Donald Ingber is Uncovering Nature’s Design Principles to Inspire Bioengineering

Donald Ingber studies how the natural patterns that have often been dismissed as design flaws might transform the field of bioengineering.

Ingber is the founder and director of the Wyss Institute for Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard. He proposes applying the adaptive and competitive responses of living systems to the fields of engineering in a way that might bring revolutionary advances in engineering, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and computer science.

Donald Ingber

Ingber’s perspective is based, in part, on his discovery while in an art class in college, that cells are built more like tents than like balloons. This critical insight dramatically changed how he thought about living cells. Hey came to see that they structure themselves in much the same way that inventor Buckminster Fuller dubbed the “tensegrity.” This balance between tension and compression, which Fuller employed to construct his famed geodesic domes, reveals that the design of materials could be viewed as dynamic systems.

Ingber spoke at PopTech as part of an session titled “Noise in the System.” In Ingber’s case, this noise refers to the amount of variation, such as DNA mutations, that naturally occurs in nature. Conventional engineering views this kind of variation as a design flaw, Ingber says, and works to eliminate or minimize it. Nature, by contrast, make use of these slight variations to better respond to environmental shifts.

Ingber notes that replicating the natural structures and function of cells and tissues might enable researchers to innovate where others have failed.

For example, Ingber’s team of researchers is exploring how to make medicine more dynamic, namely something he calls Anticipatory Medical Devices. Such devices would be able to actively respond to the complexity of a body’s output signals.

Wyss researchers are also exploring biomimetic systems, mimicking a living, breathing human lung on a microchip. Such an organ surrogate can provide viable way to noninvasively test new drugs guaging the effects of environmental toxins.

Finally, Ingber revealed that researchers associated with the Wyss Institute are working on building robotic insects that are autonomous yet able to act as a group.

Ingber stresses that most of the research at the Wyss Institute is still exploratory, and that the researchers might fail many times before they succeed. Even so, the institute launched with a $125 million endowment, the largest philanthropic gift to Harvard in the University’s history, and what they propose is rather awe-inspiring.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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