Imitate nature to better restore it

How to reverse the damage it has done to the environment over the centuries? Today, more and more scientists are looking for solutions in nature.

In places, it is difficult to move through the trees, because the layer of grass plants covering the soil of the meadow is very thick. Elsewhere, the trunks are already so tall that the canopy – the upper level of the forest – no longer allows enough light for vegetation to grow at the base of the trunks. The Garrick forest north of Alby (Tarn) looks like a 4-year-old natural forest, that is, an area that has not been disturbed by humans for at least a hundred years. This timeless place was born out of a somewhat crazy bet by a citizen collective led by local historian and archaeologist Yann Roques. They decided to plant 5000 trees of 35 different species in only half a hectare of land. This completely bio-inspired method was conceived by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. It involves creating forest ecosystems by trying to reproduce what the forest would have done naturally if it had been born alone. Yann Roques explains: “We chose the local species that historically existed in the area, such as willows, cherry trees, hips, maples or service trees”.

Then he let collective nature decide what happened next. Some trees fell, knocked from the air; others grew rapidly at the expense of their neighbors; others, like oaks, will flourish in a few decades, taking the place of their descendants who die of old age. Here people no longer have a say. One way to try to restore the natural forests in France, which have been damaged for decades, is on a modest scale: they now represent only 200,000 hectares, or 0.2% of the forest park. The effectiveness of the “Miyawaki forests” method, which has been growing in recent years, is still controversial, as there is no extensive research on this topic. But drawing inspiration from the prowess of life to better preserve and restore it is decidedly fashionable.

Recover pheromones against pests in the laboratory

It was with this idea that M2i Life Sciences, a startup based in Bouches-du-Rhône, started the fight against the banana weevil, the boxwood moth or the pine caterpillar. plants and plant environment. His weapon: pheromones, substances that are naturally secreted and released in small amounts by a species. When received by a native, they cause a certain behavior or reaction (aggression, flight, reproduction, etc.) Research has allowed these molecules to be isolated and characterized, some of which are reproduced in the laboratory. It is then used as a trap to attract pests or distributed in fields to divert them. All this without the emission of products harmful to health or the environment. According to startups, these laboratory pheromones have prevented the spread of 16,000 tons of pesticides worldwide in 2020.

Designing reefs to revitalize ecosystems

In the sea, too, he digs his bio-inspired furrow. For a decade, Montpellier company Seaboost has been designing biomimetic devices to “protect remaining marine biodiversity and accelerate the return of species where possible,” says Julien Dalle, director of environmental engineering projects. For him, it is obvious: “The reproduction of the features of the privileged environment of certain species allows us to respond more effectively to their needs. Thus, in tropical waters around the world, such as the Mediterranean Sea, the diadem sea urchin acts as a refuge for small fish that come ashore to grow up, sheltering from predators, before returning to the sea as adults. “Our sea urchin structure, consisting of two half-shells covered with rods and with numerous slits, reproduces the shelter and protection from predators of these marine animals,” explains the scientist.

In the port of Marseille, where some of these shell polypropylene devices were installed eight years ago, according to Seaboost, we observe seventeen times more fish and four times more species. Likewise, the company has developed a biomimetic solution called “la Roselière” based on coconut fibers that reproduces the rich habitats of seagrass beds and algae. Recently installed on the leg docks of the new boat lift at La Ciotat to limit wildlife impacts from the construction site.

30 kilometers away, the Calanque de Cortiou, the terminus of the Marseille wastewater treatment plant, had become an ecological desert after years of pollution. Since 2017, this cove has another type of structure: artificial rocks printed in 3D to recreate as faithfully as possible the cracks and crevices of the rocky ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea. In just a few years, the thirty or so futuristic-looking concrete structures have been covered in algae and are now home to fish, octopuses and groupers. “Today we count about sixty species in all stages of life and the food chain,” said Julien Dalle. Research continues to better understand how living things work and find innovative solutions to benefit the planet.

What about tomorrow? Microchips to measure air pollution

In nature, some plant seeds are carried by wind long distances to colonize other areas. This mechanism inspired Northwestern University researchers. “m.” They developed flying microchipsmicroflora”, the size of a grain of rice and capable of carrying ultra-miniaturized electronic components (sensors, memory, antenna, etc.). These small high-altitude devices can be used especially to measure air pollution.



> Living like a model. For radical biomimicry, Gauthier Chapelle and Michèle Decoust, eds. Albin Michel, 2020. A book that offers bridges between the creative genius of nature and those who build the world of tomorrow.
> Biomimicry. When nature inspires continuous innovation, Janine M. Benyus, ed. Rue de l’échiquier, 2011. The seminal work of modern biomimicry.


> Bio-inspired. Another approach. A new permanent exhibition on offer at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris

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⋙ Forest, balanced ecosystem

⋙ Mixed health report for French coral reefs

⋙ How does the forest regenerate itself?

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