A Cure for the Uncommon Cold


By Tom McKeag

When Arthur DeVries arrived at McMurdo Station in 1961, he was fresh from Stanford University where he had signed up for a 13-month stint to study the respiratory metabolism of the endemic Notothenioid fishes found in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Notothenioids are Antarctic icefish, a suborder of the order of Perciformes. This order is the most numerous order of vertebrates in the world and includes perch, cichlids, and sea bass. Five families of Notothenioid fish dominate the Southern Ocean, comprising over 90 percent of the fish biomass of the region. They are a key part of an entire ecosystem, but that ecosystem would not exist in its robust form if they had not evolved a way to beat the extreme cold of these polar waters. DeVries would eventually find out how.

McMurdo station is at the southern tip of Ross Island, the largest of three U.S. science installations in Antarctica. Established in 1958, McMurdo had all the fea-tures of any work camp on the edge of raw nature, with few embellishments be-yond generators, supply pallets and Quonset huts. The research community there existed in defiance of the climate, rather than because of it: recorded tem-perature extremes are as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius and average annual temperatures reside at minus 18 degrees Celsius.


Despite the conditions, De Vries thrived in the close-knit academic atmosphere and the rugged fieldwork of catching, stocking and analyzing fish. The challenges of his temporary job there, however, would lead him unexpectedly to a ground-breaking discovery and a lifetime of polar science. Some of the fish he was catching and holding in tanks were dying, while others were not. His zeal to solve his problem and his curiosity to find its causes would lead to an entire branch of research. As he told Scientia Publications,

“During these experiments I noticed that a deep water Notothenioid fish would freeze to death if any ice was present in our refrigerated salt water while those caught in the shallow water survived in the presence of ice. I decided to investi-gate why there was a difference in these species living in water of the same temperature (-1.9°C) for my PhD thesis research at Stanford. I investigated what compounds were responsible for their capability to avoid freezing in this envi-ronment while fishes in temperate waters would freeze to death at -0.8°C. My study culminated in the discovery of the antifreeze glycoproteins, the com-pounds responsible for their extreme freeze avoidance.”

The Antarctic icefish DeVries was studying are in a special club of organisms with the ability to live at low-temperature extremes. Some of these organisms, like the North American Wood Frog, are able to recover from freezing, and some, like the icefish, survive by avoiding being frozen. A great range of creatures from insects to diatoms to fungi and bacteria are also in this group that uses so-called ice-binding proteins (IBP) to survive. They use one of five general mechanisms for this: producing antifreeze; structuring ice where, for instance, an alga will create a more moderate liquid pocket within ice; adhering to ice, such as certain bacteria do; nucleating ice; and inhibiting ice recrystallization. Recrystallization is the consolidation of small ice crystals into bigger ones as they are attracted by hydrogen bonding in a cascade effect.


The icefish have evolved the first strategy of creating their own antifreeze. Anti-freeze proteins (AFP) can be defined as any ice-binding proteins that depress the hysteresis freezing point below the hysteresis melting point, thereby creating a “thermal hysteresis gap”. They are typically alpha helix glycoproteins also known as antifreeze glycoproteins (AFGP) or thermal hysteresis proteins (THP). Thermal hysteresis is the separation of freezing and melting temperatures. The fish are able to lower the point at which the water inside them freezes, while the point at which it melts remains the same (more on surprising developments on this later). To understand how this works requires a brief discussion of water it-self.

