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A mechanical nature

When it comes to engineering, we may still be some way behind the genius of nature

By Philip Ball  

Is there any machinery that nature didn’t invent before us? It doesn’t have much use for wheels, but many bacteria use tiny rotary motors, made from assemblies of protein molecules, to drive the whiplike appendages called flagella that propel them corkscrew-style through fluid. The screw and nut looks like a highly contrived mechanism, but two years ago researchers in Germany found leg joints in weevils that are held together this way.

Gears, though, with their arrays of interlocking teeth – surely not? But here they now are: perfectly formed and rather…

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