Seeding knowledge for biodiversity

March 31, 2021

Is there anything more experimental than a seed?

Planting something in the ground and seeing what grows there? Christina Sullivan stands next to the card catalog housing the seed library Christina Sullivan, a library specialist, manages the seed library in the Design and Arts Library on the Tempe campus. Photo by Marina Ioffe Download Full Image

The practice of experimentation with a focus on native plants is helping to grow the daily give-and-take activities of the seed library at Arizona State University, situated in the Salt River Valley on the homelands of Indigenous peoples.

Tending to a repurposed card catalog of edible plant and herb seeds, curated specially for the Arizona climate, is the work of Christina Sullivan, a library specialist who manages the seed library in addition to NatureMaker, a joint collection of the ASU Library and the Biomimicry Center. Both are housed in the Design and Arts Library on the Tempe campus.

Sullivan’s role keeps her attuned to the seasons and cycles of what grows here.

“Seeds are inexpensive and give people an opportunity to experiment with their gardens  seeing what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “The seed library is really good at teaching people about what can grow in Arizona, specifically.”

For example, there’s a difference between drought-resistant plants, such as aloe, and native plants belonging to our Sonoran Desert ecosystem, which is home to the ocotillo, the brittlebush and the saguaro cactus.

“The Sonoran Desert is pretty diverse and specialized,” said Sullivan, who has grown up in Arizona observing desert diversity on hiking trails, state highways and in her own backyard. “A saguaro cactus only grows in the Sonoran Desert, so there are rules and regulations for how to care for that cactus or how to remove it. Right now, we have people coming in from other places not knowing about this place and they begin remodeling old houses that come with native plants. Sometimes they end up cutting down a saguaro because they either don’t want to go through the trouble or there’s not an understanding that the saguaros are protected.”

Their protection is, of course, highly consequential to both animals and people that depend on the saguaro’s provision of a home and food for birds, insects, reptiles, bats and other mammals. 

Sullivan’s encouragement of native plant growth aligns well with a new citizen science project throughout April that invites the ASU community and the entire state of Arizona to document flowering plants and pollinators on ASU’s campuses.

Citizen science is a collaborative process among scientists and the general public to speed up the collection of data by scaling up the number of informed data collectors and the tools and resources to which they have access, making libraries key facilitators.

This year’s project, rooted at the intersection of Earth Month and Citizen Science Month, was jointly developed by the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society with support from SciStarter, a popular online platform for citizen science projects founded by Darlene Cavalier, a professor of practice at the school. 

“The idea to focus on pollinators and flowering plants grew out of our interest in recording and understanding the biodiversity present on ASU’s campuses,” said Alice Letcher, a project manager for the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. “The data collected by citizen scientists will help us document the distribution of pollinators and flowering plants on ASU’s Phoenix-area campuses. In addition, the experience of developing a project for citizen scientists will help us understand how we can effectively engage the public.”

Developed by Jared Clements, an undergraduate student majoring in biology, the project will assist the biodiversity research of Gwen Iacona, an assistant research professor in the School of Life Sciences, within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

There are three questions that citizen scientists will help them to answer:

  1. How do pollinator species density (the number of individuals of a given species in an area) and species diversity (the number of different species present in an area) vary with location?
  2. How do pollinator species density and species diversity vary with the type of flowering plants present? (“Type” means whether a plant is native or non-native.)
  3. How do data collected for this project by citizen scientists compare to data collected for this project by professional scientists?

“We’re interested in what differences we can observe in how the two groups collect data,” said Letcher.

Several local public libraries around Phoenix and the East Valley are providing citizen science kits for those wanting to participate. The kits contain things like “field guides, magnifying lenses and other materials to make the data collection experience more robust,” Cavalier said. 

A limited number of citizen science kits for homeschoolers are available at Fletcher Library on ASU’s West campus. The outreach effort is being led by Carolyn Starr, the outreach coordinator for the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. 

Get information and register for the project, which is open to all ages and levels of experience.

“Citizen Science Month provides a wonderful opportunity to fill research data gaps around campus,” said Cavalier, “while engaging people in simple but important ways.”

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

Message in a bottle: Info-rich bubbles respond to antibiotics

January 21, 2021

Once regarded as merely cast-off waste products of cellular life, bacterial membrane vesicles (MVs) have since become an exciting new avenue of research, due to the wealth of biological information they carry to other bacteria as well as other cell types.

These tiny particles, produced by most bacteria, can bud off from outer cellular membranes, traveling along cell surfaces and occasionally migrating into intercellular spaces. Luis Cisneros is a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, and the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Download Full Image

In a new study, Luis H. Cisneros and his colleagues describe the effects of antibiotics on membrane vesicles, demonstrating that such drugs actively modify the properties of vesicle transport. Under the influence of antibiotics, MVs were produced and released by bacteria in greater abundance and traveled faster and farther from their origin.

The researchers suggest that the altered behaviors of MVs may represent a stress response to the presence of antibiotics and further, that MVs liberated from the cell membrane may transmit urgent warning signals to neighboring cells and perhaps foster antibiotic resistance.

