Airdate: Sep 16, 2009
Scientist: Dr. Christopher Viney
KSC Biomimicry - Giraffes
A petroleum alternative: Giraffe Mucus!! Aided by mucus, giraffes routinely swallow sharp thorns without hurting themselves.
CV: "Starting with the tongue and moving all the way through the digestive system, there's a very useful lubricating mucus, which prevents them from getting injured by their very spiky diet."
Giraffe mucus. It's not exactly a hot topic at a cocktail party, but stay with us, and you'll likely never think about giraffes in quite the same way again. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Christopher Viney is an engineer at the University of California, in Merced. Recently, at the San Diego Zoo, he explained his fascination with a rather remarkable substance.
CV: "The thorns on the acacia tree, they're about as long as my finger, but rather sharper, and the giraffe sticks its tongue out, wraps it round the foliage, breaks off a few thorns, chows it down, and doesn't injure itself. In fact, the thorns pass through the giraffe without injuring it at any stage, which leads one to believe that the mucus must be a fantastic lubricant, and that's why I'm interested in it."
Lubricants already exist, of course, and we use them every day. So why look to nature for stuff like giraffe mucus?
CV: "You might want to, perhaps, lubricate a bearing in a boat on a lake that is environmentally endangered or where there's some endangered species living, and if the bearing were to break and spill, traditional lubricantoil-based lubricantinto the lake, that would be harmful to the environment. Instead, you might want to use a nice biodegradable water-soluble lubricant, like the one that giraffes use in their mucus. Another place where you might be able to perhaps use a water-based lubricant would be for an artificial tear or something to wet contact lenses with so if you have sensitive eyes, you could benefit from the lubricating ability of that sort of material. So, you see, if you have a problem that's an engineering problem, maybe nature's already solved it. You just have to go and ask it the right question."
Christopher Viney is one of the participants in the Kids' Science Challenge, our nationwide competition for third to sixth graders, made possible by the National Science Foundation. A new season launches October first at kidsciencechallenge.com.
I'm Jim Metzner.