Don’t overlook what’s underfoot – save the bugs and germs

Beattie, Andrew | February 24, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Photo by Pat Dumas via Flickr ( |CC BY-NC-SA

One of the biggest problems for conservation today is that it ignores 95% of all known species on Earth. Could a company ignore that proportion of its clients or a government so many of its voters? So why does this problem exist in conservation?

Some 90% of all of the Earth’s species are either invertebrates or micro-organisms, and the folly of ignoring the latter is encapsulated by UK Professor Tom Curtis writing in Nature Reviews Microbiology:

I make no apologies for putting micro-organisms on a pedestal above all other living things, for if the last blue whale choked to death on the last panda, it would be disastrous but not the end of the world. But if we accidentally poisoned the last two species of ammonia-oxidisers, that would be another matter. It could be happening now and we wouldn’t even know […]

It’s good to save the whale but protect the little things too. Flickr/tiffany terry, CC BY


Ammonia oxidisers are naturally occurring bacteria that are essential for maintaining the most economically valuable nutrient in soil: nitrogen.

They are good examples of the other millions of mostly tiny soil species, either microbial or invertebrate, upon which all agriculture and forestry depends.

Their astonishing genetic, chemical, metabolic and population properties are those that generate the essential processes, such as nitrogen cycling, that drive all the primary industries. This being so, the primary industries are obviously biodiversity-based industries.

Yet we are confronted every day with a wide range of opinion that agriculture and forestry are the greatest threats to biodiversity.

So how bad is this disconnect?

We can’t see all the biodiversity

I once asked a farmer if he had any biodiversity on his land. He said that he had a few patches of remnant native vegetation that attracted some birds and other species.

“How many species would that be,” I asked. He said he thought it would add up to several dozen.

When I pointed out that the square metre of soil he was standing on likely harboured 2,000 different species he was staggered – even more so when I pointed out that they contributed directly to his yields and profits.

Recent research has explored approximate dollar values of these components of biodiversity, and there is one example that provides some sharp insights. Across the world an economically vital invertebrate, the honey bee, is in catastrophic decline, threatening yields in many crops in many countries.

Honey bees play a vital role in pollination but their populations are under threat in many parts of the world. Flickr/Paul Stein, CC BY-SA


While research is revealing the possible cause, farmers are increasingly looking for alternatives, especially native bee species and other suitable flying insects.

Honey bee pollination has an annual value of several billion dollars worldwide but it is beginning to look like other species, including native bees, beetles and flies, can maintain economically significant pollination rates.

But very often the native bees’ ability to survive in agricultural landscapes where they are needed and their conservation status – that is, their future as economic resources – is unknown.

It is important to note here that in addition to the primary industries, microbial and invertebrate biodiversity provides vital resources for an increasing variety of other industries.

These includes pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, construction materials and the species that drive the newer bio industries such as bio-control, bio-mining and bio-remediation.

But as Professor Curtis points out, we haven’t a clue whether or not any of these resource species require conservation – because nobody is looking.

Industry too needs to protect biodiversity

Perhaps the biodiversity-based industries provide hope for conservation. If a large component of biodiversity is essential to a large component of the economy, then its study and conservation becomes the business of the industries that depend on this biodiversity for their resources.

This opens the door to a massive change in attitude towards biodiversity conservation. It ceases to be an activity confined to conservationists but is directly in the interests of a variety of biodiversity-based industries at the core of every economy.

Why hasn’t this happened? It is because the interests of those focused on the 5% of species on Earth that are plants and vertebrates have come to dominate the field.

Thus, biodiversity has been sold short all along. There are many in conservation who argue passionately that conserving biodiversity for economic reasons – placing a dollar value on species – is unethical.

This is the point raised by US Professor Michelle Marvier of the Breakthrough Institute, writing in the Ecological Society of America:

Setting up dichotomies of economic growth versus the protection of nature is a dead-end for conservation.

Conserve all species great and small

Humanity needs both the large, charismatic species of plants and animals, and the vast hordes of mostly microscopic species that greatly outnumber them.

Importantly, there are many connections between them. The benefits flow in both directions. Pollinators are again a good example: areas of natural vegetation around crops supply native pollinators while the crops supply huge amounts of nectar and pollen to their insect benefactors.

Natural biodiversity also supplies the predators and parasites of crop pests. There is less knowledge about interactions involving microbes but we do know that some modern agricultural methods greatly reduce the diversity of soil microbes. This is likely to be detrimental to ecologically sustainable food production.

It is going to take very serious resources to capture the knowledge required to work out the functions and conservation status of the millions of micro-organisms and invertebrates upon which we all depend.