"It’s long been believed that membrane vesicles are involved in the cell-cell signaling process leading to changes in the collective behavior of living cells, like the coordination of survival responses due to antibiotic stress,” Cisneros said. "But many details in the dynamics of this process are not yet well understood. Our work opens a new door in this field.”

Cisneros is a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, and the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He is joined by Julia Bos and Didier Mazel, colleagues from the Institut Pasteur, Paris.

The research findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science Advances.

Bacterial satellites

Membrane vesicles — encapsulated particles shed from the membranes of bacteria — are conduits of information. Like nanoscale flash drives, they can encode and carry volumes of data in the form of polysaccharides, proteins, DNAs, RNAs, metabolites, enzymes and toxins. They also express many proteins on their outer membrane that are derived from the bacterial surfaces from which they were exuded.

Groundbreaking research on the mechanisms controlling vesicles traffic were awarded a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 2013 and are currently being used to package the SPIKE mRNA in the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine.

The rich storehouse of information carried by MVs and its ultimate effect on bacterial and nonbacterial cells is of great scientific and medical concern. In addition to alerting fellow bacteria of environmental stresses like antibiotics, MVs have been implicated in the quorum sensing activities that inform bacteria of overall population densities and may even affect brain processes in higher mammals. This could occur if MVs produced by gut microbes transport their cargo to the nervous system.

Membrane vesicles are common to all life kingdoms, from bacteria and other unicellular organisms to archaea and eukaryotic cells found in multicellular organisms, including cancer cells. Depending on the cell type from which they emerge, they have been implicated as vital contributors to intercellular communication, coagulation, inflammatory processes and the genesis of tumors, as well as playing a role in the biology of stem cells.

A closer look

Despite their importance however, MVs have received inadequate attention until recently. Due to their diminutive nature, measuring between 20 and 400 nanometers in diameter, they are a challenging subject of study, particularly in their natural state within living systems.

Key to gaining insight into the subtle behavior of MVs has been technological advances that allow them to be closely observed. The new study outlines sophisticated methods of florescence microscopy and data analysis used to track the production and transport of MVs under laboratory scrutiny.

Traditionally, MVs have been studied with the aid of biochemical techniques, electron microscopy and atomic force microscopy. These methods have helped researchers probe the contents of MVs, which may contain nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, various toxins, antibiotics, phage receptors, signaling molecules, metabolites, metals and growth factors. The precise composition of MVs is dependent on physiological details of the mother cell as well as the mode by which the MVs are formed.

Likewise, numerous factors can affect the formation and release of MVs. These include antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs, environmental influences, cell death and necrosis as well as damage to the bacterium’s DNA. The heightened production and transport of MVs may be a generalized response to bacterial stress.

Bacterial information highway

The downstream effects of MV transport likewise remain a topic of considerable speculation. The release of MVs appears to be involved in a number of critical biological processes including cell-cell communication, horizontal gene transfer, social phenomena and immune response modulation. Importantly, they are also believed to act as decoys for antibiotics.

To better understand these and other attributes of MVs in living systems, it is vital to closely follow their movements over time. The current study represents the first high-resolution, quantitative tracking of MVs in response to antibiotic treatment.

The experiments described involve a population of live Escherichia coli, commensal bacteria common in the human gut. The individual MVs were tagged with a fluorescent dye, then visualized using time-lapse fluorescence microscopy at high magnification combined with fast image acquisition. Additionally, MV transport was investigated with imaging tools allowing particle tracking to be fully automated.

Analysis of vesicle movement revealed that treatment with low doses of antibiotic significantly altered vesicle dynamics, vesicle-to-membrane affinity, and surface properties of the cell membranes, generally enhancing vesicle transport along the surfaces of bacterial membranes. Continuing studies should help researchers determine if populations of bacteria displaying ramped-up, stress-induced MV transport show enhanced antibiotic resistance.

According to Bos, corresponding author of the new study, “This is the first evidence that tracking thousands of individual membrane vesicle trajectories in real time in a live population of microorganisms has been achieved. Gaining insights into how they move and locate themselves within a bacterial microcolony and how their motion properties could be a signature of antibiotic stress, will undoubtedly open a new avenue of research on this fascinating and currently hot topic.”

The study helps advance our understanding of these as-yet mysterious entities while potentially paving the way for a range of applications in immunology and biotechnology.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


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Thinking like a tree

September 4, 2020

Electrical engineering Professor Michael Kozicki finds inspirations from dendrites

Over the course of his 40-plus years in electrical engineering, Arizona State University's Michael Kozicki has amassed a long list of distinguished credentials.

A spirited storyteller with a crisp Scottish brogue, Kozicki can bring each line of his resume to life such that his career reads less like a series of experiments in a sterile lab and more like a romping adventure in science. But mention dendrites and the animated professor kicks it up a notch, becoming downright rhapsodic.

“It goes way beyond interest,” he readily confesses, laughing. “It’s more like obsession.” 

