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Saving Lives, Livelihoods, and Life

By Harold E. Varmus, Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute; and Robert D. Hormats, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment For many people, the term biodiversity might seem highly technical and irrelevant to their day to day concerns. If you think that, think again. It may just save your life....

By Harold E. Varmus, Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute; and Robert D. Hormats, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment

For many people, the term biodiversity might seem highly technical and irrelevant to their day to day concerns. If you think that, think again. It may just save your life.

Biological diversity—or biodiversity—simply refers to the variety of plants, animals, and other living things on Earth. The Earth’s biodiversity has an immense impact on our daily lives and cannot be taken for granted. Today, Earth Day, is a chance to reflect on the value of our planet’s biodiversity and to take action to ensure that it is protected.

Tragically—and to the detriment of all of us—Earth’s biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate. This is due to factors such as deforestation, environmental degradation, and habitat destruction from agriculture, settlement, and other uses; pollution; climate change; and chronic over-exploitation or poaching of fish and wildlife species. Scientists estimate that the planet is losing species at a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times above the rate of species extinction that would occur normally without human activity. Particularly disheartening is the fact that, in many cases, we are losing species before we even know of them or know how they fit into our shared planet.

A green crested lizard in Borneo is one example of the planet’s staggering biodiversity. Photo: Lee Ellams, My Shot

The benefits of biodiversity are immeasurable. Biodiversity is the foundation of agriculture, forests, and fisheries. Plants and animals support tourism and trade. Biodiversity in ecosystems plays a critical role in the global carbon cycle and contributes to nutrient and water cycling. The loss of life on Earth—from microscopic bacteria to migratory birds—threatens the proper function of our planet. Moreover, biodiversity loss deprives humanity of scientific insights into the origins and evolution of life, as well as future beneficial discoveries in medicine, agriculture, and other fields.

There are numerous examples of  advances stemming from bio-inspiration: The piranha bite-proof scales of the arapaima fish are being studied by scientists and engineers to develop new types of body armor that are strong yet flexible. Lessons learned from biological antifreeze proteins found in the blood of Arctic fish are being used to enhance cyro-preservation techniques for human organ transplants, improve the nutrition and taste of frozen foods,  and increase the temperature tolerance of agricultural crops.

Drawing inspiration from nature is not new. The Wright Brothers’ glider and airplane designs were based, in part, upon their observations of pigeons in flight. Wilbur Wright noticed that pigeons bent the tips of their wings to maintain proper balance and equilibrium in flight. This led to the breakthrough concept of wing-warping, which the Wright Brothers successfully used to control turning in their flier.

Protecting our planet’s biodiversity is especially important to every one of us because it can help make the difference between life and death for ourselves and countless future generations. Medical history is ripe with examples of chemicals and pharmaceutical products derived from naturally occurring plants or bacteria that prevent or treat serious diseases. Among these are digitalis (found in foxglove and used to treat heart failure for at least three centuries); the many antibiotics found in soil bacteria; artemisinins (first used in China in the third century as an extract of sweet wormwood and now part of the standard treatment for malaria world-wide); taxol (from yew trees) and colchicine (from autumn crocus) used for treatment of many cancers and gout; and even aspirin (from willow bark) used to treat a wide variety of inflammatory disorders, allay pain, and prevent inappropriate clotting and certain cancers.

Biodiversity loss runs the real risk of depriving us of the plants, animals, and microorganisms that could unlock cures for some of mankind’s most devastating ailments. Therefore—whether we suffer from a headache or heart disease—we all benefit from biodiversity and we all have a strong interest in fighting against the many policies and practices that threaten the variety of life on Earth.

Once a species is gone, it is gone forever. Maintaining the Earth’s biodiversity—the broad and rich variety of life on our planet that is the product of billions of years of evolution—by preserving our forests, jungles, deserts, oceans, estuaries, and other habitats is critical to supporting the development of life-saving medicines and other bio-inspired innovations, as well as to ensuring the continued viability of our planet. Alternatively, the continued loss of biodiversity will seriously and adversely affect—in countless ways—all species, including Homo sapiens. If that fact fails to encourage all of us to make greater efforts to protect biodiversity, it is hard to know what will.

Harold Varmus, M.D., co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, is the Director of the National Cancer Institute. He previously served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and as Director of the National Institutes of Health. 

Robert Hormats, Ph.D., is the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment at the U.S. Department of State. He previously served as Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs (International), Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, and Ambassador and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn