Jonathan Losos

Researcher Jonathan Losos. Photo courtesy of Washington University.

ST. LOUIS • Three powerhouse local institutions are teaming up to bankroll a new initiative that could make St. Louis an international player in the effort to stop further extinctions of plants and animals.

Washington University, the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden are starting a new partnership to bolster their collective conservation efforts.

The university has recruited a Harvard researcher to lead the cause.

The new effort is the Living Earth Collaborative, which will be run by Jonathan Losos, a Ladue native who returns in January to Washington U. where he earned his tenure before Harvard called him away.

The idea behind the new initiative is that the zoo, the Botanical Garden and Washington U. combine forces when it comes to research.

By having the zoo and the Botanical Garden team up with the university, organizers hope biodiversity causes will resonate more with the general public. Losos — who is also a popular author — has been touted as the kind of rare scientist who can translate complex biodiversity science to laymen and policy leaders.

The collaborative is driven by a sobering research findings: one in five plant species is threatened with extinction while animal populations continue to decline.

There’s no time to waste, according to Washington U. Chancellor Mark Wrighton. So he put his money where his mouth is — about $6 million — and labor behind it, as will the Botanical Garden and the zoo.

“People love animals and they love the experiences they have in the natural world with plants and animals,” Wrighton said. “What we need to do on one hand is raise people’s consciousness to the changes that are occurring, and bring together leaders to try to develop an approach to reducing the consequences of humankind on diminished biodiversity.”

Part of that money includes Losos’ endowed professorship, which was created in honor of former Washington U. Chancellor William H. Danforth.

‘A game changer’

Losos wants to kick off the collaborative with a meeting of the minds. All three institutions have worked together over the years, but this formalizes the partnership.

“If performance is one-tenth of the promise, this is a game changer for conservation,” Jeffrey Bonner, chief executive officer for the St. Louis Zoo said. “There is no collaborative like this anywhere in the world.”

He’s particularly excited about what the new collaborative could mean for conservation efforts.

Bonner recalls the zoo’s work in Kenya, creating a safe corridor for zebras. In the process, plants in that area recovered, too — and quickly. It wasn’t monitored, though Bonner said he’s sure that data would be useful for restoration elsewhere. It was a wasted opportunity.

That kind of research might more likely be pursued under the collaborative, with 50-something doctoral-level researchers from the Botanical Garden, in addition to the experts at the university.

“I believe that we need to focus on interdisciplinary research,” said Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “It’s all very well for each one of us to be conserving a little reptile or a lemur or a plant species, but often conservation is a complex mixture of species discovery, assessing their conservation and building the recovery of that species in an ecosystem.”

Researchers at the garden and the zoo can tap into the network of other Washington U. departments as the need arises for expertise, from political science to medicine.

‘Just getting started’

Jonathan Losos

Jonathan Losos poses for a photo with a small lizard. (Photo courtesy of Washington University)

Losos flirts with the idea of homing in on a geographic area, such as Madagascar, where both the garden and the zoo have worked extensively. Losos calls it “a biodiversity hot spot.”

“We’ll look carefully at the three institutions to see if there are several areas where we can pick out a problem or topic and make a major advance there,” he said. “But we don’t know what those are yet. We’re just getting started.”

That’s one of several tenets of the new collaborative, according to its incoming leader. He hopes to build opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students in the program, and to possibly create a related postdoctoral program.

Losos also envisions public lectures, workshops and other events.

Bonner said the zoo has more than 3 million visitors a year and is nimble enough to change the educational programming to interpret the work the collaborative is doing in a way that will connect with the public.

“As scientists, one of the problems we have is pointy-headed research, and that knowledge is poorly translated to the public at large,” he said.

Losos is hopeful the collaborative could someday extend to the University of Missouri-St. Louis Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center, St. Louis University and the Danforth Plant Science Center.

“Hopefully this is a win-win all around,” he said. “Part of the idea is that St. Louis already has all of these institutions, but the whole could be so much more than the sum of the parts.”