From cuticle biomechanics to bio-inspired composite materials

More than 80% of all animals in the world are arthropods, and amongst them insects are the most diverse and abundant group. Insects inhabit almost all of the world’s ecosystems and show an astonishing variety of different evolutionary adaptations. Hence, insects are often considered to be one of the evolutionary most successful groups of animals.


The insects' secret of success

Part of the insects’ secrets of evolutionary success is their cuticle exoskeleton. After wood, arthropod cuticle is the second most common biological composite material in the world. Cuticle not only exhibits unique biomechanical properties; it is also one of the most versatile biological materials. This makes cuticle an extremely interesting candidate for the design of new bio-inspired composite materials. Surprisingly, despite many decades of research, the fundamental biomechanical properties and principles found in arthropod cuticle are still mostly unknown and the biomimetic potential of cuticle is almost untapped.


To fully understand the relationship between the structure and the biomechanical properties of a hierarchical material, it is important to look at all of the material’s length-scales. In our group we work on several projects focusing on comprehensive and interdisciplinary studies on the biomechanics of cuticle on all length scales: starting from the biological functionality of the exoskeleton, down to microscopic mechanisms determining the biomechanical properties of the cuticle and nanotechnology methods to manufacture "cuticle-inspired" materials.


Some of the main questions we are currently addressing include:

  • Fundamental principles of cuticle growth, healing and chitin orientation on a molecular level (DFG projects in collaboration with MPI Colloids & Interfaces Potsdam, University of Dresden, University of Tübingen and University of Bremen).
  • Functional correlation of material properties, morphology and histology in arthropod exoskeletons. Are there fundamental common principles found in both endo- and exoskeletons? Can some principles be transferred into bio-inspired light-weight composite materials for bioengineering applications? 

  • Experimental analysis and numerical simulation of exoskeleton biomechanics, in particular the role of cuticle building blocks (chitin and protein) in determining the cuticle's biomechanical properties.

PhD position available

Many biological materials, such as bone or wood, react to mechanical stress on a structural or material level. More material is added or existing material is modified.


How does insect cuticle, one of the most common biological composite materials in the world, react to mechanical load? Are insects able to adjust their exoskeleton according to the stress they experience?


To answer this fundamental biomechanical question your PhD project will investigate the effect of long-term increased mechanical load on the biomechanical properties of exoskeletons using a custom-built experimental setup, state of the art 3D imaging techniques and comprehensive biomechanical tests.


We are looking for a PhD candidate with
- a Masters degree in organismal biology, biomechanics, materials sciences or related engineering fields
- excellent academic results and the interest to pursue an academic career
- ideally experience in experimental design, microscopy, 3D data analysis and materials testing
- good communication skills
- the willingness to work as part of an interdisciplinary team


We offer a three-year TVöD 13 65% PhD position at one of the leading Universities of Applied Sciences in Germany, starting in early 2019. The PhD project is in close collaboration with researchers from the University of Bremen MAPEX cluster.


For more information please contact


Prof. Dr. Jan-Henning Dirks
Biological Structures and Biomimetics
Hochschule Bremen - City University of Applied Sciences

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