We propose a science and technology center that will translate evolved structures into commodity-scale solutions and products that can be deployed in the real world to address society’s ever more pressing need to conserve water, nutrients, energy, and other resources in a highly diverse set of circumstances and environments. To do so, we will connect evolutionary biologists with engineers, architects, and physicists. Unlike the well-established routes to technology traveled by physicists, chemists, and molecular biologists, our Center will blaze a new path between evolutionary biology and novel green technologies. We will focus upon convergently evolved systems, and will use the insights from evolutionary thinking of convergence and homology to direct the design and synthesis of new suites of structures. The concept of convergent pairs will teach us which aspects of a set of complex, multidimensional structures are salient to their function, and the insight of homology will teach us how to vary these features to tune performance. In the same way that pharmaceutical companies mine biology for molecules, we will mine the biology of evolution for its structures, materials and their processing. However, we have an advantage over traditional “bioprospecting” – evolutionary thinking and inference will provide logic and direction for our search.
We will accelerate the discovery rate by focusing on pairs of convergent structures, their development strategies, and how they differentiated independently in vastly different taxa. Why? We posit that these pairs arose as a common solution to a specific fitness challenge. For instance, did (sub)micron-sized structures develop in plants and insects as a way of coping with water management as they simultaneously moved from aquatic to terrestrial biomes? We will study this problem in a phylogenetic context and also, through rigorous testing, characterizing, and modeling the structures, probe their hypothesized functions. In concert with this work, we will pursue deployment, policy, and systems issues to assess societal needs and how they are met by the special properties of these structures within the human habitat.
Finally, when the “planets align” we will go back to the biology and discover the common mechanisms by which these materials are formed. In this way, we depart from the traditional biomimetic approach – we will not simply mimic the structures observed in biological examples, but, rather, focus on functions and their interaction with the environment. In turn, we will learn to create new surfaces, materials, devices, and paradigms for resource management-using nature’s recipe. In particular, one would expect that surviving motifs in biology are energetically inexpensive or evolution would have wiped them away. The ultimate goal is to take these new concepts to manufacture materials to cope with and to harness the environment on a large and commodity scale for the human habitat. Sheets of photonic materials, buckets of superhydrophobic and water harvesting coatings, and reams of green textiles and buildings are the target technologies – can we discover and cultivate nature’s machinery to generate disruptive technologies?