Sure it’s going to be a hard sell, but at least we should see conservation and industry as partners rather than rivals.

Andrew Beattie is currently an Emeritus Professor at Macquarie University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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  • newtownian

    After working in soil and water microbial ecology, environmental microbiology and environmental management for 40 years I both applaud and shake my head at the innocence/naivete of this op ed at least as it relates to microorganisms. Its not Andrews fault its just that macrobiologists including some of my friends are incapable of adjusting their perspective to the very different universe of microorganisms. To illustrate.

    1. The idea of a species is central to conservation. The trouble is it doesnt apply with microbes. The term now widely used is Operational Taxonomic Unit but this is not simply a jargon replacement excercise. OTUs are not discrete entities. The problem is the ease and speed of gene transfer which is like nothing in macroscopic world.

    2. Other considerations are the shear numbers of bug their diversity and their nutritional needs none of which we have serious numbers for beyond total global biomass estimates. We dont even know what most bugs do on an OTU by OTU basis. We know about some important functions of some major groups but how they interact for example as consortia in wastewater flocs is essentially unknown. Reflecting this wide ignorance we cant get a global survey of the microbiosphere beyond very limited conceptual pictures. These knowledge barriers/challenges combine to generate a logistical problem that for the forseeable future (hundreds or thousands of years) will overwhelm microbial conservation if we attempted to transfer existing models to it. We do now know what was guessed decades ago – that most biomass on planet earth is microbial (mainly in rocks) and its biodiversity probably exceeds the invertebrates by a factor of a 1000 to 1,000,000 (pick your hyperbole). So the information gap is not trivial. But this doesnt mean there is a solution for the moment.

    3. To develop conservation strategies you need to know a lot about an organisms lifestyle. But currently we really only know about most bugs simply that they are there from their genome signature and maybe we have a few abundance points in a specific habitat based on qPCR. We know little about their habitat requirements and especially their life cycle dynamics.

    This is not to say the expansion of microbial knowledge has not been impressive. Or the new gene sequencing technology. But we are still like Galileo exploring the nearby heavens with really crappy optics.

    A few more specific illustrations of the problem:
    – lets say we wanted to preserve ‘E. coli’. Because its easy to study and is an important pathogen/parasite/commensal/ a lot is known about this OTU. Its now known that this megagroup which is laughing called a species has about 2000 genes in common and 17000 which are optional. Its biodiversity is probably more comparable to the entire mammal phylum.
    – you can look at one person’s oral microbial biome on one day – fantastically complex yet a year later it may be radically different or you may look at a second person and find it is also completely different. How do you preserve this microbiome – freeze the owner in liquid nitrogen like (apocryphally) Walt Disney?
    – Some years back I was charged with developing policy on just such conservation for an environmental management NGO sadly now defunct. The policy actually said we had to promote conservation of all creatures great and small including bugs. But the logistics this implied were more surreal than the entire works of Salvador Dali. I couldnt explain that to colleagues though so I just gave up this Kafkaesque project. Sadly this article indicates little has changed in how traditional conservationists frame the challenge.
    – a routine procedure for microbial ecologists like all microbiologists is when they are finished an experiment to autoclave the still living bugs – say a few trillion – wow arent we the mass murderers! (yes technically we are but funnily we lose no sleep).

    Look I am not against conservation of any microorganism OTU. And I totally agree, the neoliberal economic project that has turned life into utilitarian resources is utterly obnoxious and must be opposed.

    And I have no problem with continued work on microbiodiversity indeed I support it as it is a great illustration of our dependency on life and to be respected in ways we are still struggling to develop.

    But to set up a government department or NGO for the conservation of microorganisms? I think this is a little too early to contemplate.

    A far more important implication. This self evident ignorance of the microbial world reflects how little we still know about life more generally. So when you get Molecular Biologists like Craig Venter literally creating new life while lots of other muck around with GMOs and both say “We’ve done a risk assessment and its all safe” please given me a break and dont tell porkies.

    The reality is we are still in the realm of biological unknown unknowns and when is comes gene manipulation we really are still arrogant children oblivious to their ignorance.

  • Dac Crossley

    Thanks, Andrew, and well said! We’re seeing the demise of natural history collections all over the country, a sad commentary on the fact that we don’t even know what we’re losing. Even our biology departments in our universities seem unaware. This story needs telling, over and over.

  • excellent piece on the importance of considering what is underfoot. Both economics and our ideologies treat this part of the biosphere as “dirt” This implies, to me, that something is seriously wrong with our economic systems and the standard take on economic science.