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Amazing bugs and collaboration: Decoding Beckman's ABC Lab

The ABC Lab, headed by Marianne Alleyne, uses bioinspiration from insect research to link engineering problems to biological solutions. Here we decode the “ABC’s” that form the basis of the lab’s incredible work: Alleyne, Bioinspiration, and Collaboration.
Published on April 24, 2023

The ABC Lab at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology uses bioinspiration from insect research to link engineering problems to biological solutions. This feature story decodes the “ABCs” that form the basis of the lab’s work.

A is for Alleyne: The inspired biologist

Marianne Alleyne, the director and namesake of the Alleyne Bioinspiration Collaborative, did not expect to become a scientist.

Marianne AlleyneMarianne Alleyne.

Now, she's an assistant professor of entomology and mechanical science and engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a faculty researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and the incumbent president of the Entomological Society of America. She is also regularly featured on news outlets like NPR and The Verge

A first-generation college student raised in a small town in the Netherlands, Alleyne discovered her passion for research while studying locomotion at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I learned how being included in the lab could be life-changing. Once I did that, that was it,” she said.

A short-lived desire to study medicine followed, which itself inspired a more enticing inclination to research parasites and insects, which she eventually turned into a Ph.D. at UIUC.

“Insects are great models for parasitology,” she said. “Almost every insect has its own parasite, and parasites have the specific ability to survive by changing the physiology of their insect hosts.”

Creative approaches to biology are evident in Alleyne’s leadership of the ABC Lab. In fact, marrying engineering with solutions from the natural world is the basis of the lab's work. This process goes by a special name: bioinspiration.

B is for bioinspiration: A conversation between biologists and engineers

Bioinspiration is the process of connecting modern engineering problems to biological solutions. Alleyne often considers it a matter of translation.

“The language of biology is different from the language of engineering,” she said. “But the two disciplines actually have a lot to say to one another.”

Connecting engineers to biologists is well worth the effort of translation, since biological solutions are diverse and often surprising.

All bugs are cool: Different solutions from different species

Cicadas may be famous for their 17-year sleep cycles and summertime serenades, but the same wings that enable flight are also covered in microscopic structures called nanopillars, which create the hydrophobic and antimicrobial surface that members of the ABC Lab hope to eventually replicate.

Microscopy scan of nanopillars on a cicada wing, which look like evenly-spaced grey dots on a black background. There is a photograph of a cicada sitting on a human hand in the top left corner.Top-view scanning electron microscope image of nanopillars from a cicada wing. Inset: A cicada sitting on the back of a human hand. Credit: ABC Lab.

“We’ve developed a mechanism to copy that structure — and as a result, its hydrophobic properties — onto different types of materials,” Alleyne said, citing metal and plastic as two examples.

While the wings of many insect species are hydrophobic, they achieve this through different means. Whereas the nanopillars of cicada wings are located directly on their exoskeleton, making the hydrophobic properties a permanent fixture, other insects can remove these properties at will.

Leafhoppers, so named for their propensity to jump far distances in search of nutritious plant sap, make their wings hydrophobic by ”producing nanoscopic granules called brochosomes, which look like hollow soccer balls,” said Elizabeth Bello, a graduate student in entomology at UIUC and member of the ABC Lab. “When leafhoppers reach adulthood, they excrete these brochosomes and coat their body with them, making them anti-reflective and superhydrophobic.”

Microscopy scan of brochosomes, which look like grey soccer balls. In the top left corner there is photograph of a leafhopper insect.Scanning electron microscope image of brochosomes collected from a leafhopper. Inset: A leafhopper. Credit: ABC Lab.

Understanding the two methods of making hydrophobic surfaces grants engineers flexibility in designing materials for different needs. For example, hospital settings may benefit from materials that make surfaces permanently hydrophobic and antimicrobial. On the other hand, engineers may opt to remove these materials if they interfere with other functions, like a solar panel’s capacity to convert light into electricity.

The two-way street of bioinspiration

The conversation between engineers and biologists doesn’t end with the final product: Alleyne also wants the engineered materials to reach back and ask questions about biology.

