A Conversation with Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
In your research for this book, you found that biomimicry
is already a burgeoning scientific field. Who are some of the pioneers
in biomimicry and what are they doing?
- Wes Jackson (The Land Institute) is
studying prairies as a model for an agriculture that features edible,
perennial polycultures and that would sustain, rather than strain, the
- Thomas and Ana Moore and Devins Gust ( University of
Arizona) are studying how a leaf captures energy, in hopes of making a
molecular-sized solar cell. Their light-sensitive "pentad" mimics a
photosynthetic reaction center, creating a tiny, sun-powered battery.
Jeffrey Brinker (Sandia National Lab) has mimicked the abalone's
self-assembly process to create an ultra-tough optically clear glass in
a low-temperature, silent manufacturing process.
Herbert Waite ( University of California Santa Barbara) is studying the
blue mussel, which attaches itself to rocks via an adhesive that can do
what ours can't-cure and stick underwater. Various teams are attempting
to mimic this underwater glue.
- Peter Steinberg (Biosignal)
has created an anti-bacterial compound that mimics the sea purse. These
red algae keeps bacteria from landing on surfaces by jamming their
communication signals with an environmentally friendly compound called
- Bruce Roser (Cambridge Biostability) has
developed a heat-stable vaccine storage that eliminates the need for
costly refrigeration. The process is based on a natural process that
enables the resurrection plant to remain in a desiccated state for
- David Knight and Fritz Vollrath ( Oxford
University, Spinox) are mimicking the spider's sustainable
manufacturing process to find a way for humans to manufacture fibers
without heat or toxins.
- Daniel Morse (UC Santa Barbara)
has learned to mimic the silica-production process employed by diatoms.
This could signal a low-energy, low-toxin route to computer components.
- Joanna Aizenberg (Lucent) has mimicked the process by which
the brittlestar self-assembles distortion-free lenses out of seawater.
Jay Harman (PAXscientific) has created a super-efficient fan blades,
aerators, and propellers based on the geometry of the flow-friendly
spiral found in seashells, kelp, and rams horns.
- A. K.
Geim ( University of Manchester) has developed a glue-free, yet sticky,
tape modeled on the dry physical adhesion of the gecko's "setae"
---tiny bristles on their feet that adhere to surfaces through Van Der
Waals forces. The sustainability potential here is in "design for
disassembly." Assembling products using gecko tape instead of glue
would allow recyclers to disassemble products without adhesive
- Richard Wrangham (Harvard) is zeroing in on
medicinal compounds useful to humans by watching chimps heal themselves
with plants from nature's medicine cabinet.
- Thomas Eisner
(Cornell) is letting the behavior of insects tell him which plants may
be good bets for new drugs. If insects ignore a leaf, he figures the
plant is full of secondary compounds-defenses for the plant and drugs
- Various researchers in Industrial Ecology are
looking for ways to apply nature's lessons of economy, efficiency,
cooperation, and rootedness to the marketplace. Closed-loop eco-parks,
patterned after mature ecosystems like redwood forests, are now being
built in Chattanooga, Brownsville, Baltimore, and Cape Charles.
Jeremy Mabbitt (Codefarm) and numerous other companies are mimicking
natural selection as an optimizing tool in computer software called
How does biomimicry differ from other bio-approaches?
Biomimicry introduces an era based not on what we can extract from
organisms and their ecosystems, but on what we can learn from them.
This approach differs greatly from bioutilization, which entails
harvesting a product or producer, e.g. cutting wood for floors,
wildcrafting medicinal plants. It is also distinctly different than
bio-assisted technologies, which involve domesticating an organism to
accomplish a function, e.g., bacterial purification of water, cows bred
to produce milk. Instead of harvesting or domesticating, biomimics consult
organisms; they are inspired by an idea, be it a physical blueprint, a
process step in a chemical reaction, or an ecosystem principle such as
nutrient cycling. Borrowing an idea is like copying a picture-the
original image can remain to inspire others.
