ConspectusOver hundreds of millions of years, organisms have derived specific sets of traits in response to common selection pressures that serve as guideposts for optimal biological designs. A prime example is the evolution of toughened structures in disparate lineages within plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. Extremely tough structures can function much like armor, battering rams, or reinforcements that enhance the ability of organisms to win competitions, find mates, acquire food, escape predation, and withstand high winds or turbulent flow. From an engineering perspective, biological solutions are intriguing because they must work in a multifunctional context. An organism rarely can be optimally designed for only one function or one environmental condition. Some of these natural systems have developed well-orchestrated strategies, exemplified in the biological tissues of numerous animal and plant species, to synthesize and construct materials from a limited selection of available starting materials. The resulting structures display multiscale architectures with incredible fidelity and often exhibit properties that are similar, and frequently superior, to mechanical properties exhibited by many engineered materials. These biological systems have accomplished this feat through the demonstrated ability to tune size, morphology, crystallinity, phase, and orientation of minerals under benign processing conditions (i.e., near-neutral pH, room temperature, etc.) by establishing controlled synthesis and hierarchical 3D assembly of nano- to microscaled building blocks. These systems utilize organic-inorganic interactions and carefully controlled microenvironments that enable kinetic control during the synthesis of inorganic structures. This controlled synthesis and assembly requires orchestration of mineral transport and nucleation. The underlying organic framework, often consisting of polysaccharides and polypeptides, in these composites is critical in the spatial and temporal regulation of these processes. In fact, the organic framework is used not only to provide transport networks for mineral precursors to nucleation sites but also to precisely guide the formation and phase development of minerals and significantly improve the mechanical performance of otherwise brittle materials.Over the past 15 years, we have focused on a few of these extreme performing organisms, (Wang et al., Adv. Funct. Mater. 2013, 23, 2908; Weaver et al., Science 2012, 336, 1275; Huang et al., Nat. Mater. 2020, 19, 1236; Rivera et al., Nature 2020, 586, 543) investigating not only their ultrastructural features and mechanical properties but in some cases, how these assembled structures are mineralized. In specific instances, comparative analyses of multiscale structures have pinpointed which design principles have arisen convergently; when more than one evolutionary path arrives at the same solution, we have a good indication that it is the best solution. This is required for survival under extreme conditions. Indeed, we have found that there are specific architectural features that provide an advantage toward survival by enabling the ability to feed effectively or to survive against predatory attacks. In this Account, we describe 3 specific design features, nanorods, helicoids, and nanoparticles, as well as the interfaces in fiber-reinforced biological composites. We not only highlight their roles in the specific organisms but also describe how controlled syntheses and hierarchical assembly using organic (i.e., often chitinous) scaffolds lead to these integrated macroscale structures. Beyond this, we provide insight into multifunctionality: how nature leverages these existing structures to potentially add an additional dimension toward their utility and describe their translation to biomimetic materials used for engineering applications.
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