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Nature-Inspired and Biotechnology University Day: Call for Abstracts

The Doolittle Institute is the intermediary for those who want to build relationships with scientists and engineers teaching or studying at colleges and universities. On Behalf of the U.S. Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) the Doolittle Institute is looking for potential collaborators who are researching or have already completed research in nature-inspired technology and biotechnology to present their research in Nature-Inspired and Biotechnology University Day on October 14, 2021.

Some of the potential opportunities for selected presenters include: 

  • Seedling funding and Sponsored research
  • Fellowships/Summer scientist programs at the AFRL Munitions Directorate 
  • Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) 
  • Educational Partnership Agreements (EPA) 

Submissions are being accepted through September 30, 2021 and will be reviewed by Air Force Research Lab subject matter experts as they are received. Submissions should be in Word doc or PDF format, include no more than 250 words, and one figure or image. References do not count towards the word limit.

Those selected to present will be notified more than two weeks in advance of the event. Each topic discussed will consist of an abstract presentation and a question and answer period. 

Topic 1

Biological Source of Heat and Insulation for Arctic Environments  

The main objective of this topic is to explore how biological systems can be employed to mitigate the effects of arctic temperatures.  Fundamental studies into the biology of one of two following areas would be of interest: 

  • Engineering culturable microorganism and/or their cell-free transcription/translation systems to produce heat.    

  • The thermal conductivity and mechanical properties of qiviut, cellularized fibers of the Muskox (Ovibos moschatus). 

The long-term goal is to provide a biological source for on-demand heat production and thermal insulation.  Arctic operations are expected to increase in the near future, which requires the USAF and USSF to provide capabilities to support Airmen and Guardian (A/G) missions in extreme environments. Extended hours in the field require heat sources to keep A/G safe and power their supporting devices including gloves and other garments and fieldable instrumentation.   Therefore, it is necessary to develop capabilities to provide heat to these systems in a low weight, compatible and small format with minimal power requirements. Developing the heat-producing microorganisms would provide a novel approach to a deployable, lightweight, compact, customizable heat source that could be easily interfaced with different systems.  In addition, natural fibers that are durable, lightweight and provide better insulation than conventional materials would be considered.

Topic 2  

Multi-functional Materials

Ecological demands on biological species have caused them to develop multifunctional and highly specialized materials.  Protection from crushing and radiation, thermal regulation, signaling and self-healing are examples of the utility of these materials.  Combining functionality in a single material is often a consequence of nature’s ability to self-assemble hierarchical structures with high fidelity.  In order to translate nature’s design into tunable Air Force materials, a fundamental understanding is needed of the constituent units, the design principles of the composite and the mechanisms involved in its assembly.   Using additive manufacturing to replicate natural composite structures would enable tunable, on-site, on-demand supplies for the Air Force. 

Proposals that are fundamental studies of biological multi-functional materials having one of the following attributes would be considered:

  • Demonstrate the ability to maintain thermal homeostasis while maintaining form and function. Investigating designs and subsequent thermal and mechanical properties/mechanisms of these systems could provide huge benefits to the Air Force with cheaper/more effective thermally-resistant materials. 

  • Utilize surface modifications that provide a protective buffer for underlying structures from a variety of extraneous forces that would otherwise hinder their performance or reduce their service period. Investigating the formation mechanisms and translating designs to biomimetic structures could provide benefits to the Air Force in improving the utility and performance and lifetime of materials. 

  • Utilize carefully orchestrated processes to ensure rigid control over hierarchical assembly that affect the resulting mechanical properties such as strength and toughness. 

  • Contain melanins that are protective against chemical, thermal, radiation insults.  Such materials may be composites containing abiotic materials (e.g. metals) which expand and/or alter the spectral properties of the material.  Also of interest are efforts to understand:  alternative biosynthetic pathways leading to non-natural melanin structures; mechanisms used by melanosomes to protect against damage; how to augment the microbiome to produce melanin for skin protection.

Topic 3  

Distributed Visual Systems

Though animal visual systems are highly diverse, they seemingly share the same fundamental organization: light is captured by a distributed array of detectors from which visual information is integrated, processed, and applied to decision making and behavior. These systems range over a spectrum of highly centralized to decentralized arrays from which information is likely processed over shared structural and computational principles. In particular, we have interest in animal systems that have light-sensing structures spread across their bodies which may vary in location, abundance, and complexity. For example, sea urchins use thousands of photoreceptors distributed across their bodies to process spatial information. Some other animals have fewer but more complex light-sensing structures, such as sabellid and serpulid polychaetes that have hundreds of compound eyes on their specialized tentacles, or chitons that have hundreds of camera-type eyes on their shell plates. We seek the following research:

  • Identify unifying principles of centralized to decentralized visual processing, which may lead to enhanced sensors and information processing systems.
  • Proposals in the topic area of distributed sensing, we particularly encourage proposals into distributed visual systems, which may include integrating information across the ommatidial units of compound eyes by the brain (highly centralized), across an array of eyes by neural nodes (less centralized), and across distributed photoreceptors processed locally in tissue (decentralized). 

Sensors developed for use by the military tend to be single color systems that work on shape recognition in intensity images and/or are based on the human visual system. By learning how and why animals with distributed visual systems take different approaches to processing spatial information about light, we can better understand and then apply the underlying processing principles of centralized vs. decentralized systems toward improved autonomous systems.

Topic 4 

Biological visual sensors correlated to optical signatures of desired objects/biological surfaces

Arthropod visual systems can detect both polarization and spectral content of the electromagnetic radiation field. Insight is needed into the “design rules” of how the sensitivities of observing systems (biological visual sensors) match the signal(s) present in the environment. It is thought that the spectral signatures of flowers (particularly in the UV) have evolved concurrently with the visual system sensitivities of their pollinators. Other structures, like surfaces that reflect circularly polarized light or photonic crystals, however, have remained underexplored from a developmental and functional standpoint. Additionally, studies of the success of these “design rules” via conservation and/or replication, or plasticity of these rules due to a broad array of signal and response sensitivity within organisms, are lacking.

Survey and research into proposed pairing of visual signals and observer sensitivities. Some general groupings that might be considered are: 

  • Detection and utilization of polarized light, linear and circular, both in the environment and on biological surfaces, such as beetle elytra.
  • Prey signatures and corresponding predator visual sensitivities, such as signatures of livestock and visual sensitivities of the female horseflies that bite for the blood meal.
  • Conspecific recognition for purposes of courting and mating. What signatures and associated sensitivities enable different species to recognize conspecifics? In each group studied, to what extent is color the determining factor, versus polarization?
  • Trade-offs between conspicuousness and signal strength and/or function. (5) Correlated measurements of variable light environments with visual signatures and the biological sensor.

Sensors developed for use by the military tend to be single color systems that work on shape recognition in intensity images and/or are based on the human visual system. The electromagnetic radiation field contains much more information that could be used to improve probability of target detection, correct target identification, and target tracking. Understanding design rules of systems that exploit maximum use of the information contained in the light reflected from objects will enable developing more capable sensors for object recognition for surveillance and tracking. Understanding the structural basis of natural materials and their corresponding visual signals may lead to the creation of bio-inspired materials that create unique visual signatures, providing payoff for both military applications and civilian applications. 

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