The word dendrite comes from the Greek "dendron," meaning tree. Over the years, dendrites have so enthralled Kozicki that if there’s a branching pattern anywhere in sight, he can spot it: when he flies over the desert and looks down at a network of eroded canyons, when he catches sight of the tree outside his office on the ASU campus, when he gazes at the veins on the back of his own hand.

man's portrait superimposed with tree leaves

School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering Professor Michael Kozicki poses for a double exposure portrait showing him with leaves and branches, a form of dendrite formations, outside his Tempe campus laboratory on Sept. 3. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

If it seems like they’re everywhere, Kozicki says, it’s because they are.

“That’s the wacky thing about dendrites. The same branching structures of a tree exist in the bronchial tubes of the lungs, in the connections between the neurons in the brain and even in things like river beds and dry washes where you see these beautiful dendritic patterns caused by water draining under the influence of gravity across tilted planes.

"Mathematicians and physicists call it universality; that is, you can see dendrites whose structures and geometry are incredibly similar in lots of different situations in nature, and yet the processes that created them are ridiculously different,” Kozicki said.

Kozicki first became interested in dendrites some 25 years ago when he began growing them artificially in the lab using an electro-crystallization process. By coincidence, Robby Roberson, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, contacted him around the same time about collaborating on some unorthodox research that happened to involve dendrites as well.

Roberson was studying fungal hyphae — the threadlike structures that fungi produce for gathering nutrients. Hyphae are ubiquitous in nature, winding through the soil or growing onto the surface of living plants and decaying organic matter (think the gray fuzz on the forgotten tomato left to rot at the back of the fridge).

It turns out that hyphae use a variety of wayfinding cues to guide their search for food. In some cases, for example, they can sense the tiny ridges of concentric circles that surround a plant’s breathing pores, or stomata. Guided by these microstructures, the fungal threads can gain entry into the plant through the stomata and spread infection.

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Neurospora crassa, a type of red bread mold, displaying hyphal growth and branching. Image courtesy Robby Roberson.

To learn more about how hyphae utilized these and other navigational cues, Kozicki and Roberson inoculated silicon chips that were etched with a series of microstructures found in nature. Then they recorded the response of the hyphae to these artificial prompts, looking especially for any changes in the hyphae’s electrical signals.

The goal of their collaboration was to explore potential new applications in biochemical or physical sensing.

While studying dendrites up close, Kozicki detected a kind of mathematical thriftiness in the branching patterns of these fungal threads. Turns out, the hyphae, like the dendritic patterns of eroded waterways, tree branches and blood vessels, provide an economical means for managing flow.

“The reason why dendrites occur in nature,” he said, “is because nature is always trying to solve the problem of how to minimize the energy of a system. So if you measure all the segments that make up a dendrite, and you add them all up, the total length is shorter than any other mathematical structure that would do the same thing. Dendrites are an optimization function. Nature has optimized the transfer process for moving things like energy, matter or information by creating a structure that has a minimal total distance of all these separate little pieces of the path.”

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Robby Roberson

If the dendritic pattern of fungal hyphae served to minimize the energy needed to locate and transport water and nutrients, Kozicki speculated, could it also inspire a structural design for increasing the efficiency of solar cells or electrical-power distribution? To answer these questions, in 2019 he and biologist Roberson once again rolled up their sleeves, thanks to a matching seed grant from ASU’s Biomimicry Center and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The preliminary modeling results are promising, Kozicki said. Wind-turbine farms, for example, typically use a rectilinear geometry to connect the individual windmills by stubs to one major trunk line that transfers power to the grid.

“Why do we design things at right angles when nature doesn’t?” Kozicki asks.

Instead, he and Roberson measured the number of branches per unit length as well as the angles of the branches in the dendritic pattern of fungal hyphae and used this information to engineer what he calls a dendritic typology.

Models show that using this dendritic typology for the wind-farm design decreased the amount of material needed for running cables while increasing the efficiency of energy transfer into the grid. In the coming year, Kozicki and his team plan to verify the results with colleagues who have an expertise in energy-distribution systems.

This new look at dendrites only deepened Kozicki’s admiration for the power of nature to inspire sustainable innovation.

“Whenever you see a universal phenomenon like dendrites, nature is telling us that this is really useful and it’s useful for a lot of things,” Kozicki said. “I love these kind of revelations. It makes you look in areas you wouldn’t otherwise look. But it’s more than that. Someone once described the feeling that you get when you connect with something big like this as awe. I definitely get that.”

Written by Adelheid Fischer, assistant director of the Biomimicry Center.

Top photo: ASU Professor Michael Kozicki holds examples of dendrite formations created in his laboratory on the Tempe campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Rattlesnakes and rain: A desert mystery

February 27, 2020

ASU engineer and evolutionary ecologist team up to solve slippery question

Summer monsoon rains have finally come to the Sonoran Desert. At first it’s a soft patter as rain drops raise puffs of dust, then the water comes quicker and quicker until it’s falling with the staccato of a typewriter on deadline.

A rattlesnake undulates from its den and coils on a rock. Its body flattens out. Rain drops stick to its body and slide down into channels in its skin. The snake turns its head around and begins drinking.

“They use their body as a bowl,” said Konrad Rykaczewski, an engineer at Arizona State University.

