LIFEPLAN, the project led by Professor Otso Ovaskainen, is the second recipient in Finland of the highly competitive Synergy funding from the European Research Council ERC. The purpose of this six-year, 12.6 million euro project is to map global biodiversity with scientific tools. At the same time the researchers will be working to understand the effects of climate change and land use on biodiversity.
"Although biodiversity has been studied a lot, most species are still unknown to science. We don’t know what species there are, where they are, what they do and how they affect ecosystem functioning. Now at last we have these recently developed and still developing methods, which enable us to resolve biodiversity in a completely new way," says Ovaskainen, who works at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki.
For Otso Ovaskainen and his collaborators Tomas Roslin of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences SLU and David Dunson of Duke University, this is not their first time embarking on a global plan of sampling and analysis. For instance they have already mapped bird species in the Brazilian rainforest with audio samples, and collected large datasets on fungi and insects with partially automated equipment.
The greatest pressure for mapping is still on fungi and insects.
"You have to remember that we don’t even know the order of magnitude of the number of species in these groups. I could be that there are five million species of fungi – or there could be ten million. At the moment only about 150 000 species have been described scientifically."
Because of the great number of species, we would never be able to find them all with traditional methods. That would take so much time that most of the species could go extinct during the process. This is where technology comes in.
Insect samples will be collected with tent-like Malaise traps. Fungi will be identified using a suitcase-sized machine that runs on a car battery and sucks in air from all around it. The vortex that forms in the machine separates small particles such as fungal spores into a test tube. The DNA of the tube contents will then be analysed through an automated process.
"At first we will of course not be able to identify all the fungal species, because they have not yet been described scientifically. Our project will reveal which fungal families have the greatest numbers of undescribed species, where they are in the world, and where we need additional taxonomic research the most."
Otso Ovaskainen estimates that this new funding may enable us to get a handle on up to half of global biodiversity, as far as the fungi and insects are concerned. This will provide a foundation for statistical estimation of the number of species still to be observed.
A hundred volunteer teams across the world will be brought on board for this massive sampling effort. The teams will take care of the sample collection using identical methods at every location. The project will handle the cost of the equipment, their transportation and DNA analysis, which together will take up a large share of the budget.
This team has previous experience of similar but smaller scale global sampling. Otso Ovaskainen expects that many of the biologists who have previously collaborated around the world will be eager to join this new project. The project will also employ research personnel and people to coordinate the transport of samples and equipment. A lawyer will also be on the payroll, as the sending of DNA samples across borders requires knowledge of legislation and permits.
The collection of samples will be the most outwardly visible part, but the other important foundation of the project relates to the development of statistical methods and bioinformatics.
Otso Ovaskainen calls himself a statistical ecologist and has a background in mathematics.
"The material we will collect is very broad and complex. Of course we are not simply interested in what species are where, but also in how we can use this material to access the processes that underlie species distributions. To achieve this, we will develop completely new statistical methods," says Ovaskainen.