Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD.

The Biomimicry Manual: What Can the Pompeii Worm Teach Us About Heat and Chemical Resistance?

The Biomimicry Manual, biomimicry, biomimicry inspiration, biomimicry design, biomimicry ideas, green design, nature inspired design, design by nature, animals, learning from nature, learning from animals, pompeii worm

Biomimicry‘ is a way of designing that asks “How would nature do it?”. Other creatures on Earth have spent millions of years perfecting their craft in ways that are inherently sustainable. The ones that got it wrong are extinct! Our fellow earthlings have things to show us to make our way of life a long-term success as well. Wild creatures have the same problems we have. Their answers, tested by millions of years of R&D, are energy-efficient, biodegradable, non-toxic, and there’s no such thing as waste. Every solution eventually becomes food for someone else. In our new series, The Biomimicry Manual, we’ll be exploring how the world’s flora and fauna have gotten it right. First up? The Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana), an enterprising creature that thrives in a real-life hell, where a living thing should have no business being.


Here at Inhabitat, we are always looking for smart, sustainable, and stylish designs. And where better to look than to Mother Nature? Our big blue design lab in space has been experimenting for 3.8 billion years. The result? Some 100 million stylish species, each with their own perfectly efficient, eco-friendly, and multi-purpose design innovations. Truly good design.

The Biomimicry Manual, biomimicry, biomimicry inspiration, biomimicry design, biomimicry ideas, green design, nature inspired design, design by nature, animals, learning from nature, learning from animals, pompeii worm

The Pompeii worm makes its home in a boiling hot, deadly sulfurous soup of heavy metals, at a pressure depth that would crush a man (think of the Hulk squeezing a tube of toothpaste). Only discovered thirty years ago, these four-inch wrigglers build large colonies along hydrothermal vent ‘smokers’ in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. How do they survive?

Looking something like a living pipe cleaner, the Pompeii worm builds a heat- and chemical-resistant paper-like tube around itself. Inside the tube, it has a ‘Chia Pet’ protection strategy. Its hairy back secretes a sugary mucus, nurturing a fleecy blanket of sulfur-eating bacteria. The bacteria live off the sugar, as well as the sulfur, lead, zinc, calcium, and copper belching from the vents. The worm’s home becomes just a little less toxic in the process. The bacterial blanket acts much like the one around your water heater, but keeping the heat out instead of in. The worm also has a behavioral answer to its extreme environment. It feeds and breathes as far away from the hot-seat as it can get, sticking its feathery red head out of its tube into the cooler water just a worms-length away.

The Biomimicry Manual, biomimicry, biomimicry inspiration, biomimicry design, biomimicry ideas, green design, nature inspired design, design by nature, animals, learning from nature, learning from animals, pompeii worm

What can human designers learn from this extreme creature? Can the Pompeii worm teach us something useful? Cooling down, resisting heat, detoxifying chemicals, and resisting high pressure: these are all human design challenges as well. The worm has found elegant, efficient, and sustainable solutions to all of them.

So how does an aspiring biomimic go about turning this bioinspiration into useful design? Start by asking questions. How does the worm create the tube? From what? Arranged how? What makes it heat and chemical resistant? Can humans collaborate with other creatures to detoxify our spaces? Could bacteria like these clean the environments we inhabit? How does the tube and bacteria function together? What is the nature of this thermal insulation? And so on. Give it a try. Post your ideas. Let’s brainstorm together. We promise nature’s genius will not disappoint!

An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.

Lead Image by Ifremer / Dugornay; other images via Wikimedia Commons

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5 Comments

  1. marcom June 27, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Your posting makes me feel younger Tamsin! I remember the hours I spent some afternoons between January and July of 1983 learning invertebrate zoology while attending to my Marine Science program in Ensenada, Baja California.

    We didn\\\’t talk about biomimicry in those days, we just joked and wondered about the strategies that certain organisms adopted to fill in certain niches of the environment. We used to talk a lot about colonization because that defines when a certain strategy used by organisms of the same specie triumph and populate the environment.

    While we never looked at was how the success of those organisms could improve our lives as weakly settled students, the spirit of our school thought us that we could use those factors to cultivate the species to make them nutritious sources of food. Aquaculture was in the horizon, similar to when apiculture is foreseen by those who study the bees.

  2. amymOo November 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    An obvious one maybe but this article made me wonder if we could mimic the fleecy blanket of sulfur eating bacteria to somehow use inside a water heater to reduce heat loss

  3. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, ... August 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for adding your ideas, guys! These critters blow my mind. AskNature.org is a really good resource, if you’re looking for specific applications for an adaptation, or the other way around- if you’re searching for an adaptation to inform a specific design challenge.

  4. stevestark August 15, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Hi, just sharing in the brainstorm on this interesting topic. Maybe there could be some application related to visiting other planets. Venus has avg surface temps over 800F, atmospheric pressure that’s 90x that on Earth, and clouds of sulfuric acid. Now we know why she was named for the goddess of love. But maybe adaptations of the Pompeii worm could be used to insulate landers or even some sort of biodome.

  5. jkarp August 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Hmm, I’ll bite – cultivating microbes that could precipitate mobilized heavy metals in a mucus matrix could be an interesting way to handle localized heavy metal pollution at Superfund sites. Essentially, if we were to wet soils and contaminated materials to collect mercury and lead, we could siphon off the contaminated solution to be treated in units on site that feature that particular kind of microbial remediation. This could be even more effective if we could culture the vent bacteria and archaea to be used in such units; if the water were heated and pressurized to even a fraction of the vent conditions, it could extract the heavy metals from the waste sites at a much faster rate.

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