A recent news report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the award of 14 new grants for the third year of its Dimensions of Biodiversity program. Partnering with the Sao Paulo State Research Foundation of Brazil, the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation and NASA (for remote sensing), this program is expected to transform our understanding of the scope and role of life on earth by 2020. The NSF grants include specific awards to U.S. research organizations as well as collaborative awards with China and Brazil (who provide matching grants to their local researchers). With this year's awards, 41 ongoing research programs are underway looking at the genetic, functional and taxonomic biodiversity of all types of ecosystem species.
According to the NSF, advances in the ability to collect, analyze and integrate biological data have provided researchers with the tools to expand knowledge of the Earth's biodiversity. However, this pace of discovery is increasingly offset by the rapid and permanent loss of biodiversity due to climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, planetary re-engineering and invasive species movements. With the loss of biodiversity, we're losing links for ecosystem services, forfeiting opportunities to understand the history and future of the living world and relinquishing future discoveries in food, fiber, fuel, drugs and bio-inspired innovation.
Biodiversity has been a hot media topic for some time now with the 2005 UN-supported “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” report highlighting an “irreversible loss in the biodiversity of life on Earth.” According to this report (involving the work of more than 1,360 international researchers), 10 to 30% of the mammal, bird and amphibian species in the world are threatened with extinction because of mostly human actions. The World Wide Fund for Nature—formerly the World Wildlife Fund and the world's largest independent conservation organization—added that Earth is unable to keep up in the struggle to regenerate from the demands put on it by the people of Earth.
According to these conservation groups, 1 out of 8 birds is threatened with extinction, as are 1 out of 4 mammals, 1 out of 3 amphibians, 6 out of 7 marine turtles and more than a third of the world's reef-building corals. More than two-thirds of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has already been lost and 75% of the world's fisheries are over-exploited.
But, as noted in the NSF report, there is no real count on the actual biodiversity of the planet—and that's the purpose of its program. “The Dimensions of Biodiversity program may accomplish in 10 years (by 2020) what, with a piecemeal approach, would have taken 50 years—a half-century we can no longer afford to wait,” says Joann Roskowski, NSF Deputy Assistant Director for Biological Services.
I'm here to offer a different scenario. The technologies for genetic mapping, cloning and high-performance computer simulation research are accelerating at paces exceeding that of the loss of biodiversity. Gene mapping of plant and animal species is accelerating in terms of costs and time-to-results. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been used in crop production now for decades—with continuing improvements in production yields and disease and pest resistance. This has resulted in the concurrent loss in crop biodiversity due to large production requirements (as noted by some dissidents), but also the strongly required ability to feed larger numbers of people.
Genetic analyses are already revealing the subtle ways that evolution works in mammals. Dolly, the first cloned animal, was cloned in 1996, lived a normal life of more than six years and had six normal offspring. Other large animals, including horses and bulls, have since been cloned. Cloning of the extinct Pyrenean Ibex was also accomplished in 2009 in Spain. And Japanese researchers are currently looking to clone a 10,000-year extinct wooly mammoth from frozen genetic material discovered in Russia. Cloning of domesticated animals is expected to become an important product for future transgenic livestock.
People are also now clamoring for the genetic specifications to create their future children with programmed intelligence and physical capabilities. By 2020, this level of knowledge and technological capabilities will improve to the point that researchers should be able to create biological diversities beyond their wildest dreams. And therein lies the rub—researchers might want to be careful of what they wish for, in that the diversities they have the ability to create in 2020 and beyond might just be more than they can control.