Lessons From The Cambridge Peregrines – Life Sciences, Biotechnology & Nanotechnology


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It is not just students who are drawn to the colleges of
Cambridge. Those with an eagle eye might also be able to spot the
city’s resident pair of mating peregrine falcons. Tiercel and
Falcon can often be seen swooping between college roofs, a
favourite perch being the spires of the famous King’s College
Chapel.

In recent weeks, the pair have hatched three new chicks. Fans
have been following their progress on the Cambridge Peregrines
Twitter page (@camperegrines).

From their nesting site in the city centre, the peregrines
should have a good view of the University’s Department of
Engineering. This seems appropriate, given the inspiration that
peregrines themselves have offered to engineers and other
innovators.

The peregrine can reach diving speeds of over 200 mph, making it
the world’s fastest bird. It is no surprise, then, that
innovators have looked to the peregrine when developing aircraft
technology. The falcon’s feathers, for example, relay sensory
information during its characteristic dive, as well as ruffling to
keep the bird airborne during a swoop. 
Researchers have proposed to mimic these features
 through
the development of 3D-printed sensory polymer filaments for the
body of aircraft, and hinged flaps for aircraft wings,
respectively. Prospective innovations in drone technology have also
taken inspiration from 
the feet
 of peregrines, as well as from 
the attack trajectories of hunting falcons
.

This made me think about innovations closer to my own field of
expertise which have their roots in the natural world. Three
examples came to mind, one inspired by an animal, one by a
bacterium, and one by a plant.

Jellyfish

The 
2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
 has its origin in the
jellyfish Aequorea victoria,  which exhibits
striking green bioluminescence. Investigations into the mechanism
of this bioluminescence led to the
discovery of what became known as Green Fluorescent Protein
(GFP)
. Subsequent work to express GFP in other organisms led to
its widespread use as a fluorescent tag in cell biology, enabling
the tracking of gene expression and the visualisation of
intracellular processes. Many derivatives of GFP have now been
developed, each of which fluoresces with its own characteristic
colour. As well as opening new avenues of research, GFP has thus
transposed the natural beauty of the jellyfish to the lab.

Thermophilic Bacteria

The surprise discovery of the bacterium Thermus
aquaticus
 surviving in the high temperatures of
Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs was crucial to
the success
of the Polymerase Chain Reaction
 (the now-familiar PCR
acronym). A key component of PCR is the use of a DNA polymerase
enzyme. Given the extreme nature of the bacterium’s
environment, the DNA polymerase of T.
aquaticus, 
known as Taq 
polymerase,is unusually resistant to high-temperature
conditions. Tap was therefore uniquely placed
for exploitation in continuous PCR cycles, being able to withstand
repeated high-temperature reaction steps. This facilitated the
development of automated PCR machines, from which widespread
commercial success and a Nobel Prize resulted.

Pacific Yew

In the field of pharmaceuticals, natural products have always
been of high importance. The
story
 begins with the folkloric use of plants and herbs as
rudimentary medicines, and continues into the modern day with the
screening of natural products for anti-cancer properties. One such
screen led to the identification and isolation of the compound
Taxol (paclitaxel) from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. After
much clinical development
, Taxol became, and remains, one of
the most widely-used and commercially successful anti-cancer drugs.
However, the total (from-scratch) synthesis of Taxol proved to be a
significant challenge to synthetic chemists, demonstrating that
nature is not always easy to mimic.

Clearly, the natural world has always provided useful
inspiration to innovators in different fields. But the path to the
development of new technologies is not always easy; here, the
Cambridge peregrines offer some reassurance. Fledgling peregrines,
over-keen to stretch their wings, often find that their first
attempts at flight are unsuccessful. Instead, they come tumbling
unceremoniously down to the street below. In Cambridge, the porters
at Pembroke college have been happy to help the dazed fledglings
back up to the neighbouring nest site. Nonetheless, after a few
falls along the way, this year’s chicks are all now
confidently flying.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to innovators from the Cambridge
peregrines is the importance of persisting, and bouncing-back from
any falls along the way to commercial success. And, of course, here
at Marks & Clerk we are always eager to support innovators in
this journey, whether you are a fledgling inventor or the
top-predator in your field. 

“…we’ve investigated how we could apply the unique
abilities of the peregrine falcon to aircraft. Bio-inspiration is
not a new concept; many technologies that we use every day are
increasingly inspired by animals and nature.”


phys.org/…

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