Endangered Wealth

Endangered Wealth

NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.

Endangered Wealth
By Dr. Ben S. Malayang III, President
(Keynote, 41st Annual Convention and Scientific Meeting of the Philippine Society for Microbiology, Xavier Sports & County Club, Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines; 10 May 2012)

A great wealth of this country is in great danger. It’s a wealth that all of you here in this room today have dedicated your scholarship and professional careers to promoting and protecting. I refer to life and to the treasury of life pulsating in our biodiversity. Biodiversity is life. It is about life. Protecting our biodiversity is about keeping life to continue in our world and us to survive in our planet.

Our country has among the world’s richest collection of life forms. They include living entities of all types representing life processes that are among the most diverse in the world. They harbor vast arrays of genetic information across the taxonomic spectrum and they possess extremely high economic and social value to humankind. Whether we’re talking of common home remedies for illnesses, or of advancing medical and veterinary therapies, or developing pharmaceutical compounds and biotechnological innovations, all these are made possible by enzymes, DNA expressions, and tissues from living things.

High biodiversity, which we have in our country, means high potentials for life. And what more wealth can a country have than a high potential to maintain and support life?

Biodiversity is wealth of the highest form. It is the penultimate wealth of any nation. And our country is blessed by so much diversity of life forms across all taxonomic spheres. There are found in our country unique species of animals, plants and fungi. And because of our diversity of ecological settings and climate types, one can imagine how much more diverse might be our wealth of monera, protists and paleo-bacteria.

Yet, we’re being careless with our wealth. We’re wasting and squandering a lot of our living resources in exchange of near and immediate satisfaction of temporary and transient needs. We mow down our forests in order to plant a few stalks of corn. We dump poisons and dirt on our rivers, lakes and seas, all containing so much life, for a few tons of gold. We spew gasses and hundreds of tons of carbon and methane into our atmosphere to support luxuries that while good for us alter climatic patterns that regulate life in our planet. We pose dangers to the genetic integrity of our plants and animals by altering their genes to make a few of them more desirable and useful to us.

Quite obviously, we need to meet our immediate needs for food, feeds, fiber, and, yes, also metals. But equally obvious, we cannot meet these needs today in a way that cripple and disable us from meeting the same needs and other needs tomorrow. The question is not a disjunction. It is not an “either/or”. It is not a choice between meeting our needs today and meeting our needs tomorrow. We obviously must meet both needs. We must have our food, feeds, fiber and metals today just as we must have them in days to come. We have to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s needs, both and together. There is no choice in that. Where there is a choice is in how we meet these needs. The choice is about how or in what ways we will sufficiently and properly meet our needs today, without disabling our ability to do likewise tomorrow.

Unwise, thoughtless, unmitigated and immoderate satisfaction of needs – in any given time – is toxic to future generations’ capacities to meet their own needs. Particularly so when these needs derive from the living things in our planet.  There is no question that to the extent that our food, feeds and fibers are mainly from living resources, and our metals are extracted using technologies that threaten and wipe out living habitats, the living things that we have on our earth will always be critical to our ability to meet our needs, now and later.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that the key to meeting our needs both now and later will depend much on how we properly and carefully use the living resources in our planet, today and in all days to come.

This would be where learned societies such as yours could play crucial roles to ensuring our survival and wellbeing. And I talk here of not just our survival as a human species or the survival of other life forms on earth. I am talking of the survival of the very phenomenon of life in our planet. My take is that it would be scholars and professionals like you, whose passions and careers center on understanding life and who are dedicated to promoting and protecting life, who would have the highest stakes on ensuring that our living resources are kept intact and properly used and conserved.

Unfortunately, while much has been done in forging local to global commitments on protecting and conserving the living resources of our world, critical gaps and lapses exist. Protection and conservation are mainly focused on large biological entities, and hardly on microbiota. The Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Convention to Combat Desertification, the Earth Summit and their many derivative protocols like CITES and Cartagena, all forge global commitments to conserve mainly the bigger and readily visible biological entities and living ecosystems. Much of present efforts are on protecting and conserving eagles, whales, buffaloes, flowers, coral reefs, forest patches, fishes, shellfishes, and frogs. In fact, except for the Cartagena Protocol, global initiatives on the use of living resources focus on the resources that can be readily seen.

I absolutely support protecting and conserving our whales, birds and threatened or endangered flora and fauna. Yet, too, the bacteria, viruses, molds and other microbiological entities of our planet have much to do with a lot of what we are able to do. They cause and control diseases. They harm and they heal. They help us ingest nutrients and yet also upset our stomach. They cause plants and animals to grow, and yet they can also cause them to die. They produce food, feeds and fiber and yet also have the capacity to deprive us of these. They are helpful in industry, medicine, agriculture and the environment. But they also cause decay and rotting.

In short, microbes are silent and unseen blessings and curses to our world. They are unseen angels and demons in our planet. And it would be microbiologists like you who would have to determine how they could turn out to be either an angel or a demon to us.

The world of microbes is a vast frontier for biodiversity conservation and management. While we must give due attention to macrobiotic protection and conservation, so must we also to microbiotic communities. We know the score. A lot of today’s agricultural advances in crop biotechnology and on enhanced phytosanitary procedures, and advances in human and veterinary medicine, even industrial processes, are driven by technologies that utilize microbes. Thermophylic bacteria and archaeas for example are used in many DNA and other processes. The Bacillus thurengensis is used in modifying the genetic traits of food plants. Enzymes are used in manufacturing. We keep learning more everyday on how microbes might be harmful or helpful to humankind and we’re using more of them for the satisfaction of more of our needs.

But this does not end. After all, microbes are also learning everyday. Perhaps because of changing climates, or simply evolutionary pressures to survive, microbes are becoming less choosy on their choice of hosts. They now jump from one species to another. 

What I propose that you might want to think about and discuss in this meeting, is how we might push for, and shape in the Philippines and elsewhere, a focused and systemic microbial biodiversity conservation program. More than merely looking at certain microbes, I believe it would be crucial to much of our future survival and wellbeing if we exert efforts now to inventory, protect and conserve our country’s array of microbial resources, both important and unimportant, or of interests to us at this time or not. We need to compel studies on the unique ecological dynamics of microbial entities across taxonomic classifications as these are found in diverse micro and macro ecological settings and niches across our archipelago. I’m sure this would be a difficult task because some colonies may be found only in the roots of certain plants, or in only particular soils, or in some very limited habitats. But we need to do more to understand the vast world of microbes and not wait only when we find them behind nasty events and epidemics.

They’re important and they’re crucial to our survival.

They are part of our immense bio-treasury as a tropical and humid country. And we must protect and keep them for our people and for our nation’s legacy.

It is not hard to imagine that the world of the unseen biota may yet hold the key to the survival of much of life in our planet.

My take is that much of microbiology today is about using microbes and about controlling harmful microbial processes. Inevitably, microbiology will advance toward being able to do better on what it is doing now. But I believe it must, and can, do more. It can put more efforts in opening wider a whole new science frontier in microbial biodiversity conservation.

Someone has said that if all insects (which are among the smallest animals in our planet) were to die out, all life on earth will die out. But if humans were to die out, life will blossom and flourish. I wonder what the prospects are for life on earth if microbes were to vanish entirely from our world?

You may have answers to this. But I don’t.