‘Biodiversity is the very meaning of life on Earth’

Professor Kyriacos C. Nicolaou, one of three speakers at a scientific workshop on biodiversity to be held today at the Goulandris Natural History Museum’s GAIA Center in Athens, talks here about his concern about the reduction in the world’s natural resources and the importance of preserving biodiversity, the variation of life forms and their ecosystems, at all levels. The workshop, titled Biodiversity: Use of Nature’s Medicine Chest for Human Benefit, will focus on the use of natural resources as sources of food and therapeutic products, as well as the alarming reduction in biodiversity due to human interference. An event such as this has long been one of the goals of Niki Goulandri, founder of the center, and her associate Antonis Tsarbopoulos, director of GAIA’s Bioanalytical Department. Now, with the assistance of Professor Constantinos Sekeris, who will chair a round-table discussion on Opportunities and Risks at the conclusion of the workshop, the goal has become a reality. Nicolaou is the chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute and a professor of chemistry at the University of California, San Diego. What is the value of biodiversity for the planet and for mankind? No specific value can be placed on biodiversity, for this is the very meaning of life on Earth. Every species is a treasure that we should try to preserve with all our means. The natural evolution of all the species on the planet over the past millions of years provided a harmony that, if disturbed, will lead to serious changes to life on Earth as we know it. In addition to providing food and shelter, nature also serves mankind by offering its medicine chest to cure disease. Hippocrates, for example, and Dioscorides after him, collected and prescribed herbal preparations for many ailments including the relief of pain and the treatment of disease. Today, nature continues to be a source of new medicines found in plants, microorganisms, and the oceans, and provides inspiration for new science and technology leading in turn to the discovery of new medicines and vitamins. Usually, we refer to biodiversity by pointing out that it is crucial for the survival of humankind and the Earth. In the past, for various reasons, species disappeared, for example, the dinosaurs, and that had no effect on the Earth, but is still a loss. The disappearance of the dinosaurs is a loss in the sense that these magnificent creatures are not with us today – we can only imagine what they were like and how they lived from the fossil evidence we are lucky to have. But there is no question that we lost a natural wonder, one that we cannot recreate today even with all our scientific developments, despite what might be conveyed through popular culture in films such as Jurassic Park. However, we must remember that nature also makes mistakes which lead to the natural extinction of certain species. After all, this is the basis of Darwinian evolution. And the loss of the dinosaurs, like other species, may have been a consequence of their own failure to survive. This natural loss of some species is part of nature’s way of ensuring balance and harmony and should not be confused with human-driven damage to biodiversity. Do we know all existing populations of animals and plants on Earth? No, we certainly do not know all the species or their populations. For example, scientists are still exploring the depths of the oceans for new species of marine organisms. In addition, many microorganisms living in the soil remain unexplored for their potential to produce leads for new medicines because they have not been found yet, or if they have, they cannot be cultured in the laboratory. The same situation is likely to be true for plants. Biodiversity is threatened. By whom and what? Basically, biodiversity is threatened by man’s overenthusiastic exploitation of nature’s resources and unwise use of harmful chemicals. Rapid depletion of the forests through logging, for example, results in the loss of habitats for certain species, which may eventually disappear forever. Pollution of the oceans, lakes and rivers may destroy many species or result in the production of biotoxins which, in turn, cause massive destruction of fish and other marine organisms. The red tide phenomenon, for example, is caused by a species of algae which is transmitted from place to place through poor shipping practices and which thrives on pollutants thrown into the oceans. Accompanied by secretions of biotoxins, these outbreaks cause massive destruction of marine life, including whales and dolphins, not to mention fish and other seafood. What are the consequences of the way we exploit natural resources? The overexploitation of natural resources is clearly causing damage to our planet, to its biodiversity and to ourselves. The forests, for example, ensure not only the survival of many species by providing them with shelter and food, but they also provide us with clean air to breathe and they protect us against global warming through the successful recycling of carbon dioxide to oxygen. The effects of overfishing and overmining are also well-known and they can cause serious damage if not controlled. It has been said that one of the most recent threats is that of genetically modified organisms and biotechnology. Is that true? What direction could this science take in order not to have any harmful effect on biodiversity? And is that possible? I am not an expert on genetically modified organisms, but anytime you interfere with Mother Nature you have to be extremely careful. Biotechnology and genetically modified organisms in the laboratory can result, in principle, in enormous benefits for mankind. Particularly profitable can be the discovery of new medicines for people and their large-scale production. However, releasing such organisms into the environment might cause certain unpredictable ecological effects. They could also be used as biological weapons against which we may not currently have any defense. On the other hand, generating them in the laboratory and coaching them in the right direction could be very productive for the discovery and development process of drugs. One way that scientists are beginning to explore this field is through collecting genes from various species and then inserting and expressing these sequences into more domesticated species, such as bacteria, to produce useful proteins and potential new medicines on a large scale. Another way to explore nature’s wealth is to isolate new molecules with important biological properties from various species of terrestrial or marine origins. With genetically modified organisms, however, scientists could potentially have access to novel compounds unavailable from the original source, molecules which might provide invaluable leads for the development of new medicines. In either scenario, chemists can then synthesize these compounds in the laboratory, thus avoiding the destruction of the original species through harvesting. In general, nature offers man not only food and shelter but also a stunning array of materials and medicines, or clues for drug discovery. Examples here include aspirin, penicillin and Taxol (TM). Despite our many discoveries, however, we have not yet even begun to scratch the surface. Nature’s chemical diversity remains, for the most part, still unknown to us and we must not lose potentially groundbreaking scientific opportunities through the loss of biodiversity. Nature, with its biodiversity, still holds many secrets and has much to teach us. This is why we have to continue to preserve it, study it, and mimic it. Mrs (Niki) Goulandri is doing a wonderful job through the GAIA Center in projecting nature’s beauty and wealth, and educating the public about the importance of preserving it. In so doing, she projects Greece to the world and she is to be highly commended for her true dedication and love for our planet and our civilization. Pan metron ariston (Moderation in all things) applies beautifully to her philosophy on nature and life. The effects on health and nutrition Professor Nicolaou is one of three guest speakers at a scientific workshop at the Goulandris Natural History Museum’s GAIA Center today, on the effects of biodiversity on health and nutrition. The other speakers are Dr Andreas M. Papas, of the Eastman Chemical Company, USA, who will speak on Natural Antioxidants in Nutrition and Health, Professor Fotis C. Kafatos, of Germany’s European Molecular Biology Laboratory, whose theme is Functional Genomics: A Revolution in Biology and its Utility for Human Welfare and Professor Philip J. Dale, of the John Innes Center, UK, who is to speak on Genetically Modified Food, Benefits and Precautions. A round-table discussion is to follow, coordinated by Professor Constantinos Sekeris. The workshop is jointly sponsored by Elais AE, Piraeus Bank and Friesland Hellas. The communication sponsors are Kathimerini and the International Herald Tribune.