The Practice of Biomimicry
The practice of biomimetic invention can proceed from biology to design or from design to biology.
In the biology-to-design approach, a biological phenomenon suggests a
new way to solve a human design challenge. Wilhelm Barthlott of the
Nees-Institute, University of Bonn studied how leaves such as the lotus
manage to remain free of contaminants without the use of detergents.
His papers described how a landscape of small bumps and waxy crystals
cause water to ball up. Dirt particles teeter on the nano-mountains and
are easily picked up by the water, like a snowball lifting leaves from
a lawn. He and colleagues worked out how to replicate the geometric
profiles of the lotus into commercial products such as a building
façade paint that exhibits a nanorough surface when it dries. Rainwater
cleans the building. Today, dozens of self-cleaning products such as
glass, roofing tiles, and textiles bear the Lotus-effect symbol.
In the design-to-biology approach, the innovator starts with a human
design challenge, identifies the core function, and then reviews how
various organisms or ecosystems are achieving that function. An example
is the quest for a new way to reduce microbial growth without causing
antibiotic resistance. Peter Steinberg of the University of New South
Wales used a characteristic biomimicry approach. He identified an
environment that was teeming with microbes, and then searched for
organisms within that environment that had no biofilm on their
surfaces. He found his "champion adapter" in the murky waters of Botany
Bay Australia. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a red kelp called sea purse,
remains free of microbes by releasing furanones, molecules which
interfere with the bacteria's communication signaling mechanisms. When
bacteria are "jammed" by furanone, they are unable to receive a quorum
of signals from other bacteria, and without positive "quorum sensing"
they don't begin biofilm formation. Steinberg's company, Biosignal, Ltd
of Eveleigh, Australia, has mimicked these repellant compounds and
licenses them to companies producing non-toxic antifouling paints,
contact lenses, and surface treatments for hospitals.
When you talk about how we can apply biomimicry to product design,
you point to the difference between shallow and deep biomimicry. What
do you mean?
The first level of biomimicry is the mimicking of natural form. For
instance, you may mimic the hooks and barbules in an owl's feather to
create a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface. Or you can
imitate the frayed edges that grant the owl its silent flight. Copying
feather design is just the beginning, because it may or may not yield
Deeper biomimicry adds a second level, which is the mimicking of
natural process, or how it is made. The owl feather self-assembles at
body temperature without toxins or high pressures, by way of nature's
chemistry. The unfurling field of green chemistry attempts to mimic
these benign recipes.
At the third level is the mimicking of natural ecosystems. The owl
feather is gracefully nested---it's part of an owl that is part of a
forest that is part of a biome that is part of a sustaining biosphere.
In the same way, our owl-inspired fabric must be part of a larger
economy that works to restore rather than deplete the earth and its
people. If you make a bioinspired fabric using green chemistry, but you
have workers weaving it in a sweatshop, loading it onto
pollution-spewing trucks, and shipping it long distances, you've missed
To mimic a natural system, you must ask how each product fits in-is it
necessary, is it beautiful, is it part of a nourishing food web of
industries, and can it be transported, sold, and reabsorbed in ways
that foster a forest-like economy?
If we can biomimic at all three levels-natural form, natural process,
and natural system-we'll begin to do what all well-adapted organisms
have learned to do, which is to create conditions conducive to life.
Creating conditions conducive to life is not optional; it's a rite of
passage for any organism that manages to fit in here over the long
haul. If we want to keep coming home to this place, we'll need to learn
from our predecessors how to filter air, clean water, build soil-how to
keep the habitat lush and livable. It's what good neighbors do.
One of the more radical ideas put forth in your book pertains to a
new form of agriculture that models itself on plant communities that
are indigenous to the ecosystem. How realistic is this? And is this
Natural systems agriculture looks at a landscape and says "What grows
here naturally?" In the Midwest, it's the prairie. For 5000 years, the
prairie has done a great job of holding the soil, resisting pests and
weeds, and sponsoring its own fertility, all without our help. The
secret of the prairie is that it is composed of perennial plants
growing in polycultures (many species in the same field).
