The natural world is teeming with sources of inspiration for technological advancement. Evolution has shaped fascinating adaptations in animals, making them well equipped to deal with their surroundings. When scientists discover the perfected designs and behaviors of plants and animals, inventors take note, using them as a blueprint for technology that could improve human lives.
This year, scientists fashioned a gel from proteins in snake venom that can help stop uncontrolled bleeding, and a team of engineers built an engine-less Mars glider inspired by the flight of the albatross.
But even more new inventions are in the works that couldn’t have begun without researchers first uncovering something about wildlife. Through examining the genes of jellyfish smaller than a pinky fingernail, mapping the mechanics of an elephant’s trunk and conducting loads of other investigations, researchers have found creative sparks to spur future innovation.
Here are seven scientific discoveries from 2022 that may lead to new inventions down the line.
‘Immortal jellyfish’ thwart aging by being born again
Age is just a number, but for a deep-sea species known as the “immortal jellyfish,” that number can be reset countless times.
When an adult immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) sustains damage or becomes stressed, it absorbs its tentacles into its body, becoming a free-floating blob that settles to the seafloor. This blob then morphs into an earlier jellyfish life stage: a branching, plantlike polyp that in turn releases young jellies into the ocean. Effectively, the adult jellyfish turns into multiple new babies. Though predators can kill these creatures, the jellyfish do not succumb to old age.
To find how the tiny invertebrate accomplishes this feat of anti-aging, a team of scientists looked at its genome. In a study published in August in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the biologists from the University of Oviedo in Spain compared the species to one of its jellyfish relatives, revealing that the so-called immortal jelly has twice as many genes that repair and protect DNA. With these genes, the jellyfish can produce more restorative proteins.
Telomeres, or chromosome-protecting bits of DNA, typically shorten with age. But the immortal jellyfish has genetic mutations that slow this shrinking.
The jellyfish use multiple genetic avenues for preserving their longevity—and that could be a lesson for researchers looking into human aging. “If we want to look for an extension of health span, we cannot just focus on one pathway. That will not be sufficient,” Jan Karlseder, a molecular biologist and director of the Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at the Salk Institute, told the Wall Street Journal’s Ginger Adams Otis and Alyssa Lukpat in August. “We need to look at many of them and how they synergize.”
Examining the genes of these jellyfish—including those associated with regeneration and production of stem cells that can grow into any kind of cell in the body—could inspire new techniques for replacing damaged cells, organs or tissues in humans. The research could “find better answers to the many diseases associated with aging that overwhelm us today,” co-author Carlos López-Otín, a biochemist and molecular biologist at the University of Oviedo, said in a statement.
Springtails always land on their feet
Humans don’t pay much attention to springtails. After all, most of these insect-like creatures that live in soil, leaf litter, tree bark and other moist environments are smaller than a grain of sand.
But these miniscule animals are truly exceptional. To escape danger, they hurl themselves into the air, traveling at a speed of 280 body lengths per second. As they fly, they perform rapid twists and flips—and, like tiny gymnasts, they stick the landing.
Scientists once believed springtails had no control over their bodies as they flew. Their speedy jumps looked to the naked eye like frantic fleeing. But a team of researchers recently used high-tech cameras to look at one semiaquatic species, documenting just how exacting these six-legged hoppers are in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November.
The critter’s technique comes from two special body parts: an appendage called a furcula, which smacks the water to launch it into the air, and an abdominal tube known as a collophore, which holds a droplet of water to stabilize its flight and act as an anchor on its landing.
Inspired by springtails’ natural hardware for controlled jumps, the researchers built tiny robots with drag flaps that help them land upright. In trials, the penny-sized mechanical jumpers landed correctly around 75 percent of the time.
“It has been a major challenge for jumping robots, specifically at small scales, to control their orientation in the air for landing and jumping,” said study co-author Je-sung Koh, a mechanical engineer whose team at Ajou University in South Korea helped build the robots, in a statement. “The finding in this research could inspire insect-scale jumping robots that are able to land safely and expand the capability of robots in new terrains, such as the open-water surfaces in our planet’s lakes and oceans.”
Catnip repels mosquitoes
When your cat rolls around with catnip, or an East Asian alternative known as silver vine, that playtime might be more than just for fun.
Catnip and silver vine leaves host a cocktail of chemicals called iridoids, which induce a cat’s endorphin “high” as they play. But iridoids also repel mosquitoes. After a cat simply rubs against or rolls in the plant, its fur becomes coated in these chemicals, warding off the blood-sucking insects. Cats, however, also lick or chew on the leaves, which long mystified researchers. They wondered if damaging the plant had a benefit to cats.
In an experiment, a team from the Iwate University in Japan presented cats with two variations of silver vine leaves: those that had been manually crushed and those that were intact. The animals spent more time playing with the plants that had been damaged.
A closer analysis revealed that the crushed leaves emitted more iridoids, and the cocktail of chemicals in those damaged leaves was more diverse and more evenly distributed across five different chemicals. The chemical mixture in the intact leaves was more dominated by a single iridoid.
What’s more, the complex cocktail—while preferred by cats—is less appealing to mosquitoes. Scientists put a shallow dish into a transparent box full of the insects. When the chemicals from damaged leaves were placed in the dish, the mosquitoes scattered more quickly than when scientists put in the mixture from intact leaves.
These findings, published in iScience in June, could help protect humans from mosquitoes as well. The species in the study is the same kind of mosquito that spreads viruses such as dengue and chikungunya among humans. The results show that people may want to consider using catnip or an iridoid cocktail as a bug spray—as long as they are okay with attracting some felines.
