For example, they have studied the abalone shell for its high-performance, super-resistant, composite mineral structure.
Now they are now looking to learn new biotechnological routes to make high performance electronic and optical materials.
"We are now learning how to harness the biomolecular mechanism that directs the nanofabrication of silica in living organisms," says Morse. "This is to learn to direct the synthesis of photovoltaic and semiconductor nanocrystals of titanium dioxide, gallium oxide and other semiconductors materials with which nature has never built structures before."
Most recently, Morse and his students have made advances in copying the way marine sponges construct skeletal glass needles at the nanoscale. The research group is using nature's example to produce semiconductors and photovoltaic materials in an environmentally benign way as they report in a recent issue of the journal Chemistry of Materials.
"Sponges are abundant right here off-shore and they provide a uniquely tractable model system that opens the paths to the discovery of the molecular mechanism that governs biological synthesis from silicon," says Morse. "This sponge produces copious quantities of fiberglass needles made from silicon and oxygen."
Morse directs the new Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, a UCSB-led initiative funded by a grant of $50 million from the Army Research Office, which operates in partnership with MIT and Caltech. He also directs the Marine Biotechnology Center of UCSB's Marine Science Institute.