Unfortunately, we can't eat a prairie. Over the last 100 years, we
have plowed up the prairie and replaced it with our own agriculture,
based on annual plants grown in monocultures (one species for miles).
Unlike the prairie's perennial polycultures, these annual monocultures
do need our help.
Using annuals means we have to plow each year, which leads to soil
erosion. To make up for poorer soil, we pour on tons of chemical
fertilizers. To protect our all-you-can-eat monocultures from pests, we
heap on oil-based pesticides. It works out to about 10 kilocalories of
petroleum to produce one kilocalorie of food.
The way to get off this "treadmill of vigilance", says Wes Jackson
of the Land Institute, is to breed perennial crops that we can eat and
grow them in a prairie-like polyculture. Jackson's edible prairie would
not merely be new; it would be the polar opposite of what we have now.
The plants would overwinter, so we wouldn't need to plow and plant
every year, or worry about soil erosion. We wouldn't need to add
synthetic fertilizers because nitrogen-fixing plants would be in the
mix. We wouldn't need to spray biocides because the presence of lots of
different plant species would slow down pest outbreaks.
What we would have, instead of an extractive agriculture that mimics
industry, is a self-renewing agriculture that mimics nature.
Though radical, this idea of breeding a prairie you can eat is quite
realistic, when you consider that most of our crops were bred from
perennial wild relatives. Over ten thousand years, we turned them into
annuals and narrowed their genetic pools. So now we are looking to
widen those genetic pools and breed perennial traits back into edible
Right now, natural systems agriculture is at the Kitty Hawk
stage-the researchers have proven the agricultural equivalent of drag
and lift. Working alone, they will need 25-50 years of wind tunnel
tests before domestic prairies can be planted in the Breadbasket. If
they get support, the shift could come a lot sooner. It depends on what
kind of research we as a society choose to fund. As Chuck Hassebrook of
the Rural Affairs Center points out, research is a form of social
What will prevent humans from, as you say, "stealing nature's thunder and using it in the ongoing campaign against life?"
That's a good question, because any technology, even if it's a
technology inspired by nature, can be used for good or bad. The
airplane, for instance, was inspired by bird flight; a mere eleven
years after we invented it, we were bombing people with it.
As author Bill McKibben says, our tools are always employed in the
service of an ideology. Our ideology-the story we tell ourselves about
who we are in the universe- has to change if we are to treat the living
Earth with respect.
Right now we tell ourselves that the Earth was put here for our use.
That we are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to Earthlings. But
of course this is a myth. We've had a run of spectacular luck, but we
are not necessarily the best survivors over the long haul. We are not
immune to the laws of natural selection, and if we overshoot the
carrying capacity of the Earth, we will pay the consequences.
Practicing ethical biomimicry will require a change of heart. We will
have to climb down from our pedestal and begin to see ourselves as
simply a species among species, as one vote in a parliament of 30
million. When we accept this fact, we start to realize that what is
good for the living Earth is good for us as well.
If we agree to follow this ethical path, the question becomes: how
do we judge the "rightness" of our innovations? How do we make sure
that they are life-promoting? Here, too, I think biomimicry can help.
The best way to scrutinize our innovations is to compare them to what
has come before. Does this strategy or design have precedence in
nature? Has something like it been time-tested long enough to wear a
seal of approval?
If we use what nature has done as a filter, we stop ourselves from, for
instance, transferring genes from one class of organism to another. We
wouldn't put flounder genes into a strawberry plant, for instance.
Biomimicry says: if it can't be found in nature, there is probably a
good reason for its absence. It may have been tried, and long ago
edited out of the population. Natural selection is wisdom in action.
In the business chapter, you talk about the need to "shift our niche." What do you mean by that?
