The option values of biodiversity describe nature’s potential to provide currently unknown or unrealized benefits at some point in the future. For example, while many species may not currently have any realized material contributions, a small number of taxa may have enormous potential to support new industries or prevent major agricultural crops from collapsing. For this reason, scientists continuously search for species with hidden uses: entomologists search for insects that can control pest species, microbiologists search for bacteria useful in biochemical manufacturing, and agricultural scientists search for genetic varieties of plants that can produce more food to feed a growing human population. As fears of antibiotic resistance become reality, archaea (widespread single-celled microorganisms with no nucleus which are also thought to be the oldest life forms on Earth) may be used to develop new classes of antibiotic medicine (Metcalf et al., 2014). Some researchers also hope that studying primates—the likely original source of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and malaria (Martin et al., 2005)—may allow us to one day find cures for these diseases. It is worth noting that the effectiveness of using animals to study human diseases remains highly controversial (Archibald and Clotworthy, 2007; Festing and Wilkinson, 2007; Rollin, 2007), and that many people believe that the suffering and death of animals during biomedical research is unethical.
This continuous search for valuable or useful natural products, called bioprospecting, has already contributed a great amount to global economic development, and is expected to become even more important in the coming decades. This is particularly true in the rush to find replacements for climate sensitive crops that may be threatened by climate change. For example, researchers hope that the genetic diversity in wild coffee populations can act as an insurance policy in case our warming planet damages currently popular commercial strains (Davis et al., 2012). There is also much hope that plants from Africa will lead to new medical treatments, for diseases such as malaria, cancer, and high blood pressure (Gurib-Fakim, 2017). It is for reasons such as these that losing even small portions of expansive ecosystems concerns scientists. The extinction of even one valuable species or gene can represent a tremendous loss to humanity, even if many other species are preserved.
Bioprospecting, the search for valuable or useful natural products, has already contributed greatly to global economic development.