May 05, 2016 I Paul Seaburn

Sea Urchin Teeth and Gecko Feet Inspire New Technology

The next Mars Rover could have a dirt scooper modeled after the mouth and teeth of an Earth-bound sea urchin, while the next generation of cleaning cloths may have a super-stickiness inspired by the wall-climbing feet of geckos. Why do we even bother trying to outdo nature?

The mouth of the sea urchin has fascinated great minds as far back as Aristotle, who called it “Aristotle’s lantern.” The five curved teeth and the muscle-power behind them allow sea urchins to grind into rocks or demolish underwater vegetation using a design that would put prize-grabbing arcade machine claws to shame.

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The Yale version of the sea urchin's mouth

Researchers at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego looked at the pink sea urchin’s (Strongylocentrotus fragilis) mouth and saw in it a superb design for a Mars rover soil scooper that could penetrate a wide variety of densities with an accuracy that left the surrounding dirt undisturbed.

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Yale researchers testing their sea urchin rover

Even nature’s best needs a little refining for Mars. According to their study in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, the engineers flattened the pointy teeth and adjusted the jaw to allow it to open easier. When attached to a mini rover, it poked efficient holes in a simulated Martian surface. NASA, it’s your move.

After making a mess digging dirt with your sea urchin rover, how do you efficiently clean up the dust? With a gecko-foot-inspired cleaning cloth, of course. Led by T. Kyle Vanderlick, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Yale University, researchers looking for new ways to help museums dust delicate paintings and artwork turned to nature for help.

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The sticky ridges of a gecko's foot

Rather than secreting a sticky wall-clinging adhesive, the gecko’s foot is covered with thousands of microscopic pillars that generate an electrostatic charge which sticks the lizard gently and dryly to a wall like a statically-charged balloon to a wool sweater.

To simulate the gecko’s foot, the Yale team developed polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a polymer sheet covered with microscopic pillars ranging in diameter from 2 to 50 microns. According to their report in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, the charge attracted dust particles without imparting any damage on a variety of delicate surfaces.

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Microscopic image of silica dust particles stuck to polymer pillars (Credit: Vanderlick Lab)

How hard does one have to shake a dirty polydimethylsiloxane cloth to shake all of the dust out for another round of Picasso cleaning? That’s a question for the next study. Maybe the sea urchin rover could pick the little particles out for practice.

Here’s a bigger question … what will we use for inspiration if there are no more sea urchins or geckos?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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