Water is the universal medium on earth, with unique properties essential to a wide range of livable conditions and is a critical part of living things themselves. No other common material exists naturally on our planet in all three phases, liq-uid, solid and gas. Strong covalent bonds hold oxygen and hydrogen atoms together in a single molecule, but weaker hydrogen bonds connect water mole-cules to each other. The polar nature of the molecule, with oxygen negative and hydrogen positive, allows it to bind readily to other molecules, making for an excellent and universal solvent. Water has a high thermal capacity, which might be described as a reticence to change temperatures despite its surroundings. This creates an important moderating influence on climate at many scales. It has been estimated that our oceans can absorb one thousand times the heat as our atmosphere without significantly changing temperature. Most of the increased heat of global climate change, for example, has been absorbed by the earth’s oceans.

antifreeze proteins

When water becomes colder, its density follows a predictable material trend, growing denser with each drop in temperature, until 4 degrees C. When water turns to ice it becomes lighter, less dense (approximately 9%) as the hydrogen atoms link to form a crystal lattice structure. This characteristic allows ice to float on top of its denser liquid phase, making overwintering aquatic life possible around the globe, including in the Antarctic Ocean. The expansion of water in the change from liquid to the solid phase can also be a powerful disruptive force; able to split granite.

This force can be equally straining at the intracellular and cellular level. Expan-sion of solid water inside of cells may cause them to burst, and the freezing of the intercellular spaces causes water loss and ion and metabolite buildup as ice forms. This water imbalance prompts a flow of liquid out of the cells and into the spaces between. This can lead to a toxic concentration of ions within the cell or a significant loss of pressure resistance and cell collapse.
A range of organisms across kingdoms has adapted to temperatures that freeze water: plants, yeasts, bacteria, and animals like fish and insects. They employ different stratagems, but all must live by the physical rules of their environments, especially the characteristics of water.

When salt is dissolved in water it lowers its freezing point. Seawater, therefore, has slightly different properties than fresh as the dissolved salts (3.5% for typical seawater) lower the freezing point to minus 1.9 degrees C. This is called freezing point depression and is a common evolved stratagem for many cold climate dwellers or psychrophiles. De Vries realized that the freezing point depression exhibited in his surviving shallow water fish could not be explained solely by common body salts in the serum of the fish. He devised a series of experiments to differentiate the chemical makeup of his two types of fish and isolated the glycoproteins that were key to his discovery. The proteins were attaching themselves to ice crystals within the blood of the fish and preventing them from growing. This, combined with body salts, allowed the fish to maintain liquid blood at minus 2.5 degrees C.

5559831069_757fb0dbcb_b (1)

What he and his colleagues eventually found out was that these glycoproteins were binding to ice crystals irreversibly in a process they termed adsorp-tion-inhibition (DeVries and Raymond, 1977). This is a so-called “step pinning” process in which crucial physical sequences necessary for freezing are inter-rupted or curtailed. In this case, the AFP’s were binding to small nascent ice crystals and forcing ice formation into smaller spaces between adsorption sites thereby bending the ice lattice’s growth front into a curve. This created a higher surface free energy and effectively lowered the freezing point in a phenomenon called the Gibbs-Thomson effect.

AFP’s are typically small compound proteins with an eccentric load of the amino acid threonine. Threonine has a hydrophilic surface that water molecules attach to weakly. This adsorption inhibits the microcrystals from coalescing into larger crystals and keeps the water in the liquid state.

It appears that these small ice crystals remain in the fish for their lifetimes, but this is still being studied. While there is no evidence that the fish are adversely affected by the year-round presence of the crystals, DeVries believes that they must have a mechanism to void them. One surprising recent discovery has been that the presence of the AFP’s make the crystals resist melting; higher tempera-tures are needed to melt them as well as lower temperatures needed to form them.

What is not known, according to DeVries, is just how these proteins are able to recognize solid phase water molecules within this liquid environment and prefer-entially bind to them. How they prevent growth is also still be investigated, with the adsorption-inhibition model still open to debate and refinement. Nonetheless, there is no refuting this as a successful survival strategy. Indeed, it is an example of convergence, often an indicator, if not a guarantee, of effective and durable solutions in nature. Two genetically distinct populations of fish, one in the Arctic (the Arctic Cod) and one in the Antarctic (Notothenioids), have developed these techniques.

