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Department of Chemistry Meredith Schuman

Biodiversity and spatial genetics

Biodiversity research is concerned with understanding the great variety of life on earth, how it is distributed over the globe, and how its composition - both biological and geographical - matters for the processes that generate and maintain ecosystems, including those that humans depend on. 

Most organisms on earth depend on plants, directly or indirectly, for food and shelter, and so understanding and managing plant biodiversity is critical for understanding and managing biodiversity as a whole. When we think of biodiversity, we often think about numbers of species - more species, more diverse. But biodiversity encompasses many aspects which matter as much, or much more, for understanding functions and for managing and conserving ecosystems, see e.g.
 Set ambitious goals for biodiversity and sustainability.

Genetic diversity is an important example: it determines the adaptive potential of species in changing environments, because a larger gene pool will tend to support more different kinds of responses to the environment, providing more material for selection. In other words, a species that is highly inbred has less starting material for adaptation.

Although it is getting easier to measure genetic diversity, such measurements still require physically harvesting samples, and sophisticated sample processing, and sequencing genomes on a landscape scale remains prohibitively expensive. Simpler approaches that investigate only tiny parts of genomes are cheaper at the sequencing step, but still expensive and laborious in terms of sample harvesting and processing, and such data are a poorer proxy for total genetic diversity. Finally, understanding the relationships between genotypes and adaptation, or function, requires careful experimentation in realistic environments.
Field studies reveal functions of chemical mediators in plant interactions


Our approach

We are interested in ways to map plant genetic diversity, its relationship to phenotypic or trait and functional diversity, and to other aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem processes. Together with collaborators within and outside of UZH, we take an interdisciplinary approach that starts with "brute-force" georeferenced sample harvesting, genetic sequencing and bioinformatics, and laboratory analyses of different traits, but also incorporates remote sensing (optical spectroscopy, RGB imaging, LiDAR), statistical modeling and machine learning.

We aim to lift some of the barriers to having enough information on the genetic biodiversity of life on earth. Because as rapidly as species are disappearing, the unique genotypes within species may be disappearing even faster.