Plan view of the issus nymph's gears as seen through a scanning electron microscope.
Malcolm Burrows/University of Cambridge Plan view of the issus nymph's gears as seen through a scanning electron microscope.

Nature has created many miraculous things, but humanity has added a few inventions of its own. Or has it? Scientists at the University of Cambridge recently discovered something unexpected in nature: a cog mechanism with an observable function. The gears appear in the issus nymph, the adolescent stage of the European hopping insect with opposing cogs and interlocking teeth in its hind legs. The intermeshed joints allow the insect’s legs to synchronize when jumping; thus, “the skeleton is used to solve a complex problem that the brain and nervous system can’t,” said lead author Malcolm Burrows in a university press release.

Called the “first observation of mechanical gearing in a biological structure” by the university, the issus reminds us that what might appear to be humankind’s most original ideas probably lurk somewhere in nature’s archives. We simply need to look more vigorously. “We usually think of gears as something that we see in human-designed machinery, but we’ve found that that is only because we didn’t look hard enough,” said Gregory Sutton, who coauthored the study published in Science.

The issus cog follows a line of technologies—electricity, self-illumination, and computing—that humankind developed, only to discover their prior existence in nature. Even nanotechnology predates human invention: Exoelectrogenic microbes—which developed in anaerobic environments and evolved to react with oxide minerals instead of breathing oxygen—have been discovered creating nanowire attachments between materials potentially for cellular respiration or cell-to-cell communication purposes. Stanford University researchers are exploring how to employ these microbes, which generate energy from organic waste to power their own biological systems, to produce electricity. Because excess electrons are transferred extracellularly, these microbes could provide power as they filter wastewater.

As scientists discover more nature-made technology, perhaps they will continue to work closely with biological systems to achieve outcomes that are environmentally and economically superior to traditional methods. Whatever device, material, or process researchers seek, it likely already exists in nature, waiting to share its secrets with us.

Jessica Rubenstein