The discovery of these anti-freeze proteins may have touched off an entire re-search industry into their abilities, but do they perform as well as their commer-cial namesake? It seems that they do, as a matter of fact much better by an order of magnitude. The reason is the selectivity that they exhibit in attaching to the small ice crystals. Ethylene glycol, the green liquid typically used in car radiators, works by mass action effect, disrupting hydrogen bonding by the chemical equivalent of carpet bombing. Although it is not persistent, the chemical is a moderately toxic poison. When swallowed it is converted into oxalic acid by ethanol hydrogenase. Oxalic acid is highly toxic, affecting the central nervous system, heart, lungs and kidneys. It is responsible for tens of thousands of animal poisonings and thousands of human poisonings each year. Ethylene glycol has been demonstrated as a developmental toxicant in higher doses in rats.


Propylene glycol with metal nanoparticles has been developed as a safer alternative to ethylene glycol, but lacks the efficiency of the AFP’s. It is cheaper, however, readily available and uses a material already employed in the food industry and approved by the FDA.

Despite decades of research into the mechanism of these proteins, industry ap-plications remain few, with proteins from the Arctic pout fish used in ice cream to prevent recrystallization, and AFP’s and growth hormones introduced to trans-genic farmed salmon for cold-weather hardiness and increased growth. It is in the biomedical field, however, where the use of these proteins promises the most rewards and challenges.

Transporting and transplanting organs, preserving human bodies for the future miracles of medicine (cryonics), and performing surgery are all endeavors where AFP’s could play a revolutionary role. Single cells, like sperm and eggs, are rou-tinely frozen and stored, but larger tissue is more difficult to preserve. AFP’s have been employed successfully to preserve rat and pig hearts in below freezing temperatures. In one experiment, researchers removed a rat heart, preserved it in sterile water and AFP’s at minus 1.3 degrees C for 24 hours, then transplanted the warmed up (non-pumping) heart into a new rat.

Notwithstanding these early successes and the great promise of AFP’s, the technology of preserving human organs still lags far behind the medical demand. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that approximately 21 patients a day die waiting for an organ that is not available. Lungs remain usable for only twelve hours and hearts only four or five, using the current techniques. The toxicity of cryoprotectants and the disruptive effects of thawing are two of the most challenging problems. While vitrification is an effective technique of quick freezing of organs to a glass state, most techniques rely on pumping the cells full of toxic chemicals, and it is in the thawing where damage is most severe. Differential warming causes splintering and fracturing of material subjected to opposing forces. One University of Minnesota team, however, is working on a method of using nanoparticles to gently and uniformly heat organs back to living temperatures. The magnetic nanoparticles are excited to activity (and heat) by radio waves in a process the team calls “nanowarming”, and the technique has been used successfully on clusters of cells.

Other research teams are looking elsewhere in nature for even more effective anti-freeze compounds. One is a glycolipid found in a freeze-tolerant Alaskan beetle, Upis ceramboides which allows the insect to endure temperatures of mi-nus 60 degrees C and still recover. Cell and Tissue Systems of South Carolina is employing it successfully in the preservation of tissues for days at below zero temperatures without deterioration, according to the company. The glycolipid appears to coat the membrane of the cell, armoring it against external ice and sealing it against the osmotic draw of liquid from the cell.

Whether using a protein or a glycolipid, lowering freezing temperatures or endur-ing being frozen, pumping themselves full of cryoprotectants, sealing themselves up or drying themselves out, nature’s organisms of all domains have come to live with the uncommon cold. It is still up to human researchers to fully unlock these secrets and put them to use in the better preservation of life.


Originally posted on Zygote Quarterly.


Summer Reading List for Biomimics!


