The $625,000 grant will fund Chalcraft and his team of researchers for the next five years. It will also allow him to establish research opportunities for middle and high school students in eastern North Carolina by creating a research network modeled after the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. The program will not only allow students to conduct experiments at their schools, but it will also bring them to ECU to synthesize their results and compare them to the findings of other schools throughout the North Carolina coastal plain.
Dr. Chalcraft’s research is already helping us better understand the reasons why organisms live where they do and the reasons natural ecosystems change over time. But his work is really about much more.
Knowing why frogs and salamanders thrive or perish in a plastic tank is the first step to understanding why species disappear all over the planet. It is estimated that species are being lost at a rate 100 to 1,000 times the fossil record. Some scientists believe that we are in the midst of a mass extinction and if we cannot prevent the increased loss of biodiversity on the planet, we will see the permanent loss of life unrivaled since the end of the dinosaurs.
It is a very personal quest for Chalcraft. He sees biological diversity as our natural heritage, and believes that we have an ethical obligation to do what we can to preserve it.
“Understanding what controls the diversity, distribution, and abundance of these animals in incredibly important if we want to ensure that this sort of biological diversity will be present for future generations to admire and/or make discoveries,” he said.
Indeed, it is the potential for future discoveries that speaks to the pragmatist in Chalcraft.
“With biological diversity sometimes you don’t see the value of some things until they’re gone. There could be lots of things within these various organisms that could be useful from a pharmaceutical perspective,” he said. “Who knows if the cure for cancer is actually hidden in the genetic code of any particular frog species. If that species disappears before anyone looks, mankind may miss out on a hugely important opportunity.”
That the cure for cancer may rest in the DNA of a bullfrog is not as improbable as it may seem. Examples of seemingly random discoveries are commonplace in science. In 1969, a microbiologist vacationing in Norway discovered a fungus in the soil that was later shown to have immense medical benefits. The fungus is used to make cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant drug used in organ transplants to prevent the recipient’s body from rejecting the new organ.
According to Chalcraft, the loss of biological diversity is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing our planet. Understanding the processes that control population size, health, and diversity of amphibians in temporary ponds is Chalcraft’s way of combating the loss of plant and animal species in eastern North Carolina. It is his hope that the knowledge he gains can be applied to other species and ecosystems throughout the world.
To learn about the ECU Department of Biology, please visit www.ecu.edu/biology.