We can calculate the value of an oil reservoir but we cannot calculate the value of a biodiversity reserve.
We are conducting a systematic exploration of applications derived from Ecuador’s vast collection of ecosystems and life forms. From molecules to cultures, Ecuador represents a unique repository of information and knowledge. Within an an area of about 280,000 km2, Ecuador holds world records for plant and vertebrate species diversity in ecosystems that include the Galápagos Archipielago, Littoral Region, the Andes mountain range, Amazonia, and the Antarctic
. Ecuador’s indigenous communities speak more than 20 dialects and continue practicing their ancestral knowledge
. Resources associated with this vast diversity have led to the discovery of novel biology and novel chemistry
, however, Ecuador faces a dilemma: the last oil reservoirs and newly discovered copper deposits lie underneath UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserves. Historically
, the extraction of non-renewable resources has obliterated the biological diversity above them. Ecuador must walk a fine line between recovering these minerals, irreversibly forsaking its unique natural capital, or partnering with leaders in industry and academia to sustain its economy in the long-term developing an economy derived from its vast collection of living ecosystems. To accomplish the latter, we collaborate with public and private institutions seeking to implement policy, research, conservation, and sustainable economy models of scientific and commercial production that harness and preserve the unique biological resources of Ecuador as a source of future discoveries.
Modern technology promises to expand our capabilities to study and apply biological diversity, >99% of which remains unexplored and unavailable to human industry. By integrating research in ethnomedicine, environmental quality, synthetic biology and synthetic ecology, we articulate state-of-the-art protocols with the proper frameworks to exchange knowledge and technology. In this context, collaborative efforts that link standardized data collection protocols, interinstitutional research programs, indigenous science, and global industry can contribute to a full development of Ecuador’s natural and cultural capital.
As microbiology moves into an ever more powerful era the discovery and application of microbial diversity, emphasizing the importance of culture collections, is our current focus. Our interests include high-throughput sequencing for environmental quality monitoring, understanding the effect of climate change on microbial communities, the development of integrated biodiversity databases to guide evolution in industrial settings, and biological systems as models for information storage, information processing and bioproduction.
In 1995, the Interamerican Bank calculated the monetary value of Ecuador’s biological diversity to be US$20 billion by multiplying the number of plant species with pharmaceutical potential by the relevant royalties at the time. If we identify the genes involved in the synthesis of these compounds, should we divide the potential royalties by the number of genes? How many relevant genes exist in Ecuador, and how would that consideration change the value of the country’s biological diversity?
To nurture an economy based on the protection of natural resources imagine science harnessing the full potential of human intellect to explore and rationally apply the result of 3.8 billion years of natural experimentation. Imagine local geniuses probing local resources for local solutions, and then exporting this experience and knowledge to the world.