Water droplets stick to their scales. But why would the droplets stick? Nothing sticks to snakes.

That was the question Rykaczewski and evolutionary ecologist Gordon Schuett set out to answer. Their discovery was highlighted in a recently published paper, which they discussed Wednesday in a Nature@Noon talk at ASU’s Biomimicry Center.

The Biomimicry Center at ASU addresses a variety of sustainability challenges using methodologies inspired by natural systems through research, education and outreach activities. By asking the question, “How would nature do this?”, biomimics around the world are creating products, processes, companies and policies that are well adapted to life on Earth over the long haul. Examples include turbine blades designed like whale fins to reduce drag and stronger fiber optics produced like sea sponges.

rattlesnake graphic

Schuett, the science director at the Chiricahua Desert Museum, has studied diamondback rattlesnake behavior for 16 years. He has seen this behavior many times in the desert, including one winter where a large number of rattlers lay on a shelf outside a den drinking snow off their bodies. (They were radio-tracked. The chances of running into a sight like that by luck are slim to none.)

But how does it work?

“We’re interested in the fundamental physics of why this happens,” Rykaczewski said.

Other snakes have been observed drinking rain from their bodies, but rain harvesting by rattlesnakes equates to survival in the Southwestern deserts, where temperatures can hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit and months can pass without rain. Rattlers can go 200 days without water. When it does rain, they need to make the most of it.

“If they’re spending the winter in a shelter, where are they going to get water?” Schuett asked.

“Imagine standing in the rain and trying to collect enough water to survive,” Rykaczewski said. “Good luck.”

How does the texture of rattler skin contribute to rain harvesting? Rykaczewski bored down on the scales of adult western diamondback rattlers and, for comparison, those of desert kingsnakes and Sonoran gopher snakes. The two latter species don’t harvest rainwater.

Rattlesnake skins are rough and highly water-repellent. They have a high contact angle and a dense labyrinthlike nanotexture. Grooves and channels run down the scales. The texture slows water down and collects it.

“Here we have another perspective of why snakes shed frequently,” Schuett said. “It’s to keep the nanochannels as efficient as possible.”

The Biomimicry Center funded the study. The next Nature@Noon lecture will be held on March 25.

Top image by Alex Cabrera, Media Relations and Strategic Communications.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Inside the Biomimicry Center’s new NatureMaker space

January 14, 2020

Arizona State University’s Biomimicry Center The Biomimicry Center is located in the Design South building on the Tempe campus and is a joint effort between ASU and Biomimicry 3.8, a world-leading bio-inspired consultancy. opened in spring 2015, but it keeps evolving, inspiring students to take a page right out of nature.

On Jan. 22, the Biomimicry Center will debut its newly remodeled space: NatureMaker. The hands-on library includes about 2,000 individual artifacts from around the world that students can analyze and use as inspiration for biomimetic designs.

Biomimicry is an emerging discipline that allows humans to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges by mimicking nature. Adelheid (Heidi) Fischer, assistant director of the Biomimicry Center, hopes the space can provide the link to nature she believes is currently missing.

“It’s a joyful place to walk into, and there’s so much to look at and there’s so much to learn.”

At first glance, NatureMaker looks like a library; there are books along the wall and reading space throughout the room. But tucked away, nearly in plain sight, are drawers full of natural artifact collections like dragonflies, beetles and various seeds. Along the outer wall, there’s a storefront-like display with larger artifacts, including a whale vertebrae — the largest piece in the collection.

The artifacts come from a variety of places, either donated or purchased online or locally, but all have a story to tell.

“Part of what’s guided that is keeping an eye towards things that have really good natural history stories, and that could have some potential application, potential inspiration for someone who may be an engineer, architect or designer — to find a sustainable solution by mimicking that strategy or that adaptation in nature,” Fischer said.

The concept for NatureMaker was inspired by the Rhode Island School of Design’s Nature Lab, which boasts nearly 80,000 individual, natural specimens. Fischer shared her vision for ASU with Debra Riley-Huff, director of the Design and the Arts Library and division head of humanities, and in about a year’s time, the proposed concept became a reality.

“I thought it might be possible for us to start a collaboration, especially because libraries have a lot of experience in putting a collection together, cataloguing the collection, making things accessible and creating a hands-on kind of library.”

NatureMaker would not be possible without the support of ASU Library, which provided seed funding for the project. With the renovation of Hayden Library complete, both ASU Library and NatureMaker will continue partnering together, especially through Hayden Library’s renovated Makerspace, where additional artifacts will be housed. The ASU community will also be able to get 3D printouts of artifacts scanned at the NatureMaker space at Hayden’s Makerspace.

In addition to viewing artifacts at NatureMaker, the ASU community will be able to utilize various microscopes and dissection kits and check out field kits and binoculars. Some of the specimens will also be labeled with QR codes that will provide additional information to the person viewing the artifact via their smartphone.

“We’re hoping that this space is a space that inspires,” Riley-Huff said. “We just want students to leave here and feel really good and have something that they didn’t have before when they came in.”

