Article image

Nature inspires solutions for a sustainable future

As the Earth’s population continues to grow, our modern lifestyles are placing an ever-increasing strain on the global environment. Many proposed solutions to promote a sustainable future and preserve the planet have proven to be more harmful than helpful. However, a promising new approach involves harnessing the power of natural processes through innovative technologies. This is also sometimes referred to as biomimicry. 

The open access journal PLOS Biology has devoted its latest issue to this topic, featuring a special collection of papers published on March 31st. These papers highlight biology-based solutions that have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, eliminate non-degradable plastics, and produce food and energy more sustainably, among other benefits.

One particularly noteworthy paper comes from Federica Bertocchini and Clemente Arias of the Spanish Natural Research Council. The researchers have been studying the possibility of using insects to degrade plastic waste, specifically polyethylene. They discovered that certain insect enzymes could provide a more sustainable alternative to current methods of incineration and mechanical recycling. 

“Plastic biodegradation: the technology is not quite there yet, but insect enzymes may represent the tipping point in the field,” explained Bertocchini.

Another paper, authored by Sandra Pascoe Ortiz of Universidad del Valle de Atemajac in Mexico, focuses on the ongoing efforts to develop fully recyclable bioplastics. Bioplastics are a broad category of materials that can either be made from renewable sources and may or may not be biodegradable, or are made from fossil sources but are biodegradable. 

While Pascoe Ortiz acknowledges the promise of these initiatives, she also points out that they are far from solving the problem of plastic pollution completely. Ortiz stresses the importance of being aware of the use and disposal of different products, regardless of the material. “Plastic pollution is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, there are some materials that can help to solve it, but the most important thing is to be aware of the use and disposal we give to different products regardless of the material.”

Turning to the challenge of carbon dioxide pollution, Peter Ralph and Mathieu Pernice of the University of Technology Sydney in Australia explore the potential of using photosynthetic algae to capture carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of various industrial applications. This approach could help keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. The researchers have already implemented this technique by collaborating with a brewery. 

Ralph is optimistic about the potential of algae-based carbon capture and manufacture (CCM). “Algae-based CCM has great potential to help mitigate climate change by capturing atmospheric carbon and using it to create long-lasting bioproducts to store carbon,” said Ralph. “Additionally, CCM offers numerous industrial benefits, such as reducing the cost of chemical processes and enabling the use of advanced manufacturing, potentially transforming many industries into climate-positive biomanufacturing.”

In another paper, Thomas Brück’s research group at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of biofuel technologies. Advanced biofuels offer sustainable “drop-in” alternatives to fossil equivalents and can complement other renewable energy resources, thereby eliminating CO2 emissions. The researchers also provide a definitive set of policy recommendations for the rapid global deployment of these technologies. 

“Advanced biofuels do not compete with agriculture and can be realized via greenhouse gas neutral or even negative processes today,” said Brück. “These can contribute to energy security and sustainable mobility but require a stable legislative framework together with financial incentives for broad industrial roll out and applicability.”

These papers, along with the others in the PLOS Biology collection, offer valuable insights that could help inform and guide policies and further initiatives to promote sustainability and preserve our planet for future generations.

Biomimicry, the practice of learning from and emulating nature’s designs and processes, offers an array of solutions to promote and preserve planetary sustainability. By studying nature, we can uncover innovative approaches to solve some of the most pressing environmental challenges. Here are several ways biomimicry can be utilized for a more sustainable future:

  1. Energy efficiency: Many organisms have evolved to optimize their energy use for survival. By observing these organisms, we can develop energy-efficient technologies, such as mimicking the photosynthetic process of plants to produce solar cells or designing wind turbines inspired by the wings of birds or the fins of whales.
  2. Water management: Nature has developed efficient ways to collect, store, and distribute water. For example, the Namib Desert beetle collects water from fog on its body, while certain plant species store water in their leaves. By emulating these natural strategies, we can create innovative water management systems for arid regions and water-stressed communities.
  3. Waste reduction and recycling: In nature, waste from one organism becomes a resource for another, creating a closed-loop system. By following this principle, we can develop circular economy models that minimize waste and maximize resource utilization. Examples include using waste materials as inputs for new products or mimicking natural decomposition processes to create biodegradable materials.
  4. Sustainable agriculture: By studying natural ecosystems, we can develop agricultural practices that enhance soil fertility, reduce the need for chemical inputs, and promote biodiversity. Examples include agroforestry, where trees and crops are grown together, and permaculture, which combines various natural farming techniques to create self-sustaining systems.
  5. Green architecture: Nature-inspired designs can be incorporated into the built environment to reduce energy consumption and improve overall sustainability. For example, architects can use the principles of passive cooling, inspired by termite mounds, to design buildings that maintain comfortable temperatures without relying on energy-intensive air conditioning systems.
  6. Carbon sequestration: Many natural processes, such as photosynthesis in plants, help capture and store carbon dioxide. By emulating these processes, we can develop carbon sequestration technologies that help mitigate climate change. Examples include algae-based carbon capture systems and biochar, which stores carbon in soil while improving its fertility.
  7. Ecosystem restoration: By learning from nature’s ability to regenerate and restore damaged ecosystems, we can develop strategies for ecological restoration. This can include techniques such as assisted natural regeneration, where native species are encouraged to recolonize degraded areas, or the creation of artificial reefs to support marine biodiversity.
  8. Biodegradable materials: By studying natural materials that break down into harmless substances, we can develop eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastics and other non-degradable materials. Examples include bioplastics made from renewable sources, such as starch or cellulose, and materials inspired by chitin, a natural biopolymer found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans.

By applying biomimicry principles, we can learn from nature’s wisdom to develop sustainable solutions that preserve and promote the health of our planet for future generations.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day