Ever seen a dog with his face full of porcupine quills? Ever wondered why the owner cannot remove them himself, but has to take the poor pooch to the vet? The reason behind this is that North American porcupine quills are specially formed for a specific defensive purpose. These quills have black, backwards facing barbs, which can be seen on a microscopic level. These barbs, in my opinion, are arranged in a pattern that appears similar to that of pangolin scales. These barbs can be categorized into different sections in respect to placement on the quill, but that is not the main focus here. By being barbed, these quills allow for a facilitated penetration into tissue and a stronger adhesion into the tissue. Restated, the barbs allow for the quill to enter the skin easily and the barbs make it much harder to remove it. These barbs require about half of the force to penetrate the flesh versus quills stripped of their barbs. Less force is required for this North American porcupine barb to penetrate the flesh than a regular, 18 gauge medical needle. It also reduces tissue damage at entry. Getting any thoughts about the significance of this? Also, the force needed to remove this barbed quill is 10x greater than to remove the medical needle and 4x greater than a barbless quill.
Now these facts are interesting, but nothing to run home to mom for. Sure there are plenty of amazing biological geniuses on this earth, yet there is something very special about the North American porcupine. The barbs on the quill of a North American porcupine have penetrated themselves into the medical field with likely chances they will be very hard to make an exit from thus. The barbs can be designed into hypodermic needles for work that requires the minimum force, like when working with arteries or cardiac tissue. Half the pressure required: full work potential performed. Not only can the observation that the barbs allow them to enter the tissue at greater ease due to the localizing of the forces needed for entrance be transferred into needles, but on the other hand, the fact that much more force is required to remove the needle as the barbs catch and anchor into the tissue can be used to create more secure internal patches. These patches have the capability to have 30x stronger adhesive ability than a barbless patch. These can help with stabilizing holes or tears internally with less penetration force required and a longer and more dependable fix.
While at a college visit for the University of Iowa, I met with a biomedical engineering professor who performed this research. His name is Dr. James Ankrum and he had recently completed a study of biomicry with a focus on incorporating the barbed quills into medical equipment. Biomimicry is the imitation of aspects of nature that can be translated to help human problems. A simple example of biomimicry is Velcro. Velcro was created after a scientist looked further into the reasoning behind the difficulty to remove burrs from clothing and shoes. More efficient turbines mimic the fins of a whale to create energy even from the slightest winds. There are plenty more examples of how we have incorporated the blessed gifts of nature into our own society through imitation and observation. The North American porcupine, however, will always have the greatest impact on me as it is the cause of my epiphany to commit to biomedical engineering.