Rivoc and BiodivOc, the keys to a better future in Occitania

Advancer research research to better preserve biodiversity and combat vector-borne diseases. This is the mission that the Occitanie region has chosen to entrust to the UM in the context of these last two key challenges. This initiative aims to structureacademic, scientific and economic forces around major strategic issues for the future of Occitanie. Presentation of these two key challenges, named BiovidOc and Rivoc.

Gravel pit in Haute-Garonne, France.
Copyright: © Rémy Lassus, Laboratoire EDB, Toulouse.

How will we live in Occitania in the decades to come? What will our climate be like? What impact will it have on biodiversity? On human, animal or plant health? Will we be confronted with new diseases? If so, will we have the means to treat them? Will we be able to develop greener energy? While these questions are at the heart of science, the links between research teams at regional level sometimes lack structure, and bridges with the economic world still need to be consolidated to enable greater exploitation of results at local level.

More attractive research in Occitania

I'm one of those people who believe that research can be useful," says Didier Fontenille, a biologist from Montpellier, "and when it corresponds to societal, economic, health or even ecological issues, we have to take advantage of this opportunity to move the lines." And for this researcher from the Institut de recherche pour le développement(IRD), the opportunity to move the lines is Rivoc, one of the four key challenges supported by the Occitanie region and officially launched on March 18. This was just a few days before the launch of BiodivOc, the second key challenge piloted by the UM and this time led by ecologist and evolutionist Philippe Jarne, a CNRS researcher at the Centre d'Etude Fonctionnelle et Evolutive(CEFE).

The Key Challenges are an initiative of the Occitanie region, the aim of which is to identify and structure the scientific community and local economic players around strategic themes for the region. Excel, federate and protect - these are the three key words that apply to the challenges we want to achieve," says Nadia Pellefigue, vice-president in charge of economic development, innovation, research and higher education. We have held discussions with researchers to mobilize resources where we can make rapid progress. We want to put in place actions that will enable an ecological shift and contribute to making research more collaborative, more visible and more attractive in Occitanie." To date, four key challenges have been launched, two of which are led by the University of Montpellier, in line with the three pillars of MUSE: nourish, care and protect.

Care and protection with Rivoc and BiodivOc

The aim of the Rivoc key challenge is to provide care, in particular by anticipating the diseases of tomorrow (see box) and, through research, stimulating the emergence of new control strategies. "Many animal diseases not only cause production losses, but also pose a risk to human health. The Occitanie region, aware of both the health risks and the local economic stakes, has decided to support this project," explains Didier Fontenille.

This theme is already well-established in Montpellier, Perpignan and Toulouse, where skills are strong. It is also part of the more global "One health" strategy, which considers human, animal, plant and environmental health as a whole. "An unhealthy environment generates disease for plants, animals and people. This brings us back to the notion of biodiversity," adds Rivoc's managing director.

Biodiversity is at the heart of the second key challenge, BiodivOc. If there's one scientific field that can't be ignored when tackling these issues, it's that of scientific ecology," emphasizes Philippe Augé, President of the University of Montpellier. And just as well! Because it's also an extremely strong field at the UM, and one of the pillars of the MUSE project, which aims to promote a transition towards an environmentally-friendly society.

Occitanie boasts exceptional environmental potential, but is under heavy pressure from human activities. "The region is also one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots. This means that it is very rich in species. We have a diversity of landscapes that continues to amaze me every day, but it also means that this biodiversity is very much under threat," warns Philippe Jarne. The cause: very strong demographic pressure posing major problems in terms of natural resource management, a strong agricultural presence and local species threatened by the appearance of exotic species such as the coypu or the famous tiger mosquito, which are included in this second key challenge. "Our individual relationship with nature is a philosophical one, but this loss of biodiversity will not be without economic, social and health consequences".

Synergy booster

For all concerned, the success of these key challenges hinges above all on a better structuring of research based on synergy, as Philippe Augé reminds us. "These are excellent tools for fostering interaction between regional research clusters, organizations and disciplines, for creating synergy between the 30,000 researchers in the Occitan region, and also for developing projects with the private and voluntary sectors, and making scientific knowledge accessible to as many people as possible.

Stemming from the KIM Rive launched by Muse last February, the Rivoc key challenge already has some forty partners. These include academic and university partners in Montpellier, Toulouse and Perpignan, institutional partners such as the Ministries of Agriculture and Health, professional associations and civil society players, as well as companies working on vector-borne disease control, including the production of diagnostics, drugs and vector control tools that are greener than current pesticides. "The region's order is to structure scientific activities with multi-disciplinary fundamental research, of course, but also with implementation actions, i.e. valorization and expertise at regional level, and this is already starting to create links, networks and opportunities", Didier Fontenille points out. In fact, several Toulouse-based companies have already contacted the Montpellier researchers with a view to collaboration, "and the door is still open to anyone who thinks they can make a contribution or get something out of Rivoc", adds the director (1).

Philippe Jarne is also committed to action-oriented research. "In our objectives, there is of course a better understanding of biodiversity and the mechanisms that manage it, but there are also questions of transversality and socio-economic partnerships. It's not necessarily on this theme that our community is expected to contribute, but we are already playing a major role in public policy. To achieve these objectives, the ecologist will be able to count on the 70 partners already taking part in the BiodivOc challenge, including some 20 research units in Perpignan, Toulouse, Banyuls, Moulis and Montpellier, of course, but also structures such as the Cemeb and TULIP labex. "We will be relying on collective platforms, developing a multi-disciplinary approach and links with biodiversity managers, but also with consultancies and large private companies".

From Occitania to the rest of the world

These two key challenges will each receive regional funding of 2 million euros over four years. For BiodivOc, this sum will fund "between 3 and 5 projects, each costing around 300,000 euros, and involving at least five teams at two university sites. We want to transform these projects into scientific dynamics and use them as leverage to seek further funding." For Rivoc, this sum could also be used to bring in collaborators: "If African, American or Asian researchers working on vector-borne diseases want to see what we're doing in Occitanie, we have funding to bring them in for three or six months," adds Didier Fontenille.

For the two researchers, while everything starts in Occitanie, the aim remains to disseminate knowledge and make it available to all. "We're certainly not going to finance work on penguins in Antarctica, but our research won't just concern Occitanie, because the problems are much broader," confides the biodiversity specialist. "Our idea is for the rest of the world to take an interest in us, to understand that things are happening in Occitanie and to come and work with us, but conversely we have a duty to put these results at the service of the rest of the world," concludes Rivoc's director.

(1): for further information, please contact rivoc-projet and BiodivOc

Vector-borne diseases

"A vector-borne disease is a disease of plants, animals or humans caused by an infectious agent transmitted by a vector. This vector is an arthropod, either an insect, a tick or, by extension, a mollusc," explains Didier Fontenille. Vector-borne diseases are responsible for some 700,000 deaths worldwide every year. In an article entitled Chronique d'épidémies annoncées dans le sud de la France, the researcher and his colleagues give four emblematic examples of vectors responsible for diseases that could emerge in Occitanie in the coming years:

  • the tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), vector of dengue fever, chikungunya and zika;
  • the striped-legged tick (Hyalomma marginatum): vector of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever for animals and possibly for humans;
  • a midge (Culicoides sp.): vector of bluetongue disease in sheep;
  • cercope des prés or "cuckoo's spit": vector of the phytopathogenic bacterium Xylella fastidiosa in plants.