Nature shows us how structure and composition can make our materials stronger and lighter.

It is often not ingenuity that limits human invention, but materials. As soon as there were telephones, the value of a portable version was apparent, but it took a century for the materials needed to build one to be developed. Similarly, skyscraper heights are limited as much by the properties of the latest concrete composite as by engineering knowledge. Like human technology, nature is limited by materials’ properties and there is constant pressure to improve.

Hierarchical structures, nano-scale features and composites are all common methods organisms use that make materials perform better than might be expected from their bulk properties. The shells of molluscs are 3000 times harder than their mineral components alone, while the arrangement of cellulose fibers in wood has enabled the tallest trees in the world to grow to nearly 400 ft. Even here, it’s not the physical properties of the wood that limit growth, but the difficulty of drawing water up such a tall trunk. How high might structures inspired by this material reach without that limitation? This collection shows us some of the remarkable ways nature makes high-performance materials.