How Biomimicry Works: Janine Benyus Explains

To biologist Janine Benyus, nature is the great inventor.

By Andy Simmons
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2014

janine benyusAgata Marszalek for Reader’s Digest, Scott Hess
Biologist Janine Benyus likes to tell stories about using nature to solve our problems. For instance, a company called Arnold Glas was concerned about all the birds killed when they fly into windows. The company’s scientists asked, How has nature solved this kind of problem? The answer, Benyus says, is spiders. “Spiders build webs for bugs,” she explains. “But birds obviously would destroy the webs, so spiders weave in strands of silk that reflect UV light. Birds can see it, but bugs and humans can’t.” So the company includes UV-reflective material in its Ornilux glass. “Now it sells bird-safe windows,” says Benyus.

With that, she illustrates the big idea behind “biomimicry” (the term she coined in 1997): that humans can borrow the best ideas from the natural world. Her consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8, works with major corporations, like Nike, GE, and Boeing, as they look to the earth to create smarter products and services.

You’ve said, “If something can’t be found in nature, there’s probably a good reason for its absence.” Can you explain this?

Ninety-nine percent of all species that existed on earth are extinct. The 1 percent here are the ones that work best. Think of our planet as a research-and-development lab in which the best ideas have moved forward, and the ones that used too much energy or materials or were toxic were dropped. What you wind up with are organisms that are efficient.

Do those organisms include humans?

No. Humans have been around for only 200,000 years, as opposed to the 3.8 billion years that life has existed on earth. I see us as toddlers with matches. We’re experimental; we try a lot of things because we can. But at this point, we have to ask ourselves as a species: Do we want to be here 1,000 generations from now? If so, we need to choose things that are good for life. I think we can invent things that don’t have negative consequences. Other people are more pessimistic than I am; I’m optimistic by choice because I believe that pessimism doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot of good. I work with large companies, and they’re all trying to figure out how to do what they do and make profits without penalties and harmful consequences.

What’s an example of how businesses are using biomimicry?

Continental Tires uses a tread that enables drivers to stop on a dime. It comes from cat paws.

The company uses actual cat paws to make them?!

No, but good question. In biomimicry, we borrow the blueprints and ideas rather than use nature itself. One cool example is a new paint that helps a building clean itself with rainwater. The product is called Lotusan, as in lotus leaves. Even though lotuses grow in the mud, they stay pristine. Scientists found that microscopic bumps on the leaves cause rain to form balls like beads of mercury. As these balls of water roll off the leaves, they pick up the dirt. GE is making bottles based on the leaves so that if you have ketchup or mustard in them, you can pour out every single drop.

fungi plantMelissa Buntin/Fine Gardening magazine

What one plant or animal do you consider the star, the one that we can learn from the most?

Mycorrhizal fungus. It’s everywhere, and without it, we couldn’t exist. If you look at the roots of plants and trees, you’ll often see this white cobwebby stuff. This fungus works in partnership with plants and trees. It can’t get sunlight, since it’s underground, but trees can, and they use the sun to produce sugars, which they send down to the fungi. Trees can’t get phosphorous, but the fungi can, so they give it to the trees. In forests, this fungus creates an interconnected network—the Wood Wide Web, it’s been called—and trees and plants can share nutrients, sugars, and water with others a half acre away.

How would an ordinary person use biomimicry?

I’ll give you an example. I wanted to plant willow trees around my pond in Montana, and I wondered, How far back from the water’s edge should they go? I went online for the answer, and then I realized, I’m surrounded by ponds. Why don’t I look at where the willows are doing well and see where I should plant mine?

I would’ve Googled it too.

But isn’t that crazy? The thing with biomimicry is to think functionally. When I built my house, I looked at how the ground squirrels on my property ventilated their dens. They build these long underground chambers. There’s a mound with an entrance on one end and a taller mound with an entrance at the other end. The wind zips through the taller mound, creating a vacuum that pulls air through the chambers, ventilating them. I told our architect I wanted to do this, and he put a cupola with windows at the top of the house. When I open the doors, the breezes go through the cupola and suck the air through the house, ventilating it.

What’s your holy grail?

I’d like us to become a species that not only fits in but contributes. Forests clean the water for cities, but whom do cities clean the water for? Nobody. No species gets to live here for long without figuring out how to create conditions conducive to the life of the whole ecosystem. And it’s doable. The Bank of America building in New York has a filtration system that leaves the air cleaner than when it enters. Cities could build permeable sidewalks so rainwater would seep into the pavement and into the soil, cleaning it. It’s about mimicking the wild land next door. The cool thing about nature’s technologies is that they don’t come from outer space. They’re here because they work well on earth.

Is there one ability you’d personally like to borrow from the natural world?

I’d love to run off the mountains, spread my wings, and fly. And you know what else I wish I could do? Swim deep underwater without a tank and just take air out of the water like a fish. I’d love that: to fly in the air and to fly in the water!

What would you say to a skeptic who asks, “What’s so great about nature anyway?”

We are nature, but we’re really young. Our biological elders are wise. I tip my hat to anything that has lived on earth for the long haul and succeeded.

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