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Ask Nature: 5 ways biology could help cure traffic woes

The following is adapted from the Biomimicry Institute's Ask Nature Collections of strategies and products, inspired by nature, to address the 21st century's greatest design challenges. Find the full collections here.

At its most basic, transportation refers to a system or means of transporting people or goods. But effective, efficient, equitable transportation encompasses so much more. It means getting people from point A to point B without getting stuck in a traffic jam along the way.

It means making sure public transportation systems are safe and accessible and serve the needs of everyone from a dad with two kids in tow, to the elderly, to working professionals – regardless of their incomes. It means supporting infrastructure for a variety of transit options, and making sure we protect people, wildlife, and the planet as we develop and use that infrastructure. And it means moving freight in sensible, energy-efficient ways.

Ultimately, we would argue, transportation is about building great communities. Take a look at our featured transportation strategies and see if they inspire you to think about transportation solutions for your community in a new way.

Below is a glimpse of seven biological marvels that could offer inspiration for reigning in transportation woes:

1. Magnetic bacteria: The new GPS?

So-called "magnetosomes" are chains of bacteria that serve as a navigational device in aquatic habitats by interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

A natural "coating" on the bacteria allows particles to be dispersed easily, which provides an excellent target for modification and use of the materials involved.

2. Collision avoidance with mosquitofish

Large groups of mosquitofish can move together with little physical contact between individuals. This is because the individual fish coordinate their acceleration and deceleration. The fish accelerate toward a neighbor that is far away from or behind them, and decelerate when a neighbor is directly in front of them.

"Fish responded to the position of their neighbors through short-range repulsion and longer-range attraction rules... mosquitofish actively changed their speed in order to avoid or move toward neighbors," one study by Herbert-Read et al. found. "Perhaps the most surprising finding of our study is the extent to which the single nearest neighbor dominates social interactions."

3. A plant's version of 911

One way plants protect themselves from pest damage is by using a highly-evolved chemical language. This chemical language communicates detailed information regarding what specific kind of insect pest is causing damage to the plant, and thus attracts the appropriate pest-eating insect to "rescue" it by killing off the pest.

Damage from insect feeding elicits the release of signaling molecules systemically within the plant. These signaling molecules turn on genes for the production of volatile compounds, acids and alcohols which evaporate into the surrounding air to communicate the presence of the pest insect to pest-eating insects.

Plants can recognize various insect pests by proteins in their oral secretions, as well as by the type of damage they cause. A community benefit of this volatile chemical communication strategy is that, because the chemicals are airborne, plants in close proximity to the affected plant receive a warning of the impending danger.

4. Maximizing material strengh with spherical shapes

Some structures in nature have great strength and stiffness relative to material used due to their spherical or dome-shaped design.

"Nature puts this shape to use in a number of places. Our skulls are nearly spherical domes — and the light and thin bone needs only minimal internal bracing," notes a 2003 Vogel report. "Similarly, a turtle's shell is a light, strong dome, as are the shells of many bivalve and gastropod mollusks; the thoraces of many insects, spiders, and crustaceans; the eggs of birds; and nut shells."

5. What plankton teach us about buoyancy

A vacuole inside an Antarctic zooplankton changes its density and buoyancy by having a wax ester that changes from a liquid to a solid at cold temperatures.

The tiny Antarctic marine crustacean Calanoides acutus hibernates overwinter by descending to great depths. Once it reaches depths below a quarter mile, the cold temperatures cause a large pocket of waxy liquid within its body to transform to a dense solid, causing the organism to sink. As a buoyant substance, the waxy liquid is made up of saturated fatty acids, which are long chains of carbon atoms attached to each other by single bonds.

To prepare for its descent and hibernation, the crustacean changes the waxy substance from saturated to unsaturated; that is, many of the single bonds connecting the carbon atoms to each other are converted to double bonds. This change allows the waxy compounds to fit together in a more tightly packed configuration. The increased density causes the crustacean to sink in the water column until it reaches a depth at which it is neutrally buoyant again.

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