How does the environment play a role in biodiversity?

Biodiversity – in all its forms and interactions – is the variety of life on Earth. Climate change is exacerbating biodiversity loss, and vice versa. Ahead of the EMBO | EMBL Symposium ‘The Organism and its Environment’ (1–4 March 2020), we talk to Scientific Organiser and EMBL Director General Edith Heard about the impact the environment has on biodiversity and the role of research in solving global challenges.

Does the environment play a large role in the creation of biological diversity?

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. This life, in all its shapes and sizes, occurs in the context of ecosystems: it relies on and interacts with other organisms and the physical environment. Biodiversity represents the collective ‘knowledge learned’ by evolving species over millions of years, about how to survive the vastly varying environmental conditions Earth has and is experiencing. These varying environmental conditions cause natural variations in biodiversity, as well as genetic and epigenetic changes, within and between species over time. Today, scientists are trying to understand the basis of these natural variations, as they will allow us to understand how life evolves.

Fish populations have declined at an alarming rate, and half the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in just 30 years.

But biodiversity is also a measure of the health of any ecosystem. Recent trends in biodiversity loss show very clearly that humans are destroying ecosystems on a massive scale. According to the Director General of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), increased pollution, deforestation, climate change and other manmade factors have created a “mind-blowing” crisis. The WWF Living Planet Report 2018 (WWF LPR, 2018) also states that freshwater fish populations have declined by more than 80% on average since 1970 and half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in the last 30 years (WWF LPR, 2018). Alongside this, deforestation of tropical rainforests means we are currently losing more than 100 species of plants and animals a day (Holley, 2017). In short, human’s influence on the environment greatly impacts biodiversity and we are currently burning the library of life.

How can you determine the effect of the environment on an organism?

The environment can affect an organism in a multitude of ways. The impact can be transient or longer term; within an individual or across generations. The environment can also lead to molecular, cellular, physiological or behavioural changes. For example, the expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the external environment, such as where the organism develops or factors associated with where it is located. Gene expression could also be influenced by an organism’s internal environment, including hormones or metabolism. Finally, the genome itself – genetic factors that vary between individuals in natural populations – could also influence gene expression.

Research groups at EMBL look at how variety in organisms comes about

Untangling the impact of genetic and environmental variation can be very challenging and for a long time, scientists have tended to focus on minimising variations in the environment in order to understand how changes in genotype affect phenotype. This, alongside the deeply embedded “one genotype = one phenotype” metaphor, has meant that environmentally induced phenotypic variation has been ignored in favour of ‘‘more useful and precise’’ study of genetic polymorphisms. This is despite the fact that from as far back as the early 1900s, scientists have known that the phenotype of an individual depends on the interaction between its genotype and environmental cues! Today, we finally have the power to consider the impact of the environment on phenotype. We can make precise measurements at the molecular, cellular and organism scales in controlled environments that can be varied and we can sequence genomes at the same time.

We can also take human data paired with environmental data – for example in the context of some of EMBL’s research interests such as infectious disease and microbiomes – to understand the quantitative effects of the environment and its influence on human biology. Pioneering projects such as Tara Oceans have also allowed us to research the interactions between organisms and the environment by generating reference data, discovering emergent ecological principles and developing predictions about how ecosystems will be affected by a changing environment. Understanding how organisms exist together and in changing environments is of fundamental importance for our understanding of biological principles and our knowledge of life.

What challenges are currently being faced in this field?

Studying organisms in their environment will become increasingly important.

Understanding the behaviour of individual molecules, cells or whole organisms is already challenging. Understanding how the environment influences an organism – or populations of organisms – represents a whole new scale in complexity. This is an area that I think EMBL could uniquely contribute to in the future. It will be necessary to shift from researching organisms mainly in the laboratory to studying them in their environment. We will also need to ensure the rapid development of technologies and tools to meet these scientific needs. Alongside this, we need new approaches to integrate large, complex data sets and make sense of them. To rise up to this challenge, we need theory. We are now in a unique position to address the dynamics and complexity of living matter across multiple scales and in the context of changing environment. But we need theory to address societal and planetary issues too. We must aim for a rate of scientific discovery that outpaces the rate of calamity such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, epidemics and climate change.

