", involve academic and industrial players throughout Switzerland and are well positioned to tackle the technical challenges ahead. It is important that the topic gets on the radar of political decision-makers, even though it is too early for political action.