A "niche" is a profession in the ecosystem. Right now, we humans are
filling a pioneering niche. We are acting like the weeds in a newly
turned farmer's field. These weeds move into a sun-filled space and use
nutrients and water as quickly as they can, turning them into plant
bodies and plenty of seeds. They are annuals; they don't bother to put
down winter roots or recycle because their moment in the sun is short.
Within a few years, they'll be shaded out by the more efficient,
long-lasting perennial bushes and shrubs. That's why they produce so
many seeds; they're always on to the next sun-drenched horn of plenty.
Back before our world was full, and we always had somewhere else to
go, this colonizing "Type I" strategy allowed us to stay one step ahead
of reality. These days, when we've gone everywhere there is to go, we
have to forget about colonizing and learn to close the loops.
Closing the loops means trying to emulate the natural communities
that know how to stay put without consuming their ecological capital.
Mature ecosystems such as oak-hickory forests are masters of
optimizing, rather than maximizing, throughput. They recycle all their
wastes, use energy and materials efficiently, and diversify and
cooperate to use the habitat without bankrupting it. Ecologists call
these Type III communities.
Industrial ecologists are trying to glean lessons from natural
communities to actually shift our economy from Type I to Type III. From
ragweeds to redwood forests.
The latest business consultants in this field are people fresh from
gorilla counts and butterfly surveys. I never thought I'd see the day,
but it's true: the Birkenstocks are teaching the suits.
How would a Biomimetic Revolution come about?
In the book I talk about one possible path to biomimicry, which is
modeled after my own experience in trying to renew an aging pond. The
steps are simple but profound in their implications: They are 1.
Quieting human cleverness, 2. Listening to nature, 3. Echoing nature,
and 4. Protecting the wellspring of good ideas through stewardship.
Quieting human cleverness involves the maturing of the human race,
the acknowledgment that nature knows best. I think we are coming closer
to this. We are seeing that our cleverness has painted us into some
corners, and we are open for suggestions.
Listening to nature is the discovery step. It's important that we
interview the flora and fauna of the planet in an organized way. Out of
the estimated 5 to 30 million living species on Earth, only about 1.4
million have been named! I would love to see us create a Biological
Peace Corps where people can volunteer to inventory biodiversity for
two years. I'd also love to see systematics, which is the in-depth
study of animal and plant groups, become a sought-after career again.
We need people who know all there is to know about particular branches
of nature's tree.
This step of closely listening to nature is not just for scientists,
however. We all need to become ecologically literate, and the best way
to do that is to immerse ourselves in nature, in childhood and as
Echoing nature is where we actually try to mimic what we discover.
Echoing nature will take a cross-fertilization of ideas. The
technologists who invent products and systems need to interact with
biologists so they can match human needs with nature's solutions. Task
forces and formal societies would allow for periodic interactions, but
for more permanent collaborations, we should design university courses
that teach biomimetic design.
I can also see using the Internet as a place to store our
information. A giant database of biological knowledge would serve as an
innovation matchmaking service. An engineer charged with designing a
new desalination device, for instance, could easily review the
strategies and root-membrane blueprints of the mangrove-a tree that
filters seawater with its solar-powered roots. This "Google for
Nature's Solutions" would organize biological research by functional
search term (in the vocabulary of designers and engineers). It would
place life's wellspring of evolved ideas where they belong---in the
public domain---so the ideas themselves cannot be patented. This is a
gigantic, but important, first step to move ideas from biology to human
Stewardship of wild and settled places should be the natural
outgrowth of a biomimetic worldview. Once we see nature as a source of
inspiration, a mentor, our relationship with the living world changes.
We realize that the only way to keep learning from nature is to
safeguard naturalness, which is the source of those good ideas.
How would a Biomimetic Revolution change our lives?
"Doing it nature's way" has the potential to change the way we grow
food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store
information, and conduct business. In each case, nature would be model,
measure, and mentor.
