Biodiversity Time Machine Reveals a Century of Biological Change • Earth.com

In an unprecedented study, researchers have developed a „biodiversity time machine” to explore the ecological history and biological changes of a freshwater lake over the past century.

This innovative approach could represent a breakthrough in the way we understand and protect biodiversity amid growing environmental concerns.

Study focus

Collaborative research conducted by experts University of Birmingham and Goethe University in Frankfurt, which focused on sediment from a Danish lake known for its extensive water quality records.

Sediments provided a continuous record of biological changes from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to modern times.

How the study was conducted

Researchers used AI to analyze environmental DNA (eDNA) from lake sediment. This eDNA is the genetic residue left behind by organisms such as plants, animals and bacteria.

Experts compared biological data with climate and pollution data to pinpoint the causes of the lake’s historical biodiversity loss.

Principal investigator Luisa Orsini is Professor of Evolutionary Systems Biology and Environmental Omics at the University of Birmingham and a Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute.

„We took a sediment core from the bottom of the lake and used biological data inside that sediment like a time machine – looking back in time to create a detailed picture of biodiversity over the past century at an annual resolution,” Professor Orsini explained.

„By analyzing biological data with climate change data and pollution levels we can identify the factors that have the greatest impact on biodiversity.”

Conservation of Biodiversity

„It is unrealistic to protect every species without affecting human production, but using AI we can prioritize the protection of species that provide ecosystem services. At the same time, we can identify the best pollutants, leading to the regulation of chemical compounds with the most negative effect,” said Orsini.

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„These actions will not only help preserve the biodiversity we have today, but also help promote biodiversity recovery. Biodiversity sustains many ecosystem services that we all benefit from. Conserving biodiversity means protecting these services.

What the researchers learned

The team found that chemical pollutants, including pesticides and fungicides, along with an increase in minimum temperature (1.2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius), are causing significant harm to the lake’s biodiversity.

Although there has been some recovery in the lake’s biodiversity over the last 20 years, the species composition has been altered due to improved water quality and nearby agricultural activities.

Irreversible losses

„The loss of biodiversity caused by this pollution and warming water temperatures is irreversible. All of the species that were lost in the lake 100 years ago cannot return,” said lead author of the study and PhD student Niamh Eastwood.

“Even if the lake recovers, it is not possible to restore the lake to its original state. This research shows that if we fail to protect biodiversity, much of it could be lost forever.”

Valuable insight

Co-lead author Dr. Jiarui Zhu pointed out that their AI models provide valuable insights into historical factors leading to biodiversity loss and may improve predictions of future losses under different scenarios.

„Learning from the past, our holistic models will help us predict the potential loss of biodiversity under 'business as usual’ and other pollution scenarios,” said Dr. Chow said.

„We have demonstrated the value of AI-based approaches to understanding the historical drivers of biodiversity loss. As new data become available, sophisticated AI models can be used to further improve our predictions about the causes of biodiversity loss.

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The implications of this research extend far beyond a lake. The team is expanding their study to include lakes in England and Wales, with the aim of determining the wider applicability of their findings on the effects of pollution and climate change on lake biodiversity.

The study is published in the journal eLife.

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