expert speaks in Detroit lakes Biodiversity and health

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the renowned biodiversity expert from Harvard Medical School who was invited to spend three days in Detroit Lakes by the Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League (also known as the ...

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the renowned biodiversity expert from Harvard Medical School who was invited to spend three days in Detroit Lakes by the Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League (also known as the "Ikes").

Besides a Saturday morning presentation at the Historic Holmes Theatre, Bernstein also spoke to students and faculty at Concordia College in Moorhead and Detroit Lakes High School as well as to medical professionals at Essentia Health.

Dr. Bernstein's presentations focused on "Biodiversity and Your Health" -- specifically, how the loss of species diversity over the past 200 years has had a direct impact on human health and quality of life, as well as what might be done to reverse the trend.

For instance, the axolotl salamander in Mexico is one of a very few number of species that can regenerate its limbs once cut off.

Scientists believe much can be learned from these tiny creatures about why humans lose the ability to grow limbs and organs once they leave their mother's womb.


And yet, Bernstein said, "there are only a few hundred of these creatures left in the wild."

In other words, they are in imminent danger of extinction.

Another rare species, the cone snail (conus cedonulli) is able to ingest live fish by harpooning them with a peptide-coated barb that paralyzes the fish and renders it helpless.

One of the peptides that exists in this snail was developed as a pain-reliever known as xiconotide.

The drug has been used on patients suffering from recurring, intractable pain (such as those dying from cancer), with extremely encouraging results.

"One fifth of them said the pain went completely away," Bernstein said.

Also, the new drug doesn't have the same tolerance issues as opiates -- as in, patients don't have to start taking larger and larger doses of the drug over time in order to get the same results.

But the cone snail is just one of hundreds of organisms that live on the world's coral reefs, all of which are currently endangered by the effects of global warming.


There are two main threats to the coral reef systems of the world: A steady climb in water temperature among the world's oceans, as well as increasing acidity of the water from carbon monoxide emissions, which in turn causes coral erosion.

"The reefs are being melted away (eroded) by carbon dioxide," Bernstein said.

In general, climate change has caused thousands of the world's species to migrate farther and farther away from their natural habitats, while cutting down jungles and pine forests, and clearing prairie for farmland has created widespread habitat loss.

These two factors, climate change and habitat loss, are the biggest threats to biodiversity, Bernstein said.

"We're losing species today at a rate unprecedented since humans have been in existence," he added. "In the past two centuries, that rate (of extinction) has gone about 100 times faster."

By the year 2100 approximately half of the world's estimated 10,000 different species -- only about a fifth of which have actually been identified by name -- may be lost forever, Bernstein said.

The good news is, he added, "We can do a tremendous amount to change this course of events."

Dr. Bernstein then challenged the 280 biology and AP science students in attendance at Monday morning's presentation in the DLHS gymnasium to be the voice of the future when it comes to preserving the world's species diversity.


"As young people, you have fresh insights, undiluted by man's habits of the past," he said. "Also, you are creative ... we need some new ideas, new thoughts on how to do this."

Sally Hausken, vice president of the Prairie Lakes "Ikes" chapter, played host to Dr. Bernstein throughout his stay in Detroit Lakes.

"We think of our leaders as seeing an overview of things, not so much the mini details," she said. "In other words, leaders see the forest and not so much the trees. I would describe Dr. Bernstein as not only seeing an inclusive overview of man, indelibly intertwined with his natural environment, but in addition to that, seeing a great deal of crucial details that factually reveal our total dependence on the natural world for physical and emotional health.

"...I see him as a most knowledgeable leader's leader."

A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at
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