Nature as model. We would manufacture the way animals and plants
do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable
fibers, ceramics, plastics, and chemicals. Our farms, modeled on
prairies, would be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant. To find new
drugs or crops, we would consult animals and insects that have used
plants for millions of years to keep themselves healthy and nourished.
Even computing would take its cue from nature, with software that
"evolves" solutions, and hardware that uses the lock-and-key paradigm
to compute by touch.
In each case, nature would provide the models: solar cells copied from
leaves, steely fibers woven spider-style, shatterproof ceramics drawn
from mother-of-pearl, cancer cures compliments of chimpanzees,
perennial grains inspired by tallgrass, computers that signal like
cells, and a closed-loop economy that takes its lessons from redwoods,
coral reefs, and oak-hickory forests.
Nature as measure. Beside providing the model, nature would also
provide the measure-we would look to nature as a standard against which
to judge the "rightness" of our innovations. Are they life promoting?
Do they fit in? Will they last?
When we view nature as a source of ideas instead of goods, the
rationale for protecting wild species and their habitats becomes
self-evident. To have more people realize this is my fondest hope.
In the end, I think biomimicry's greatest legacy will be more than a
stronger fiber or a new drug. It will be gratitude, and from this, an
ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us.
You emphasize in your talks that we ARE nature, but that we're a very young species, still trying to find our way.
As a biologist, I see us as a species among species, and that means
everything we make and do is natural. When we make a product or build a
building, it's akin to a robin making a nest---it's an extension of our
bodies, and just as subject to natural selection. The real question is
not "Is this product or behavior natural?" but rather, "Is it
well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul?"
Anything that we design-a product, a process, or a policy--has to
ultimately pass muster in the biological realm. It has to help us
thrive, but it also has to keep the habitat in tact for our successors.
A robin building a nest and an architect building a building should
have the same concern: "How will the chicks fare here?"
Biomimicry seems to make so much sense. Why didn't we think of it years ago?
Well, actually, biomimicry as an approach to innovation is not new.
Indigenous peoples relied heavily on the lessons and examples of the
organisms around them. Alaskan hunters still stalk seals in exactly the
same way that polar bears do, for instance. Many early Western
inventions, such as the airplane and the telephone, also took their
inspiration directly from nature.
What I do see is biomimicry cropping up again after a long hiatus of
hubris brought on in part by the "better living through chemistry" era.
As we learned to synthesize what we needed from petrochemicals, we
began to believe we didn't need nature, and that our ways were
superior. Now, with the advent of genetic engineering, some of us have
come to fancy ourselves as gods, riding a juggernaut of technology that
will grant us independence from the natural world.
The rest of us, of course, are finding it hard to ignore the emergency
sirens wailing all around us. Here at the beginning of the twenty first
century, environmental reality is setting in, pushing us to find saner
and more sustainable ways to live on Earth. Equally important is what
is pulling us towards biomimicry-that is, our deepening knowledge of
how the natural world works.
Biological knowledge is doubling every five years, growing like a
pointillist painting toward a recognizable whole. For the first time in
history, we have the instruments-the scopes and satellites-to feel the
shiver of a neuron in thought or watch in color as a star is born. When
we combine this intensified gaze with the sheer amount of scientific
knowledge coming into focus, we suddenly have the capacity to mimic
nature like never before.
Your book expresses a sense of urgency. Why is it crucial to explore biomimicry now?
We humans are at a turning point in our evolution. Though we began as a
small population in a very large world, we have expanded in number and
territory until we are now bursting the seams of that world. There are
too many of us, and our habits are unsustainable.
Having reached the limits of nature's tolerance, we are finally
shopping for answers to the question: "How can we live on this home
planet without destroying it?"
Just as we are beginning to recognize all there is to learn from the
natural world, our models are starting to blink out-not just a few
scattered organisms, but entire ecosystems. A new survey by the
National Biological Service found that one-half of all native
ecosystems in the United States are degraded to the point of
endangerment. That makes biomimicry more than just a new way of viewing
and valuing nature. It's also a race to the rescue.