Better Nature: Technologies Inspired by the Natural World

At Harvard, researchers absorb the lessons of the natural world, from the human immune system to an insect-trapping plant, then tweak them to create bold, new technologies for health.

Inside the Boston headquarters of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, an exuberant Don Ingber weaves through a maze of chlorine-scented laboratories, glass-walled offices, and darkened rooms. 

In less than five minutes, Ingber, the institute’s 56-year-old director, has pointed out a mattress that could prevent life-threatening sleep apnea in newborns; simulated lungs, intestines, and hearts made of silicone rubber using microchip manufacturing technology; and a machine that forces mutations in bacteria, directing their evolution so they can produce low-cost biofuels and drugs. 

More than once, he stops to revel in the scope of the research. “There’s so much,” he says. “It’s just ridiculous.”

The 4-year-old institute consists of six core research areas focused on a wide range of technologies, from cancer vaccines to robotic bees that will pollinate plants. Most of the institute’s 18 core faculty members split their time between other academic departments and the Wyss, where they share multidisciplinary lab space that forces roboticists and biologists, chemists and computer scientists, clinicians and engineers to put their heads together and see their projects through.

What most distinguishes the Wyss is that its scientists treat the natural world as their inspirational springboard. It isn’t just a matter of parroting nature’s methods, but of absorbing lessons from nature and then tweaking them to create something entirely new. 

Wyss chemist Joanna Aizenberg, for example, borrowed the concept for a new nonstick material from the slick surface of the insect-trapping pitcher plant. But Aizenberg didn’t just copy the plant’s technique—she improved upon it, then spun out prototypes for use in the real world (see “Super Sliders” at the end of this article).

A New Sensibility

Some scientists are content to publish their ideas in journals and then move on to the next experiment. But for Wyss researchers, translation has always been the major point. In 2005, when Harvard convened a committee to envision the future of bioengineering, Ingber (along with Harvard bioengineer David Mooney) was chosen to lead the charge. 

Ingber was no stranger to discipline-hopping. His first major scientific insight had its roots in a sculpture class he took while a junior at Yale University. The professor showed the class an abstract sculpture made of wooden dowels and elastic strings. It was built according to the principles of an architectural concept known as tensegrity, in which an object’s structural stability arises from the tension among its parts. 

Ingber watched as the instructor pushed down on the sculpture, flattening it out. The energy he exerted was stored in the structure, and as he let go, the sculpture popped back to its normal upright form. A few days earlier, Ingber, a biochemistry major, had seen something similar happen to cells in the cancer research lab where he worked: Cells would adhere to the bottom of culture dishes, flattening underneath and then popping back to a more rounded shape when released. 

Ingber became convinced that tensegrity applied to cells as well. When he theorized that pushing or squeezing them might affect their function, “people thought I was crazy,” Ingber says. But in the decades since, his work has proven otherwise. He has demonstrated, for example, that exerting a mechanical force on a cell can activate cell signaling.