We asked leaders in the biomimicry community – including Biomimicry Institute staff, founders of the Biomimicry Global Networks, our friends at Biomimicry 3.8, and our co-founder, Janine Benyus – for their summer reading recommendations, and have compiled a great list of books for your trip to the beach (or lake, reservoir, bay, pond, channel, estuary, fjord, bight, canal, wetland, lagoon, marsh, tributary, or river delta) this summer. Some may be better suited for hunkering down during winter months, but all will provide a new perspective in thinking about sustainability, innovation and design, and our relationship with the natural world. Enjoy!


Recommended by Janine Benyus, co-founder, Biomimicry Institute & Biomimicry 3.8

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

The Hidden Half of Nature by Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

Adapt: How Humans Are Tapping into Nature’s Secrets to Design and Build a Better Future by Amina Khan

Recommended by Amy Coffman-Phillips, founder, Biomimicry Chicago network

Evolution by Stephen Baxter (Sci-Fi)

Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World by Stephen Kellert


Recommended by Katherine Collins, author, The Nature of Investing, founder, Honeybee Capital Foundation

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams


Recommended by Lisa Dokken, biomimicry consultant and lecturer, Columbia University

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planetby Kristin Ohlson


Recommended by Marjan Eggermont, associate dean, Schulich School of Engineering, and founding co-editor, Zygote Quarterly

Science of Seeing: Essays on Nature from Zygote Quarterly by Adelheid Fischer


Recommended by Chris Garvin, architect and founding board member, Biomimicry NYC network

Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl


Recommended by Adiel Gavish, social media and communications manager, Biomimicry Institute and founder, BiomimicryNYC network

Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

“You have a masterpiece inside you, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created, or ever will be. If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.” – Gordon MacKenzie

The Story of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (Sci-Fi)

Recommended by Ron Gonen, co-founder and CEO, Closed Loop Fund

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari


Recommended by Tim McGee, founder, Likolab

How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s most Dangerous Creatures by Carl Zimmer

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

Recommended by Nicole Miller, managing director, Biomimicry 3.8

Teeming: How Superorganisms Work Together to Build Infinite Wealth on a Finite Planet (and your company can too) by Dr. Tamsin Woolley Barker


Recommended by Beth Rattner, executive director, Biomimicry Institute  

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery

Recommended by Josh Stack, founder, Stack Resilience and co-founder, Biomimicry Northern Forest

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs

Solving for Pattern by Wendell Berry (essay from his book, The Gift of Good Land)

Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems by Reinette Biggs


Recommended by Kathy Zarsky, systems director, HOLOS, and co-founder, and director, Biomimicry TX network

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does by Phillip Ball

The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature by Phillip Ball

Seeds: Time Capsules of Life by Rob Kesseler

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future by Betty Sue Flowers, Peter M. Senge and C. Otto Scharmer

Recommended by Joe Zazzera, founding principal, Plant Solutions

The Ground Beneath Us: From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are by Paul Bogard


We also recommend checking out Joe Zazzera’s 111 “Books of Interest for the Biomimicry Professional” board on Pinterest!

In addition, we would like to encourage readers to obtain a copy of your local Master Naturalist’s reading list.


Originally published on the Biomimicry Institute + Global Biomimicry Network blog, Asking Nature.


Earth is (already) great


A joint letter from the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry 3.8.

Let’s work together to build a just world for us all, with nature as a guide.

We’ve all spent too much time inside the last few days, looking at our computers and TV screens. In that time, birds were flying south for the winter, rain was restoring thirsty hills in California, and baby koalas were being born in Australia.

A species can only thrive if its strategies are tuned to the conditions it’s in–and if it’s in beneficial relationships with others. Humans have co-existed as a species on this planet for over 200,000 years as Homo sapiens sapiens. In that time, there have been many disturbances, challenges, and tensions between and amongst us. Somehow, we have eventually learned that we are always better together than alone.

And through it all, we always asked nature for help.

Nature adapts to changing conditions, over short and long periods of time. For that reason alone, it offers us humans millions of answers on how to build a fair world that works for all species.  

