Issue 3, Summer 2003

In Depth: Assessing the Full Value of Wilderness

The Little Things Count

An Essay by Dr. Tyler Kokjohn, Midwestern University, Phoenix

Grizzly bear. Photo by Robin Silver.
Grizzly bears are popular
charismatic megafauna.
Photo: Robin Silver, CBD

As we seek to convince others that protecting wilderness is a rational and vital investment in the future, it is important to avoid focusing the implications of this effort too narrowly. Conserving biological diversity should be a preeminent wilderness preservation goal. Protecting wilderness actually conserves far more biodiversity than the comparative few species—such as elk, wolves, and grizzly bears—the “charismatic megafauna” that humans find intrinsically captivating.

One such forgotten realm of life is the world of microorganisms. Protecting wilderness is one of the best ways to preserve the mind-boggling capabilities of microscopic life forms that are critical to full functioning ecosystems everywhere. Quite simply, microorganisms keep the world and all of its larger, more visible species ticking.

For example, microorganisms such as parasite species substantially outnumber their much larger hosts. Parasitism has appeared independently in almost every animal phylum, nonparasites are frequently hosts, and even the parasites themselves sometimes harbor unique parasite populations. Because each host species may harbor multiple parasite species, a good deal more ecosystem biodiversity actually exists in parasitic rather than free-living life forms.

Collecting samples along the Verde River.
Collecting samples along the Verde River.
Photo: Tyler Kokjohn

Parasites are often viewed as evolutionarily degenerate and problematic, but this view is simply too limited. Parasitic organisms have evolved to thrive in highly stressful environments in which the host attempts to orchestrate their destruction. Solving such unique survival problems has probably created novel biochemical capabilities, and humans may one day realize that certain of these inconspicuous organisms possess useful attributes. For example, hirudin, a saliva protein produced by the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis , is a potent and medically useful anticoagulant. Perhaps other useful parasite bioactive proteins await human discovery and utilization, if we only are careful to protect those environments where they thrive.

More fascinating, some microbes could have been undergoing evolutionary diversification for nearly 4 billion years compared to a mere 600 million years for more complex organisms. In terms of sheer bulk, individual numbers, and critical biochemical activities, microbes dominate the biosphere. Microbiologists have recognized recently that only a tiny fraction of the microbes present in any ecosystem are readily cultured, meaning that the vast majority of bacteria, for example, have never been grown in the laboratory and are uncharacterized.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Dr. David Mann, MWU.
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone N.P. is teeming
with microscopic organisms. Photo: Dr. David Mann, MWU.

Even though microbes are a proven antibiotic source and have long been used in many food and industrial processes, scientists have only recently recognized and harnessed the remarkable biotechnological capabilities some microorganisms offer. For example, heat-stable enzymes obtained from bacterium that inhabit hot springs—called Thermus aquaticus— are used in new DNA analysis procedures that have sometimes freed persons wrongly convicted of crimes and have detected disease-causing mutation in our genomes.

Thermus aquaticus. Photo by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Food Research and Development Centre.
Thermus aquaticus. Photo: Agriculture
and Agri-Food, Canada.

This enormous potential has driven the creation of new companies such as Diversa Corporation (San Diego, CA), which is dedicated specifically to exploring the untapped biotechnological potential of Earth’s microbial biodiversity.

Wilderness is sometimes assigned an economic value based on the revenues projected from extractive activities, ecotourism, and recreation. In addition to some easily recognized benefits, conserving wilderness also safeguards substantial amounts of biodiversity and the evolutionary heritage of the planet.

A bacterium discovered Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky produces a substance that may be an effective anti-cancer drug.  Photo by the National Park Service.
A bacterium discovered in
Mammoth Cave National Park
in Kentucky produces a substance
that may help fight cancer. Photo: NPS

While a precise dollar figure cannot be assigned to biodiversity conservation, the inescapable fact is that the vast bulk of our biological wealth remains wholly unknown. Given this situation, and the understanding that the future benefits attainable from biodiversity may be immense, a consistent wilderness conservation policy represents an eminently logical and practical investment in both our environmental condition and economic future.

Habitat losses and species extinctions are accelerating. Safeguarding wilderness and simultaneously conserving biological heritage makes sense for many reasons, including potentially significant future economic, medical, and national security interests. It is important to make the case that wilderness conservation must be viewed not as nice aesthetic option for some limited areas, but as a vital activity and urgent responsibility to future generations.

Dr. Kokjohn is a microbiologist at Midwestern University, Glendale, AZ. About 15 years ago, he began conducting research assessing the environmental risks associated with genetically modified bacteria. The AWC newsletter sparked his interest in Arizona wilderness issues and he has recently been visiting Agua Fria National Monument to obtain the first-hand knowledge that will make his input at BLM planning sessions and workshops as credible as possible.


Anonymous. 2002. The Biological Value of America’s Redrock Wilderness. Redrock Wilderness 19(3):6.

Larry S. Roberts and John J. Janovy, Jr. 2000. Gerald D. Schmidt and Larry S. Roberts Foundations of Parasitology, 6 th edition. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Carl Zimmer. 2001. Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures. Simon and Schuster, New York

E. O. Wilson. 1992. The Diversity of Life. W. W. Norton & Co., New York

R. M. Atlas and R. Bartha. 1998. Microbial Ecology. Fundamentals and Applications, Fourth ed. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., New York.