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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Understanding Species Diversity on Earth: Unifying Field, Museum and Laboratory Scientists in Global Biodiversity Study"
Joint DGF-NSF Workshop on Biodiversity Science

November 6, 2005

Guten abend. Good evening to all. On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I am pleased to welcome you to the second joint DGF-NSF workshop.

Thank you, Dr. Winnacker and Dr. Koch-Krumrei for your leadership in encouraging and supporting this exchange among German and American scientists. And thanks also to all the organizers and participants here today.

I am delighted that the DGF and the Foundation are working together to advance the frontiers of knowledge on many fronts. As partners, we have supported significant cooperative research on the Arabidopsis genome. We have worked together to foster the Materials World Network. We will soon conduct the first joint review of proposals for German-U.S. collaboration in chemical research.

These partnerships -- and many others -- open windows of opportunity for our research communities to explore frontiers that can be reached faster and take us further than each could accomplish alone. They also provide opportunities for students from both countries to participate in international teams, an ever more important part of a student’s training in this era of globalization.

Understanding biodiversity presents a challenge that is truly global in scale, and requires international collaboration of the highest order. In the U.S., the Foundation is the principal funder of fundamental research in biodiversity sciences -- encompassing studies at scales from the molecular, to the ecosystem, to the biosphere. We welcome this opportunity to broaden cooperation in these areas.

Twenty years ago, the distinguished Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, lamented the state of biodiversity science. "No one knows the diversity in the world, not even to the nearest order of magnitude," he said. "We don't know for sure how many species there are, where they can be found or how fast they’re disappearing. It's like having astronomy without knowing where the stars are."1

Today, astronomers can view previously unknown planetary systems and map dark matter in the universe. They even hope to observe gravity waves in the not too distant future.

Biodiversity science has experienced a similar explosion. In the two decades following Edward Wilson's comment, new concepts and tools have transformed every avenue of biodiversity research. Much of this revolution has occurred at the fertile interface among disciplines.

Let me relate a cautionary story. A computer scientist and a biologist were about to be executed. They were granted one final request before the fatal act. When asked what she would like, the computer scientist said, "I have been working on a paper that links computer science and biology. I want to deliver that paper before I die." The biologist, when asked, replied, "Just shoot me before I have to listen to that lecture."

I am sure none of us in this room has a similar view of working across disciplines! Humor aside, we must take even bolder steps across the borders among disciplines, and embrace new tools to expand our vision of biodiversity and life on earth. Here is just one example.

Advances in molecular biology and our new genomics toolkit have given us a window on the vast diversity and abundance of microorganisms. We now know that the biosphere spans regions once considered inhospitable to life -- deep within the earth’s crust, in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, and in the icy waters of Antarctica.

The results are literally revolutionizing our picture of life on earth, from planetary to the nano-scale -- from the basic concept of species to the origin of life and the evolutionary processes that are the source of biological complexity and diversity.

This new view of the world has spawned pathbreaking concepts. A new approach --called meta-genomics -- envelops the community itself as the unit of study. Large genomic fractions recovered directly from complex marine or soil microbial communities provide a comprehensive picture of the gene functions distributed among its individual members. All the genes necessary to perform the diverse biogeochemical reactions that make up ecological community function should be represented.

These discoveries, key to biodiversity science, also depended critically on our new information and communications technologies. They provide the means to store, analyze and visualize burgeoning species databases, and to share these worldwide. Modeling and simulation equip us to deal with extraordinary complexity -- from genomic to ecosystems -- and provide the potential to construct the entire tree of life and chart the vast biogeochemical cycles that sustain life on the planet.

NSF has initiated a number of large-scale biodiversity science projects. The Planetary Biodiversity Inventories (PBI) program supports worldwide, species-level systematic inventories of major groups of organisms. Another effort, Assembling the Tree of Life (ATOL), provides support for multidisciplinary teams to conduct innovative research that will resolve phylogenetic relationships for large groups of organisms. NSF is also supporting a national resource for phyloinformatics and computational phylogenetics at UC-Berkeley. This test bed will develop the computational tools needed to construct the tree of life.

Finally, HerpNET is a collaborative effort among institutions in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to establish a network among databases of herpetological collections in natural history museums. Federated databases like HerpNET provide an alternative to more expensive, centralized ones, and contribute to the development and acceptance of community standards. Similar networks -- ORNIS, for birds, and MaNIS for mammals, are also being developed.

Each of these programs is interdisciplinary, and relies upon cutting-edge methods and technologies. And each is ripe for broader international collaboration. Progress in biodiversity science is essential -- not only to advance the state of our knowledge -- but also for human well being.

As we seek to expand our knowledge and exploit its potential, we understand that we must do so in ways that are sustainable and equitable. Biodiversity science is fundamental to improving the human condition. I have no doubt that your efforts during this workshop, and in the years ahead, will help us do so.

And finally, to end on a lighter note, I return to my comparison of astronomy and biodiversity science. Let me remind you of the quip that reads, "Preserve the earth. It's the only planet in the solar system that has chocolate."

Thank you.

1 Edward O. Wilson, quoted in Time, "The Quiet Apocalypse," Jamie Murphy, 13 October 1986.
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