Introduction to special issue

Design for Living

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Science  18 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5751, pp. 1131
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5751.1131

When a child sees a bird flying past or the fluttering wings of a butterfly, does it inspire thoughts about how to build airplanes? Or does it simply convey the idea that flight is possible? We are immersed in the natural world, so it is not surprising that it inspires the design of engineered structures, or that we would like to probe this world further to learn all its secrets.

The four Reviews in this issue highlight this two-sided relationship as it applies to the development of new materials. From nature we have learned how soft brittle materials like chalk are made tougher through composite structures. Some of these same design principles have been applied to the much wider range of building blocks available to the engineer (Mayer, p. 1144). Advances in materials processing, particularly in the area of polymers, are also making it possible to fabricate systems with advanced optical capabilities (Lee and Szema, p. 1148), inspired by living eyes and by creatures that we have recently learned can see even though they appear to lack eyes.

On the flip side, new material systems have been designed to probe and manipulate biological interactions. Two Reviews examine highly complementary questions. The first summarizes what has been learned about the interactions of cells with surfaces that possess features at different size scales (Stevens and George, p. 1135). The second explores how cells sense the stiffness and strength of underlying substrates (Discher et al., p. 1139). From both we see how new materials are being used to probe cell cycles and interactions and to coax cells to grow in desired ways.

The drive toward medical applications is helping push research at the biology/materials interface. On the small scale, nanotechnology is being explored to find new methods for cancer detection and treatment (Service, p. 1132). A Science of Aging Knowledge Environment (SAGE KE) feature story by Davenport explores the progress and problems of engineering tissues in the lab. This endeavor could revolutionize medicine, potentially reversing illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and liver failure.

As research at the interface between materials and biology increasingly overlaps, we look forward to seeing how each continues to inspire developments in the other.

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