To view this page ensure that Adobe Flash Player version 11.1.0 or greater is installed.
“WE CAN’T DRIVE, we can’t eat, we can’t do much of anything without polymers,” says Jennifer Martinez, a chemist with the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) at Los Alamos. She casually gestures at the multitude of polymer- containing objects within her own office—her laminate desk and plastic chairs; her phone, computer, and other devices, as well as their many internal components; her coffee thermos and assorted food and drink containers; her jacket, sunglasses, wristwatch, and shoes; the various clips, binders, and dispensers all around; and even the cord to adjust her window blinds. Then there’s the plethora of polymer-based instruments and processes that went into manufacturing all this stuff. And although the pervasive use of synthetic polymers is often hidden from the average person, a few of them have managed to become household names, including polyvinyl chloride pipes (PVC), Teflon-coated pans, and nylon fabrics. Yet polymers weren’t invented by people. Nature has been using them much longer than humanity has, encoding them in the DNA of living organisms and assembling them from amino acids. In fact, evolution happened upon a number of natural polymers that are in many ways superior to the synthetic ones invented by human engineers. Some polymers are critical to the function of the human body, such as the elastin and collagen that keep our skin and joints flexible. Others are only found elsewhere, such as plant cellulose, spider silk, sheep’s wool, or bioluminescent proteins from jellyfish. They are in blood vessels and bones, toenails and teeth, stalks and stems, hooves and horns, feathers and fur. These natural polymers are valuable in their own right, but they also provide key inspiration to help scientists and engineers combine or improve upon their attri- butes for human use. Indeed, one of the earliest manmade polymers, the fabric rayon, was inspired by natural silk and made from the cellulose in wood pulp more than 100 years ago. Now, modern genetic tools stand poised to create perhaps hundreds of highly advanced synthetic polymers for mechanical and biological applications of all kinds. And researchers like Martinez are counting on nature to show them the way. 18 1663 January 2015