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Biodiversity is the complex web of life on Earth. This web includes humans and our social and economic systems. Nobody knows how many life-forms exist on Earth, but it may be in the range of 20 or 30 million species, of which only about 1.8 million are known to science. Biodiversity also includes the genetic differences within each species – for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock.
Chromosomes, genes and DNA – the building blocks of life – determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species. Biodiversity can be studied at the level of the whole planet or confined to a single mountain lake but, whatever level is considered, the organisms present interact in a complex, dynamic manner; both between themselves and with the non-living environment they share. It is these organisms, their environment, and the interactions between them that define their particular ecosystem.
Despite its overriding importance to our survival, biodiversity is being lost at a rate that is without precedent. At the Gothenburg European Council, in 2002, the EU committed itself to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, but there are worrying signs that the rate of loss continues.
Biodiversity and ecosystems are important to: maintaining and regulating atmospheric quality, (for example, the provision of atmospheric oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide), the protection and cleansing of fresh water, marine productivity, soil formation and protection, erosion control, pollution breakdown etc. However, because of their complexity, the interactions that preserve biodiversity and maintain ecosystems are poorly understood. It is not yet known to what extent ecosystems depend on biodiversity.
Human activity can upset the finely balanced interactions that keep ecosystems relatively stable. For example, cutting down forests can have negative consequences that are felt throughout the ecosystem – leading to desertification, changes in water run-off patterns and the extinction of species. While overfishing not only affects the particular fish species that is netted but can also have consequences throughout the food chain of the particular ecosystem.
Human impact on the marine ecosystem is of particular concern as aquaculture, fishing activity, pollution and climate change are already changing marine biodiversity worldwide, even though there remain many species to be discovered in the oceans.
European research is directed towards assessing and forecasting changes in biodiversity and understanding the dynamics of ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems. In addition, the relationships with society and the economy are investigated to understand what options are available to mitigate any harmful effects and to assess possible impacts on human health and society.
Through this research, better risk assessments can be made and biodiversity and ecosystems can be managed, conserved and ‘rehabilitated’ in a sustainable manner for future generations.