Declining biodiversity threatens the very basis of human life. Science contends that there are many reasons for this decline. However, while much research is being conducted into the connection between species decline on the one hand and loss of habitats, invasion by non-native species or climate change on the other, science is giving less attention to the impact of chemicals on biodiversity. This is shown by a team of researchers led by Prof. Henner Hollert, Dr. Francisco Sylvester and Fabian Weichert from the Goethe University Frankfurt in a recent study, in which the two ISOE researchers Prof. Dr. Flurina Schneider (scientific director) and PD Dr. Carolin Völker were also involved.
The team has analysed in depth the scientific literature on this topic from 1990 to 2021. According to their analysis, the very many research papers on environmental pollution through chemicals were published in only a small number of highly specialized ecotoxicological journals, in which papers on biodiversity loss are only occasionally found. The authors conclude from this that the field is highly encapsulated and they see this as a strong contrast to publication behaviour in relation to other causes of global biodiversity loss. Research on the environmental impact of chemicals is still mostly dissociated from the assessment of biodiversity loss.
Align research activities in an interdisciplinary manner and secure data basis
The authors call for a stronger interdisciplinary focus in research so that the impacts of chemical substances on biodiversity can be better understood and mitigated. What makes the researchers optimistic here is the fact that there have been many methodological advances in ecotoxicology and ecology in recent years. For example, with the help of state-of-the-art chemical and effect-based analytics as well as big data science it is possible to detect thousands of known and unknown substances in environmental samples at the same time. In addition, there are technologies for remote environmental monitoring, for example with satellites, as well as computer models for predicting the ecological risks of chemicals and methods for determining biodiversity with the help of environmental DNA.
However, the scientists also see quite considerable challenges despite the interdisciplinary approach. For example, basic data are often lacking; each area under study has specific characteristics; the processes at ecosystem scale are complex. To meet these challenges, the researchers have made 16 recommendations. They suggest, for example, obligating industry to make relevant data public. Or they propose developing ecological test models that cover not only individual organisms but also populations, communities or even entire ecosystems.
About the research network
The RobustNature research network is examining the robustness and resilience of nature-society systems in the developing Anthropocene and specifically the interaction of chemical pollution and biodiversity loss. To address important questions related to human-ecosystem dynamics, RobustNature has established interdisciplinary collaboration with partners from Germany and abroad. Within the research cluster, ISOE is leading the research area “Systemic Risks”, in which environmental risks and related complex societal problems are considered in a cross-cutting manner.
- Goethe University Frankfurt (Coordination; Faculty of Biological Sciences (15) with the faculties of Law (1), Economics & Business (2), Social Sciences (3), Educational Sciences (4), Geosciences & Geography (11), Computer Science & Mathematics (12), Medicine (16) and the profile area Sustainability & Biodiversity)
- ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research
- Senckenberg – Leibniz Institution for Biodiversity and Earth System Research (SGN)
- LOEWE-Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics (LOEWE TBG)
- Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Leipzig
- Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE, Frankfurt
- Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME), Schmallenberg
- RWTH Aachen University
- University of Saskatchewan, Canada
- ETH Zurich, Switzerland
- Stockholm University, Sweden
Francisco Sylvester, et al.: Better integration of chemical pollution research will further our understanding of biodiversity loss. Nature Ecology and Evolution (2023) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-02117-6