Imitation games: the scientists copying nature to create life-changing materials

Helena Pozniak
Spider silk is stronger than steel on a per weight basis. Photograph: Lyudmila Eine/Getty

If scientists could borrow from nature – recreating the strength and elasticity of spider silk for instance – the impact on the environment, manufacturing and medicine would be vast. This is biomimetics – literally copying life – part of an emerging discipline of bioengineering, a subject now offered by many universities at postgraduate level.

Spider silk is stronger than steel on a per weight basis, and doesn’t necessitate heavy industrial processes to manufacture. Eggshell is about 97% ceramic but doesn’t require the high temperatures needed to make concrete, and hens can make it in about 18 hours. It’s the small amount of protein that makes eggshell so tough, say scientists at the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, where bioengineers are investigating natural materials. While successful replication of spider silk is yet to be mastered, companies in the US have engineered a lab-grown burger that looks, tastes and smells like real beef.

“Bioengineering is a niche area, and it’s quite experimental,” says James Hallinan, synthetic biology business developer at Cambridge Consultants, an engineering and tech company that hires postgrads. “Numbers working on it in the UK are only in their thousands. But we are seeing a lot of interest from clients asking about its manufacturing capabilities. If I was a student now it’s an area I’d definitely be keen to study.”

Hallinan says they are seeing increased interest in the manufacturing side, particularly using sustainable biological material to replace oil as the basis for a whole range of products, from fuels to plastics to industrial chemicals. “Companies such as BP, Shell and Total all have their own bioengineering departments,” he says.

Medical applications are inspiring a different strand of research, Hallinan adds. A new gene therapy treatment, CAR-T, which genetically modifies a patient’s own cells so they can attack cancer, was recently approved in the US and was hailed by scientists as a new frontier in medicine. “Another less dramatic but interesting area is being able to manipulate the bacteria in our gut through the food we eat, to improve health,” says Hallinan.

UK universities offer a vast range of bioengineering master’s with various specialisms, and many have a medical focus. “Bioengineering is a new and emerging area – we use engineering tools to solve healthcare problems, through multidisciplinary collaboration,” says Dr Reiko Tanaka, lecturer in bioengineering at Imperial College London. And it’s a sector which welcomes a variety of academic disciplines, says Hallinan – from computer science through to molecular biology and biochemistry. “A postgraduate qualification is helpful – it gives you that background in experimental science you might not get at undergraduate level. The sheer scope of opportunities is breathtaking.” HP