Prof. Bálint, you have been working as Head of the Functional Environmental Genomics programme area at the LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics (TBG) at the Senckenberg Nature Research Society in Frankfurt/Main since October 2020. Can you tell us something about your work? What I’m particularly focusing on in my research is how ecological communities adapt to their environment. Ecological communities are species that live together in an area at the same time and often interact with each other. The most important question for us here is how these communities change as a result of human influence and what this change might mean for us in future.
Climate change, environmental pollution and the introduction of exotic species are some of the most important influences that we can observe in relation to ecological communities.
Soil is particularly interesting for my research group and me because it is essential for food production and has a strong influence on the quality of the food. It is important for us to manage soil to maintain its ability to contribute to human well-being. This is closely related to the wide variety of organisms found in soil. There is an enormous number of tiny mites, worms and springtails living under our feet, interacting with each other and contributing to soil health. Experts believe that there are more than one million species of mites on our planet. In the past, it was impossible for us to identify all the species because of their enormous diversity. We can now use molecular tools to study the DNA of these creatures and find out how their communities are changing due to human impact. This enables us to understand the effects of environmental changes on soil communities much better than in the past.
Why is it important to conduct pure research in the field of biodiversity genomics? What are the benefits for society? Research in general improves our understanding of the world and enables us to make more accurate predictions about the consequences of events. It is not really easy to separate pure research from applied research. A great deal of pure research work focuses on phenomena that are important for people and therefore for society too. For example, we are decoding DNA from Baltic Sea sediments that were deposited at the bottom of the lake a long time ago as part of the PhytoArk research project, which is being funded by the Leibniz Association. Based on their composition, we can understand which species lived there hundreds or thousands of years ago. If we now relate these historical communities to their historical environment, we can use them to predict ecological consequences for the environment. For example, they allow us to draw conclusions about the ecological effects of climate warming at this time based on changes to our climate in the past. Although you could say that this is actually pure research, one of the partners is the Helsinki Commission and its main interest is to discover whether the sediment DNA results can improve its biomonitoring activities to protect the environment in the Baltic Sea, which have been continuing for decades.
What do you think you can achieve through LOEWE research funding, which would not have been possible without it? Biodiversity genomics is a very young and very rapidly growing field at the same time. Many organisations recognise the enormous economic and scientific potential of information from the genomes of the millions of species that populate the earth. Thanks in part to our LOEWE funding, we are now one of the "pioneers" in biodiversity genomics and "are operating right at the cutting edge." The number of biodiversity genome experts conducting research in Hesse has also increased to a number that is internationally relevant through TBG. Thanks to this "pool" of different kinds of expertise, we can work on complex issues that individual scientists could not handle. For example, my research on soil animals is providing important input for colleagues who are interested in biologically active natural products encoded by the microbiomes of these creatures. In turn, without the help of laboratory colleagues and bioinformaticians, I would not be able to sequence and analyse the genomes of hundreds of these species etc. So LOEWE research funding has enabled us to establish a vibrant, collaborative and internationally relevant scientific culture related to biodiversity genomics.
And we have only just begun to reap the fruits of this cooperation work.
Scientists are usually passionate about their job, but that also means it is often hard to make a distinction between work and leisure. How do you switch off? To switch off, I go running and also use sport to explore the surrounding area, discover new places and sights. I am also always amazed how much wildlife you can see in a forest in Hesse early on a Sunday morning. In order to have more time to play with my children, I try to slow down or accelerate, depending on how your view point. (laughs, editor's note).
Which place in the world would you like to travel to because it has special biodiversity and could conduct research there to your heart's content? It would be Papua New Guinea, an area with amazing natural and cultural diversity. It is a paradise for scientists like me.
About the Person
- Head of the program area Functional Environmental Genomics at the LOEWE-Center TBG
- teaches at the Justus Liebig University Giessen
Published in ProLOEWE NEWS
The cover story of the current issue is "How can we make Hesse forests fit for longer periods of drought and the hot summers that are likely to become more frequent?” And following up the topic of heat: the summer holidays in Hesse are about to start. On 2 August, the ProLOEWE Science Rally starts at proloewe.de and offers an exciting holiday programme for children aged 10 and over and their families. Three new LOEWE clusters from January 2022 onwards and twelve research projects in the new "LOEWE Exploration" funding line, as well as many other topics.
A portrait of Prof. Dr Miklós Bálint, Head of the Functional Environmental Genomics programme area at the LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics.