From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH): “The beauty and benefits of biodiversity”

From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH)

Peter Rüegg


Biodiversity is beautiful, but it’s also vitally important. ETH researchers are getting to the heart of how species diversity and genetic diversity evolve – and why we must fight to preserve them.

Spring is synonymous with bright yellow dandelions, lush green fields and cloudless blue skies, a captivating combination of colours that sends many people into raptures of delight. Yet biodiversity researchers such as Alex Widmer, Professor of Plant Ecological Genetics in the Department of Environmental Systems Science, take a rather different view: “I know too much about ecosystems to take any pleasure in something so monotonous,” he says. His notion of beauty tends more towards dry grasslands and natural meadows rich in different species. “A far cry,” he says, “from the picture-​postcard idyll.” He argues that such areas are beautiful in much less obvious ways. Unfertilized, minimally cultivated meadows and dry grasslands are incredibly diverse, he says, which makes them not just beautiful, but essential.

“Species diversity makes ecosystems resilient,” says Widmer, “and at the core of that resilience is genetic diversity.” Without genetic diversity, he explains, species and organisms cannot adapt to existing and evolving environmental conditions. And it’s this adaptability that lies at the very heart of speciation.

Natural meadows exhibit high levels of diversity. (Photograph: Peter Rüegg)

Loïc Pellissier, Professor of Ecosystems and Landscape Evolution in the Department of Environmental Systems Science, agrees that much of the beauty of biodiversity is hidden from view. One of the most beautiful aspects of biodiversity, he says, is how species co-​evolve and exist together. “All organisms have evolved to interact with each other, as anyone who works in species diversity will tell you. To me, ecosystems are like huge jigsaw puzzles, in which all the pieces fit together more or less perfectly.” His research focuses on how species diversity arises and evolves. Because this occurs over the course of millions of years, Pellissier relies on computer models to simulate geological processes and the evolutionary forces that lead to the formation of new species.

Genetic diversity

Pellissier also conducts numerous field projects to unlock the secrets of species diversity. He favours a new and increasingly popular method that enables ecologists to detect species and organisms from the DNA they leave behind in the environment – known for short as environmental DNA, or eDNA. Researchers simply collect water and soil samples and analyse them to see what genetic material they contain. They then match whatever DNA they find to the corresponding organisms, provided a reference is available for this. This method provides a relatively quick way to determine whether a species is present in an ecosystem or not – and it works for a wide variety of organisms. “eDNA gives us a new insight into an ecosystem’s diversity,” he says.

Recently, Pellissier co-​authored a study on the diversity of reef fish worldwide. Researchers collected over 200 seawater samples from various tropical coral reefs and then “fished out” whatever fish DNA they could find. Using the eDNA method it took the researchers less than two years to confirm the presence of more fish species and families than experts had managed to identify during 13 years of reef dives.

Yet species diversity is only one aspect of biodiversity, the others being habitat diversity and genetic diversity. “Of the three, genetic diversity is the one that has been most neglected,” says Widmer. “Studying and monitoring genetic diversity is much more difficult and time-​consuming than monitoring habitats or species numbers.” Hence the numerous inventories of Swiss plants, animals and habitats – from forests and wetlands to dry grasslands. “Yet there isn’t a single monitoring project in Switzerland that focuses on the genetic diversity of living things,” says Widmer, “This is despite the fact that genetic diversity is fundamental for species diversity and adaptability.”

To fill this gap, Widmer has joined forces with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL on a project that aims to add this crucial element to Switzerland’s existing biodiversity monitoring systems. With the support of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Widmer and his colleagues have already launched a pilot study of five different species, including two plant species, a butterfly and a toad. The fifth species in their study is the yellowhammer, a songbird commonly found in cultivated areas of Switzerland. The researchers have already sequenced the genomes of one hundred individual yellowhammers from right across the country.

The beauty of the world’s coral reefs never fails to amaze. Yet behind such splendour, there lies much more – namely, a diverse habitat for a host of marine life. (Photograph: Stocksy)

As well as working with living organisms, the researchers also study the genetic material of specimens held in collections. “This tells us whether populations from over 100 years ago were as diverse as today’s, or whether some of that genetic diversity has been lost,” says Widmer. Research into biodiversity in Switzerland has already revealed a sharp decline in species diversity, he notes: “We’d like to find out whether the same applies to genetic diversity.” Once the pilot study is complete, Widmer’s goal is to set up a large-​scale monitoring project encompassing up to 50 species. These would be examined at regular intervals to detect changes in their genetic diversity. However, it is still unclear whether this complex and ambitious project will receive the necessary funding.