To celebrate the debut of the newly remodeled space, Naturemaker will host an open house on Jan. 22. On Jan. 23, NatureMaker will launch its Nature@Noon series, and in the evening, host a lecture by guests of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Nature Lab, the inspiration behind the new space.

Top photo: Debra Riley-Huff (left), director of the Design and the Arts Library, and Heidi Fischer, the Biomimicry Center assistant director, look over a tortoise shell at the bio-inspired NatureMaker space in the Biomimicry Center in the Design South Building on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Jimena Garrison

Copywriter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

ASU offers new undergraduate biomimicry certificate

September 9, 2019

Humans have turned to nature for inspiration and solutions for a long time. But a formal methodology — drawing on peer-reviewed biological research — has only evolved over the last several decades.

Biomimicry is an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges.  biomimicry Biomimicry is an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now Download Full Image

Now, the Biomimicry Center and School of Sustainability at Arizona State University are excited to announce the launch of the new undergraduate biomimicry certificate.

The 18-credit undergraduate certificate in biomimicry provides a comprehensive introduction to sustainable bio-inspired design while developing the skills to innovate inspired by nature.

By asking the question: “How would nature do this?”, biomimics around the world are creating products, processes, companies and policies that are well adapted to life on Earth over the long haul. Examples include turbine blades designed like whale fins to reduce drag and stronger fiber optics produced like sea sponges.

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Ant-patterned pillows cushion research, raise awareness for insects and biodiversity

December 6, 2018

Biomimicry 'Ant Man' touts insect ingenuity in pillow project

Clint Penick is feeling a little “antsy” about his new project — in the excited way one might feel about opening a holiday gift.

Penick, an ant aficionado and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University, is offering a rare perspective of the insect kingdom’s plucky picnic pests — by way of pillow. Blending science with art for a practical finish, Penick and his fellow researchers have created a unique line of decorative cushions that reflect their affinity for ants, one he hopes will help raise awareness about the beauty and benefits of the tiny armies that service our ecosystems.

“I’ve looked at ants under microscopes for years, but I never paid much attention to the patterns on their bodies aside from using them to differentiate one species from another,” Penick said. “This all changed when I was teaching an undergraduate course on public health, and we started to wonder how ants with rough body patterns were able to clean themselves and stay free from pathogens. At the same time, we realized the ant patterns were beautiful and might be applied to design.”

That idea to amplify the sculptured patterns of ant exoskeletons was first hatched at North Carolina State University where Penick was working on postdoctoral research. Before bringing the research to ASU’s Biomimicry Center, Penick and two other scientists — Adrian Smith and Rob Dunn — recruited fabric designer Meredith West to translate ant patterns from a database of ant imagery into prints. With prints in hand, they have now produced a line of pillows available through the online company Threadless Artist Shops.

“We didn’t just want to have ants on a pillow,” Penick said. “We wanted the pattern to be more abstract, like how zebra stripes represent a zebra without showing the whole animal. We raided a collection of ants I had gathered from different places around the world to create this pillow line and the 'spiny ants' from the genus Polyrhachis that I gathered in Australia became the basis for our first pillow design.” 

Penick says the pillows represent a rare opportunity to access a science-art collaboration as a practical product that anybody can buy. Just in time for the holidays, the pillows are now available for purchase online under the brand name HolotypeA word to describe a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based., with sales proceeds going to support research efforts at ASU.

Through the Holotype ant pillow project, Penick and his team hope to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity in our ecosystems. Pointing to the many benefits that stem from the variety and variability of life on Earth, Penick says protecting biodiversity should be held in the same regard as awareness about climate change and increasing urbanization.

“One thing that’s great about Arizona is that among the United States, we actually have the highest ant biodiversity,” said Penick, who also studied ants while earning his PhD in biology from ASU's School of Life Sciences in 2012. “It’s one of the reasons why we are doing research on antimicrobials produced by ants. A lot of human medicines come from natural products — especially plants, but insects represent promising sources as well. Biodiversity also helps to keep our ecosystems healthy and prevent invasive species from spreading.”

While largely overshadowed by more familiar species such as pandas, giraffes or rhinoceroses in the conversation about biodiversity, insects represent half of the two million species that have been described by scientists and are playing a significant role in maintaining and transforming our ecosystems. Penick points to research he has done on ants in dense cities like New York as an example.

In New York City’s famed theater district, ants eat the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground.

“It turns out that ants can do quite well in cities,” he said. “There are somewhere over 8 million people living in New York City, but we estimate there are at least 16 billion ants — roughly 2,000 ants for every human living in New York City. And we know they can do a lot of beneficial things for people living in New York.”

Along the streets of Broadway, home to New York City’s famed theater district, Penick says ants are eating the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground. He says ants have huge benefits to the city, cleaning up garbage as they navigate their way around the concrete jungle. And because they dig their nests underground, Penick says ants turn as much or more soil than earthworms, so they are really important in aerating the soil. He also says ants eat a lot of invasive pest species, serving as combatants for trees that might be under attack.

