Lionfish of the genus Pterois is among the many forms of marine life that depend on healthy coral ecosystems. Photo courtesy Morgan Bennett Smith / KAUST
A group of leading experts have issued a critical framework for using microbiomes to protect wildlife in an ethical and efficient way.
Beneficial Microbes for Marine Organisms (BMMO), an international network of collaborators with expertise in crosscutting areas of probiotic research, have published a paper in Nature Microbiology, Harnessing the microbiome to prevent global biodiversity loss, that provides a science-based framework to accelerate the responsible research and development of microbiome solutions.
Marine scientist Dr. Raquel Peixoto uses probiotics to boost the recovery of threatened coral ecosystems, shown here at the world’s first Coral Probiotics Village, located in the Red Sea near King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Photo courtesy Morgan Bennett Smith / KAUST
Dr. Raquel Peixoto, founder and co-chair of BMMO, and associate professor of marine science at KAUST, said, "Key ecosystems, which host many forms of life, are at the brink of ecological collapse, driving enormous biodiversity losses and mass extinctions, and disrupting ecosystems central to supporting livelihoods."
Contributing authors include professors Gabriele Berg of The Graz University of Technology; Christian Voolstra of the University of Konstanz; Ute Hentschel of GEOMAR; Rodrigo Costa of the University of Lisbon; Carlos Duarte of KAUST; and ethicist Jeantine Lunsh of Harvard, among other distinguished academics.
The scientists examine the use of probiotics to "reboot" healthy microbiomes and protect key, and sensitive, symbiotic relationships between hosts and their associated microbes. Probiotics are now conventionally applied in agroecosystems, showing that successful applications in open environments are possible with controlled risks.
Beneficial Microorganisms benefit diverse forms of life, including a) marine life, b) corals, c) honeybees, and d) terrestrial land forms. Photo: KAUST
The team propose a science-based framework, outlining a path from laboratory bench to pilot and large-scale applications of microbiomes, to save threatened ecosystems.
"As a network of leading scientists, we are concerned that the technological development of an urgently-needed tool may be delayed by unclear and undefined risk assessment steps," said KAUST Distinguished Professor of Marine Science Carlos Duarte, who serves as executive director of the Coral Research & Development Accelerator Platform (CORDAP).
"In addition, no ethical discussions are available to provide guidelines and rules to accelerate the transition from devising to applying environmental probiotics in a practical and safe way. Therefore, we are highlighting the path from concept to real-world solutions, addressing ethical considerations, as well as risks against benefits."
The paper serves to address this gap. The framework also considers the risk of inaction, and can be adapted to other urgent scientific developments.
"Our framework provides a pragmatic regulatory wildlife-adapted tool to guide scientists and stakeholders through the fight against biodiversity loss," Peixoto said. "It takes into consideration potential side effects of its application, while also considering the high toll of inaction."