“Biodiversity is the key to our survival”

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Professor Johannes Vogel has a reputation for being a passionate scientist, visionary and lateral thinker. Director of the Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science and spokesperson for the Leibniz Research Alliance “Biodiversity”, he has devoted his whole life to the rich bounty of nature. This indeed is precisely what is at risk, for animal species are becoming extinct, plants are disappearing for ever and ecosystems are becoming unbalanced.

In many cases we humans are to blame, yet it is in our own interests to preserve natural biodiversity. After all, biodiversity is closely linked to vital aspects such as our food sources and clean water. In our interview, Professor Johannes Vogel explains what German researchers are doing to foster biodiversity.

Professor Vogel, as a biodiversity researcher your goal is to protect and preserve as many of the Earth’s plants and animals as possible. Despite this desire for diversity, is there one particular plant or animal that is particularly close to your heart?

Allow me to answer your question by first countering with one of my own: did you know that 90 percent of the calories we consume nowadays come directly or indirectly from just twelve plant species? These are known as cultivated plants, that is to say crops which are grown by humans. We have knowledge of far more plants, however, namely around 450,000.

What interests me in particular is the protection of and research into these plants. Cultivated plants have been adapted to the environmental conditions. They have served us well over the past 10,000 years but may not necessarily continue to feed us in the coming 10,000 years because the environment is changing dramatically. This is why we need to talk much more clearly about diversity as a vital human resource.

Numerous Leibniz institutes are concerned with biodiversity, and there is even a dedicated research alliance. Why is biodiversity so important – now and in the future? And why are so many research facilities focusing on this issue?

Biodiversity is the key to the survival of humankind. Much depends on it: clean water, food, clean air, oil and much more besides. Infinite diversity can be found on different levels, be it in the microbial, plant or animal kingdom – in the case of animals, we even have to deal with the additional issue of complex behaviour.

It is not possible for a single institute to research all of this. The Leibniz Association brings this extraordinary diversity together in a research alliance, thus creating additional value for Germany.

The Museum für Naturkunde – the natural history museum – is one of the world’s leading institutions in the field of biodiversity research. What characterizes your research work?

Natural history collections are archives of life. We have objects in our collections from every conceivable time period. They range from the origins of our solar system and the emergence of life right up to fascinating contemporary finds. We have a wonderful scientific infrastructure at our disposal in which we pursue our own research.

Furthermore, we invite the global community to share these resources with us. And that is what makes our institution so exciting and unique: we are a scientific facility where top-level research is conducted, yet at the same time we reach out to a wide audience. This is possible because we present our findings in such a fascinating way that they arouse the interest of many people. You will not see any Disney-style dinosaurs here, however, but rather scientifically accurate and biometrically researched animals.

Which research projects are you working on at the moment?

We are for example conducting research into frogs in West Africa, a region where they are increasingly being used as a source of food. The ecosystems there are changing as a result: the insect populations are changing, which in turn is altering the way crops are being attacked by pests and so on. We are not primarily interested in researching the frogs, in other words, but in studying their relationship with the environment and with the people who live there.

Another subject is limb development. One of our research groups is exploring the genetic programmes which allow salamanders to reconstruct limbs that have been bitten off, have fallen off or have been mutilated. If they succeed in fully understanding these genetic mechanisms, this will be of great interest in trauma medicine and regenerative medicine.

In another project an international team is researching how planets evolved in our solar system. As you can see, the spectrum of our research is extremely broad.

Which other German research projects in this area do you find particularly exciting? What characterizes German research in this field?

What is outstanding in Germany is the scientific breadth with which diversity research is pursued. It extends from projects with a theoretical orientation such as those conducted by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research to the very practical research that is being done for example at the German Primate Center. Furthermore, there is excellent national and local funding of biodiversity research in Germany.

The Leibniz Association makes a point of promoting the next generation of scientists. Why is biodiversity in particular so fascinating for young researchers?

Germany is a paradise for researchers, as we have a very lively and cosmopolitan scientific culture here. English and German are spoken equally widely in research organizations. This means that there are no language barriers, and researchers from abroad are most welcome. The ideas and ambitions they bring with them are picked up on and can be brought to fruition here. Bright researchers always go to places where other talented individuals are already working. I believe that the Leibniz Institutes and indeed the entire German research scene have a great deal to offer in this context.

Professor Vogel, thank you for talking to us!

Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science

The “Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science” is a research museum run by the Leibniz Association. It is one of the world’s leading research institutions in the field of biological and geological evolution and biodiversity.