Penick says he hopes his research and pillow project will get people to pay attention to the positive aspects of insects and to think about these tiny species as beautiful and beneficial to society. 

The Holotype ant pillows are ready-made for order online. Identified by ant genus and species in binomial nomenclature, the pillows retail for about $30 each and are available in 16 different patterns and various sizes. Science lovers and ant enthusiasts can also collect the Holotype ant patterns as fine art prints or stretched canvas. Learn more at

Top photo: Swatch samples of the Holotype ant patterns. Photo courtesy Clint Penick.

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Designed to move: ASU Biomimicry Center planting inspiration with seed exhibit

October 25, 2018

Nature-driven office remodel to be included in exhibit opening on Oct. 30

Vaulting beyond velcro, the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University is seeding new ideas for nature-inspired innovation.

Still most widely associated with the invention of velcroEngineer George de Mestral’s invented the hook-and-loop fastener inspired by the burdock plant burrs that stuck on his pants and his dog’s fur while hiking in the Swiss Alps in the 1940s., ASU researchers are walking the talk of biomimicry with a newly renovated office space and a new seed exhibit they hope will capture the imagination of innovators seeking solutions for complex human problems.

“Seeds continue to offer a bottomless design and engineering trove for many other innovations,” said Heidi Fischer, assistant director at the Biomimicry Center. “We hope that our exhibition can provide new models for some of these innovations. With new advances in imaging technologies, the average person now can have access to nature’s heretofore hidden designs and begin to imagine new design possibilities.”

Titled “Designed to Move: Seeds that Float, Fly or Hitchhike through the Desert Southwest,” the exhibit, opening Oct. 30 in the Design School South Gallery on ASU's Tempe campus is offering viewers an extraordinary look at the beauty of desert seeds as captured through the macro photography lens of Taylor James, an alumni of ASU’s Masters of Fine Arts program.

“Most people, including many botanical experts, have never seen up-close photos of desert seeds before,” Fischer said. “New visualization technologies are giving us access to the intricate designs that are largely invisible to us as we casually stroll through the desert. In the process, they uncover a trove of untapped design potential for solving many human challenges.”

Samaras for example, a winged seedpod produced by a wide range of plants including sugar maples and the slender janusia that grows in the desert, is one such seed that is inspiring innovation. Nicknamed “whirlybird” or “helicopter seed” for its propensity to rotate airborne after detaching from the plant stem, scientists studying the aerodynamic properties of samaras are trying to mimic the seedpod's design and apply its principles to airplane wings and space probes for planetary exploration. 

Biomimicry research is also delving into the clinging, coiling and self-planting behavior of the seeds produced by the filaree or “stork’s bill” plant. Among other applications, engineers are mimicking the humidity-triggered coiling and uncoiling of filaree awns to create hygrobots: tiny robots whose flexing movements are powered by daily changes in environmental humidity instead of batteries.

Fischer said the idea for the seed exhibit came about after a conversation with colleagues from ASU’s Vascular Plant Herbarium in the School of Life Sciences, the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix during a photography expedition in the desert. The collaboration led to a selection of Arizona seed species that were determined to be visually compelling and had interesting stories about seed dispersal adaptation or application through design or engineering.

Fischer said there is talk about possibly taking the seed exhibit on the road after its run at the Design School South Gallery comes to a close. The hope, she said, is to get national parks, natural history museums and herbaria interested in hosting all or part of the show’s modular design. She also hopes the exhibit will prompt people to think about seeds in a completely different way when they come across them in the desert.

Office space: The biomimicry way

While biomimicry remains a somewhat vague concept to the general public 20 years after the publication of Janine Benyus’ seminal bookJanine Benyus has authored several books on biomimicry including the widely-referenced "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." on the subject, the engineering of modern innovations such as high-speed bullet trains (inspired by the beak Kingfisher bird), and sharkskin swimsuits (modeled after the dermal denticles on a shark’s skin) illustrate how many biomimicry applications may just be hidden in plain sight.

“For too long our built environment has been seen as separate from nature,” said Sara el Sayed, a research associate at the Biomimicry Center at ASU. “Bringing biomimicry to the built environment allows us to create cities, buildings, products and human systems that function like the natural world — sustainable and aesthetically beautiful.”

Still, as Dayna Baumeister, director of the Biomimicry Center and co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, is quick to point out, just mimicking the shape of something in nature or emulating one aspect of an organism does not necessarily make a design biomimetic.

Biomimicry, Baumeister said, emulates the design principles of nature to achieve functional similarity.

“A chair may look like a leaf but it won’t function as one. Now imagine if that same chair was able to harness photons from sunlight to create energy functioning like the leaf — that’s a step closer. Emulating the deep patterns in nature, which we call Life’s Principles, can result in even more innovative and sustainable solutions. These overarching characteristics and deep patterns are guidelines we use in designing.”

Life’s Principles were consciously applied to the redesign of the office space Baumeister and her team inhabit in the College of Design South building on ASU’s Tempe campus. And, with some help from local design firm Architekton and fabrication firm Nicomia, the team at The Biomimicry Center is now enjoying a more sustainable and resource efficient environment inspired by nature.

