Leggi in italiano

Corals and a sea urchin pictured in the Sicily sea. Marine environments will be among the ecosystems studied by a new biodiversity research centre. Credit: Giorgio Cavallaro/iStockphoto/Getty Images.

This is the fourth article on the five new research centres to be rolled out nationally using funds from the post-pandemic recovery plan. Read the first three here, here and here.

Italy is one of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots, home to half of the nearly 20,000 plant species and a third of the nearly 100,000 animal species living on the continent. “Our country has plants that date back to the Messinian age, about 7 to 5 million years ago, which are thus able to withstand droughts, and organisms that live in high mountains and are capable of withstanding floods,” explains Massimo Labra, botanist at the University of Milano-Bicocca. “The knowledge and the solutions we can derive from the monitoring, preservation, restoration and valorization of biodiversity could be exported to other countries in Europe and northern Africa,” he says.

Labra is one of the main authors of the scientific programme of a new National Biodiversity Future Center (NBFC) which aims to turn Italy’s biodiversity into a scientific and economic resource. The centre, coordinated by the National Research Council (CNR), was first announced in 2022 and began at the end of May 2023. With about €320 million from the European Union’s COVID recovery programme, NBFC has so far recruited nearly 350 postdocs and PhD students to join nearly 1,500 researchers in partner institutions. Luigi Fiorentino, a law professor at Sapienza University in Rome, has been made president of the centre, while a scientific director has yet to be appointed.

The centre has 50 partners including research institutes, universities and companies whose activities are organised into eight spokes coordinated by a central hub hosted by the University of Palermo. “Palermo has symbolic value for the challenge we are facing,” says Gianluca Sarà, marine ecologist at the university and one of the coordinators of the two spokes on marine biodiversity. “The city sits at the centre of the Mediterranean and already has collaborations with nearby countries on biodiversity conservation and restoration,” he says. Also, Sicily is home to several ecosystems which are highly representative of the central Mediterranean.

Two spokes will be devoted to the each domain studied by the centre: marine, terrestrial and freshwater; and urban biodiversity. Some spokes will gather taxonomic, molecular and genomic information on poorly known species and assess their response to stresses caused by global warming, local human activities and their interaction. “We selected nearly a thousand species living in Italian seas in vastly different ecosystems based on the ecological role they play in their community and on their vulnerabilities,” explains Sarà.

A second group of spokes will look for solutions to stop the loss of biodiversity and the decline of ecosystems. On fishing, for example, Sarà says that: “While one spoke will consider the impact of fishing on marine biodiversity, another will study how changing the width of fishing net meshes could reduce their impact.”

NBFC researchers will study terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity in 12 large sites that cover nearly 17% of the country. “They are representative of Italian ecosystems on land,” explains Donatella Spano, a researcher who studies the impact of climate change on forests and crop production at the University of Sassari and is co-leader of one of the spokes on terrestrial biodiversity. Special attention will be devoted to the interaction between endemic and alien species. “We want to gather evidence on the status of the ecosystems, their response to extreme weather events and the services they can offer,” says Spano.

Cities will be studied as ecosystems in their own right. “The study of urban biodiversity is a recent field, but there is already robust evidence about its positive impact,” says Labra. “Studies show that green areas in Italian cities reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases, exposure to contaminants and heat islands. Biodiversity is also a resource for new bioactive molecules for foods, drugs and supplements.”

The main legacy of the NBFC will be the Science Biodiversity Gateway, a physical and virtual access point to the knowledge and solutions it produces. It will have two physical sites – one in Venice that will host exhibitions and the other in Palermo with an observatory on Mediterranean biodiversity which will encourage new research. The virtual part will have four digital platforms to share the data gathered by the scientific spokes.

“The first platform will collect a digital version of 10% of the nearly 50 million exhibits kept in natural museum collections in the country,” says Telmo Pievani, philosopher of science and evolutionist at the University of Padova who leads the centre’s communication and public engagement. “Italian collections are incredibly rich but few of them have been digitised and are therefore difficult for researchers around the world to access.”

The second platform will collect molecular and genomic information, while the third one will collect the chemical properties of a selection of bioactive molecules. The fourth platform will be devoted to monitoring biodiversity and its relationship with ecosystem functions and services, providing vital information and tools for those planning responses to environmental change.

The gateway will be useful for researchers who want to test scientific hypotheses, public institutions that manage protected areas, as well as private companies.

“Companies in the field of artificial intelligence, remote sensing, computer vision or robotics could adapt their technologies to improve monitoring or enable restoration,” explains Alberto Di Minin, economist at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and chief innovation officer of the centre. Energy companies that plan to build photovoltaic or wind parks could also use this resource to preemptively assess their impact on biodiversity.

About €30 million will be directed towards small and medium Italian enterprises and protected areas to finance projects that are consistent with the centre’s goals. Another €27 million will be devoted to training programmes for postdocs and PhD students and funding spin-offs and start-ups, says Riccardo Coratella, director general of the centre.

The other legacy that it hopes to leave is a new generation of biodiversity experts. “We have launched a national biodiversity PhD,” says Sarà who coordinates the programme. The first group will consist of nearly 40 students.