Up-Cycle like a Nudibranch

The humble nudibranch, or sea slug, could be an incredible inspiration for how designers view recycling and up-cycling, and possibly even concepts around regenerative design. It’s taken me a little while, since Tim first told me this story, but here goes my first real attempt to put my money where my mouth is around the concept of visual communication in biomimicry. Looking forward to any feedback and ideas…

Nematocyst Up-cycling

Image 1 - Anemone

Image 2 Nematocysts

Image 3 Nudibranch eating Anemone

Image 4 Nematocyst Flow

Image 5 Nematocyst being eaten

Image 6 I almost sketched a diagram of me with feathers... but thought that might be excessive

Image 7 I ran out of steam here... there are so many interesting diagrams that could go here... Alena?


Recycling, even up-cycling tends to carry connotations for designers of materials being broken down to as close to their raw form as possible, and then reassembled in a new desired form. In reality organisms co-opt entire complex components like nematocyst cells. It is hard to imagine “assemblies” of components that can be completely re-used in different contexts because the manufactured habitat is very rarely standardized. In fact standardization is an evil concept for most designers, and yet is the reason why I can go to a local hardware store, pick up some components and fix the plumbing in my bathroom.

Nature is standardized at it’s very core, using similar nucleic acids, amino acids, and of course the cross platform coding of DNA. There is an opportunity for design to redefine the concept of standardization to facilitate up-cycling and co-opting that extends the life of products, but perhaps even more importantly may encourage more iterative evolution to “stuff”. Please read my earlier exploration on this topic if curious.

Just to finish, I focused on the Nudibranchs that absorb nematocysts, but there are others that co-opt photosynthesizing zooxanthellae to provide energy to the organism. Just the tip of the ice burg.


Many thanks to Tim for the original story of the nudibranch, and for feedback on the first draft… hopefully the above diagrams are close to accurate! Am looking forward to finding out what I missed.

I’ve a list below of the resources that I used in assembling the above story, for anyone who wants to dive in deeper.

Nudibranch Science – great article that got things going, excellent overview of nudibranch scientific discoveries

Overview of a Nematocyst – I almost got distracted deep diving into the nematocyst cell… they are absolutely fascinating.

Sea Anemone Cross Sections – incredible images highlighting the complexity of the organism. Want to know more…

Sea Anemone Tentacle Cross Sections – these images show the locations of the nematocysts and the muscle structure that allows them to be ejected into predators or prey.

Diagrams of Anemone Nematocysts – incredible detail into these cells, totally warrant further exploration.

General Nudibranch Information – wikipedia never fails

8 Comments on “Up-Cycle like a Nudibranch”

  1. Alëna Konyk says:

    “Nature is standardized at it’s very core, using similar nucleic acids, amino acids, and of course the cross platform coding of DNA.” And what’s even more amazing to me is that from these standardized components nature was able to produce more than 2 million species, all locally adapted; highly versatile in their shape, function, colour; and most are even highly compatible and interdependent as in a great example with nudibranch (what a great name).

    To me, it’s the opposite of how the industrial systems operate. As soon as something becomes standardized, it is viewed as having lost its uniqueness, local application, and “human touch”. Seems that it’s not really standardization vs singularity. It can really be both.

    Somehow, this whole nudibranch story and, by the way, excellent diagrams reminded me of this scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRhrIH82WwQ

    But since I’m all about “make love, not war”, this made me think of some sort of a storage area for precious resources protected by an equivalent to chitin spindles in nudibranch epithelium that can later be easily accessed to produce materials/compounds from. For example, CO2 (that’s in a way, upcycling) or harvesting energy from lighting by converting high-voltage electrical power to the lower-voltage power that can be stored. Much in a way how nudibranchs prevent kleptocnidae from discharging in their stomach, but do that on demand.


  2. Tim McGee says:

    Carl! love it!

    Great sketch series that captures the transfer of the nematocysts as well as the mechanism details of how it does so.

    A minor correction.

    Nematocysts are always facing the sea water, so it wasn’t clear to me when you said “Barb is released when cells make contact with sea water”…

    Nematocysts trigger (or fire) when they sense both chemical and physical cues of disturbance. Some nematocysts have trigger hairs and also it helps if you have a chemical signature that also ‘arms’ the nematocysts…so for example if you run a glass rod by the nematocysts- they don’t trigger because there is no chemistry that hints that you are prey or predator.

    This ends up being important for the mechanism of the mucus, as it prevents the chemical signal to ‘arm’ the nematocyst, thus prevents triggering the mechanism. (the mucus is not protecting from sea water, but from the chemistry that would ‘arm’ the nematocyst).

    Simple change in wording for Exhibit B should solve the issue.

    I love the extension of application to Laptops….I offered my iphone to my macbook- so far nothing…

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Awesome – thanks for the feedback will edit asap.

      Perhaps a little more detail into the nematocysts could be interesting… that mucus / trigger hair interaction is key…

  3. Phytosleuth says:

    ahahaa!! I love nudibranchs…so many colors and designs! Tim is so funny. ^^

  4. SET says:

    Just stumbled upon this entry, nice story! Did you know that sea anemones also eat nudibranchs?

    The article can be found here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/8888435522076631/

  5. […] written a bunch of posts around issues of recyclability and re-use, and the big differences between nature and human fabrication. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale. The intelligence of a […]

  6. […] model can not be fully translated frustration sets in and creativity stops. In the past I did a playful post around nudibranchs that eat sea anemones and absorb small cellular self defence structures, […]

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