A long, flat click beetle with grey and black specks sitting on a log.An eastern-eyed click beetle. Credit: ABC Lab.

The two-way street of bioinspiration is apparent in the ABC Lab's work with click beetles. Using a variety of imaging methods available at the Beckman Institute, including high-speed videography, scanning electron microscopy, and micro-CT scanning, the ABC Lab, in collaboration with former UIUC faculty member Aimy Wissa, studies the latching mechanism in the click beetles’ backs that is responsible for their vertical jumping abilities and distinctive clicking noise.

Studying the beetle’s biological properties enabled the ABC Lab to fabricate their own launching platform, complete with dummy beetles. Then, they can use this miniature engineering marvel to ask and answer additional questions about how click beetles actually use this mechanism in their natural environment.

A fabricated device designed to mimic the jumping mechanism in click beetles.A launching platform fabricated by the ABC Lab to study the jumping mechanism of click beetles. Credit: ABC Lab.

“First of all, they have legs, so why not use those?” Alleyne said.

She hopes that engineering developments, such as the tools like the fabricated launching platform, can lead to new biological discoveries.

C is for collaboration

Many students enter the ABC Lab without interdisciplinary experience. Alleyne intentionally tries to foster collaborative skills in her students, since healthy collaboration is fundamental to the kinds of conversations between engineers and biologists — where discoveries from both fields feed each other — that Alleyne wants to achieve.

The six members of the ABC Lab stand in front of Alma Mater.Members of the ABC Lab.

Sometimes, the effort to teach teamwork manifests as formal lab policies that encourage engineers to ask about evolutionary practices, and biologists to learn about basic engineering. Other times, instead of trying to teach engineering to biologists and biology to engineers, Alleyne focuses more on the principles of multi-perspective problem-solving.

“At our collaborative lab meetings, we say from the beginning that there are no stupid questions,” Alleyne said. “We're also not training our grad students to be everything. We're training them to be able to find the answers to their questions and correct them.”

This is the experience of Bello, whose academic background before joining the ABC Lab was mostly in biology.

“As a biologist, I was mostly concerned with the ‘why?’ questions, whereas now that I have more engineering experience, I think a lot about the ‘how?’ questions. Working with collaborators outside of my field has also changed the way I think and communicate about biology. In the same way that engineers need to make their knowledge accessible to me, I also need to make biological concepts accessible for them,” she said.

Xavier Carroll headshot (preferred)Xavier Carroll, a graduate student in the ABC Lab.

“I have a newfound ability to consider insect models abstractly,” added Xavier Carroll, another ABC Lab graduate student. “Looking at insect morphology as a source for engineered solutions allows me to appreciate the multi-functionality that defines insect's ecological roles.”

Unfortunately, the success of a collaboration is limited by much more than just the skills of its participants: larger projects often require more work and increased funding.

“The Beckman Institute is really wonderful in these situations,” Alleyne said. “They do so much to support my students through stipends, fellowships, and funding,” she said.

Alleyne also appreciates the Beckman Institute’s capacity to make individual researchers more centralized and accessible to each other. Being in close proximity to the community of Beckman researchers has helped her lab become more diverse, in terms of research backgrounds as well as cultural and personal experiences.

“The fact that we all think differently, come from different backgrounds, and approach problems uniquely is one of the things that makes interdisciplinary work so great,” said Bello, who is also a member of the Beckman Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

“The way I see it, the more brains we have working on one problem, the more solutions we’ll generate, and the faster we’re likely to solve it.”

The way forward

Bioinspiration is a nexus where engineers can work with biologists to derive new solutions to modern problems. The nature of this interdisciplinary work seems inherently forward-thinking, but Alleyne has her own visions for next steps in the field.

“It’s more of a wish list,” she clarified. “Longer-lasting collaborations, not just one-offs. Biology does great stuff at really small scale that we can now image and re-engineer and make visible to everybody. At the same time, nature is also really good at big things that connect to each other, and we now have the computational power to learn from that.”

In this article

  • Elizabeth Bello
    Elizabeth Bello's directory photo.
  • Marianne Alleyne
    Marianne Alleyne's directory photo.
  • xavier Carroll
    Photo placeholder

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