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.

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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.


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?



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.



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:



Call for Proposals! Biomimicry at SXSW Eco This October


Calling all nature-inspired innovators! The Biomimicry Institute is teaming up with SXSW Eco this year to present a special biomimicry track entitled “Nature, Innovation, and the Future of Design.” And their call for proposals is now open!

SXSW Eco - a party in a conference setting.

SXSW Eco – a party in a conference setting.


SXSW Eco, “creates a space for business leaders, investors, innovators and designers to drive economic, environmental and social change”. Their annual conference which follows SXSW Interactive, attended by over 30,000 per year, “celebrates innovation in technology and design that positively impacts the economy, environment and society”.

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

This partnership will help to shepherd biomimicry into mainstream culture and allows for the pollination of cross-sector, cross-industry collaboration within an annual gathering focused on innovation for good.

Interactive playtime at SXSW Eco 2014.

Interactive playtime at SXSW Eco 2014.

The goal of this biomimicry track is to inspire and create bridges beyond a very close-knit biomimicry community. With 7 hours of programming, the conference track focuses on finding the most unique 60 or 90 minute sessions that are interactive, engage the audience and will leave attendees wanting to not only learn more, but take that next step in creating partnerships, collaborating, and bringing biomimicry to the world.

Special Biomimicry Track Themes

  1. Nature’s Hidden Patterns: the patterns and processes that are always there, but elude the human eye (rapid fire presentations) – also open to poster displays during lunch hour
  2. New Insights & Discoveries: learning from related fields and science visualization
  3. Business as Nature: new models of decision making tools
  4. Beyond Biophilic Cities: solutions rooted in genius of place (a series of rapid fire presentations)
  5. This slot is reserved for submissions that do not fit into the above, but are a crowd favorite.
SXSW Eco 2014 welcome party.

SXSW Eco 2014 welcome party.

How to Submit Your Proposal

Because SXSW Eco utilizes a unique crowd-sourced system, each submission must go through their Panel Picker process.

The Biomimicry Institute will post additional information and submission guidelines shortly, so keep checking their page for more info.

In the meantime, if you have questions, please contact Adiel Gavish or Kathy Zarsky.


Re-printed from the Biomimicry Institute. Photo credit: Aaron Rogosin

Tapping into Nature: Launch Event


Bio-Beers Event BiomimicryNYC + Terrapin Bright Green


Join us for a special Bio-Beers event celebrating the release of Terrapin Bright Green’s newest white paper on bioinspired innovation.

Monday, April 13th, 2015
6:30 to 8:30 pm
Pier A Harbor House, the Loft Space

22 Battery Place
New York, NY 10280

Enjoy gorgeous views of the Hudson River from the Loft Space of the Harbor House while mingling with like-minded professionals and enjoying light hors d’oeuvres.

The evening will feature a brief introduction to the paper by the coauthors. Terrapin will also provide a limited number of printed copies of Tapping into Nature  for attendees.

This event continues BiomimicryNYC’s BioBeers network building series and is co-sponsored with Terrapin Bright Green and the Open Space Institute.

Eventbrite - Tapping Into Nature: Launch Event


Biomimicry Track at SXSW Eco 2015

Nature Innovates

Mark your calendars for October 5-7, 2015 in Austin, Texas!

The Biomimicry Institute and members of the Biomimicry Global Network are joining forces with SXSW Eco to curate a brand-new biomimicry track at the SXSW Eco conference in October 2015.

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

In addition to the biomimicry track, the Biomimicry Institute will offer a series of pre-conference workshops for educators, and networking opportunities for biomimicry practitioners and enthusiasts. More info to follow soon!

Find more information about the SXSW Eco conference here.

Re-posted via the Biomimicry Institute.

Biomimicry in Your Pajamas! 7 Free Webinars for Social Innovators

Food Challenge webinars

The Biomimicry Institute is offering a series of 7 webinars, free and open to the public, focusing on how to apply biomimicry and nature’s regenerative patterns to solve global food system challenges.

The webinars are being offered as support for social innovators, entrepreneurs and those passionate about changing the world, who are participating in the annual Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, a competition sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation which will award $100,000 to the Challenge winners through their “Ray of Hope” prize.

March 17 and 18 webinar_Johnson



Crafting the Ultimate Post-Industrial Design Brief Using Biomimicry

Janine Benyus Paul Hawken at VERGE 2014

By Adiel Gavish

“What the industrial age has done is take life away from the planet and turn it into goods and services,” Paul Hawken stated at the 2014 VERGE Conference in San Francisco this past December. The annual event put on by Joel Makower, a former Biomimicry 3.8 Board Member and brings corporations and entrepreneurs together around the convergence of energy, buildings and transportation technologies which will “…enable radical efficiencies and huge opportunities.”

Mr. Makower interviewed both Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken around the idea of “running the industrial age backwards” and how nature can teach us how to undo the damage caused by unraveling the fabric of Earth’s balanced resources.

According to Paul Hawken the Industrial Age essentially takes “…concentrated materials, primarily from the lithosphere and from the biosphere and disperses them everywhere on the planet: in the oceans, in our atmosphere, in our air, lungs and everywhere else.”

He continued, “What we know from biomimicry, and looking at how life works is that, what nature does is, concentrate … What we’re talking about is technologies that imitate nature in the sense that they re-concentrate what the industrial age dispersed into our water, our soil, etc.,” and in a way that is beneficial to the planet, as opposed to degrading.

Janine explained, “In the natural world, what’s abundant is golden … life is really good at concentrating photons, grabbing fog and humidity out of the air, or collecting phosphor,” for example. Benyus then outlined the ultimate nature-inspired design brief for essentially any product in a post industrial era, in order to undo the damage already caused.

“It has to be made out of local, abundant, non-toxic, raw material,” she said, “cheap, and available everywhere. You’ve got to be able to recruit those materials at the end of their life. It has to be able to be repaired or self-healing, or so ubiquitous that it can be replaced easily … I think it’s very important that it’s built to shape – it can be made on a printing press. And that’s another reason why I’m excited about additive manufacturing and 3-D printing. If we get it right and use truly local, raw materials, we build them to shape. We add structure that we find from the natural world – because that’s what life does with fairly simple, raw materials.