Life in Yellowstone inspires Georgia Tech Professor and students to design technological solutions

Yellowstone's boreal chorus frog inspires research on vaccine transport (Photo courtesy Georgia Tech)What do frogs and vaccine transportation have in common? Or bighorn sheep and automobile safety?

Professor Jeannette Yen, Director of the Center for Biologically Inspired Design at Georgia Tech, described the relationships between these seemingly unrelated things during a presentation today in Yellowstone National Park.

“Imagine what Yellowstone can inspire,” Yen told the audience. She teaches a course on biologically inspired design and this spring tasked her freshman class in developing innovative products and techniques based on Yellowstone’s unique living world—one of the largest intact wild ecosystems on earth.

“Yellowstone has such a richness of organisms and a range of challenges—like extreme cold or thermal activity—that all animals and plants address successfully. The diversity of this place has blown me away,” said Yen.

Life in the first national park has already been the impetus for a number of research and design projects. For example, the intrepid Boreal chorus frog survives Yellowstone’s harsh winters in a frozen hibernation.  To accomplish this, the animal raises its blood sugar levels to prevent tissue damage—the water outside the tissues freeze, the water inside the tissues is protected by the blood sugar “antifreeze.” Scientists are studying this amazing process to improve techniques for transporting and preserving vaccines.

During their annual rut, bighorn sheep engage in horn-to-horn combat as they establish dominance. Some of these contests can last up to 24 hours and the animals can collide at speeds of over 40 mph. The honeycomb structure of its horn base and its perfectly aligned spine create a highly effective shock system that helps it resist injury. This natural system is helping researchers design better collision resistant material for automobiles.

Professor Yen hopes designs inspired from life in Yellowstone will not only provide practical technological solutions, but will also help motivate the protection of its ecosystem. “I hope the designs will remind us of the organisms that inspired it and as a result help us promote the conservation of biodiversity in the world.”