“We created modular furniture that ‘adapts to changing conditions,’” Baumeister said, pointing out that the furniture in the Biomimicry Center’s office space can be reconfigured based on changing needs such as social gatherings, classes, office functions or meetings. “We have ‘locally attuned’ lights that mimic the circadian rhythm of day and night cycles, ensuring that we have a healthy work environment. And our recycled ceiling mimics the sound buffering and light-distributing design principles of a forest canopy.”

According to Baumeister, the finish plywood for the office’s furniture and shelving is Purebond, which uses soy proteins inspired by the blue mussel to create natural glues with no off-gassing and the paint is VOCVolatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, refers to certain carbon compounds, that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions.-free, thanks to application of what she calls “life-friendly chemistry.” This, Baumeister promises, is “just the beginning.”

The Biomimicry Center is offering the public a look at its newly remodeled office at the opening of the macro photography seed exhibit “Designed to Move: Seeds that Float, Fly or Hitchhike through the Desert Southwest” from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30. The evening will include a Gallery Talk at 6 p.m. and an original soundscape composition by Garth Paine, an acoustic ecologist in ASU’s School of Arts Media and Engineering.

Top photo courtesy of Taylor James

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


ASU study sheds new light on antibiotics produced by ants

February 20, 2018

Ants, like humans, deal with disease. To deal with the bacteria that cause some of these diseases, some ants produce their own antibiotics. A new comparative study identified some ant species that use powerful antimicrobial agents, but also found that 40 percent of the ant species tested did not appear to produce antibiotics. The research has applications in the search for new antibiotics that could possibly be used in humans.

“These findings suggest that ants could be a future source of new antibiotics to help fight human diseases,” said Clint Penick, lead author and assistant research professor at Arizona State University's Biomimicry Center. The thief ant (Solenopsis molesta). Photo by Magdalena Sorger Download Full Image

“One species we looked at, the thief ant (Solenopsis molesta), had the most powerful antibiotic effect of any species we tested," said Adrian Smith, co-author of the paper and assistant research professor at North Carolina State University and head of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Research Lab. "And until now, no one had even shown that they made use of antimicrobials."

For this study, the researchers tested the antimicrobial properties associated with 20 ant species. They did this by using a solvent to remove all of the substances on the surface of each ant’s body. The resulting solution was then introduced to a bacterial slurry. The growth of the bacteria in the slurry was then compared to the growth of bacteria in a control group.

If the bacteria in a slurry that contained ant solution grew less than the control group, that meant an antimicrobial agent was at work. For example, the slurry containing thief-ant compounds showed no bacterial growth at all.

Foragers of the desert fire ant, Solenopsis xyloni, collect flower nectar. A recent study finds that ants in this genus produce some of the strongest antimicrobials measured in social insects. Photo by Clint Penick

The researchers found that 12 of the 20 ant species had some sort of antimicrobial agent on their exoskeletons — including some species, like the thief ant, that previously had not been shown to do so. Of those studied, it appears that eight of the ant species do not to make use of antibiotics at all. Or, at least, any antimicrobials on their exoskeletons were ineffective against the bacteria used in the study.

“Finding a species that carries a powerful antimicrobial agent is good news for those interested in finding new antibiotic agents that can help humans,” Smith said. “But the fact that so many ant species appear to have little or no chemical defense against microbial pathogens is also important.”

That’s because conventional wisdom has long been that most, if not all, ant species carry antimicrobial agents. But this research indicates otherwise. 

“We thought every ant species would produce at least some type of antimicrobial,” said Penick, an alumnus of the ASU School of Life Sciences animal behavior PhD program. “Instead, it seems like many species have found alternative ways to prevent infection that do not rely on antimicrobial chemicals.”

“The fact that not all ants use antimicrobials highlights the importance of refining our search for species that actually do hold promise for biomedical research,” Smith added. “For example, the thief ant is closely related to the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), which is well known for the antimicrobial properties of its venom. But in our study, we found that the thief ant was even more effective against bacteria than the fire ant. There may be other species in the same genus that are worth studying for their antimicrobial potency.”

The researchers caution that the study has limitations. For example, the scientists used only one bacterial agent in the tests, and it's not clear how each species would fare against other bacteria. Next, researchers hope to test ant species against different bacteria, determine what is producing the antibiotic effects, and explore other strategies ants may use to defend themselves against bacterial pathogens.

The journal Royal Society Open Science published the study on Feb. 7.

Authors: Clint A. Penick, Arizona State University; Omar Halawani, Bria Pearson and Adrian A. Smith, North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences; Stephanie Mathews, Campbell University; Margarita López-Uribe, Pennsylvania State University; and Robert R. Dunn, North Carolina State University and University of Copenhagen.

The Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine and the National Science Foundation under grants 1523817, 0953390 and 1319293 provided funding for this research.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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Biomimicry exhibit showcases how nature can solve humanity's problems

Biomimicry exhibit celebrates nature-inspired design.
June 9, 2017

ASU artists, scientists collaborate in nature-inspired designs at Tempe Center for Arts

Biomimicry is an approach to problem-solving that looks at how nature has already done it. In this philosophy, people create a sustainable lifestyle by observing how animals and plants have overcome obstacles in adapting to the environment.

