It is not just students who are drawn to the colleges of Cambridge. Those with an eagle eye might also be able to spot the city’s resident pair of mating peregrine falcons. Tiercel and Falcon can often be seen swooping between college roofs, a favourite perch being the spires of the famous King’s College Chapel.
In recent weeks, the pair have hatched three new chicks. Fans have been following their progress on the Cambridge Peregrines Twitter page (@camperegrines).
From their nesting site in the city centre, the peregrines should have a good view of the University’s Department of Engineering. This seems appropriate, given the inspiration that peregrines themselves have offered to engineers and other innovators.
The peregrine can reach diving speeds of over 200 mph, making it the world’s fastest bird. It is no surprise, then, that innovators have looked to the peregrine when developing aircraft technology. The falcon’s feathers, for example, relay sensory information during its characteristic dive, as well as ruffling to keep the bird airborne during a swoop. Researchers have proposed to mimic these features through the development of 3D-printed sensory polymer filaments for the body of aircraft, and hinged flaps for aircraft wings, respectively. Prospective innovations in drone technology have also taken inspiration from the feet of peregrines, as well as from the attack trajectories of hunting falcons.
This made me think about innovations closer to my own field of expertise which have their roots in the natural world. Three examples came to mind, one inspired by an animal, one by a bacterium, and one by a plant.
The 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has its origin in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which exhibits striking green bioluminescence. Investigations into the mechanism of this bioluminescence led to the discovery of what became known as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). Subsequent work to express GFP in other organisms led to its widespread use as a fluorescent tag in cell biology, enabling the tracking of gene expression and the visualisation of intracellular processes. Many derivatives of GFP have now been developed, each of which fluoresces with its own characteristic colour. As well as opening new avenues of research, GFP has thus transposed the natural beauty of the jellyfish to the lab.
The surprise discovery of the bacterium Thermus aquaticus surviving in the high temperatures of Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs was crucial to the success of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (the now-familiar PCR acronym). A key component of PCR is the use of a DNA polymerase enzyme. Given the extreme nature of the bacterium’s environment, the DNA polymerase of T. aquaticus, known as Taq polymerase, is unusually resistant to high-temperature conditions. Taq was therefore uniquely placed for exploitation in continuous PCR cycles, being able to withstand repeated high-temperature reaction steps. This facilitated the development of automated PCR machines, from which widespread commercial success and a Nobel Prize resulted.
In the field of pharmaceuticals, natural products have always been of high importance. The story begins with the folkloric use of plants and herbs as rudimentary medicines, and continues into the modern day with the screening of natural products for anti-cancer properties. One such screen led to the identification and isolation of the compound Taxol (paclitaxel) from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. After much clinical development, Taxol became, and remains, one of the most widely-used and commercially successful anti-cancer drugs. However, the total (from-scratch) synthesis of Taxol proved to be a significant challenge to synthetic chemists, demonstrating that nature is not always easy to mimic.
Clearly, the natural world has always provided useful inspiration to innovators in different fields. But the path to the development of new technologies is not always easy; here, the Cambridge peregrines offer some reassurance. Fledgling peregrines, over-keen to stretch their wings, often find that their first attempts at flight are unsuccessful. Instead, they come tumbling unceremoniously down to the street below. In Cambridge, the porters at Pembroke college have been happy to help the dazed fledglings back up to the neighbouring nest site. Nonetheless, after a few falls along the way, this year’s chicks are all now confidently flying.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to innovators from the Cambridge peregrines is the importance of persisting, and bouncing-back from any falls along the way to commercial success. And, of course, here at Marks & Clerk we are always eager to support innovators in this journey, whether you are a fledgling inventor or the top-predator in your field.