• Biomimicry. This strategy relies on first learning the mechanistic principle used by a living system to achieve a particular function. One then attempts to adapt that principle to achieve similar function in a synthetic material. One example is the encoding of information into building blocks when they are synthesized. One can also try to create materials that mimic whole cells in their response to external stimuli. Such materials could be used in devices for detecting hazardous biological and chemical agents.

  • Bioinspiration. Merely knowing that a task can be achieved by a living system can inspire scientists to develop a synthetic system that performs the same function, even if the synthetic system uses a scheme quite different from that employed by the biological system. Nature provides examples of systems whose exceptional properties and performance might be replicated for all sorts of applications. The adhesive gecko’s foot, the self-cleaning lotus leaf, and the fracture-resistant mollusk shell have all fueled interest in smart biological materials. Yet attempts to create synthetic analogs have been largely unsuccessful, in part because our fundamental understanding of the biological systems is limited.

  • Bioderivation. This strategy involves using an existing biomaterial in concert with an artificial material to create a hybrid. A prominent example is the incorporation of biologically derived proteins into polymeric assemblies for targeted drug delivery.

Progress will be facilitated by the efforts of research agencies, the scientific community, and other stakeholders. In particular, five recommended steps will help to overcome the scientific challenges associated with these strategies and to translate the resulting knowledge into achievements of social and economic value.

The synergistic application of approaches traditionally considered to belong to distinct disciplines will be called for. While such concerted efforts are already emerging in isolated cases, substantial interagency and interdepartmental cooperation in support of interdisciplinary research and development (R&D) efforts will be needed.

Recommendation 1: The Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other relevant departments and agencies should jointly sponsor programs of innovative research at the intersection of different disciplines. Initiatives of this type will provide incentives for universities to work across traditional departmental boundaries. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should take the lead in coordinating such programs.

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