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