When brainstorming ways to improve human life, inventors often look to nature. Animals and plants, which evolved over millennia to thrive in their environments, provide an excellent blueprint for innovation.

This year, for example, scientists from China and Switzerland debuted a drug-delivery patch that resembles the suckers of an octopus. The suction cup-shaped device adheres to the inside of a patient’s cheek and infuses medicine orally, with no needle required. And inspired by the squishy sea cucumber, engineers developed a magnetic, shape-shifting robot that can liquefy when heated and re-form as it cools. One day, the invention could have medical applications, such as removing harmful items from a patient’s stomach; it might also help assemble hard-to-reach circuits or act as a universal screw.

But before any of these inventions could come to be, scientists first had to learn something about the natural world. In 2023, researchers described proteins in caterpillar venom, aerodynamic patterns on monarch butterflies and reflective materials in crustaceans’ eyes that could hold lessons for engineers. These breakthroughs of today could inspire the technology of tomorrow.

Here are seven scientific discoveries from this year that could lead to new inventions.

Asp caterpillar venom punches holes in cell walls

a thick, furry caterpillar on a leaf atop a tissue
The asp caterpillar looks soft to the touch, but it hides painful, venom-filled spines. University of Queensland

Though furry asp caterpillars might look like harmless, walking toupees, you should resist any urge to reach out and pet one. Beneath their soft exteriors, asp caterpillars hide a menacing network of venom-filled spines. Though the larval moths grow little more than an inch long, their sting can put an adult human in the hospital. This year, scientists analyzed how their powerful toxin works.

It turns out, asp caterpillar venom contains an unusual, shape-shifting protein, according to a study published in July in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When the toxin reaches the outer surface of a cell, this protein forms into a doughnut-like shape, then punches a hole through the cell wall.

Toxins made by bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella enter cells in a similar manner. So the scientists suggest that some kind of bacteria inserted its genes into an asp caterpillar’s DNA long ago. Then, once the caterpillar grew into an adult moth, it passed these genes on to its offspring.

By mimicking the hole-punching nature of the caterpillar’s proteins, engineers could develop medicine delivery strategies that “get drugs inside cells where they need to work,” study co-author Andrew Walker, a molecular bioscientist at the University of Queensland in Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Antonia O’Flaherty. “We might be able to engineer these kinds of toxins to target cancer cells or to target pathogens while leaving human cells alone.”

That work could take at least one or two decades. But this area of research could mean that one day, the asp caterpillar’s venom could bring not only pain but relief.

Hibernating bears do not get blood clots

a brown bear with three cubs
Brown bears resist blood clots despite their long, sedentary periods during hibernation. Troy Harrison via Getty Images

From long airplane rides to bed rest after surgery, extended sedentary periods can bend veins, leading blood to pool and increasing the risk for clotting, or deep vein thrombosis. But hibernating bears lie largely still for months on end—and these masters of inactivity do not get blood clots.

To find out how they do it, scientists tracked down brown bears in Sweden during the winter and summer months. They tranquilized the hulking creatures and took blood samples at both times of year. In a makeshift lab in the field, they discovered one protein showed a significant seasonal change: Called HSP47, it was present in high levels during the summers but nearly nonexistent during hibernation, per a paper published in Science in April.

Based on past research, the scientists understood that HSP47 was involved in helping platelets bind to white blood cells to fight infections. So, by decreasing levels of the protein during hibernation, it seemed like the bears were establishing a safeguard against blood clots.

Informed by what they’d seen in bears, the team turned to human subjects. They measured levels of HSP47 in people with spinal cord injuries, who remain sedentary for long periods of time but do not struggle with thrombosis. Sure enough, their levels of HSP47 were lower than average. And when the researchers had ten volunteers spend 27 days on bed rest, they observed a drop in this clot-producing protein over that time.

Understanding HSP47 could have medical implications. It might help doctors determine who is at an increased risk for thrombosis. Or it could provide avenues for preventive treatment in cancer patients and those recovering from surgery, who would be more likely to develop blood clots.

“The ideal treatment for deep vein thrombosis would prevent blood clots from forming where they aren’t supposed to, while not preventing your body’s normal blood clotting machinery,” Kim Martinod, a biomedical scientist at KU Leuven in Belgium, said to Science’s Elizabeth Pennisi. “This has the potential to be just that.”