We have a vibrant planet, one full of solutions to every problem we have. As we all collectively navigate this time of great change ahead, we encourage everyone to continue to look to nature. Take long walks, have conversations with birds, spend time pondering the ants.  

Go outside – enjoy it, learn from it, and protect it.


Your friends at the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry 3.8


Want to build an organization that lasts? Create a superorganism.

By Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD

For the past 25 years, I’ve studied everything from baboon cooperation in Ethiopia and orca whale innovation in the Bering Sea, to the Argentine ant invasion in my kitchen, and my colleagues at work (not nearly as interesting!), all through an evolutionary lens.

Today, I use that lens to help companies evolve.

I’m a Biomimicry Professional, and a Biologist at the Design Table, and the teams I work with develop biologically-inspired solutions for a Global 500 clientele. We search for the technologies that make life—and business—go.

As an evolutionary biologist, a businessperson, and a biomimic, I’m always looking for the deep patterns in life, trying to find out what lasts. And here’s one thing I know is true:
Organizations can’t keep growing the way we structure them today.

It’s simple math. Like dinosaurs, organizations keep getting bigger, but they need huge bones to support the weight of all that complexity. The more weight, the more bones; the more bones, the more weight. It’s a catch-22. Management is the ponderous skeleton that keeps organizations from collapse. But as they grow, the costs of management rise, and the ability to adapt declines. When sudden change comes, there’s not much a company can do—it’s a sitting duck (or dinosaur) for the next cosmic collision. Hierarchies can only scale so much—we can’t grow bigger bones forever.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies. In fact, nature uses them all the time—to stop change from happening. Scientists tell us that cells go rogue in our bodies every day, but a hierarchical system usually stops those cancers from growing. Hierarchies are important and useful. But they aren’t the right structures for adapting to change, and they inherently limit growth.

Change is coming—with shifting supply chains and customer needs, upstart competitors and technologies, resource scarcity and volatile prices, change is sudden, unexpected, and potentially calamitous. Multinationals span many divisions and fractured market segments, their teams cross cultures, languages, time zones, and governments. All of it held together by management. Between technological advances and social revolutions, climate change and peak everything, companies inhabit an unpredictable world of their own making. They are bound to topple and fall.

Meanwhile, they have a mandate to maximize shareholder return. Companies that are beholden to this short-sighted maxim require infinite growth. What happens when they hit the limit? Something has to give.

As an evolutionary biologist, I find myself asking—who inherited the Earth in the dinosaurs’ place?



Message to COP21 leaders: Need solutions? Ask nature.

rome-, italy c-reuters

Right now, world leaders are gathering in Paris at COP21 with nothing less than the future of our planet at stake. Their goal is to create a new international climate change agreement that limits global warming below 2℃. If temperatures rise above that magic number, the UN predicts that between 20-30 percent of plant and animal species could be wiped out. If things continue as they currently are, we will certainly hit that number (atmospheric CO2 levels recently passed the 400 ppm mark, another measure of the damage we’re doing). We know we cannot allow this to happen.

As these leaders work to hammer out plans, they’re going to need to land on solid strategies to limit greenhouse gas emissions and keep our planet’s temperature from rising. Luckily, the solutions are right outside our window.

Nature is full of clues for how we can approach our climate change problems, in ways that not only reduce our climate impact, but help us to “…become producers of ecosystem services” (Janine Benyus). Biomimicry studies and then translates nature’s architecture, design, and engineering strategies to human design. Many of these strategies can apply directly to climate change challenges such as how nature upcycles carbon, harnesses the sun’s power, and creates electricity.

COP21 is focused on developing solid action plans and solutions. In that spirit, we want to share just a few of nature’s strategies and corresponding innovations that can lead us down a more life-sustaining path.

