Known as Venus’ Flower Basket, it is actually the skeleton of a sponge (Genus Euplectella) that is found on the ocean floor, at a depth of 100 – 1000 metres, off Japan, the Philippines and other western Pacific countries including Australia.
Looking more like a vase than a basket, the skeleton is made from glass produced by the sponge itself from silica it extracts from the surrounding sea water. Yes, this simple creature is able to convert dissolved silica into glass as genuine as any that human technology can produce from sand and quartz.
Not only that, the sponge fashions that glass into a structure that has the rigidity to withstand the huge pressures of deep water. It manages this by combining amazingly efficient microscopic building blocks called spicules (Think of three spikes intersecting at right angles to one another) into the geometrically elegant network that you can see in the photo. Fragile as it may appear, the resulting structure is incredibly strong and resistant to cracking. Architects and engineers have studied it in search of ways to build more robust buildings, especially skyscrapers.
Engineers in the field of fibre optics are also looking to the Venus’ Flower Basket for guidance, and in particular at the hair-like fibres at the base of the skeleton. These fibres anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. They also act like optical fibres transmitting light along their length. The intriguing thing is that they do this better than the industrial fibre optic cables currently available for telecommunication and other applications. Additionally, the sponge’s fibres are more flexible than the man-made variety. What is more, the sponge makes its fibres at very low temperatures using natural materials – a process scientists hope someday to mimic because the existing manufacturing process requires very high temperatures and has other limitations.
Beautiful as the skeletal Venus’ Flower Basket is, it pales in comparison to the living animal, which actually glows in the darkness of the ocean depths. The sources of this light are bioluminescent bacteria that live in the cells of the sponge. Attracted by the glow, male and female shrimp larvae enter the central cavity or atrium of the sponge, happily staying there to feed on the left-overs and waste from the sponge’s diet of plankton.
By the time the sponge has finished growing, the top of the atrium has been sealed, trapping the now mature shrimps inside. But everyone is happy. The shrimp have a perfect “love nest” for life, a secure home and a reliable source of food, and the sponge has a couple of resident cleaners. It is even an ideal set-up for the shrimps’ offspring, as these are small enough to exit through the walls of mum and dad’s sponge and set off on their own to find a mate and make a home for themselves in another sponge.
So there you have it. Because of a shrimp love affair, the Euplectella skeleton has come to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and to be adopted as a symbol of a happy married life.
But Euplectella, the living creature, symbolises something of much greater significance for human well-being and advancement. As mentioned, this simple creature has found the solution to technical problems that continue to tax human ingenuity, making it both an example and a symbol of the “genius of nature”. Engineers and scientists look to Euplectella as a source of insight and inspiration, valuing and respecting it for what it can teach them.
Surrounded as we are by the products of human ingenuity and creativity, it is easy to think that the problems of existence, big and small, will be solved only by the human mind. This view ignores the reality that nature has been addressing the same or similar problems for 3.8 billion years – and producing extraordinarily efficient, enduring and graceful solutions. We are privileged to live in a very competent universe.
One of the smartest things humankind can do in the quest for solutions to the problems that face us is to first “ask nature”. Doing this is far easier than you might imagine as there is a fascinating website that can be consulted by anyone. I urge you to go to this site right now. When you are there, try sampling what the site offers by exploring this question: How does nature maintain community? Do this by selecting the following links: (1) maintain community (left-hand column), (2) co-operate and compete (central column), (3)within the same species (central column), (4) collaborating for group decisions: honeybees (right-hand column). This will lead you to a summary of the work being done by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois looking at ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts. And where are they looking for inspiration? – to honeybees.
This is one of almost 1800 examples you can find on the site of an approach to innovation and development called bio-mimetics. As its label suggests, the approach involves the conscious emulation of the forms, systems and processes of nature.
More than a very wise problem-solving strategy for scientists, engineers and other innovators, bio-mimetics is also a way of valuing and respecting nature for everyone. An underpinning philosophy of bio-mimetics is that nature has more to teach us about living well, harmoniously, sustainably and gracefully on the planet than we could ever imagine.
Humans are masters at exploiting the material resources of nature and dangerously abusing the planet in the process. We need urgently to extend our recognition and appreciation of, and our readiness and willingness to be guided by, nature’s knowledge, genius and wisdom.
Much is being said at the moment about building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) capabilities within our society. The philosophy and method of Bio-mimetics need to be at the heart of that undertaking.
It is also essential that society as a whole becomes much more aware and respectful of nature’s capacity to inform, inspire and guide our scientists, technologists, engineers and manufacturers. This will require, among other things, the expansion of environmental education in our schools and vastly enriched communication between scientists, especially those in the natural sciences, and the rest of society.
In a following post, you will meet a gifted artist who is using her talents to help Australian scientists share their message – something to look forward to, believe me.