UC Davis scientists recently received funding to conduct the first comprehensive study of an Indonesian biodiversity “hot spot.”
The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, a program led by the National Institutes of Health, has granted a group of UC Davis researchers $4 million to conduct study on biodiversity in the tropical forests of southeastern Sulawesi, an Indonesian island.
The study, over a span of five years, will take an inventory of the island’s biodiversity at a macro and micro level. The research will survey plants, invertebrate animals – including insects – vertebrate animals and selected microbes, including fungi, yeasts and bacteria.
One of the study’s main goals is applying the findings to energy and human health issues, such as cancer, addictions and immune disorders – including HIV/AIDS. Additionally, a better knowledge of the area is necessary for conservation and biological resource planning and policy for the country.
“We feel that biodiversity all over the world is disappearing at a very rapid rate,” said Flora Katz, ICBG program officer. “Countries that have the most biodiversity are also often very poor countries. The program was developed to essentially help countries value their biodiversity, to explore, to produce benefits for their own country.“
Indonesia and Brazil are two of the largest countries in terms of biodiversity, but lag behind in conservation practices, said co-investigator Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The study’s principal investigator is Daniel Potter, director of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity, who is currently working in the field and could not be reached for comment.
The six program areas under investigation include macro-organism surveys, microbial surveys, discovery of energy solutions, discovery of human health solutions, conservation research and vertebrate surveys and conservation partnerships, training and ethics.
The scope of the study will allow specialists from several different fields to work together to make correlations between their findings.
“What is beautiful about the project is all programs interact with each other and will work with people from different areas of expertise to look at interactions between plants, organisms, how organisms interact and how ecology interacts,” said Kyria Boundy-Mills, curator of the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection in the UC Davis department of food science and technology.
Boundy-Mills is director of the study’s energy solutions program – a role that coordinates microbial surveys, isolate yeasts, bacteria and mold in the Indonesian forest as well as looks for enzymes that can convert cellulose to biofuel.
“This project is something that none of us will be able to do on our own and requires different areas of expertise,” she said.
Sulawesi is part of Wallacea, the group of islands between Borneo and New Guinea. Sulawesi contains some of the most intact mid to high elevation rainforests remaining in Wallacea, said Andy Engilis Jr., curator at the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at UC Davis. Engilis leads the study’s conservation research and vertebrate survey program.
“Wallacea is one of our planet’s biodiversity ‘hot spots,‘” Engilis said in an e-mail interview. “Sulawesi supports the highest level of vertebrate endemism and supports one of the most fascinating and unique fauna found in Indonesia.“
The conservation of forests in Sulawesi is of urgent importance as Sulawesi supports the highest number of geographically unique mammals found nowhere else in Asia.
“Understanding speciation, biodiversity patterns and developing easily repeatable methods to help with conservation of these unique resources remains my primary goal,” Engilis said. “This will be the first comprehensive vertebrate survey on the islands in almost a century.“
While all nations retain sovereignty of their biodiversity, the study’s leaders aim to ensure mutual benefit. Should a discovery be made that becomes commercialized – either drug or chemical – careful agreements between the countries must be followed, Katz said.
“If you know what you have and where it is you can develop conservation plans,” Katz said. “Very importantly, when international partnerships come together for one country you have to be very careful about how to access biodiversity and how to use it.”
With more than 50 people involved in this international project, there needs to be a mechanism by which all different agents are required to be respectful of the area’s indigenous people, said Jeanine Pfeiffer, with the Earthwatch Institute.
Pfeiffer’s is responsible for assembling codes of ethics from scientific societies all over the world, so that both the biological side and the human side of ethics are being addressed in this five-year project.
“Nationals from other countries who want to perform research or make collections … need to be working in very close and legal partnership with their national counterparts where that biodiversity occurs,” Pfeiffer said.
POOJA KUMAR can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.