First, here is a small sample of some ways that nature captures greenhouse gases and creates renewable energy:


Carbon-gobbling cacti
The Saguaro cactus uses some of the carbon dioxide it removes from the atmosphere to make compounds called oxalates.These oxalates then combine with calcium ions taken up from the soil by the plants roots. After the cactus dies, the calcium oxalate slowly transforms into solid calcium carbonate (calcite), and sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil. (more…)


#ThankOutside: Share what you’re grateful for in nature


With the holiday season approaching, the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry Global Network want to share what makes us thankful in nature and invite you to do the same. Post a pic of yourself or a loved one holding a #THANKOUTSIDE sign in your favorite outdoor spot, explain what you’re thankful for in nature, and post to Twitter or Instagram using the #THANKOUTSIDE hashtag. From now until Nov. 26th, we’ll repost our favorites. Don’t have a Twitter or Instagram account? You can send your pic and blurb to hello(at)


Read on to learn what the Biomimicry Institute team is grateful for, this year and always.



Urban mobility reloaded: Planning our future cities


By Dr. Arndt Pechstein

Our cities are constantly growing and an ever-rising number of people live on a very small fraction of the world’s surface area. By 2050, about 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. Half of the population of Asia alone is predicted to live in cities by 2020. Over 60% of the land projected to become urban by 2030 remains yet to be built. Mobility no longer remains an optional luxury for an elite but has transformed into a non-negotiable to participate in society. Consequently, smart mobility solutions are gaining importance. How do we tackle such a challenge of global dimension? How do we serve people’s needs for mobility while simultaneously sacrificing neither biodiversity and environmental values nor human health and well-being?

The light bulb was not invented by improving the candle.”

Urban mobility Dr. Arndt Pechstein

Reinventing the wheel

Despite our pride of having invented the wheel (which is, by the way, not entirely true given that the golden wheel spider has been using wheel motion for millions of years before us) humans are not the only species tackling mobility challenges. In fact, mobility is an inherent phenomenon shared by all living systems. Everything alive moves, from cells to organisms to entire ecosystems. Over billions of years, organisms and systems have evolved to be remarkably adaptive to their surroundings with regard to transport, mobility, and logistics.



Designing for People Who Don’t Yet Exist

Designing for People Who Don’t Yet Exist


Evaporation: Closing the Gap between Forest and Urban Water Flows


By Jennifer Barnes and Alexandra Ramsden

Have you ever walked through an evergreen forest in the rain? There is a hush all around. The forest floor is spongy and soft beneath your feet, and the layers and textures all around you create a coziness, a feeling of being protected. As you take a deep breath of fresh, clean air, you know it’s raining big drops up above, but all you feel is a cool mist floating down through the canopy.

You can find expansive sections of this forest all around Puget Sound. For many people, it is a mental and spiritual health reservoir, a place that helps us reconnect and remember that we are nature. But it is also an ecosystem services powerhouse. It stores carbon, cleans the air and water, regulates temperatures, and provides shelter and food for critters big and small.

Before urban development, this forest dominated Seattle’s landscape. Dotted with bogs and meadows, with wetlands proliferating along the rich edges between forest and water, the vast majority of the region was forest. And the system operated in dynamic balance.



Top 5 reasons why you should be at SXSW Eco this October!


The Biomimicry Institute, Biomimicry 3.8, and members of the Biomimicry Global Network are joining forces with SXSW Eco to curate a brand-new conference track, focused on nature-inspired ideas, designs and technologies.

Nature, Innovation, and the Future of Design, will explore the intercepts of science, technology and design that are inspired, mentored, and measured by the standards of our natural world.

Playtime at SXSW Eco Light Garden, 2014

If you are in the social innovation and regenerative design space, then this track is where you will meet other social innovators, entrepreneurs and cutting edge leaders thinking about how we can re-align our companies, cities, products, policies and business practices with those of the natural world.

“Creating that marketplace for exchange of ideas and progressive thinking is what South by Southwest Eco is all about.”

Here are the top 5 reasons why you should be at SXSW Eco this year:


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