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Nature’s hidden wealth is conservation’s missed opportunity

Spider silk is just one of the ways nature has inspired innovation. Silk image from www.shutterstock.com

Nature’s hidden wealth is conservation’s missed opportunity

Australia has one of the worst extinction records in the modern world. Since European settlement, a third of the country’s native mammals have disappeared. How can we stem the losses?

A recent article in Nature highlighted that most federal and state biodiversity conservation policy fails to recognise biodiversity as a major source of industrial products.

Much as explorers chart new territories, chemists, materials scientists, engineers and biologists are exploring biodiversity for medicine, agricultural and industrial products. This sits well with Australia’s current focus on innovation, driven by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

But the potential of biodiversity has been overlooked.

Inspiring nature

Animals and plants constitute a very small part of our native biodiversity (roughly 5%). The vast majority - fungi, bacteria and the enormous diversity of other microscopic organisms, including invertebrates - is a massive, largely unexplored economic resource.

The best known examples of commercial uses for biodiversity are the thousands of drugs secreted by bacteria and fungi. But others are examples of what is known as “bio-inspiration” and “bio-mimicry”, where wild species provide the blueprints for products.

While these products are of immense commercial value, the source species are rarely harvested in the conventional sense. Rather, a few specimens provide ample material for analysis.

So for microbes, invertebrates or plants, there is little concern that these industries are threats. For vertebrates, such as sharks, samples are either non-destructive or severely limited.

Some of the products such as spider silk and gecko feet are well known. But these are the tip of an iceberg.

Other innovations include fire detection inspired by charcoal beetles, clinical compounds from scorpions and leaping robots from locusts. In fact, bio-mimicry is huge in robotics, including the astonishing new field of “soft robots” modelled on tentacles, caterpillars and worms.

Robotics have taken inspiration from nature too. Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory, CC BY

Products such as drugs can be sourced from single-celled animals and plants and from microbes of all kinds, even those that are currently uncultivable. Super-water-repellent materials, are sourced from the outer surfaces of organisms as different as insects and higher plants.

Then there is bio-mineralization: soft-bodied animals make very hard substances, such as the radula of marine snails, a tongue tough enough to drill rock. To make materials that strong, industry currently requires high temperatures and pressures, not to mention polluting chemicals.

The snails make their radula and shell from natural materials and at normal temperatures and pressures. How do they do it? Many labs around the world are struggling to find out.

Why are these stories so important?

How can exploring biodiversity help conserve it?

First, much as charismatic animals such as tigers and whales are used as icons for conservation, so can species that we use for developing products - but with the added grunt that they are central to the economy. These are very sexy stories; fascinating tales of the transformation of natural phenomena into industrial products.

Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy states that we must “engage all Australians” to save biodiversity. But leaving out biodiversity and industrial products is a massive lost opportunity for engagement.

Second, as biodiversity products come from any kind of organism from any kind of ecosystem, these growing industries require the conservation of that resource. This would greatly expand the current conservation focus on a few charismatic species.

Third, much of biodiversity exploration research is overseas. Some Australian scientists and engineers are involved, for example, in utilising the arrangements of plant fibres to inspire lightweight strengthening of aircraft engines. However, it is hard to find the promotion of this exciting research in any policy nation-wide; political, economic or scientific.

Given Prime Minister Turnbull’s focus on innovation, and given that Australian biodiversity is both vast and unique, overlooking biomimicry and its related industries is another lost opportunity for both conservation and the national economy.

Scientists and engineers inside many industries are forging ahead with exploration for biodiversity products in many, non-destructive and highly imaginative ways all over the world.

It’s time our governments and conservationists wised up.