Bull sperm traveling in groups have better luck
From the dawn of sperm science—when compound microscope inventor Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed his own semen in 1677—scientists have struggled to view sperm in an environment that captures how they would naturally behave. Sandwiched between two pieces of glass under a lens, sperm do not reveal how they act in the place they’re designed to survive: the reproductive tract.
But in a study of bull sperm published in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology in September, researchers from North Carolina A&T State University and Cornell created a fluid-filled environment that mimicked the conditions of a cow’s cervix, uterus and oviduct. Their analysis revealed bull sperm that swim in groups are better equipped to navigate a cow’s reproductive system than sperm traveling alone.
Clustering sperm do not swim faster, per se, but they are able to move along a more direct path in the reproductive tract. When the researchers added currents in the fluid environment, similar to the ones sperm would face inside a cow, the sperm that had gathered together were better able to orient themselves to swim against the flow. Groups of sperm could even withstand the strongest currents, making them less likely to get washed downstream.
In effect, the bull sperm used the same drafting technique as race-car drivers or bikers in a peloton.
This research paves the way for future discoveries that can translate to humans. Bull sperm are good analogs of human sperm—both have similar dimensions and swim through the vagina and cervix to reach the uterus.
Because of this, the researchers say that traveling in groups probably gives an advantage to human sperm as well. This understanding could improve both human infertility treatments and pregnancy prevention measures. And with the reproductive environment simulator that researchers developed for this study, scientists could diagnose infertility and provide more advanced help with conceiving.
“This type of technology could be used, or adapted, to select better quality sperm,” Christopher Barratt, a fertility researcher at the University of Dundee in Scotland who was not involved in the study, told Science News’ James R. Riordon in October. “That would be a very big deal.”
The secret to an elephant trunk’s dexterity is its skin
Using its trunk, an elephant can smell, communicate, store water, gather food and eat. The appendage can forcibly tear foliage from branches or nimbly pick up a blade of grass. The key, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July, lies in the animal’s wrinkly skin.
In an experiment, researchers encouraged two captive African savanna elephants to reach their trunks toward bran cubes and apples. As the elephants maneuvered their dexterous noses, scientists filmed them with a high-speed camera. The footage revealed that all parts of a trunk do not extend evenly: The folded skin atop the trunk stretches 15 percent farther than the wrinkled underside does. The team confirmed their findings by examining the trunk of an elephant that had died.
This special skin setup is “the elephant’s innovation,” co-author David Hu, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a statement. But human engineers have tended to overlook this concept while developing soft robots.
“In order to have these complex movements, you need these structures on the outside,” Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech and co-author of the study, told New Scientist’s Clare Wilson in July. People working on such robots should experiment with the material their technology is wrapped in, experts say. In this way, innovators could create machines that more accurately replicate the dynamics of an elephant’s trunk.
Yellow-bellied marmots halt aging while they hibernate
If you picked up a hibernating yellow-bellied marmot, it would feel “like a cold, fuzzy rock,” Dan Blumstein, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Inverse’s Elana Spivack in March. With its metabolism slowed dramatically, the squirrel’s body temperature drops to a near-freezing 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
These marmots live for approximately 15 years—but they spend nine months of every year in hibernation. A March study suggests that the rodents can sink so deeply into torpor that, in the process, their aging might slow to a halt.
A marmot’s life span is much longer than what would be expected for another mammal of its size, and the creature’s intense hibernating habits might be an explanation. When marmots emerge from their slumber, they are, biologically, the same age as when they first curled up.
Researchers measured epigenetic markers, or natural changes to DNA as an organism ages, in blood samples from hibernating marmots and published their findings in Nature Ecology & Evolution. When marmots wake up briefly during hibernation—to rouse their immune systems, for example—the transition initiates aging-related cell activities, including oxidative stress, or an excess of certain oxygen-containing molecules that has been linked with conditions such as Alzheimer’s. But by suppressing this activity as they hibernate, marmots stall the aging of their cells. Their epigenetic markers barely change over the course of hibernation, suggesting that the marmots’ biological age remains the same from start to end.
With marmots and similar creatures as a blueprint, NASA scientists and the European Space Agency have already been eyeing strategies for inducing hibernation in astronauts. If people en route to Mars went into a state of torpor, it would dramatically reduce the cost of the mission. Doctors, too, could use epigenetic markers to better preserve organ tissues that are being stored for transplants.
Caterpillar spit breaks down plastic
Molecular biologist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was tending to her beehives, plucking wax worms from the honeycombs, when she made an unexpected discovery. The caterpillars, which she had put into a plastic bag, were eating through the material. Upon closer examination, she found that the larvae weren’t just chewing holes, but their saliva was actually breaking down the bag’s polyethylene molecules.
Plastic is designed to be durable, but its longevity becomes a problem in the environment. The synthetic product breaks down into miniscule specks called microplastics, which pollute waters, seafood and even human blood.
With the world’s recycling system struggling to keep up with the volume of plastic waste, perhaps “bio-recycling” could help address the issue. Wax worm saliva might one day combat plastics at large-scale waste management plants or lead to the invention of at-home recycling kits, researchers say.
“This suggests alternative scenarios to deal with plastic waste in which plastics can be degraded in controlled conditions, limiting or eventually eliminating altogether the release of microplastics,” study co-author Clemente Fernández Arias, an ecologist and mathematician at the Spanish National Research Council, told Reuters’ Will Dunham in October.
Still, a legion of plastic-metabolizing wax worms would emit lots of carbon dioxide as they digest the material. That’s just one of the reasons why, when it comes to plastic waste, experts say the strongest solution is to simply produce less.