Biodiversity collapse and the rise of the super bugs!

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Biodiversity collapse and the rise of the super bugs!

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Progressing into the 21st century a silent war is on-going; far apart from the tensions in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula, the on-going war is a silent and potentially devastating one between some of the smallest and largest organism on Earth: micro-organisms versus humans!

Our “allies” are also our “enemies”

Since the discovery of micro-organism in the 19th century, we have made immense progress in our understanding of the micro-world and how they interact with the human body. We have learnt that our biological health mechanisms are closely linked to numerous species of microorganisms which help keep us healthy through the numerous complex services that they provide. In fact we often forget or ignore the fact that our bodies are composed of a multitude of micro-organisms without whom we would not be able to survive.

On the other hand we have also learnt that micro-organisms can sometimes turn against us in the form of various diseases and especially bacterial infections of various sorts. While we have learnt to counter attack many of these pathological microbiological threats, some remain more powerful than us. Common examples would include various types of Tuberculosis for which we still have no effective treatments.

Our “allies” invaluable protection

All the remedies that we know of today to deal with microbiological types of infections are administered through drug treatments. Many (if not all) of these remedies are derived from compounds first found in our natural environment (plants and animals).

We often tend to forget the benefits that other life forms give us in terms of welfare. Almost all of the medicines that we use today to cure our various bacterial diseases have been developed surrounding molecular properties identified in natural compounds. These include in particular complex molecules with anti-bacterial properties.

The diversity of life on Earth is the source from where complex compounds that can be derived into medicines are found. We are talking about the incredible bank of species from which we still know very little. The compounds are usually not found by chance but specific indicators or clues on how these species interact with other species give us a hint that they could potentially be a place to look for specific remedies.

What we know for sure is that we are incapable of finding new remedies to cure many of these existing, adapting and sometimes even new threats, without identifying and studying the original compounds in nature first.

Signs of “enemies” rising power

There are numerous reports and indicators showcasing the fact that more and more infections of unknown nature are occurring worldwide but most of concern is that a large proportion of these result in death due to the fact that we don’t have the means for treatment anymore. It is a fact that super bugs are on the rise!

Many of our once great successes in making the relatively safe risky procedures that the healthcare system benefits today will soon no longer be taken for granted. These include open cut hospitalisations: simple common operation procedures or even giving birth may well become life threatening events due to super bugs’ infections.

Indeed, certain micro-organisms are surprisingly adaptive. They have the ability to reproduce fast and therefore through accelerated evolutionary adaptations, progressively outsmart our medicines. In order to cope with this rapid adaptation, we are constantly at war with micro-organisms to keep ahead of the game by having in our possessions remedies strong enough to kill these life forms.

However, while this strategy has been in our favour for the last decades, it seems that micro-organisms are getting more and more adapted and faster than we can develop new treatments.

The loss of “arsenal”

Despite the more than ever need to preserve this precious resource, the current trend is heading towards a biodiversity crisis in which species are becoming extinct at a rate unprecedented in recent Earth history. For the first time ever the loss is not the result of any catastrophic event but the direct implication of our own behaviours (and therefore could be prevented).

Scientists have long been highlighting the fact that we are losing species at a rate at least 1000 times greater than the natural rate of extinction and that once extinct a species has forever disappeared from the surface of the Earth.

The vast majority of these species are being lost unknowingly as they have never been identified or studied. We know that species are declining fast from simple indictors such as the rapid loss of habitats and their associated ecosystems.

The business case

From a business point of view, loss of biodiversity and the collateral damages that it implies on us will cost very heavily the healthcare industry and society. In fact the super bugs have the potential to make our entire healthcare systems and structure collapse all together! Economists have long highlighted the link between biodiversity resources and the healthcare system and the economic risk towards which we are heading.

The strategy

The solution is clear, if we are to win the war against micro-organisms; we have to take biodiversity losses much more seriously and start to act more effectively to significantly limit the current rate of extinction of species on Earth. It is for our own good and the long term sustainability of our species.

The solutions are holistic in nature: In addition to putting more and more biodiversity rich areas under reserve (marine and terrestrial parks) we must also change all societal models to sustainable ones much more respectful of biodiversity and ecosystem services.  Everything that we do as a species from the choices of our energy use to how we manage water and other natural resources, have significant implications on biodiversity.

Even today, biodiversity and ecosystem services are very softly considered in corporations and government sustainability agenda. We should put these issues at the forefront of the development strategies if we are to succeed in the adoption of more sustainable societies.

In summary, we are truly facing a turn of force in which micro-organisms are getting stronger than the remedies that we have to protect ourselves against them. By continuing to lose biodiversity we are seriously endangering ourselves and destroying the only source of hope to counter attack the threat. We often see nuclear war as one of the most dangerous threat to humanity when a highly contagious microbiological infection is in fact a much more likely threat and one that we would be completely armless against without the help of other species…

Edward. O. Wilson: “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless, while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity”

For general information on biodiversity and solutions to preserve it, please refer to the following resource: The Biodiversity Portal of Singapore: www.biodiversity.sg

Sylvain Richer de Forges

Sustainability director, Siloso Beach Resort

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