Biodiversity loss - it will make you sick

Posted: 1 May 2008

A new generation of antibiotics, new treatments for thinning bone disease and kidney failure, and new cancer treatments may all stand to be lost unless the world acts to reverse the present alarming rate of biodiversity loss a new landmark book says.

'Sustaining Life' book jacket
'Sustaining Life' book jacket
The natural world holds secrets to the development of new kinds of safer and more powerful pain-killers; treatments for a leading cause of blindness - macular degeneration - and possibly ways of re-growing lost tissues and organs by, for example, studying newts and salamanders.

But the experts warn that we may lose many of the land and marine-based life forms of economic and medical interest before we can learn their secrets, or, in some cases, before we know they exist.

The new book, Sustaining Life, is the most comprehensive treatment of this subject to date and fills a major gap in the arguments made to conserve nature.

Promising treatment for peptic ulcers lost

A particularly illustrative example, highlighted by the book's authors, of what may be lost with species extinctions can be found in the southern gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus) which was discovered in undisturbed rainforests of Australia in the 1980s.

Brooding frog giving birth
Brooding frog giving birth
Southern Gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus) giving birth. The frog is now extinct.
The frogs raise their young in the female's stomach where they would, in other animals, be digested by enzymes and acid. Preliminary studies indicated that the baby frogs produced a substance, or perhaps a variety of substances, that inhibited acid and enzyme secretions and prevented the mother from emptying her stomach into her intestines while the young were developing.

The authors point out that the research on gastric brooding frogs could have led to new insights into preventing and treating human peptic ulcers which affect some 25 million people in the United States alone.

"But these studies could not be continued because both species of Rheobactrachus became extinct, and the valuable medical secrets they held are now gone forever," say Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, the key authors of the book based at the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School.

Asiatic black bear
Asiatic black bear
Asiatic black bear. Photo: IUCN/ Dave Garshelis
At the heart of the book is a chapter dedicated to exploring seven threatened groups of organisms valuable to medicine, including amphibians, bears, cone snails, sharks, non-human primates, gymnosperms, and horseshoe crabs that underscore what may be lost to human health when species go extinct.

These losses include: promising new avenues of medical research and new treatments, pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tests.

Experts, including the authors, emphasize that the book's conclusions should not be construed as a licence to harvest wildlife in a way that puts further pressure on already threatened, vulnerable and endangered species.

Instead they should be a spur for even greater conservation and improved management of species and the ecosystems they inhabit.

Jeffrey McNeely, IUCN's Chief Scientist and a co-author of the book, says: "While extinction is alarming in its own right, this book demonstrates that many species can help save human lives. If we needed more justification for action to conserve species, this book offers dozens of dramatic examples of both why and how citizens can act in ways that will conserve, rather than destroy, the species that enrich our lives."

Marine snail
Marine snail
Marine snail. Photo: IUCN/José Antonio Moya
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, says: "Habitat loss, destruction and degradation of ecosystems, pollution, over-exploitation and climate change are among the powerful and persistent impacts that are running down the planet's nature-based capital, including the medical treasure trove of the world's biodiversity.

"The CBD has achieved a great deal but it needs to achieve much more if it is to meet the international community's goals and objectives. We need a breakthrough in Bonn on all three pillars of the convention - conservation, sustainable use, and access and benefit sharing of genetic resources," he said.

The findings come in the run up to the 9th meeting of the parties to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)-linked Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) taking place in Bonn, Germany later in May.

Here delegates from close to 190 countries; business leaders, academia and members of civil society will look to accelerate action to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.