Biodiversity Benefits Society in Surprising Ways

Extremophile kick-starts new industries
After the discovery of a bacterium that lives at extremely high temperatures in Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs, scientists extracted a heat-resistant enzyme that helps copy DNA. This enzyme was used to develop a lab technique for rapidly duplicating DNA with the help of repeated heating and cooling cycles. Known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), this technique enables DNA fingerprinting, an essential forensics tool, and much of the biotechnology industry, worth more than $95 billion today. (Image credit: Thinkstock.)

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to Live Science in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Every organism on Earth, from microbes to plants to large predators, has evolved unique survival mechanisms and distinct ecological roles. For decades, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded basic research on how these varied organisms — the Earth's biodiversity — functions.

Some of this research has serendipitously yielded unforeseen discoveries that provide important societal benefits. Many of these discoveries would probably not have been produced through mechanisms other than basic research.

For example, recent findings about how geckos climb vertical walls and walk across ceilings led to the development of new adhesives as well as wall-climbing robots that may one day be used to, for example, produce gravity-defying climbing boots and help collect space junk.

Kellar Autumn of Lewis & Clark College, who helped characterize the nanophysics of the gecko's Spider Man-like abilities, said, "Geckos, which evolved 160 million years ago, are so novel that engineers would never have developed nano-adhesive structures without them. It took 15 years and lots of NSF support to understand the basic physical principles of gecko adhesion and then to apply them to make them work. This suggests that there is a library of biodiversity that can be mined for valuable uses if we have enough resources and enough time — in light of high extinction rates — to really understand them." [10 Surprising Ways that Biodiversity Benefits the Economy]

The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.

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