Fragile and endangered beauty

Time is of the essence because biodiversity is under threat and declining rapidly. It is only by firmly fitting together the many different pieces of the biodiversity puzzle that we can slow the extinction of individual species. Reduce this network by half, and species will die out a thousand times faster – and when external pressures such as climate change are factored in, species extinction will occur a thousand times faster again.

“Biodiversity is essential to our lives,” says Widmer. “It impacts everything from our mental well-​being to whether we have food on the table.” Diverse ecosystems are much more stable and better geared for the future than monotonous, species-​poor habitats. Pellissier nods in agreement: “Biodiversity is like classical art in the sense that it can’t be replaced. If the earth loses its biological riches, it will lose its magic.”

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ETH Zurich campus

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH) is a public research university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland. Founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with the stated mission to educate engineers and scientists, the school focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Like its sister institution The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne](CH) , it is part of The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain (ETH Domain)) , part of the The Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research [EAER][Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung] [Département fédéral de l’économie, de la formation et de la recherche] (CH).

The university is an attractive destination for international students thanks to low tuition fees of 809 CHF per semester, PhD and graduate salaries that are amongst the world’s highest, and a world-class reputation in academia and industry. There are currently 22,200 students from over 120 countries, of which 4,180 are pursuing doctoral degrees. In the 2021 edition of the QS World University Rankings ETH Zürich is ranked 6th in the world and 8th by the Times Higher Education World Rankings 2020. In the 2020 QS World University Rankings by subject it is ranked 4th in the world for engineering and technology (2nd in Europe) and 1st for earth & marine science.

As of November 2019, 21 Nobel laureates, 2 Fields Medalists, 2 Pritzker Prize winners, and 1 Turing Award winner have been affiliated with the Institute, including Albert Einstein. Other notable alumni include John von Neumann and Santiago Calatrava. It is a founding member of the IDEA League and the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) and a member of the CESAER network.

ETH Zürich was founded on 7 February 1854 by the Swiss Confederation and began giving its first lectures on 16 October 1855 as a polytechnic institute (eidgenössische polytechnische schule) at various sites throughout the city of Zurich. It was initially composed of six faculties: architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, forestry, and an integrated department for the fields of mathematics, natural sciences, literature, and social and political sciences.

It is locally still known as Polytechnikum, or simply as Poly, derived from the original name eidgenössische polytechnische schule, which translates to “federal polytechnic school”.

ETH Zürich is a federal institute (i.e., under direct administration by the Swiss government), whereas The University of Zürich [Universität Zürich ] (CH) is a cantonal institution. The decision for a new federal university was heavily disputed at the time; the liberals pressed for a “federal university”, while the conservative forces wanted all universities to remain under cantonal control, worried that the liberals would gain more political power than they already had. In the beginning, both universities were co-located in the buildings of the University of Zürich.

From 1905 to 1908, under the presidency of Jérôme Franel, the course program of ETH Zürich was restructured to that of a real university and ETH Zürich was granted the right to award doctorates. In 1909 the first doctorates were awarded. In 1911, it was given its current name, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1924, another reorganization structured the university in 12 departments. However, it now has 16 departments.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

Reputation and ranking

ETH Zürich is ranked among the top universities in the world. Typically, popular rankings place the institution as the best university in continental Europe and ETH Zürich is consistently ranked among the top 1-5 universities in Europe, and among the top 3-10 best universities of the world.

Historically, ETH Zürich has achieved its reputation particularly in the fields of chemistry, mathematics and physics. There are 32 Nobel laureates who are associated with ETH Zürich, the most recent of whom is Richard F. Heck, awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2010. Albert Einstein is perhaps its most famous alumnus.

In 2018, the QS World University Rankings placed ETH Zürich at 7th overall in the world. In 2015, ETH Zürich was ranked 5th in the world in Engineering, Science and Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and University of Cambridge (UK). In 2015, ETH Zürich also ranked 6th in the world in Natural Sciences, and in 2016 ranked 1st in the world for Earth & Marine Sciences for the second consecutive year.

In 2016, Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranked ETH Zürich 9th overall in the world and 8th in the world in the field of Engineering & Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Cambridge(UK), Imperial College London(UK) and University of Oxford(UK) .

In a comparison of Swiss universities by swissUP Ranking and in rankings published by CHE comparing the universities of German-speaking countries, ETH Zürich traditionally is ranked first in natural sciences, computer science and engineering sciences.

In the survey CHE Excellence Ranking on the quality of Western European graduate school programs in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, ETH Zürich was assessed as one of the three institutions to have excellent programs in all the considered fields, the other two being Imperial College London (UK) and the University of Cambridge (UK), respectively.