The biodiversity of invertebrates is key to planetary health

OIST Professor Evan Economo was named the Japan National Champion of the Frontiers Planet Prize for his research on global biodiversity.

Fronters Planet Prize National Champion Evan Economo

On Earth Day, April 22, the Frontiers Planet Prize was announced, and Professor Evan Economo, head of OIST's Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit, was chosen as the National Champion for Japan for his team’s recent research.  This puts him in the running to be named one of three International Champions, which comes with a prize of one million Swiss Francs to further the research.

The Frontiers Planet Prize was established by the Frontiers Research Foundation in Lausanne Switzerland on Earth Day 2022 to recognize scientists whose research helps humans live safely in Earth's ecosystems. In its second year, 20 science academies and 475 leading universities and research institutions from 43 countries participated in the competition, showcasing transformative and globally scalable research that “mobilizes science for a global green renaissance” and accelerates sustainable solutions for healthy lives on a healthy planet. Twenty-three individual researchers were designated National Champions worldwide.

Prof. Economo's paper in the journal Science Advances in 2022 led to his selection as Japan's National Champion. This paper represents the first high-resolution global biodiversity map for any invertebrate group, organisms that have been called “…the little things that run the world” for their critical roles in ecosystems.  This global picture allows invertebrate biodiversity to be used in global conservation planning and provides a guide to further discovery.

To achieve this milestone, the researchers focused on ants, a globally widespread, ecologically dominant, and economically important insect group.  Ants play an important role in most terrestrial ecosystems, from nutrient flow to mutualistic partnerships with other plants and animals, but like other insects, their global diversity patterns are not well documented. Over the past 12 years, the team assembled fragmented information from 300 years of research, from obscure museum collections to old papers, to personal collections from people around the world and data extracted from nearly 10,000 scientific publications. However, creating a unified database was not enough. “Even when we consolidate all the world’s information on ants in one place, there are errors, biases, and gaps. For example, we lack exploratory research in many areas of the world that have high biodiversity, but completing a global inventory with traditional methods will take decades or centuries more at the rate we are going.”

To solve this problem, the researchers turned to modern data science, applying tools from informatics and machine learning. “We wanted to get the most insight out of imperfect and incomplete data.” To lead the design of the innovative workflows, Economo turned to a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Postdoctoral Fellow in his lab, Dr. Jamie Kass, an expert on ecological modeling and co-first author of the study. Dr. Kass, now an Associate Professor at Tohoku University, worked with OIST researcher Kenneth Dudley and others to put together what Prof. Economo calls “the most complex computational workflow for a paper I have been a part of in my career” that addressed everything from interpreting 200-year-old specimen data, to predicting the distributions of individual species, to predicting hidden “hotspots” of diversity that may yield undiscovered species.

The value of this research is in both the biodiversity map for ants that can now be used in conservation planning, but also in establishing methods that can be applied to other understudied organisms. Prof. Economo says that “in a way, this study bridges the gap between Victorian-era natural history explorers and modern big-data and machine learning-driven research.” Prof. Economo emphasized the importance of his collaborators, including numerous OIST staff, Core Facilities, and research groups around the world. “This project is a broad team effort, and any recognition belongs to the group.”  Dr. Jamie Kass, co-first author of the paper, commented that “estimating biodiversity patterns for understudied groups like invertebrates is certainly difficult and requires the work of many researchers, but the end result aids in the discovery of new species and helps us better prioritize areas for conservation that include branches of the tree of life so important for ecosystems and human wellbeing.”

The three International Champions will be announced in June at the Villars Symposium in Switzerland. 

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