What can be done to prepare for the future with regard to biological diversity, the organism and its environment?

Research, research and more research! Environmental problems such as the hole in the ozone layer or acid rain were solved by sound scientific approaches. We need to learn from these past scientific and societal successes. Today the ever-increasing numbers of new technologies are allowing us to collect, measure and store data at unprecedented scales. We also need to bring ecologists, zoologists, population geneticists and environmental experts together to address these research questions. Together we can apply cutting-edge technology with rigour, attract new scientific talent and disseminate knowledge to global communities.

What inspired you to organise this symposium?

As a geneticist and epigeneticist, I have explored the intersection between genotype and the environment and how that produces a phenotype. From observing many areas of research – ranging from social insects such as bees and ants, to plant vernalisation and variations between identical twins – I felt that the time is ripe to bring together scientists from many different areas. I also wanted this to be a symposium that would attract scientists from different areas to EMBL.

At EMBL, we want to understand the molecular basis of life. Until now, EMBL has been known for exploring genomic, molecular, structural and cell biology at the level of individual organisms. Looking ahead, we want to study organisms in the context of their physical and biological environments not just in isolation. In order to truly understand life on Earth, we need to study organisms in nature, not just in the lab. One way to understand life at the molecular level will be to try to bring relevant ecosystems back to the lab, to measure and perturb them under controlled conditions. The speakers we’ve invited are experts from many different areas of biology or ecology, and will bring exciting new perspectives to our research.

The EMBO|EMBL Symposium: The Organism and its Environment will take place at EMBL Heidelberg, Germany, from 1-4 March 2020

What is the greatest benefit of this symposium for the scientific community?

The symposium is an opportunity to address how organisms are influenced by a changing environment. It will bring together different research disciplines and go beyond pure genetic or ecological perspectives of phenotypic variation. Geneticists, molecular biologists, evolutionary biologists and ecologists do not necessarily meet under ordinary circumstances. This meeting will enable such interactions and cross-fertilisation.

What will be the main highlight of the symposium?

Today we are in a unique position to address the complexity and dynamics of life at multiple scales, from molecules to ecosystems. We also need to consider the idea that change including in the environment is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, without change, evolution could not occur and none of the amazing biodiversity of life on our planet would exist! I hope that a highlight of this symposium will be some wonderful new insights into evolutionary processes.

 

References

Holley D., (2017). General Biology II, Organisms and Ecology. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 898.

World Wildlife Fund, (2018). Living Planet Report: Aiming higher [PDF] https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/ [Accessed 25 July 2019].

https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/

However the WWF DG is quoted by several articles as describing the crisis as mind-blowing, for example: “https://www.voanews.com/science-health/report-earth-has-lost-60-percent-its-wildlife-1970

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No more browser restrictions!

For those of you who have been coming to EMBL for scientific training over the years, you may have noticed that we recently (finally?!) have a new and improved registration and abstract submission software, with a brand new look and feel.

We have moved to an HTML5 software solution, which offers an enhanced customer experience, meaning that we now no longer have browser restrictions or preferred browsers. The interface is fully responsive for submitters and evaluators alike, and is user-friendly on all devices. YAAAAAAY!!!!

The new software is pretty self-explanatory, but just in case you get stuck, here are a couple of how-to videos for abstract and motivation letter submission.

How to submit an abstract – for EMBL conferences and symposia

 

How to submit a motivation letter – for EMBL courses

 

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10 ways to get your scientific course application accepted

 

Rejection.

We have all experienced it in one way or another. Scientists perhaps more than others – rejected papers, job applications, fellowships, grants or training applications. But what can we do when it happens again and again and again?