Some crustaceans have shiny eyes that help them hide from predators

six transparent-looking shrimp larvae
Larval shrimp can blend into their surroundings with their transparent bodies. Research this year found some shrimp and prawn eyes can camouflage, too. Boonyakiat Chaloemchavalid via iStock

To survive in the ocean, lots of creatures opt for camouflage. But some take it to another level: Ghostly animals essentially hide from the light itself, with transparent bodies that all but disappear from view. Glass squid use this strategy, along with larval forms of several fish, but it has one pitfall. The creatures’ eyes reflect light, creating a bit of shine that can give away their location to a predator. Transparent eyes simply wouldn’t function since certain dark pigments are essential for vision.

Some shrimp and prawn larvae, however, have evolved a way around this shortcoming. Their eyes are covered with a sheet of light-manipulating glass that effectively matches their eyeshine to the color of surrounding water. In this way, the tiny crustaceans can become invisible.

In a paper published in Science in February, researchers examined the complex material that forms this eye-shielding glass. It’s actually composed of tiny spheres, each just billionths of a meter wide, made of a substance called isoxanthopterin.

These spheres, which reflect light like miniature disco balls, form a disorganized array with gaps in between them, so the crustaceans can still see. The glassy shield can reflect different colors of light—from deep blue to yellow green—based on the animal’s camouflage needs. In lab experiments, prawns exposed to hours of sunlight had yellow reflective eyes, but those left in the dark overnight instead reflected green. Interestingly, the size and arrangement of the spheres controlled the color of light they reflected, and that color was consistent across all viewing angles.

With further research on these little spheres, researchers could uncover ways to improve light-manipulating technologies in solar panels, remote sensing and communications, according to a perspective accompanying the paper.

“There is currently a great interest in finding organic, biocompatible, high-refractive-index materials as replacements for inorganic materials in pigments, cosmetics and other optical materials,” Benjamin Palmer, a co-author of the study and a chemist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, told New Scientist’s Alice Klein.

Or, because the tiny glass spheres create a uniform color, the structures could inspire environmentally friendly paints or even nail polish.

Monarch butterflies get extra lift from spots on their wings

a monarch butterfly on small purple flowers
Monarch butterflies' signature white spots could help them fly—and inspire better drones. Pixabay

The monarch butterfly’s death-defying migration is in a class of its own. No other butterfly species is known to complete a two-way trip, heading south for the winter then returning north as temperatures warm, like birds do. The insects might cover 100 miles in a single day, clocking a total distance of up to 3,000 miles before they reach their final destinations. To save energy, they’ll often ride on air currents. And, according to a study published in PLOS One in June, the butterflies’ wing patterns might also give them a boost.

As monarchs fly, the patchwork of dark and light colors on the edges of their wings creates an uneven pattern of heating and cooling, per the study. With the dark areas slightly warmer and the white parts slightly cooler, tiny, swirling pockets of air can form around the spots. These eddies may provide some extra lift for the insects and reduce drag on their wings by shifting how air flows past the butterfly.

Comparing spot size across monarchs and other species supported this idea. Butterflies that didn’t migrate had smaller white spots than monarchs, as did certain nonmigratory monarchs, which belong to generations born in the summer that don’t survive to see migration time in the fall.

Mimicking the monarchs’ white spots could help engineers create more efficient drones, the researchers say.

“Your drone would be able to carry more, because this coloration helps them gain extra lift,” co-author Mostafa Hassanalian, a mechanical engineer at New Mexico Tech who has created drones from taxidermy birds, said to Popular Science’s Zayna Syed.

The research shows that even subtle changes in coloration can make a big difference. Successful butterflies that made it to Mexico had white spots that were larger by just 3 percent, compared with the ones that ended their migratory journeys in the southern United States. Though this number may seem low, it can hold major consequences for the monarchs, co-author Andy Davis, an animal ecologist at the University of Georgia, told National Geographic’s Jason Bittel. “That could be the difference between life and death during the migration,” he said.

Desert plant pulls moisture from the air with special salts

spindly leaves of an athel tamarisk plant with drops of water against an orange sky
The athel tamarisk excretes salt onto its leaves to grab moisture from the air. Post-Doctoral Associate Marieh Al-Handawi, NYU Abu Dhabi

When it comes to eking out a living without much water, desert-dwelling organisms are the masters of innovation. Some animals, such as the Gila monster, have become adept at storing water within their bodies. And plants can grow deep-reaching roots to get a drink from far underground.

But one dry-adapted plant turns to another source to gain moisture: the air. Spindly shrubs called athel tamarisks draw salty water from the soil and excrete the salt from their leaves. Then, at night, these crystals allow them to collect water from the air, according to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October.

