Biodiversity Challenge: Biodiversity hidden in plain view

This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.

I’m trapped in a barren wasteland. It smells of PineSol and fast food. There are people milling about all around me. They are coming and going in and out of little hallways, and there are so many iphones! Everyone is looking at their iphone! I am at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. There’s nothing here. Everything’s so sterile (which I guess is an improvement over the way it used to be). There can’t possibly be biodiversity here.

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But wait! What’s that, over there by the power outlet? That filth! Those crumbs! There! That’s biodiversity! And there’s more! There’s biodiversity all over that bag of chips, and on the drinking fountain handles. There’s biodiversity on all of those iphones!. And there’s biodiversity on all of the people. All of them are teeming with germs! PineSol, you don’t stand a chance. There’s so much diversity, and it should stay that way!

Traditionally, when people think about biodiversity, they focus on the things that they can see: Tropical rainforests, African savannahs, wildflower meadows, even diversified agriculture systems. For me, it started with mangrove forests and grasslands, but recently, I’ve become more and more interested in the biodiversity that’s all around us that you can’t see. And I’m not the only one thinking about biodiversity hidden in plain view. Researchers are studying biodiversity in our houses, on our bodies, in hospital air, even inside the leaves of plants!

And those researchers are finding incredible things! The microscopic creatures inhabiting houses with dogs differ from houses without dogs, and might even contribute to healthier people in those houses. The microbes on our bodies vary by who we are, where we look, and even how much roller-derby we play.

Ok, Fletcher, so there’s biodiversity all around us, and some of it is pretty cool. But why on earth would you recommend that we conserve biodiversity in an airport? You’re talking about germs! People get sick in airports!

Well, although there’s a lot that we don’t know about the hidden biodiversity around us, we do know a few things. There are microscopic bacteria and fungi everywhere. And they’re important. We know that some of them cause diseases, but it looks like some of them might protect us from diseases, too.  We know that they can interact with each other, that they can form communities, and that those communities can be really different from each other. And I’m not talking apples and oranges different. I’m talking sea cucumber and redwood tree different, all in one square inch! And for the most part, we don’t know how they came to be different, but when we eliminate these communities from the face of the earth with PineSol or antibiotics, the communities that replace them are unlike those that were there before.

So we should conserve biodiversity at the airport because we don’t understand it. We should conserve biodiversity at the airport because it might just protect us from some of the diseases that we’re trying to prevent**. We should conserve biodiversity in the airport for the same reasons that we should conserve biodiversity in the Amazon and in the oceans and in our backyards. We should conserve it because it’s there.

30 October, 2013

*I should confess. I don’t study the microbial ecology of airports. I know virtually nothing about them other than what I’ve inferred from the references above.

**Alright, that might be a bit of a stretch. I am an advocate of sanitation at airports