In the EMBL Course and Conference Office we see it all – our scientific courses are way oversubscribed, and competition is tough! We’ve taken a look at the most common mistakes that will lead to your application being rejected. These 10 tips will help you to be among the minority of successful course applicants, and while we can’t promise that every application you submit will be accepted, following these tips will ensure that you stay towards the top of the pile!

  1. Apply on time!

It sounds simple, but we have so many requests from late applicants to submit after the deadline. Newsflash – you won’t be considered! The application deadlines are part of a well-planned process, and we stick to it. So plan in advance and don’t leave things until the last minute!

  1. Complete ALL questions directly and clearly

Again – sounds simple, right? It’s amazing how many applicants think some questions are optional. Organisers have to select participants from a highly qualified pool of applicants, and if they have no comparison, you will be put straight on the “no” pile.

  1. Submit all requested documentation

Take the time to collate all requested documentation before submitting your application. If you make it past the first round, these will be vital in securing your spot in the final selection.

  1. Read the guidelines…and follow them!

Generally course guidelines will be provided. Take the time to read through them and make sure you follow them – they are there for a reason!

  1. Be sure that it is the right course for you

Make sure the course WILL actually be of benefit to you. Check that you have the required pre-requisites, and that the learning outcomes are the same as your learning desires.

  1. The motivation LETTER – not the motivation THESIS

Most likely you will be provided with a word limit. Stick to it. If you don’t have a word limit, don’t take this to mean you can write a thesis. The scientific organisers have a lot of applications to go through and limited time to do it. Yours needs to catch their eye from the onset, so make sure the important stuff stands out! 

  1. The motivation letter – the important stuff!

This is perhaps the most important part of your course application, so take it seriously! There is a lot of competition, so show that you have put some effort into it. Things that you should definitely include:

  • Why would you like to attend?
  • What do you expect to learn?
  • How will you benefit from what you learn?
  • How and when will you use the skills learned on the course?
  • A brief description of your current research and future plans
  • Any relevant skills, experience and qualifications
  • Your scientific career and training
  • Relevance in the lab – is the knowledge lacking and can you pass it on?
  1. Show academic curiosity

Make it clear that you have done your research and are actually interested in the topic. If it is clear that you are only applying for the course because your PI told you to, chances that you’ll be considered are slim.

  1. Make sure you can spare the time and, if necessary, get a visa on time

If you have other commitments or think it won’t be possible to get a visa on time to enter the country where the course is taking place, please reconsider and apply for a course taking place at a later date. Otherwise you will take the spot of someone else who would be able to attend.

  1. Show your application to your supervisor

Ask your supervisor to check over your application before submitting. They will have much more experience in submitting successful applications and can give you advice on what to change and adapt to increase your chances of getting accepted.

 

So it’s over to you now! And if you’re not sure where to start looking for your next scientific training course, take a look at our upcoming events under www.embl.org/events.

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Creating an oasis for our participants

In the 21st century, it seems like there is always something to do or some place to be, and the constant enhanced stress levels can sometimes reach boiling point. Often it’s the little things that can help make us feel more balanced, and the EMBL Course and Conference Team have been taking steps to make sure our participants leave our events feeling as relaxed as possible.

Yoga / meditation / prayer room

A couple of years ago we set up a spacious room to provide an oasis of peace and quiet during the sometimes loud and hectic conference environment. The room is equipped with comfortable floor mats as well as yoga and prayer mats. The lights are dimmed to ensure a calm, relaxing atmosphere.

Brain food

Spending hours on end listening to fascinating scientific lectures is great, but it requires a lot of concentration! Our coffee and lunch breaks have therefore been adapted to include more healthy snacks and brain food such as fresh blueberries, dark chocolate, nuts, pumpkin and chia seeds, as well as a range of fresh fruit, vegetables and salads.

Environmentally friendly catering

Although we have always been very conscious of being environmentally friendly when it comes to catering for our guests, we are striving to further reduce the amount of single use food and beverage packaging at our events. Our catering team has also significantly increased the number of local produce suppliers who provide us with the delicious food loved by our participants.

