Prioritizing conservation of the world's biological diversity to meet basic human needs

Even though you might not always see them, nature provides people with "services" that are essential for our survival. Everything we eat, drink, breathe, and build comes from a species somewhere. Species and the habitats they live in produce our crops and fisheries, clean up our pollution, give us oxygen to breathe, purify our drinking water, control pests and disease, and provide us with bioenergy. It is nature's services that make Earth habitable and prosperous for humans.

But nature's services are being compromised by the rapid loss of species from our planet. We are going to lose between one-third, and one-half of all species on Earth in our lifetime. We do not have the time, money, or people to save them all. Dr. Brad Cardinale, of the University of Michigan, works to prioritize conservation efforts by trying to figure out how many species and which one's need to be saved to protect nature's services. He capitalizes upon biodiversity to create solutions for biofuels, freshwater quality, climate regulation, and pollution thereby determining how human health and well-being are linked to the great variety of life on our planet. In so doing, he is finding win-win scenarios where conservation of the world's biological diversity will also meet basic human needs.

It is projected that in the next 5-10 years, his research group and their colleagues will be able to say with some accuracy how many species we need to: (1) maximize the yield and stability of algal biofuel production, (2) accelerate release of O2 into, and removal of CO2 from, the atmosphere, (3) clean up several forms of pollution from freshwater streams and lakes. To accomplish these goals, Dr. Cardinale simulates species extinctions in his experimental facility at the University of Michigan, which is perhaps the most advanced facility in the world for measuring how changes in biodiversity affect the goods and services that freshwater habitats provide to society. Dr. Cardinale follows-up these experiments with natural surveys of real lakes and streams to determine if ecosystems with a greater variety of species provide more goods and services. Lastly, Cardinale then collaborates with economists to estimate the value of biodiversity for humanity, and with engineers and landscape architects to find real, practical solutions for preventing diversity loss and protecting people's needs in the process.

Dr. Cardinale's current research includes:

  • Algal Biofuel: Determining how biological diversity of algae might help us produce biofuel more reliably. The genetically modified species we tend to grow in the lab for biofuel do very poorly in field conditions when they are subject to environmental fluctuations. Dr. Cardinale believes that nature has already developed natural groups of algae that can produce large amounts of biocrude oil, and do so more stably through time than anything we presently manufacture in a lab. Rather than fight against nature, he is looking to see if we can use nature to meet our energy needs while conserving biodiversity at the same time.

  • Freshwater Quality: Dr. Cardinale is working to understand how many species are required to clean up pollution from rivers and lakes. He has found that freshwater habitats with more species do better at removing some of the most widespread pollutants from the water. Thus, conservation of species' diversity may be a win-win scenario because it also improves water quality.

  • Harmful Algal Blooms: In many polluted lakes, blooms of cyanobacteria can produce neurotoxins that are poisonous to people and creatures. Current water treatment facilities don't have the technology to remove these toxins from water, so the only way of preventing this problem is to keep cyanobacteria in check before they bloom. Dr. Cardinale studies how promoting growth by "good" algae can keep "bad" algae like cyanobacteria in check, ultimately reducing the frequency and impact of harmful algal blooms.


Bradley Cardinale is a biologist who uses theory, experiments, and syntheses of existing data to understand and predict the consequences of biodiversity loss for humanity, and to reverse these impacts through conservation and restoration of ecosystems. He is perhaps best known for his experiments and meta-analyses that have helped build a scientific consensus on how biodiversity loss will affect the functioning of ecosystems and their ability to provide society with the goods and services needed to prosper.

Dr. Cardinale is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 2002, and completed a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cardinale has published more than 90 scientific and popular articles, and won several research awards, including the Hynes Award for the most influential paper by a young scientist from the Society for Freshwater Science. In 2013, he became an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and an elected member of the science committee of the United Nation's Environmental Program Future Earth. In 2014, Cardinale was named one of "The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds" by Thomson Reuters, one of the main sources of impact factors used in the assessment of scientific articles and careers. Cardinale ranked among the highest 1% most cited researchers for the field of Environment/Ecology.

Dr. Cardinale's grandfather grew up in the southern U.S. during the Great Depression. His family didn't have the money to buy food, clothing, or building supplies for a house. So instead of going to school as other children did, he spent his days hunting and fishing to take care of his family's basic needs. When Dr. Cardinale was young, his grandfather would take him to do the things he did growing up. Dr. Cardinale was exposed to his grandfather's love of the outdoors, and was heavily influenced by his respect for nature, which was particularly strong given that his family's survival had depended on it. Now, 40-years later as Dr. Cardinale is raising his own family, he is struck by how quickly we are losing nature and the benefits it provides to people. Dr. Cardinale's five year old daughter and three year old son may well lose all opportunity to see lions and cheetahs in the wild, to scuba in a coral reef, to walk along a free-flowing river, or hike in old growth forests. He wants his kids to be able to see and enjoy nature as he did with his grandfather, and he wants to make sure nature will continue to meet their basic needs of food, water, air, building supplies, energy and similar things they need to be healthy and prosperous.




World's Most Influential Scientific Minds, 2014

Elected Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2013

Elected member, Science Committee of Future Earth, 2013

Harold J. Plous Memorial Award, 2010

Bradley Cardinale, 2009