Pan European Networks: Science & Technology
complexity of life on Earth and that is, of course,
a very positive thing; however, when it comes to
threats to distinct species or ecosystems, and
to loss of biodiversity, there seems to be so very
little that we can do to counter it.
However, a number of initiatives have been
launched to raise awareness and to illustrate
how biodiversity conservation can be organised
and strengthened, and the most important ones
were mentioned in quite a few of the talks.
The audience also heard of the supra-
organisations that have been put in place and
that have taken on a life of their own, but, frankly
speaking, have accomplished relatively little so
far. Perhaps the sense of such a bleak state of
affairs dulls the mind, infuses it with a sense of
fatality. Perhaps more individuals are starting to
think and feel that we as a species are not only
a part of the problem, but the problem itself.
If we are the principal cause of the looming sixth
mass extinction, there may be limited hope that
we – the causal agent – will survive it. Perhaps
human beings lose their appetite to communicate
if they start thinking of themselves as but a
passing evolutionary aberration in the history of
life on Earth.
In light of this, Jesse H Ausubel (Rockefeller University, USA) spoke about
the growing need to develop new knowhow and technologies to make
sense of phenomena that are exceedingly large or complex.
“For these we need macroscopes,” he said. For instance, a systematic
collection of DNA barcodes, short DNA sequences from a uniform locality
on the genome of a specimen for identifying the species, represent what
Ausubel sees as powerful macroscopic possibilities.
Rebecca Miller (International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red
List Unit) emphasised in her talk that we need much more information
about the current status and trends of biodiversity. She argued that, when
it comes to biodiversity, we need to know what is being lost, where it is
disappearing most quickly, what is causing the declines, and perhaps
most importantly, what measures must be taken to protect and restore
species and their habitats.
Eric Karsenti (EMBL) and Colomban de Vargas (Station Biologique in
Roscoff, France) presented the Tara Oceans project. This consists of a
consortium of institutions and funders that are backing a three-year-long
initiative aimed at collecting, ordering and analysing complex sets of
biological samples from all the world’s oceans. Tara Oceans responds
to the fact that genetic diversity, biogeography, and the ecology of
microscopic forms of life in the oceans remain poorly described and
understood. It represents a groundbreaking multidisciplinary approach
to the study of plankton ecosystems around the world. Karsenti outlined
how this interdisciplinary expedition was organised, how it achieved its
global sampling of plankton organisms in various locations, while de
Vargas demonstrated how the sampling effort of the rotating scientific
teams on board Tara were focused on unveiling in particular protistan
genomic diversities. He explained how high-throughput sequencing is
now being complemented by automatic fluorescence microscopy to
further explore the functional frontiers of protistan biodiversity.
Ample time was set aside at the end of both conference days for an open
panel discussion with participation from the public. As with previous
conferences in the EMBL/EMBO Science & Society series, this was in
many ways a highlight of the event.
One striking aspect of the discussions at this conference, though, was
the apparent consensus, if not relative passivity, among the attendees on
most issues. What could be the reason(s) for this unexpected convergence
of views and absence of disagreement? As the main organiser of this
meeting I would like to suggest two tentative explanations:
First, when called on to contemplate global issues such as ‘human rights’,
‘arms control’, ‘global warming’, etc., while most members of our societies
may feel genuine concern, they also tend to feel disempowered before
the vastness of the associated violations and problems. Hence, many are
inclined to think that it be best left up to the experts and their international
organisations to deal with such issues. Fundamentally, the public may
perceive ‘biodiversity’ as belonging to those intractable problem areas.
As for the second, more serious, possible explanation, people in general,
and our audience in particular, may also feel disillusioned about the
prospects for ‘saving the planet’. Scientists are continuing to study the
Halldór Stefánsson
Programme Manager
Science and Society Programme
European Molecular Biology Laboratory
Extinction looms for
rare frog species
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