Sustaining life on Earth

In the midst of what scientists consider to be a sixth mass extinction event, Washington University is joining forces with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo to collaborate on ­ life-saving research and conservation efforts.

Jonathan Losos feature image
Washington University has formed the Living Earth ­Collaborative to serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research among the world’s ­leading scholars in the field of biodiversity as well as scholars in a wide range of fields working toward conservation efforts. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

Renowned ­evolutionary ­biologist Jonathan Losos has returned to ­Washington ­University to lead a new academic center — the Living Earth Collaborative — to advance the study of ­biodiversity. The Living Earth ­Collaborative will team ­investigators from Washington University, the Missouri ­Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo, as well as other local and regional organizations, to study the great diversity of plants and ­animals with which we share this world, and to help ­conserve them before they become extinct.

According to the 2016 Living Planet Report, published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, global ­populations of fish, birds, mammals, ­amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 percent ­between 1970 and 2012. And the planet could ­witness a ­two-thirds decline from 1970 to 2020.

This view was confirmed by scientists in the July 25, 2017, issue of the Proceedings of the ­National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. In the paper’s abstract, the authors state: ­“Dwindling population sizes and range shrinkages amount to a massive ­anthropogenic erosion of ­biodiversity and of the ecosystem services ­essential to civilization. This ­‘biological ­annihilation’ ­underlines the ­seriousness for ­humanity of Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event.”

Against this dire backdrop, the Living Earth ­Collaborative will serve as a hub to facilitate ­interdisciplinary research among the world’s ­leading scholars in the field of biodiversity and other scholars across a wide range of fields. Their collective work promises to help garner understanding about the processes that create and maintain species’ ­diversity. Ultimately, the center’s aim is to help ­create a sustainable future on Earth for people, plants and wildlife.

On the eve of his return to the university, Losos, the ­inaugural William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor, sat down with the editor of Washington magazine to discuss his new role and his hopes for the ­Living Earth Collaborative.

Jonathan Losos
Recruited back from Harvard University, Jonathan Losos is serving as director of the Living Earth Collaborative, a new academic center leveraging the research expertise of Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Q: You taught at Washington University for 14 years before being recruited by Harvard University in 2006. Why return to WashU now?
JL: Washington University is a great place, and I had a wonderful experience when I was a faculty member in the biology department from 1992 to 2006. Both the institution and the people are first-rate, so it was with some hesitation that I left. Now, with the creation of the Living Earth Collaborative, I have a remarkable opportunity to work closely with colleagues at the university and other important St. Louis institutions.

Q: You’re just getting started, but could you speak to the collaborative’s goals, mission?
JL: The mission of the center is to become a world leader in the research and ­conservation of ­biological diversity. Efforts will span the ­spectrum from basic to applied work: ­understanding the ­basics of how species live in their own ­environments, how they evolve, how ecosystems are structured; identifying threats to these species and ecosystems; and figuring out what we can do to help protect them.

“The mission of the center is to become a world leader in the research and ­conservation of ­biological diversity.”

— Jonathan Losos

What is particularly exciting is that St. Louis already has an extraordinary number of ­individuals and institutions concerned with biological ­diversity, both in research and conservation. Of course, these include the three partner institutions in the Living Earth Collaborative: Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo. But there are other important institutions with strong programs, including the University of Missouri–St. Louis and its ­Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center; Saint Louis ­University; the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; the Endangered Wolf Center; and governmental and ­nongovernmental organizations, such as the ­Missouri ­Department of Conservation and the ­Missouri chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

Our goal is to build connections and ­collaborations and synergies with all these ­institutions to make St. Louis a great center for biodiversity study and understanding.

Q: Could you also speak to your first plans?
JL: One model guiding my plans is that “if you get people in the same room, good things will happen.” People in different departments, schools and, especially, institutions often don’t know each other. Yet we’re fortunate because these institutions are geographically close. Initially, we’re planning to get people together, introduce them, identify their shared interests and start ­building on that.

Q: Do you see your role ultimately as a facilitator?
JL: At the start, I’ll be introducing people and organizing events — discussion groups, workshops, symposia — to build bridges. I’ll try to facilitate that directly when I see opportunities, but it’s my hope that synergy will come from the ­bottom up as people make connections themselves and learn that the Living Earth Collaborative is here to support them.

Once on the verge of extinction, American alligators have rebounded in the Southeastern United States. (Courtesy National Park Service)
Once on the verge of extinction, American alligators have rebounded in the Southeastern United States. (Courtesy National Park Service)

Q: Is the challenge of species loss too daunting? Is it too late to reverse some of the damage?
JL: It’s easy to get depressed about the state of the world right now. There are lots of problems that need to be fixed. But you can’t be overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem. It’s not too late. In fact, some good things have happened lately, so it’s not all gloom and doom. To cite an example near and dear to my heart, American ­alligators were threatened with extinction 40 years ago, and now they’re plentiful. The same is true for bald eagles. We have to learn from what’s working and what’s not working, and then figure out where the opportunities are to make a difference.

