The more we learn about the Earth’s ecosystems, the more we discover how elegantly, beautifully and mind-numbingly complex are the interactions among humans, animals, plants and their environment. Life, it turns out, really does come with myriad butterfly effects.
That’s what makes a project just getting under way in the South Pacific so ambitious and fascinating: A U.S.-French research team led by biologists from the University of California, Berkeley, is setting out to take a genetic inventory of an entire island’s ecosystem — every form of life that’s larger than a microbe.
“This is the first effort to catalog and barcode an entire tropical ecosystem, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountains,” said George Roderick, UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management, and one of the project’s principal investigators. “We’re constructing a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island, then making that database publicly available as a resource for ecologists and evolutionary biologists around the world.”
The island in question is Moorea, a 51-square-mile island that includes coral reefs, tropical forests and mountains. Researchers believe the island is small enough for them to realistically genetically catalog and bar-code while complex enough that their model will eventually apply to larger ecosystems around the world.
Moorea is home to at least 5,000 different species of animals, plants and fungi, although Chris Meyer, a research zoologist at the Smithsonian Institute, said, “I’d be disappointed if we don’t hit at least 10,000 species.”
Project investigators say they believe the three-year project, funded by a $5.2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, could eventually shed light on the larger environmental issues we’re facing worldwide. An in-depth inventory of Moorea’s coral reefs could provide more information on the impacts of climate change, they say, while data on invasive species could offer insights into the effects of globalization. The Moorea catalog of life could also help locals better understand their own impacts on the environment from overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and other activities.
“Virtually all the ecosystems in the world are under these same stresses, and how they are responding to them is what we need to understand,” Neil Davies, the project’s lead principal investigator and executive director of the Gump Station, one of the National Science Foundation’ long-term ecological research sites. “Like the Human Genome Project, however, this unprecedented accomplishment is, in some ways, merely a necessary first step. Its goal is to accelerate progress on the larger questions: how to maintain a healthy ecosystem and what to do when things go wrong.”
What knowledge might we eventually gain from the Moorea project? I’m guessing the more the research team learns, the more we’ll discover how much there is we still don’t know about how our complex planet operates.