What do human arteries, fish gills and newt tadpoles have to do with safe drinking water? A team of graduate students from the University of Toronto looked to those three things in nature to come up with a novel water pipe system that could be used to decrease water-borne illnesses while improving water delivery efficiency and lowering wastewater operation costs. Their system won them first place and a $2,500 prize in the first round of the 2013 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, which asked students to study and imitate nature's best ideas to solve human problems.

The contest was sponsored by the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, a nonprofit founded to study nature's designs. "We asked students to look at how nature deals with water access and management and apply that knowledge to solve a human design problem," Megan Schuknecht, director of university education Institute, said in a prepared release announcing the results.

Nearly 70 teams from 14 U.S. states and 18 countries entered this first round of the competition. Check out some of the finalists below:

How do you tap the heavy monsoon-season rain of the Sonoran desert to solve problems of rainwater scarcity in other seasons? A team from the University of Arizona looked at the root structure and cortex of the saguaro cactus to create an efficient rainwater collection system.

A tropical plant and spider webs inspired a project from Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mexico, which was designed to catch and store water in rural communities. Their Chaac Ha' water system collector received the competition's Autodesk Sustainability Award.

Can fog be a good source of water for agriculture? A team from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile created a dynamic system that would "farm" water from fog. They were inspired by a plant called Tillandsia landbeckii that gets its water and nutrients from the air. The team won third prize.

Although it did not place as a finalist, the AquaBloom developed by a team from Saint Louis University was one of the competition's most visually striking entries. The system was inspired by bromeliads, which use overlapping leaves to absorb and release water. The team used this idea to develop a rainwater collection system that could be hooked up to an underground reservoir.

Honeybees inspired a team from Artesis University College in Belgium to create an evaporation cooling system to keep fruits and vegetables from spoiling and going to waste at minimal cost. Bees in a hive flap their wings to spread water and increase humidity, dropping the temperature in the process. The team mimicked this by flowing a fan over a wet cloth. Their idea was good enough to earn them second place.

Ten finalists from this first round and several other teams will now also enter Round 2, where they will receive startup mentoring and compete for $11,000 in prizes.

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Students solve water woes by mimicking nature
A system designed by students at the University of Toronto was inspired by fish gills, tadpoles and human arteries.