Our collaborative — with great scientists at all three institutions and others in the St. Louis area working together — can move us forward in two ways: One way is to work both locally and around the world to figure out what species are endangered; the second is to use that knowledge to ­determine what needs to be done to protect and conserve them.

In this context, the opportunity exists to consider more than just the scientific research and to build collaborations with social scientists, ­architects, ethicists and more — all among the many areas in which WashU excels.

Q: Are there any particular species that you’ll focus on first?
JL: We’re not that far yet. This is not the sort of center where I come in as director and say, “Here are the four things that we’re going to do.” Again, I see myself as building bridges and facilitating interaction. And based on the ­expertise we coalesce in our interactions, we’ll find the best targets for our work.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges, threats to biodiversity?
JL: There are lots of threats, and this is one of the problems we face. If there were just a single threat, we could focus on it and figure out what to do about it. But, unfortunately, we humans have messed up the world in a lot of different ways. We’re cutting down the habitat; we’re ­polluting the air and the water; we’re ­overexploiting ­species for food or other products; and, of course, we’re changing the climate. And then there are ­particular problems facing particular species, and some of them are quite specific.

Obviously, there is no one silver bullet and no one thing we can study to try to solve all the problems. No one institution or collaborative can take on everything at once either. We’re going to have to figure out — given the expertise that we have — the best approach for us. And, again, I can’t tell you what that is right now; a lot will depend on what we find to be our strengths and the areas where we are particularly suited to make an impact. So that’s what I’m working on now: figuring out where our efforts will be best spent.

Q: One of the biggest threats to sustainable life on Earth is climate change, but the topic, at least in our country, is so politically fraught. How do you plan to approach the topic and study its impact on loss of habitat and loss of species?
JL: Climate change is a huge problem, of course. But until recently it wasn’t emphasized when considering species at risk. The other factors we discussed — habitat loss, overexploitation and so on — were the problems researchers focused on. Now, we realize that climate change has such pervasive consequences that it no doubt will be a major factor impacting species and their loss. Therefore, we will certainly look at that, but ­probably as one of many interrelated issues.

Before continuing, I should point out that Washington University already has a group ­studying climate change and doing a lot of great work. I’m referring to the ­International Center for Energy, Environment and ­Sustainability ­(InCEES). In many respects, I’ve been looking at how­ InCEES is structured as a guide to help me structure the Living Earth ­Collaborative. And, of course, opportunities exist to interact with that group. By bringing in more expertise on biodiversity issues, I see us working with them to figure out — from both the scientific side and the social and political side — what the issues are and what some of the solutions might be.

Further, Washington University has a strong environmental studies program in Arts & Sciences; it’s an interdisciplinary, non-­departmentally based major. And they’re doing all kinds of ­wonderful things that mesh very well with the goals of the collaborative in terms of improving undergraduate training and of bringing people ­together — faculty and others involved in ­environmental studies — to think about how we could develop new programs in research, conservation and so on related to the environment. So I’m looking forward to joining forces with them as well.

Q: In your opinion, how much time do we have to turn the tide?
JL: It seems unlikely that we will destroy all life forms on Earth; something will be left. ­However, we have started a mass extinction event. The actual number of species that has gone extinct is ­probably fairly small so far, but it’s ­accelerating rapidly. Moreover, we’re getting to the point where some species are beyond hope. Many scientists think that saving the polar bear may be impossible, for example. So we’re already late to the game.

“The longer we wait to get serious about solving these problems, the more species we will lose.”

— Jonathan Losos

The impacts are happening, and the extinctions are occurring or can’t be reversed. The longer we wait to get serious about solving these problems, the more species we will lose.
From a geological time frame, life survives mass extinctions. There have been five already, and after a while, life has recovered. The problem is the time frame to recovery is 5 million to 10 million years. Therefore, the longer we wait to address overexploitation, habitat loss, etc., the more devastation there will be and the longer it will take for our descendants to be able to enjoy a world in which the impacts of this mass extinction event are no longer apparent.

So, I don’t think we have any time actually. We need to start doing as much as we can as quickly as we can.

Q: What would you like our readers — our Washington University community — to take away from this discussion?
JL: I think the message today is that our new collaborative joins a leading university, one of the best botanical gardens (considered among the top three botanical gardens in the world, because in addition to its fabulous grounds, it has an ­enormous research and conservation program), and one of the best zoos in the world. Very few other cities in the country, perhaps in the world, have a great zoo, a great botanical garden as well as a great university. In the biggest picture, the Living Earth Collaborative provides us the opportunity to bring together these three institutions with ­overlapping expertise and missions in new ways to work toward great outcomes, in both learning about the biological world around us and using that knowledge to figure out how to conserve it. We’re just getting started, but we have an opportunity to do truly great and amazing things.

Interview conducted by Terri Nappier, editor, Washington magazine.

For more information, see “International research powerhouses join forces to advance study of life on Earth.”

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