Joe Zuccarello

First meeting
2010, Nov 28h
Last update
evolution of marine macroalgae, molecular taxonomy, biodiversity, phylogeny, life history

“I am interested in how the world works, how things have evolved over time and how algae fit into the world of evolution. Evolution is the backbone of all of biology“

After his PhD in Berkeley, California, and multiple postdocs all around the world, Giuseppe C. (Joe) Zuccarello has been pursuing his research on the evolution and the taxonomy of algae in Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Taxonomy ? Biodiversity ? What is that and why is it important ? Check Joe’s explanations below!


I study evolution and taxonomy of algae, that means determining what the things are, giving them names, looking at how they are related to each other. In Victoria University I teach Evolution, genetics and phycology. That’s been my activity for 6 years (in 2010) now in Wellington and over the 20 years since I did my PhD. That’s what I have been doing : studying algae and their biodiversity.

Why is it important to study biodiversity of algae?

My interest is partly to know what things are and to give them names. It’s always an interesting thing, especially in a world where things are changing: you sort to have to know what the things are before you know if they’ve disappeared or if they become more common, you sort to have to know what the names are. That’s one reason. It does have some interest as far as you know, extinction of species. And also I am interested in Evolution because I’m interested in how the world works and how things have evolved over time and how algae fit into the world of evolution. Evolution is sort of the backbone of all of biology. So I think it is really important. I think it’s the main thing. It makes life interesting to understand Evolution. That’s why, I’m interested in biodiversity and in evolution of seaweeds mostly.

By the way… what is Evolution ?

Evolution is just like your family. You have brothers and sisters, you have your father, you have a grandfather, you have a great grandfather and grandmother, and Evolution is to try to understand the family history of living things. That’s what Evolution is: it’s sort of understanding a family tree. Just like you have a family tree that goes back many many generations and, if you are lucky, you could actually follow it. It’s the same with evolution: you can actually follow the family tree of living organisms and see how they are related to each others : are they cousins? are they great cousins? are they not related very closely? That’s what evolution is, it is the study of the history of life. Like a tree; that’s why evolutionary trees are there : just like the family tree is a picture of the family, evolutionary tree is a picture of life.

Why algae?

Well when I was a young child, I was a rebel and my idea was to do things that people don’t want me to do. I find out that nobody I knew knew anything about seaweeds and I thought that was the reason that I wanted to study that because nobody knew about it. “Hmm, I can study something that nobody knows anything about and I won’t be a doctor like my father wanted me to be and I will study the most weird, strange things I could think of” and that’s why I studied seaweeds, that’s the main reason.

About science and research

The interesting thing about science has always been discovering new things! Discovering things that nobody ever know about the world! That’s always an interesting thing, even if to a normal person they can seem very trivial: to a scientist, who spent a lot of time training, I think it’s great! Learning new things! Even very trivial things, that nobody ever knew before. That’s always been the most interesting thing about science. Trying to solve problems, finding answers, making new problems that you can try to solve and keep your mind working. The hard part are always the same things that scientists complain about: it’s mostly have to do with money that is needed for research. I’m not sure I worry too much about recognition, I have a job, I get paid, I get paid to teach and I get paid to do research so I really don’t have anything to complain about. It is kind of depressing sometimes, when you think you know something about something, and managers and politicians don’t listen to scientists and listen to something else in their mind… that could be sometimes depressing. But as far as my own work, I kind of mostly like it!

When the image of algae is negative…

green tides for example ?

It’s the famous saying: “Don’t shoot the messenger!”. Algae are telling you that something humans are doing is the problem, the algae are not the problem, they’re just the messenger, sort of telling us “we’re doing something wrong here, we’re adding too many nutrients to the water so we get a giant algal bloom”. We’re adding too much pollution to the water so they’re just actually a good thing because they’re telling us that something is wrong. They are not the problem, we’re the problem!

Message for the Youth

Anne-Gaëlle: What would you say to an 8 year old child who is affected by the prospect of a future with climate change, pollutions, biodiversity loss, energy crisis and overpopulation?

That’s a good question and very difficult question. I think it’s not a question for scientists by themselves, it’s a political, economic and social question. What do we want for our lives? Do we want to live in a world where people are starving, where it warms up and makes life difficult for us. They have to be solved politically. Scientists can help I suppose, in a way we can give people some solutions but, if there is no political or social will to listen to scientists, then it’s pointless. Scientists have been telling people about global warming and there are still people who don’t think it’s real. There are scientists who have told people about the loss of ecosystem functioning and how that is a problem; still people cut down trees and they don’t care. Scientists can say something, but unless there’s a political will, from people, from governments you know, we’re not saying anything that can help. I think people understand what is needed: they have to consume less, more wisely, they have to listen to experts and scientific advise Not listen to experts just because they are older or because they are supposedly experts!. But experts have done scientific investigation which show “this is a way of doing something”. This would actually lead to less CO2 being produced, this will lead to maintenance of important ecological functions in the environment. That’s why we have to listen to experts, that’s why scientists are still important, it’s not just because they can make new computer games, it’s because they can tell us you know things we could do to help our live. Unfortunately the history is very bad: politicians do not listen to scientist very often, they don’t listen to experts in the field because they have their own goals. That’s why it’s important that people become knowledgable so they can understand the scientific point of view and they can influence their local politicians and somehow that’s got to be good for people in the long run, I think.

I think seaweeds are important. If you think about global warming, seaweeds and marine algae have been implicated in removing some of that CO2 from the atmosphere. There are studies in seaweeds that can help with some environmental problems. But there has to be political people who agree that is worthwhile to study that.

Update 2017

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