The Future of Biodiversity

A group of speakers selected to embody the past, present, and future of plant science portrayed life's diversity as being in a precarious situation. Half the species on the planet could be wiped out by the end of the century, some say. "We are playing the endgame,"

By | May 27, 2002

A group of speakers selected to embody the past, present, and future of plant science portrayed life's diversity as being in a precarious situation. Half the species on the planet could be wiped out by the end of the century, some say. "We are playing the endgame," said Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University professor and curator of entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. The inauguration of a multimillion-dollar plant science center at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx served as the setting for researchers to ponder the future of conservation and biodiversity research at a symposium on May 1. Speakers expressed hope that research and conservation efforts can overcome political strife and that Earth's rich biodiversity can be explored, cataloged, and saved before it disappears.

The future takes root at the crossroads of classic field research and new technology. Michael Balick, vice president for botanical science research and training at the Garden, said in an interview that accoutrements for field studies can include global positioning satellite receivers, satellite phones, laptop computers, DNA sampling vials, digital video cameras, and, of course, portable solar panels to charge all these gizmos. As he told a collaborator, "Boy, this sure is different from how I started in the Amazon 30 years ago." Time-tested taxonomic techniques dating back beyond Darwin's days are increasingly being augmented by molecular genetics and information technology.

Field Research Makeover

Dennis Stevenson, director, Institute of Systematic Botany and Plant Research Laboratory at the Garden, says he started employing molecular techniques in classical systematic studies in the 1980s, though such work started earlier. A search on ISI's Web of Science shows that the earliest use of molecular systematics was in macaques in 1970.1 Many species can now be classified more precisely in their phylogenetic relationships. "A lot of the blossoming of it was because the technology developed so rapidly." Most of the student posters displayed in the lobby of the new herbarium at the Garden featured integrated molecular data. PhD candidate Hugh Cross, for one, incorporated molecular analyses of nuclear and chloroplast DNA in a systematics study of the fruit crop chayote, a member of the squash family cultivated in tropical climates.

At the symposium Claudio Pinheiro, a professor at the Federal University of Maranhão, talked about his ethnobotanical research in Northern Brazil. His work applies sociology and economics to field studies, thus providing insight into a culture's interdependence with a biodiverse environment. By mingling new scientific findings with the traditional insights of indigenous people, groups such as his are working to establish programs for sustainable use of plant resources, which many now see as an attractive path toward conservation.

A Few Thorns

Not all is roses for those studying diversity. Even in light of the vast institutional progress made at the Garden, many voiced concern about a looming biodiversity crisis. And restrictions to research aren't helping. Balick, an ethno-botanist, likens field biologists to the canaries in the coal mines. "If field biologists are kept out of biodiversity-rich parts of the world because of complexities of international treaties or xenophobia ... that signals that the planet is in a very dangerous place." Conservation regulations developed to protect diverse regions have come back to haunt researchers now no longer allowed to collect specimens in certain areas.2 Problems like these had Balick wondering aloud at the symposium, why it is easier to get a logging permit than a plant-collecting permit in so many biodiversity-rich regions?

Young researchers expressed anxiety, including graduate student Janet White, who said she worries about a shift in focus among her peers away from natural history and toward the skills that will land good jobs. Yet she did express gratitude to her fellow grad students for forging ties between the botanical garden and numerous universities. She presented results from an ad hoc survey of 29 fellow grad students who had in the past year produced 71 publications; earned 124 awards, fellowships, and grants; and discovered 15 new species.

"Of all the things an institution can do like ours," says Stevenson, White's adviser, "one of the most important things we do is train people for the future. There needs to be a lineage." Harvard's Wilson expressed both pessimism and unbounded hope in his speech. He extols scientists to do the impossible: create an encyclopedic inventory of life on Earth. "With new technologies coupled with more aggressive field work, we can complete the remaining 90 percent in 10 percent of the time," Wilson said in an electrifying close to the symposium.

Brendan A. Maher can be contacted at
1. M. Goodman et al., "Molecular systematics of Macaques," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 33[1]: 131, 1970.

2. A.C. Revkin, "Biologists sought a treaty; now they fault it," The New York Times, May 7, 2002, page F1.

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

E-Diversity: Specimens like this one collected on captain James Cook's first voyage (1768-1771) are making it to cyber space.

Five years of work and $100 million helped bring about the New York Botanical Garden's new International Plant Science Center, which embodies the juncture of old and new. The century-old LuEsther T. Mertz Library was refurbished to more elegantly house rare botany books dating as far back as the 12th century. The newly built William and Lynda Steere Herbarium now flanks the library. The wing is designed to house the nearly 7 million pressed specimens collected from as early as 1690, plus 25 years' worth of future contributions. Another chunk of the $100 million from private, state, and federal sources went to electronically filing the contents in a Virtual Herbarium for easy reference on the Internet.

Virtual Herbarium:

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