Biodiversity Research

Biodiversity research aims to document the enormous diversity of life on earth and to identify the factors that generate and maintain this diversity. Scientists at UBC's Biodiversity Research Centre (BRC) investigate the ecology, evolution, and conservation of biological diversity through research at all levels, from genes to ecosystems through to interactions with society. As the scope of global climate change, human-caused habitat alterations, and associated extinction rates rise, the need to understand and conserve biodiversity and the ecosystem functions that it sustains has never been more pressing.

 
Listen to the former BRC Director Sarah (Sally) Otto talk about her research, biodiversity, and the new Beaty Museum.

Research Strengths of the Biodiversity Research Centre

Community Ecology
The Earth is losing species at a higher rate than at any other time since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Research at the BRC aims to identify factors that determine the species composition of a community and how the composition of a community affects core ecosystem functions, such as carbon fixation and decomposition, as well as the dynamical stability of the community. For example, by mimicking the extinction of species experimentally, research at the Centre reveals the broad changes in ecosystems that we might expect as a result of species loss from the biota. [Bradfield, Burton, Carrillo, Ford, Harley, Martin, Myers, O'Connor, Pither, Richardson, Sinclair, Srivastava, Tseng, Vellend]

Comparative Genomics
Clues to the evolutionary past of a species are embedded within its genome. Scientists at the BRC examine differences among genomes to uncover signatures of past selective events and to reveal historical processes that shape the genome, such as polyploidization, horizontal gene transfer, and hybridization. Research within the Centre uses high-throughput genomic methods and bioinformatics, alongside experiments and theory, to study how genomes evolve, how species originate, and how novel traits arise, such as domestication traits in crops and weedy traits in invasive plants. [Adams, Aitken, Cronk, Graham, Fast, Keeling, Otto, Rieseberg, Schluter, Taylor, Whitton]

Ecosystem Services and Conservation Policy
The ecological impacts of environmental change have real implications for people (e.g., through ecosystem services, such as air and water purification, natural resource production, and other benefits to humanity) and so demand management and policy responses. Ecosystem-based management is supported by research at the Biodiversity Centre that integrates community ecology, environmental change, policy studies, and social-ecological interactions. Conservation policies protecting our flora and fauna are also supported by research into such topics such as the value of indicator species, identification of critical habitat, and assessments of extinction risk and management plans, as they relate to the Species at Risk Act of Canada. [Burton, Chan, Coops, Ford, Martin, O'Connor, Pauly, Pither, Srivastava, Taylor, Trites, Velland, Vincent, Walters, Whitton]

Environmental Change
Humans are rapidly altering the environment of many species, reducing range size and habitat quality and altering ecological processes. Researchers at the Biodiversity Centre are exploring how species and communities respond to altered environmental conditions, how processes of migration and species assembly are affected, and how evolutionary processes influence which populations are able to keep apace of environmental change. [Bradfield, Burton, Carrillo, Doebeli, Harley, Martin, Myers, O'Connor, Pither, Richardson, Sinclair, Tseng, Vellend]

Evolutionary and Ecological Theory
Mathematical modeling is an important tool in biodiversity research, as it allows scientists to explore processes that act over large time or spatial scales and to reveal the interrelationships among factors influencing ecological and/or evolutionary processes. Modeling studies in the Biodiversity Research Centre have explored the evolution of genomes, mating systems, cooperation and social systems, the history of and processes underlying phylogenetic diversification, the ecological dynamics of communities, and the impact of different resource management strategies on population viability. [Aviles, Doebeli, Maddison, Martin, Otto, Pennell, Schluter, Srivastava, Walters, Whitlock]

Marine Biodiversity
The vast majority of the Earth's oceans remain unexplored, and the diversity, distribution, abundance, and interrelationships of marine life represent one of the greatest frontiers in modern science. Research within the Centre has improved our understanding of the evolution and maintenance of biodiversity in marine systems and the role of different species in the structure and function of marine ecosystems. This basic knowledge is critical for inferring the early stages in the evolution of life on earth, understanding how organisms adapt to the pressures of different marine environments, and determining how to best manage and conserve marine resources in the face of human activities and environmental change. [Brauner, Clarkston, Harley, Leander, Martone, Pauly, Schulte, Suttle, Taylor, Trites, Vincent]

Microbial Diversity and Evolution
Scientists at the BRC investigate the biodiversity present among some of the least understood organisms: microbes, including bacteria, archaeans, eukaryotes and viruses. This research addresses fundamental questions about the interrelationships and evolutionary histories of microbial life forms using genomic, molecular, and detailed morphological comparative approaches. [Fast, Keeling, Leander, Redfield, Suttle, Parfrey; see also the Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution]

Plant Evolution
Plants are among the most conspicuous organisms around us, they occupy almost every terrestrial habitat, and they are crucial for our food supply. Researchers at the Centre are studying a variety of topics concerning plant evolution including speciation, invasiveness, adaptation, developmental evolution, systematics, gene expression, genomics, mating systems, and polyploidization. Systems studied include natural populations, cultivated plants, and genetic model systems. Some research uses resources in the UBC Botanical Garden and the Herbarium. [Adams, Aitken, Carrillo, Cronk, Graham, Martone, O'Connor, Otto, Pennell, Rieseberg, Whitton; see also the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research and the UBC Herbarium]

Population Ecology
A myriad of factors influence the population size of a species, including predators, disease agents, and resource levels, as well as natural and human-induced disturbance. There is a long-standing tradition at UBC of world-class research investigating these factors and determining their relative importance, especially in species whose population sizes cycle over time. [Burton, Carrillo, Ford, Myers, Hodges, Krebs, Tseng, Sinclair]

Speciation Research
Understanding biodiversity not only requires that we know what species are present and what factors ensure their survival, but also what factors promote diversification and speciation in the first place. Modern human practices act to homogenize environments and promote the migration of individuals among otherwise isolated locations. These practices may have a long-term impact on biodiversity by impeding diversification. Research at the Biodiversity Centre has revealed how ecological interactions, such as competition and predation, as well as spatial heterogeneity and gene flow, each influence the speciation process. [Doebeli, Irwin, Schluter, Rieseberg, Otto, Pennell, Taylor, Whitton]

Systematics and Phylogenetics
With an estimated 30-50 million species on earth, the vast majority of which have not even been discovered, a major goal of biodiversity research is to identify, describe, and classify species, promote an understanding of their origins, and place them within the Tree of Life, which represents our shared biological heritage. Research within the Centre has clarified the phylogenetic relationships among such diverse groups as protistis, land plants, fungi, fish, and spiders. Our researchers have developed methods to discriminate species, to build and date key divergence points, and to study how organisms have evolved across the Tree of Life. These activities improve our understanding of the processes generating biodiversity and help prioritize conservation efforts. [Berbee, Clarkston, Cronk, Graham, Keeling, Leander, Maddison, Otto, Pennell, Rieseberg, Taylor]

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