Scientists snipped a branch from the athel tamarisk and brought it back to their lab. They placed it in an environmentally controlled chamber meant to mimic desert conditions: 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity. After two hours, the branch, with the salt crystals on its leaves, had gained 15 milligrams of water. When they tested the same branch without its salt, it collected only 1.6 milligrams.

The team examined the salt’s components and found it contained at least ten different materials, which together allowed it to pull water from the air, even at relatively low humidities of 55 percent. One of these components was lithium sulfate, which could gather water at the lowest humidities.

These salts, being naturally produced by the plant, are likely to be environmentally safe, the authors write. Identifying them could help engineers improve practices for pulling moisture from the air in water-strapped regions. Cloud-seeding, a process that adds crystals to clouds to prompt them to create rain, is already used in nations such as the United Arab Emirates to fight dry conditions and in Pakistan to mitigate smog.

“This holds the promise of revolutionizing cloud-seeding practices by rendering them more effective and environmentally friendly, while also aligning with our responsibility to use the planet’s scarce water resources wisely,” Marieh Al-Handawi, a chemist at New York University Abu Dhabi and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Bugs called sharpshooters fling their pee to save energy

Super-Fast Insect Urination

Tiny insects called sharpshooters drink up to 300 times their own body weight each day. They exclusively ingest xylem sap from plants—a low-energy substance that’s 99 percent water—so they have to get rid of plenty of excess liquid. As a result, the bugs urinate almost constantly.

But the way that happens is surprising: A sharpshooter creates a droplet of urine on top of a flexible appendage called an anal stylus. The stylus rotates along a hinge, then catapults the pee away from the bug at a high speed.

In a study published in Nature Communications in February, scientists found that, oddly enough, the drops of pee moved through the air 40 percent faster than the stylus did. This feat, in which a projectile flies more quickly than its launching device, is called “superpropulsion.”

Through slow-motion video and microscopy, the researchers found a sharpshooter used its stylus to compress the droplet, creating surface tension that stores energy until the drop is released at the proper moment—kind of like how a diver times their jump with a bounce of the board to gain extra lift.

To scientists, this ability is fascinating, as it sets sharpshooters apart from all other animals: No other species has been documented to achieve superpropulsion.

But to the bugs, this odd tactic has a more practical benefit. By flinging droplets instead of producing a pee stream, sharpshooters save energy—pelting pee is actually four to eight times more efficient than the alternative, the researchers found.

Engineers could take a hint from sharpshooters—the mechanisms used by the bugs could lead to better ways to remove water from electronic devices; for example, a smartwatch that can eject liquid through speaker vibrations. Perhaps superpropulsion could inspire technologies that defog the surfaces of goggles or glasses by vibrating them, as well.

Bowhead whales can repair their DNA, and in doing so, increase their cancer resistance

overhead view of two bowhead whales swimming amid ice
Bowhead whales can live longer than 200 years. NOAA Fisheries

In the animal kingdom, the rate of cancer is mysterious: As a matter of statistics, larger animals, which have more cells in total, should get cancer more frequently than smaller ones. But looking at elephants and whales, that isn’t the case—respectively, these massive creatures have roughly 100 and 1,000 times the number of cells humans do, but their rates of cancer are much lower.

This inconsistency, called Peto’s paradox, has long puzzled scientists. Past research revealed a gene in elephants that seems to suppress tumors, hinting at an answer to the problem. This year, scientists found two proteins in bowhead whales that could be linked to DNA repair, increasing the animals’ cancer resistance, according to a preprint paper published in bioRxiv in May.

Bowhead whales are the longest-lived mammals on Earth, with a life span that can exceed 200 years. The research suggests the whales’ ability to repair DNA might be one of the keys to their longevity.

In the study, researchers severed both strands of the DNA molecule in cells from humans, cows, mice and bowhead whales. This kind of damage, called a “double-strand break,” is known to increase cancer risk. More than two times as many bowhead whale cells were able to repair their DNA, compared with the cells of any other species. And the whale cells did a much better job at fixing the DNA accurately—the human, cow and mouse cells were often sloppy with repairs, making incorrect additions or deletions to the DNA sequence. Such mistakes can also raise the risk of cancer.

The team found that proteins called CIRBP and RPA2 were much more common in bowhead whales and played a role in this gene repair. Perhaps, scientists say, regulating such proteins in humans could mitigate damage to DNA.

“We probably have the solution to cancer medicine out there in nature already,” Orsolya Vincze, an evolutionary ecologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research who was not involved in the study, told Science News’ Meghan Rosen. “We just have to find it.”

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