Biodiversity affects human health

One of the Ebola Viruses - Marbug

Following on from last week’s post, I want to mention that this year is the International Year of Biodiversity.

Biological diversity can be seen from several bases. For my purposes this works:

totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region.

As is stated here such a definition seems to describe most instances of its use and a possibly unified view of the traditional three levels at which biodiversity has been identified:

  • genetic diversity – diversity of genes within a species. There is a genetic variability among the populations and the individuals of the same species
  • species diversity – diversity among species
  • ecosystem diversity – diversity at a higher level of organization, the ecosystem (richness in the different processes to which the genes ultimately contribute)

I had the good fortune to listen to The Science Show on Radio National in Australia with Robyn Williams (who is quite co-incidentally and trivially Ben Goldacre’s uncle) interviewing Aaron Bernstein from Harvard’s Centre for Health and Global Environment.

Anyway, Bernstein points out that that new diseases like SARS and H1N1 are more easily dispersed due to our crowded living in cities. He also points to our industrial scale farming methods that can easily transmit diseases that we hardly yet know. And new bacteria and viruses are discovered every year.

That’s bad enough, but when you look deeper at what our overpopulated globe is doing in order to feed the 6.7 billion odd guts that live in the world, you begin to see the utter unsustainability of the whole shebang.

What is certainly true is that those who embrace the ‘green’ agenda that includes saving species from extinction tend to be sentimental humans who can’t imagine life without the dolphin, whale, cheetah, white rhino, platypus and the myriad other species that face extinction. Don’t get me wrong; I am as seduced by the macro world’s danger of extinction as the next person. This blog post however is about how essential the micro world is for health.

What the macro species proselytisers seem not to grasp is that by far the most diverse species are the bacteria. Because they can’t be seen easily without modern technology and engineering, they are overlooked in the face of the beautiful facial features of the big cats, the soft-eyed does of certain species, the magnificence of the polar bear and the majesty of the whales. ‘These threatened species are often targeted in order to set conservation priorities’ says Bonn et al. and add that ‘it is tempting to assume that … focussing on these species will be an effective umbrella for overall species richness of a country.’

Those tiny, wee and unobservable- to- the -naked -eye creatures, the bacteria and the viruses that abound in their trillions are far more prolific on this place we call home. And, let’s face it, a mite more dangerous to our well being. We harbour many thousands on our own bodies and they keep us in good health. But there are many more, some of which we don’t even know about yet, that damage and can kill us. These new microbes have been showing themselves in greater numbers recently.

The more space we need and use to fill our appetites, and there are a growing number of appetites being born, the more we risk releasing these wee life forms into the wider world. Rain forests harbour the greatest biological diversity to be found on this planet and the forests are being bulldozed at an increasingly alarming rate to provide grazing land for meat animal breeding. Bernstein queries how long this can continue. The resources used to produce meat are very high especially as the land becomes scarcer.

One of the things seemingly under appreciated by the populace is the fact that we rely constantly on for the development of medicines on the natural world and that diversity. As it shrinks so may our capacity to keep ourselves healthy in the developing marginalised land we will live on.

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3 comments on “Biodiversity affects human health

  1. AnonyMiss says:

    I liked this post!

  2. Michelle B says:

    It will be interesting to see how you develop this very important topic.

    • veronique says:

      Well thanks, Michelle. I want to develop the rather interesting concept that links the evolution of viruses together with the evolution of their hosts. This parallel evolution makes quite a lot of sense as we notice the influx of new (to us) viruses that are starting to move through the wider communities as we destroy habitat, especially rain forest habitat.

      Hopefully by next week’s post, I will have something more meaningful to say about this.

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