In this episode, we discuss the importance of biodiversity and conservation efforts aimed at its protection. Also, learn about Ocean Genome Legacy Center (OGL) and their dedication to exploring and preserving biodiversity in the ocean.
Deana Martin: Welcome to NEB TV. Today we're talking about preserving biodiversity, a topic that is very important to scientists here at NEB.
Deana Martin: First, we will hear from chief scientific officer and Nobel laureate, Sir Richard Roberts. He will talk about the importance of preserving biodiversity. Then we will take a trip to Nahant, Massachusetts, where we will visit the Ocean Genome Legacy Center and speak with Dan Distel about the work they're doing to preserve biodiversity in the ocean.
Richard Roberts: Biodiversity is a term that's used to describe a wide variety of biology that you see in any environment that you look at. For instance, we often think about it in terms of rainforests where you see in relatively small pieces of land enormous diversity in the trees that grow there, in the animals that are there, the birds that are there, and so on. In the seas, coral reefs are a good example of a very diverse environment. In fact, if you go even down to the very depths of the sea, down onto the sea bottom, there's a lot of diversity there in terms of the life that is present.
Richard Roberts: Well, I think the key thing as far as I'm concerned anyway, is that all of these plants and animals and bacteria and everything that you find in a given environment has a wealth of genetic information there that has tremendous variation in the DNA of these organisms, and you just never know when a new organism that is present or an old organism that's been present for a long time, suddenly you will discover that it has some interesting genes in it maybe that can be useful for making therapeutics, may be useful for industrial purposes of one sort and another. We just never know.
Richard Roberts: So until we have had a good chance to look at the extent of the diversity, and especially to sequence the diversity that is out there, we're not going to know. Unfortunately what is happening is that the diversity is disappearing at an enormous rate. Species are disappearing. We're polluting everything that we find, including the atmosphere, which is causing global warming. We're polluting the seas which are now filling up with plastic that we throw out. The land fields around the Earth are filling up with debris, and they're causing a lot of problems and they cause species to die out.
Richard Roberts: Right, so among the biodiversity that we know about, the rainforests certainly in the Amazon are under constant threat because farmers are out there taking down the trees, they are trying to use the land to grow crops, usually to not very good extent because the land itself is usually not very good for growing crops. But nevertheless, people, farmers are going to down there, they're destroying the Amazon rainforest, and so the natural diversity down there which is about as extreme as anywhere you go on this planet that we know about is just disappearing rapidly.
Richard Roberts: The same is happening in Borneo, in the rainforest in Borneo where we have the Malaysians and the Indonesians who are busy cutting down the trees there in order to grow crops that they want to grow, palm oil being the principal example of what's going on over there, and in the process they're destroying the habitat of animals like orangutans. I don't know if you've ever seen an orangutan in person so to speak, but they're the most adorable animals you could wish for, and the last thing we should be doing is reducing their ability to live by taking down the habitat in which they hang out all day.
Richard Roberts: Well, I think the first thing that an individual can do is to become aware of it. I think education is very important, so that people are aware that there is this biodiversity all around us. They should be aware of how useful it is, and once they become aware of it and realize that it is actually very valuable, then this is the time when they can start to take action.
Richard Roberts: One of the actions they can take is to become politically active, to make sure they vote for politicians who support the preservation of biodiversity, and also to donate to NGOs, non-governmental organizations that are trying to protect the biodiversity.
Richard Roberts: But I think it is important to make sure that in doing so you don't just think about biodiversity as being the be all and end all of everything. People have to live too. So what you want to do is find a nice balance between making sure that we have the land and the crops available that people need in order to eat, but that at the same time we maintain the biodiversity as best we're able.
Richard Roberts: One of the nice things these days is that because of improved agricultural practices, both agronomy and the GMO movement, we can grow more food on less land than we used to, and so now we can use the excess land and use it to preserve biodiversity.
Dan Distel: As you know the oceans are facing a variety of threats due to human activity, and as a result we're losing species from the oceans at rates we've never seen before. As we lose those species, we're not only losing these incredible animals, but we're also losing the information in their genomes. That information is extremely valuable. It can be used for medicine, for biotechnology. So to try to prevent the loss of that information we've created the Ocean Genome Legacy Collection. Basically it's a bank or a library of DNA samples and tissue samples from a whole variety of different marine organisms collected all around the world. And what's most important about that collection is that we make that collection available to the scientific community to support research that can help us protect the oceans.
Dan Distel: It's extremely important to study the biological diversity of the oceans because it really represents the lion share of diversity on our planet. For example, scientists divide the animal world up into 31 major categories. We call them phyla. It turns out that of the 31 phyla, 30 have representatives that are found in the ocean. So there's only one phylum that has no marine representatives. For that reason we really have to look at the ocean if we want to understand the deep biological diversity of life on our planet.
Dan Distel: Actually the Ocean Genome Legacy was sort of the brain child of Don Comb, founder of New England Biolabs. Back in the year 2000 Don read an article, an opinion piece that appeared in Science and it asked the question: Why aren't we saving DNA from the world's threatened and endangered species? He realized that it wouldn't take any new technology, that we had everything we needed to do that. It just took someone to take the initiative. Don realized that he could do something about it, so he founded the original board of the Ocean Genome Legacy.
Dan Distel: From there we spent about 10 years at New England Biolabs figuring out how to create the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, what we should do and what we should become. At some point we recognized that it would be a great advantage for us to be associated with a major research university like Northeastern University and also a marine science center that is located right on the coast. So we made the move here to Northeastern University.
Dan Distel: Typically, we receive samples from scientists all around the world. These can be tissue samples or DNA samples or sometimes even whole organisms. When we get them, we have to document the correct species names for them. We take photographs. We do a variety of things to clean them up before we actually prepare them for long-term storage. Long-term storage usually means storage at very cold temperatures. This can be they're minus 80 degrees in a mechanical freezer, or up to minus 180 degrees in liquid nitrogen storage. At these temperatures we can store DNA samples essentially for ever.
Dan Distel: Once they're in our freezers, then we can remove them, extract DNA, do a variety of quality control steps on those DNAs and then we make them available to the scientific community, and we do this through an online catalog. Scientists can then look at our online catalog and request samples and then we can simply send them to them.
Dan Distel: Scientists are also using our materials to help prevent seafood mislabeling, which not only harms consumers but also can make it difficult to manage fisheries. Scientists are also using our samples to study new drug candidates, for example, anticancer agents and antimicrobials that can be used to fight infectious disease. We even have colleagues who are using our samples to look at animal diseases. For example, we have scientists looking at sea star wasting disease, a disease that's devastating sea stars all along the Pacific Coast in the United States.
Dan Distel: All of these various uses can help us to better understand our marine environment and how we can take advantage of the diversity in marine environments to improve the human condition.
Dan Distel: There's a variety of ways that people can help to support Ocean Genome Legacy. Scientists can go to our website. They can see the samples that we have available there and they can request them from us. They can also contact us if they have materials that they'd like to deposit into the collection. We welcome materials from all marine environments and all species. The general public can also help by going to our website and looking at the options there to support Ocean Genome Legacy.
Deana Martin: So thanks so much for joining us today. If you're interested in learning more about this topic, we'll be covering it in more detail in the upcoming NEB Catalog which will be released in spring of 2019. As always, if you have any suggestions for future episodes, please let us know.