A new exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts, “Biomimicry: Nature Inspired Design,” explores the connections between this philosophy and art. And because Arizona State University is a leader in the field of biomimicry, several faculty members and alumni are involved in the show, which also includes events to inspire community members.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 26 in the gallery, includes beautiful pieces that evoke the lovely but practical aspects of the natural world — butterfly wings, a snake’s spine, seeds that float through the air on fibers.

Biomimicry is a shift from “people-centered” design to “life-centered” design, according to Prasad BoradkarBoradkar, a professor of industrial design in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, also is director of InnovationSpace at ASU., co-director of the Biomimicry Center at ASU.

“Nature has been evolving for billions of years, and organisms have learned to adapt to their environment and cohabit with other organisms in their ecosystems,” said Boradkar, who is currently working on a project with Google in Mountainview, California.

“What humans have done from a design perspective and manufacturing and business perspective is we have created a world in which we don’t think of longevity or environmental or social impact.”

Waste, for example.

“Waste is not a problem in nature. Leaves from a tree degrade quickly and become useful for other organisms,” he said. “How do we handle waste? We create landfills. We dump it in a location we can’t see it.”

Students in the Biomimicry Center work across disciplines to find solutions, Boradkar said.

“The impact of design and manufacturing of new products doesn’t affect only humans. It affects all species on the planet. So why don’t we learn from all species on the planet?” he said.

Many everyday products and technologies have been inspired by biomimicry, such as hook-and-loop closures, also known as VelcroThe Velcro Co. is one of the sponsors of the exhibit, along with the following ASU units: the Biomimicry Center, the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the Natural History Collection in the School of Life Sciences.. That was created in the 1960s when a scientist’s dog kept getting covered in burrs. Frustrated, the scientist looked at the seeds’ “grippers” under a microscope and was inspired to invent the fastening product.

The shape of moth wings have led to solar-power designs, and the echolocation abilities of sea mammals created the basis of radar. More recently, the slick swimsuits worn by the U.S. swim team in the 2008 Olympics were based on the composition of shark skin. They were later banned for giving an unfair advantage.

And an ASU-designed robot used a sea turtle's flippers as inspiration for a way to navigate different types of terrain.

The principles of nature have shaped not only what the Tempe exhibit’s artworks look like, but how they were created as well, according to Michelle Dock, gallery director.

“What we found with a lot of artists is that they’re inherently doing those sorts of things with this discipline that’s kind of new and also kind of old,” she said.

For example, artist Emily Longbrake incorporated the structure of a snake’s spine into her wood-and-string sculpture on display in the exhibit. When faced with the challenge of how to efficiently ship her artworks, she studied the ball-and-socket anatomy of a slithering snake, then incorporated ceramic balls into her design, which allows it to be flattened.

Damon McIntyre, a wood sculptor and instructor in the School of Art at ASU, has several pieces in the exhibit that he created out of some old pecan trees that were cut down on campus. The concept of biomimicry comes in with a table that has an asymmetric base.

“He’s emulating the root system of a tree to strengthen the legs,” Dock said.

Alexandra Bowers uses a wood-burning tool to etch the image of a feather onto a wooden box. Bowers, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at ASU, is one of three artists in residence at the "Biomimicry" exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 The program includes three artists in residence, photographer Nissa Kubly, sculptor Jose Benavides and wood-burning artist Alexandra Bowers, who are working with ASU faculty members in the sciences to broaden their understanding of how nature informs design. Benavides and Bowers both received degrees from ASU.

“This is an in-depth study for them to take their work in another direction,” Dock said of the collaboration.

The three are working in pop-up studios in the gallery through July 21.

Another part of the biomimicry exhibit is outreach. The center is holding several events for community members to experience the connection between art and nature. Several of the events will feature ASU faculty, including:

• Family Arts and Sciences workshops every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. The July 15 session will feature faculty from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, and July 22 will be “Beyond the Collection Box” with ASU’s Natural History Collections.

• Satellite workshops at the Edna Vihel Center for the Arts in Tempe on June 24 and July 15 with artists and Kyra Galanis, who has a degree in biomimicry from ASU.

• Bee Hive Café for Teens from 4 to 7 p.m. June 16 and June 23 will feature free brainstorming sessions for art groups, science clubs and robotics teams, with free coffee. Boradkar will speak to the teens at 4:30 p.m. June 23.

• Dayna Baumeister, co-founder and co-director of the Biomimicry Institute at ASU, will give a free lecture at 7 p.m. Aug. 24.

Boradkar said he’s excited to discuss biomimicry with young people, and that outreach is an important part of the Biomimicry Center’s mission.

“We approach it by talking about the concept of ‘biophilia’ — ‘bio’ is life and ‘philia’ is affection,” he said.

“We all have an innate desire to be connected to nature.”

Click here for details and information on how to register for the satellite workshops.

Top photo: Artist Alexandra Bowers holds a dandelion seed, an inspiration for her work. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now