Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, February 18, 1998

Scienitists say join Biodversity Year: 2/18/98

Why top scientists consider biodiversity management critical to Earth’s survival

BY JANET BASU

One aim of the International Biodiversity Observation Year is to provide solid data for nations and international agencies striving to implement the International Convention on Biological Diversity, framed in Rio in 1992.

Another impetus, said Stanford ecologist Harold Mooney, is a sense of urgency about the state of a planet where human activities now dominate the major natural systems, and those systems are undergoing change at a rate and on a scale unprecedented in history.

"In a very real sense, we cannot escape responsibility for managing our impact on those systems," Mooney said. "It's time for scientists to take stock of what we know, and what we need to learn, so society can act on that responsibility. It is time to bring biodiversity to the front burner, where both scientists and governments will pay more attention to it," he said.

His colleague, Oregon State marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, frames the situation more starkly. "In my view, the job of the scientific enterprise is to produce knowledge, and so far in the current era, we are not meeting that challenge," she said in a recent interview. "Scientists are not providing the full sweep of information needed for individuals and governments to understand what's happening in the world and make informed decisions about it."

As president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, Lubchenco challenged her fellow scientists to enter into a new social contract, to use their skills to address the most urgent needs of society. One urgent need worth addressing, she said, is the lack of information available to manage Earth's ecosystems sustainably. That is why she joined Mooney and a crew of scientific superstars on Feb. 13 to present the IBOY idea to their fellow scientists at the annual meeting of the AAAS.

The symposium featured Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford and secretary general of ICSU, the International Council of Scientific Unions; Lubchenco, former president of AAAS, a member of the National Science Board, and professor of zoology at Oregon State University; and José Sarukhán, former rector of UNAM, Mexico's premier university, and the founding national coordinator of CONABIO, Mexico's National Commission for the Study, Conservation and Management of Biological Diversity. Currently a visiting professor at the Center for Conservation Biology and the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford, Sarukhán is chair of the international organizing committee for IBOY.

They were joined by another former AAAS president, Rita Colwell, president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and Michael J. Donoghue, director of the Harvard University Herbaria.

International concerns

Each had a unique perspective on the value of biodiversity and the issues that could be addressed in an international year of observation.

"There is a growing sensibility about the importance of many global environmental problems," Sarukhán said. "That is one reason that so many nations signed the International Convention on Biodiversity that was drafted in Rio. And obviously it is one of the factors in the global climate change debate.

"On the other hand, we are pressed against the wall of time," Sarukhán said. "Every year that passes, it is more urgent to do something useful in understanding, managing or saving the biodiversity that remains. But individual nations often don't have enough information about the specific ecosystems that are under pressure within their borders. And because species don't have passports, don't pay any attention to borders, often the information that we need to manage them is regional as well as local."

Saving the gold

Colwell reminded her colleagues that there are practical, even profit-motive reasons to protect biodiversity. Environmentalists long have argued that because anti-cancer drugs, new antibiotics and effective new painkillers often are found in untouched wilderness, it is a loss to humanity when a patch of the wild is destroyed. Colwell, a microbiologist, said that nowadays not only frogs and yew trees but microorganisms can yield valuable substances ­ and the microbes are the most diverse, and least well-cataloged, group of species on the planet.

"Fundamentally, biotechnology is based on biological diversity," she said. "We're looking for gold amongst the genes that comprise the diversity of the living world. Instead of being '49ers with pickaxes, we prospect in the lab for novel antibiotics, novel pathways. With genetic engineering we can mine genes, transfer them to yeasts or fungi, and enhance the expression of the genes and thus tap new compounds ,new products for the improvement of human or animal health.

"We're now beginning to realize there is more to biodiversity than simply conservation," Colwell said. "There is a role to play in sustaining the planet, and a role in economic development and commerce. It's just as important for a manufacturer of products to know and understand biodiversity as it is for a conservationist."

To Donoghue, after 200 years of work by scientists to name and count living things, the amount that still is not known is remarkable. "We have studied systematics for hundreds of years, yet our knowledge has never been assembled in one place," he said. "As the director of a museum, it's incredible to me how much information is locked in here, inaccessible unless scholars come here and study it." So his first proposal for IBOY is the development of a database to catalog all that is currently known about living organisms and make this information available on the web.

Donoghue would like to overturn the misconception that scientists can study biodiversity simply by counting the numbers of species that exist. "The problem is bigger and more interesting than this," he said. "Our assessment of biodiversity depends on knowledge of species but also on how they are related to one another, how they form branches on the tree of life."

This is a time when utterly surprising new life forms are still being discovered, Donoghue said. "For example, scientists have discovered a plant, Lacandonia, that bears its seeds not in the center of the flower, as in the other 250,000 species of flowering plants, but instead around the outside." He is concerned that loss of biodiversity may mean the loss not only of fascinating species, but of whole branches of life, groups of organisms that may have evolved completely different genes or chemistries ­ losses in some of the "gold" that Colwell speaks of, and also losses in knowledge about how life works.

Scientists' responsibility

Mooney is particularly concerned about the loss of ecosystems and the services they provide ­ water purification, soil building, maintenance of a stable atmosphere. "These are things humans take for granted because we've been getting them for free all along," he said. As biodiversity is lost, at some point forests or kelp beds or grasslands stop delivering these services. So far, Mooney said, not enough is known to be able to predict how to maintain ecosystems on a sustainable basis.

Lubchenco said, "Scientists have been aware of the seriousness of the biodiversity problem for some time; now it's time to take action."

"Things are changing at faster rates over larger scales than ever before in history, and in fundamentally new ways," she said. "For example, humans have transformed one-half to two-thirds of the land surface of the planet; have exploited two-thirds of the fisheries to full or near capacity; have added 30 percent to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The past does not give us a lot of guidance about how to act in the future," Lubchenco said. "And it is our own future that is at stake. The challenges that human actions make to biological systems have an impact on human health, on social justice, on the economy, on national security.

"The need to get information [through programs like IBOY] does not preclude the urgency to take some actions now ­ we already know enough, for example, to stop dumping all sorts of stuff into the oceans. But we need new research and new monitoring targeted specifically to get information needed for sound public policy." SR