Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

Human Health Under Threat From Dramatic Reduction Of Plant And Animal Species

01 June 2010

Harvard Professor, Dr Aaron Bernstein Speaks at RCSI’s Annual Public Outreach Lecture

RCSI’s Annual Public Outreach Lecture, which explored the link between biological diversity and human health, took place in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) on Tuesday 1st June 2010. The lecture entitled “Life Support Systems: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity” was delivered by Dr Aaron Bernstein, MD, Centre for Health and the Global Environment, HarvardMedicalSchool.

Coinciding with 2010 as the U.N.’s International Year of Biodiversity, Dr Bernstein explores how human health depends, in every conceivable way, upon the diversity of life present on Earth, from the medicines doctors prescribe to the reliance of scientists upon organisms for breakthroughs in biomedical research, and to the emergence of new infectious diseases that may result from the dismantling of ecosystems.

Dr Aaron Bernstein, MD, Centre for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School

“The two leading causes of biodiversity loss are, first, habitat loss and close behind climate change, which may put as many as a third of all species alive today at extinction’s doorstep by 2050. These two causes alone may bring about the loss of half of all species by 2100. This rate of loss matches that evident in the Earth’s last great extinction event which occurred 65 million years ago,” Dr Bernstein said.

“Living in cities and in increasingly specialised lifestyles, it has become all too easy to believe that humans are somehow separated from the rest of nature and so immune from any degradation of the web of life. But this is not the case,” Dr Bernstein continued. “For example, two thirds of all new drugs licensed in the US from 1981-2006 would not exist if they hadn’t been found in or patterned after compounds that nature designed. This proportion is yet higher for cancer drugs and antibiotics.”

Illustrating the type of consequences we will face due to loss of biodiversity in fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs, Dr Bernstein explains: “Only about 1% of the 50-100 thousand peptides (proteins) thought to exist in the cone snail genus, have been studied in any detail. And even with this small number, cone snail peptides have enabled major breakthroughs in understanding how our brain’s work and yielded the single greatest breakthrough in pain medication in the past 100 years. Cone snails, however, live on coral reefs, one of the most endangered habitats on earth. Coral reefs face an uncertain future with rising ocean temperatures and acidity both caused by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. If corals become extinct, we may lose one of, if not the most important group of species on the planet for medicine and biomedical science.”

The Annual Outreach Lecture, which is organised by the Research Office at RCSI aims to promote an awareness and interest in research and science to the wider community in an informative and entertaining way. Professor Brian Harvey, Director of Research at RCSI said “I am delighted to have a scientist of Dr Aaron Bernstein’s calibre speaking at this year’s lecture. Not only is Dr Bernstein a world-renowned scientist and medic, but he also has the ability to convert difficult scientific concepts into language non-scientists can grasp and help bring science to life.”

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