Insects: chemists, architects and pharmacists

Latrodectus sp. © Espace pour la vie
Insects: chemists, architects and pharmacists

We’re so often impressed by human inventions. And yet, nature often got their ahead of us, and a long, long time ago. Insects can inspire at any number of levels: anatomical perfection, long-lasting durability, and many other characteristics besides. Here’s a brief overview of their creative genius, a factor that’s made them one of the classes in the animal kingdom enjoying the greatest success…

The invention of paper by human beings goes back to antiquity. So what can you say about insects that have mastered the art of making it for millions of years! Among the best known are wasps. What they do is chew on wood fiber, which they mix with their saliva to build and insulate their nests. Take a good look some time at these masterpieces of nature. Occasionally wasps use tree bark and urban furniture (benches, picket fences, etc.) to build…colored nests! Others of the species, named potter or mason wasps, manufacture nests out of clay, sand or mud with their saliva. The results are impressive: little “cement” nests solid enough to protect their progeny.

Recently a team of German and U.S. researchers in robotics were inspired by the structures of insect legs to create a biological polymer material: an adhesive tape with no glue but with a bonding strength two times greater than “ordinary” adhesive tape. The tape, in addition to being less sensitive to contamination by dust, is washable with soap and water. It’s made of geometrically organized microstructures like the hairs found on the legs of certain flies, beetles and earwigs.

A few facts

The ethylene glycol we use in our cars for antifreeze and other purposes is also used by insects. That chemical molecule enables insects to survive the winter, at temperatures as low as -53o C. True six-legged chemists!

Certain ants, which are crazy about honeydew (a liquid secreted by aphids), protect these other insects from predators in exchange for the delicious liquid. They can even “milk” their aphids by touching them with their antennae, the effect of which is to stimulate production.

Better than Viagra?

Researchers from the Universidad de la Frontera in Chili are working on the venom of the famous black widow spider. That venom produces what’s called priapism, which is a continuous and painful erection lasting several hours. In endeavoring to isolate the molecule responsible for that condition, they hope to develop a drug that will compete with world-renowned Viagra. Moreover, other components of the venom may prove effective in male contraception as well, since they destroy spermatozoids. To be continued…

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