cesses is still in its infancy, despite the evident importance of these small and ubiquitous organisms in many of the key biogeochemical processes that are important for sustaining life. Modern technology (primarily in genomics) is making possible the study of previously inaccessible aspects of microbial diversity and microbial systems for the first time. It is also highlighting the limitations of past understanding, based as it was on only the very small fraction of microbes that had been cultured and studied.
Numerous speakers addressed the implications of these scientific developments. Paul Falkowski explained recent developments in the study of marine microbial diversity that show how their biochemical and physiological diversity underpins the functioning of the entire biosphere. Michael Donoghue demonstrated that microorganisms may provide the basis for transformational technological innovations, offering examples of microbial fungi that show promise as new antibiotics and even alternative energy sources. Rodney Brown and Philip Robertson cited research in microbial systems directed toward improvements in agriculture that may be necessary to feed burgeoning human populations while also limiting environmental impacts. Dr. Donoghue argued strongly for policies to support the discovery of biodiversity as central to the development of new technologies.
For macroscopic plants and animals, some of the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems remain among the least well inventoried. The tropical forest ecosystems of the Amazon described by Yadvinder Malhi and the cloud forests discussed by Christian Körner are both especially vulnerable to climate and other changes, but their biodiversity is especially poorly known.
Some speakers noted that aquatic biodiversity is also inadequately understood. Mary Glackin showed that most knowledge about the world’s oceans is based on information gathered in the upper 100 meters of the water column, though the mean depth of the ocean is 4,000 meters. She emphasized the need for active exploration to better characterize ocean biodiversity, noting that the number of known marine fish species has increased to nearly 28,000, more than a threefold growth from the 8,000 identified in Darwin’s time. In the same 200 years, Boris Worm estimated a 7 percent rate of extinction and 36 percent rate of species collapse for coastal species, principally as a result of overfishing.1 Both also warned that changes in global climate, together with associated increases in ocean acidification and decreases in sea ice, may pose threats to the abundance and diversity of sea life.
1 Worm, B. et al. 2006. Science 314:787-790.