A fundamental assumption in the scientific investigation of living things is that the components of an organism or cell have specific functions. The evidence for design in nature at both the macro (organismal) and micro (cellular) levels is overwhelming. Reverse engineering of natural machines, in addition to revealing their purpose in nature, has revealed new technologies for useful human applications. Consider the seahorse tail, which was recently highlighted in the journal Science.
Unlike most tails, the seahorse tail is not round; rather, it is square. Seahorse tails are comprised of square prisms interconnected through three types of specialized joints that allow bending and twisting motions. These joints are the ball-and-socket, peg-and-socket, and gliding joints. The question is, why a square tail instead of the usual round one?
Reverse engineering of the seahorse tail provided the answer. From their knowledge of its structure, investigators made a 3D model of the seahorse tail using a method called computer-aided design. In this case, the seahorse tail was scanned using microcomputed tomography, and the images were used to print a 3D model, which investigators used to construct a seahorse tail model containing “mechanical features that closely mimic the different gliding, peg-and-socket, and ball-and-socket joints.”1This “working” tail model was subjected to various tests for flexibility, rigidity, and strength and was compared to a round version of the tail.
Pressure was applied to the two model tails, and it was found that the square tail returned to its original shape after deformation, while the round tail did not. Deformation did not alter the square tail’s exterior shape, while the round tail remained deformed. Additionally, the square tail was better at grasping things. Though the round tail could twist and bend to a greater degree than the more rigid square tail, the combination of rigidity and strength with the ability to bend, twist, and grasp is of great benefit to the seahorse. These features allow the seahorse to attach to important structures in its environment as well as protect itself against predators.
This study of the seahorse tail showed that reverse engineering of a biological component could be used to determine its important functions for the life of the organism. However, another benefit of this approach was the identification of design features that could have useful functions for us, like in developing new types of robotic devices. The article states: