A passion for the diversity of species

Alexandre Antonelli falls silent for a couple of seconds. He turns a little in his chair, choosing his words with care.
“I want to bring people together to work towards a common goal. Just imagine if we could get ten percent of all biologists and work to solve the ‘tree of life’, in other words how a common ancestor resulted in all living species during the course of evolution. The equivalent of how particle physicists have come together with CERN – I’m almost a little jealous of how successful they’ve been.”

Alexandre Antonelli, Professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences

Alexandre Antonelli, Professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences

Alexandre Antonelli’s office in Gothenburg is like an open book about his life and his research. One moment he’s pointing out the town where he was born – Campinas in Brazil – on a large map of South America that hangs on the door. The next, he’s leafing through the enormous Flora of Ecuador books that were a source of inspiration during his undergraduate studies, or showing a giant seed from one of his many research trips to remote forests and mountains in the tropics.

He’s used to thinking on a big scale, and believing that things can be solved. He took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in two and a half years instead of four (“I studied evening courses, weekend courses, summer courses – everything!”), and became a professor at the age of just 36. Although natural science researchers often specialise in a certain type of fish or plant, for example, Alexandre takes a somewhat wider approach: his field of research is South America.

“I want to understand how biological diversity has changed over time and space, how plants and animals have moved between different areas and climate zones. We can then use this knowledge to get a better understanding of how plants and animals will be affected in the future by a changing climate.”

This subject is called biogeography, and South America is an excellent area for researching it. Together with Central America and the Caribbean, this region is known as the neotropical zone. The zone is home to more species of plants and animals than any other region on earth.

“The emergence of the Andes completely changed the landscape and the climate in this area, and hence also changed the conditions for new species to develop. The entire South American continent is fantastic from a research point of view – every time we go there, we find new species and make new discoveries.”

Today, Alexandre leads a successful research team. His ambition is to include a broad field of researchers in the team – from evolutionary biologists to systematists, geologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and ecologists – in order to obtain an overview of how biological diversity has developed. He carries out research trips to South America four or five times a year, for two to three weeks at a time. These trips are planned in great detail, in order to be as effective as possible. They often consist of gathering plant and animal samples and cooperation with local universities, such as arranging symposia or workshops.

One of the challenges within Alexandre’s research field is a lack of data. Tropical regions have been the subject of considerably fewer studies than Europe and North America, despite the fact that they feature a much wider variety of species and supply the rest of the world with food and raw materials. He sees it as being essential to develop new and improved methods for analysing data and assessing the reliability of researchers’ results.

“Today, we have carried out DNA sequencing of around ten percent of all tropical plants. We simply don’t know how much we don’t know. From an evolutionary biology point of view, the different time scales are also a challenge. We study evolutionary processes that have been taking place for millions of years, and we now need to apply this knowledge to the next 50 years.”

Another challenge involves gathering and coordinating research work about biological diversity. Here, Alexandre draws a comparison with the work carried out by particle physicists in Switzerland in the CERN project. He himself has started a research network that encompasses a number of different subject areas, and he believes that the University of Gothenburg could play a key role in coordinating the work involved with future biological diversity research.

“There’s an excellent environment for the subject here. We’ve received substantial national and international grants and we produce excellent articles, but there is still little talk about biological diversity from academia, the general public or the media. In ten years’ time, I would like to be running a research centre for biological diversity that brings together all the players within the field in Gothenburg, such as the University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg Botanical Garden, Göteborg Natural History Museum, the Maritime Museum and Universeum.”

Alexandre won the Faculty of Science’s research award this year, and his eyes light up at the mention of this. He hopes that it will help to promote the subject of biological diversity so that it eventually becomes a profile area for the university, and is increasingly seen by the general public as an incredibly important, positive area that deserves particular protection.

“Winning the research award was fantastic. Many people are quite blind to different species. They can tell the difference between different models of car or varieties of olive oil, but they find it hard to tell the difference between a jackdaw and a crow, or to know what a buttercup looks like. It’s not easy talking about a subject that many people can’t relate to – and therein lies the challenge.”

 

Alexandre Antonelli

Age: 37
Profession: Researcher, professor
Family: Wife and three children
Lives: In Hagen, west Gothenburg
Hobbies: Travelling, running, spending time in the countryside, photography
At his happiest: “In an entirely undisturbed environment with enough time to take it all in and experience it, and to know that this is how it was before mankind arrived.”