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URPP Global Change and Biodiversity

“Biodiversity is our life insurance”

Ecosystems are more stable and productive when they contain more species. This has been demonstrated impressively by researchers from the URPP Global Change and Biodiversity. The successful program is committed to ensuring that the value of biodiversity is better understood and appreciated in society.
Text: Stefan Stöcklin, Translation: Michael Jackson
Florian Altermatt (right) and Luca Carraro sampling eDNA (environmental DNA) in a small river to determine local diversity. (Picture: used with permission)
Florian Altermatt (right) and Luca Carraro sampling eDNA (environmental DNA) in a small river to determine local diversity. (Picture used with permission)

Biodiversity is under great pressure across the world and urgently requires action to preserve it. The scientists from the University Research Priority Program Global Change and Biodiversity believe there are five primary factors behind the decline in biodiversity, namely the way the land and sea are being used, climate change, pollution, loss of habitat, and invasive species. In the program, the researchers systematically investigated the impact of these global change drivers on biodiversity as well as the consequences they are having for society. At the same time, the scientists investigated the feedback and amplification mechanisms between these drivers and the biodiversity that is under threat. As co-director Maria J. Santos explains, having a better understanding of these interactions is the key to protecting vital biodiversity.

Maria J. Santos, what are the key outcomes from the URPP Global Change and Biodiversity?

Maria J. Santos: At the scientific level, we can cite several hundred publications that have improved our understanding of biodiversity and the underlying feedback mechanisms. One of the most important factors behind the progress we’ve made is having accurate data that we can use to describe ecosystems so that we can measure any changes and environmental impacts. For example, as part of the URPP, we’ve evolved our understanding of eDNA (environmental DNA) and imaging spectroscopy. eDNA technology is based on analyzing genetic material that organisms release into their environment, whether it’s the soil or bodies of water. One example of how our researchers have used this method is in documenting the distribution of small invertebrates in watercourses. On a bigger scale, we’ve developed sensors in the field of remote sensing for the ARES (Airborne Research Facility for the Earth System) platform to measure the condition of ecosystems by measuring their spectroscopic signature from the air. As a test area, we studied the deciduous woodland on Lägern mountain (northwest of Zurich); the technology can also be applied to tropical forests, as our work in Borneo has demonstrated. It’s these technologies and other new technologies that have actually enabled us to investigate the role of biodiversity and its response to the global drivers.

And what is the role and significance of biodiversity?

Maria J. Santos: The greater the biodiversity, the more stable a system is, whether it’s an “artificial” plant-rich community in agriculture or a natural ecosystem. An ecosystem with a rich variety of species can recover better and faster from any disruption, is more productive and retains its functional characteristics. Biodiversity is our life insurance, it provides food and materials, it regulates the climate and produces oxygen, and it also has an aesthetic and cultural value. That’s why the global loss of biodiversity that we’re seeing is very concerning.

View onto the canopy of the jungle in Borneo. Here, researchers analyzed the structure of the forest using a newly developed laser scanning technology. (Picture: Fabian Schneider)
View onto the canopy of the jungle in Borneo. Here, researchers analyzed the structure of the forest using a newly developed laser scanning technology. (Picture: Fabian Schneider)

Does this mean in practice that mixed crops with a high level of genetic diversity are more productive than monocultures? 

Maria J. Santos: This was demonstrated during our URPP. Diversity increases and stabilizes the functionality of an ecosystem and has a positive impact, for example, on the yield of different grain varieties or mixed forests.

So is more biodiversity always a good thing?

Maria J. Santos: You can’t really say that because there is also harmful biodiversity, such as parasites, pathogens or poisonous organisms, that can pose a threat to an ecosystem or human beings. Biodiversity is not just about maximizing the number of species, but also the way they function. Invasive species or disease vectors diminish the performance of ecosystems over a prolonged period.

How does climate change affect biodiversity?

Maria J. Santos: Climate change poses a real threat to biodiversity, and without biodiversity our options for tackling climate change are reduced significantly. Species that are unable to adapt quickly enough to changing conditions such as warming and drought are endangered. On the other hand, changes to the climate and environmental conditions may benefit invasive species. As the expansion of land use also exacerbates climate change, this will have a dual impact on the loss of biodiversity. That’s why climate change and biodiversity are inextricably linked.


We were able to demonstrate in all our studies that a high level of biodiversity guarantees stable, functioning ecosystems.

Maria J. Santos
Prof. for Earth System Science

You've also investigated the feedback effects of climate change in the Siberian tundra. Why is this so important?

Maria J. Santos: The tundra in the Arctic regions plays an important role as an amplifier of climate change because the frozen soils thaw and trigger a chain reaction that results in more methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere. This is caused by the methanogenic bacteria in the soil, which are activated by the thawing process, and the methane contained in the soil. This sets off a disastrous process because the tundra soils that are now free of any ice or snow absorb more heat, which further accelerates the process. 

Which outcome surprised you the most?

Maria J. Santos: Surprised is maybe not quite the right word, but I’ve been impressed at how incredibly important biodiversity is. We were able to demonstrate in all our studies that a high level of biodiversity guarantees stable, functioning ecosystems. We’ve managed to reproduce this outcome repeatedly in many studies involving different systems – from the tundra to the high mountains of Tibet – and that’s why it’s so important. 

What is the social relevance of the URPP Global Change and Biodiversity? How has it benefited society?

Maria J. Santos: Our research is valuable to society in a number of ways. On the one hand, our findings allow us to explain why biodiversity and the functions it offers are important. On the other hand, our data and technologies provide the foundation for tackling the problem of biodiversity loss. The analysis of the change drivers and the impact they have on biodiversity shows us where we can start taking action. What’s more, the involvement of researchers from social sciences and humanities means we’ve also been able to reflect on ethical aspects of the value of biodiversity and how to preserve it. 

Furthermore, thanks to the URPP, we’ve been able to attract a young generation of talented researchers who adopt a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to the subject of biodiversity. Some of them straddle the interface between science and society, where they can contribute their knowledge, for example in administrations. We also work with IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), an international body comparable to the IPCC climate panel, and with the bioDISCOVERY coordination unit. And we have founded the World Biodiversity Forum, which just met for the third time this June. This unit also focuses on practical solutions for preserving biodiversity.

Have you been able to raise awareness of the biodiversity crisis?

Maria J. Santos: There’s good evidence showing that we’ve achieved this goal. Many of our researchers are involved in national or international committees that focus on science, policy, the arts or public relations. In Switzerland, for example, our members sit on the Swiss Academy of Sciences Biodiversity Forum. And here on campus we have the Irchel Nature Trail, which showcases biodiversity to a wider public audience. 

URPP researchers at a meeting in August 2022 (Picture used with permission)

Sum up the situation in three sentences: what has the URPP Global Change and Biodiversity achieved?

Maria J. Santos: We’ve helped to boost the understanding of biodiversity and its functions and developed new technologies for monitoring it. We’ve built a network of researchers and junior researchers inside and outside the URPP who are working hard to address the threat of biodiversity loss from a scientific perspective. Third, we’ve been able to persuade many researchers in our community to look beyond the science and help convey a better understanding of the importance of biodiversity to a wider audience. 

What will happen now that the program has concluded?

Maria J. Santos: We’re currently exploring various options and follow-up programs. The scientists are definitely interested in continuing the cooperations that the URPP has started because they’ve proven to be extremely valuable. That’s why we’d like to carry on researching and monitoring the biosphere in the future. The novel questions and hypotheses are based on the knowledge we’ve gained.