Cosy Corner

In order to create a more relaxed atmosphere, a cosy corner was set up in the Advanced Training Centre where participants can sit back, relax and recharge their batteries.

Increased networking opportunities

Because scientific meetings are not just about sitting through lectures, we have a range of networking opportunities to allow our participants to meet fellow scientists, such as speed networking sessions, meet the editor sessions, science slams, gala dinners, conference parties, organised woodland walks and photo booths.

Childcare options

We know that balancing work with family life can be difficult, and as a result EMBL and EMBO are both working to make attending scientific events easier, with EMBL providing onsite childcare at our conferences and symposia in EMBL Heidelberg, and EMBO offering childcare grants to cover the costs of having a child looked after while one or both parents attend an EMBO funded course or conference. More info can be found here.

Help us to continue improving our services to participants – is there something that you’d like to see at our events?! Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

 

 

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Balancing training with family

Balancing work with family life can be difficult, and often the opportunities for parents to advance their careers are limited as a result. EMBL and EMBO are both working to make attending scientific events easier, with EMBL providing onsite childcare at their conferences and symposia in EMBL Heidelberg, and EMBO offering childcare grants to cover the costs of having a child looked after while one or both parents attend an EMBO funded course or conference.

To avoid any confusion between the two options, here is an overview of what you might be eligible for to help you get the most out of your career and your family.

At a glance

  EMBL onsite childcare EMBO childcare grant
Eligibility EMBL Conferences,  EMBO Workshops or  EMBO| EMBL Symposia taking place at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre Heidelberg, Germany. EMBO Courses, Workshops or EMBO| EMBL Symposia. The EMBL Course and Conference Office deals only with those events taking place at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre Heidelberg, Germany. Grants for other EMBO events should be applied for directly to the individual event organisers.
Who and where? Children are looked after on campus by our highly qualified kindergarten teachers in the EMBL Kinderhaus, Heidelberg, Germany. Childcare grants are available to offset child care costs incurred by participants or speakers of EMBO events. Eligible costs include fees for a baby-sitter or child-care facility, travel costs for a care giver, or travel costs for bringing the child to the city/town where the meeting is being held, etc.
Languages The two main languages of the teachers are German and English. N/A
Childcare times 8:30am – 5:50pm for the duration of the conference Grant applicable for costs incurred in relation to child care costs during the meeting.
Financial details A subsidised fee of €100 per child is payable by the conference participant A total of €1000 is available per meeting, with a general cap of €500 per person. This can be allocated based on need at the discretion of the organisers.
What’s provided? All necessary equipment such as meals, beds, toys and diapers are provided. Eligible costs include fees for a baby-sitter or child-care facility, travel costs for a care giver, or travel costs for bringing the child to the city/town where the meeting is being held, etc.
Who is eligible? One or both parents must be registered participants, organisers or speakers at the corresponding conference. The child must be between 3 months and 3 years of age. Childcare grants are available to anyone attending the event (speakers, organisers, trainers, participants etc.)
How to apply Registration for childcare must be made online 6 weeks before the start of the event by using the “register for childcare link” on the individual conference website. Applicants must indicate during the abstract or motivation letter submission process how much funding they would like to apply for, and what it will be used for. They should also indicate at what stage of their career they are.
Allocation process As childcare spaces are limited, registration will be on a first-come first-served basis. Your place can only be confirmed after payment of the registration fee. The selection is handled by the EMBL Course and Conference Office. The amount of money awarded for the childcare grant is dependent upon the number of applicants per event. The selection is handled by the organisers of the respective meetings.
Contact details childcare@embl.de or Tel.: +49 (0)6221 387 8797. Please contact the organisers of the individual event for more information.
Website EMBL Onsite Childcare

EMBL childcare testimonials

EMBO Childcare Grants

Press release – EMBO childcare grants now available

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