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The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) aims to focus on the biocomplexity of various terrestrial and aquatic systems. Illustration from the NEON Science Strategy brochure, Jan. 2009.
Dr. Colwell, you encourage “from biodiversity to biocomplexity.” How are these concepts the same or different?
Colwell: Biocomplexity takes into account all of the biosciences, from the molecular to the organismic, from the community to the global, that is, a planetary understanding of how the whole system works. We have come from 50 years of reductionism, where we’ve gotten to smaller and smaller components, taking things apart to see how they work. Now we’ve reached a point where we need to put all of this information together so we can understand how the whole system works. That is, I think, the science of the 21st century—the complexity of the living system and the nonliving world and how it functions to sustain us on this planet.
Why is the time right for biocomplexity research?
Colwell: Biocomplexity is facilitated by the tremendous advances in information technology, such as computers, that have happened in recent history. We can now store huge amounts of data. We can merge databases that are quite dissimilar, for example, data from folks who study weather patterns, from scientists who study the ecology of the grasslands of the West, and from those who study systems in a marine environment. Now we can take all such databases, merge them, and search them. We couldn’t do that 25 or 30 years ago. So that’s one of the big advantages.
Another major advantage is that we can now link what we have learned about the structure of DNA and the DNA sequences that compose the genomes of living species on Earth. We can see how they interact and answer some very important questions, such as: Are diverse systems more resilient? Well, how do we find that out? We can now actually do large-scale experiments, with vast amounts of data involved, and come to conclusions, particularly since we can build models with the data and test the model systems to come up with the kind of structure, or systems analysis, that says: Yes, a diverse community is more resilient. Thus, we are able to answer questions we couldn’t answer before.
Biocomplexity requires integrating the information we’ve gathered about atomic structure, molecules, the interactions of large molecules like DNA and proteins, and the structure of organisms. For example, NIH [the National Institutes of Health] launched a program on the biocomplexity of the human body. When you bring all the information together on a global scale, it allows us to understand how our blue planet, Earth, works.
It seems like quite a challenge to integrate so many diverse disciplines to work towards one goal.
Colwell: The biggest challenge is to make disciplinary scientists talk to scientists of other disciplines. It turns out that just the terminology used, say, in oceanography can have quite a different meaning to someone working in systems engineering. So it’s ideal to be able to have a common language, like an Esperanto—which incidentally for science turns out to be mathematics, the common language for all of science and engineering. To answer your question, yes, when we bring all of this information together through statistical analysis and mathematical formulation, we can actually draw out principles operating in these complex systems. With these principles, we can then construct a predictive model for what would happen if we did x, y, or z.
For example, let’s say you want to locate an outer beltway around Washington, DC. The question is, where should you locate it? If you put into a computer all available data on watershed, demography, and weather patterns for the last 100 years, then you can build a model and provide a scientific basis to indicate if we put the beltway here, this is what we can reasonably predict will happen in terms of population patterns, destruction of aquatic vegetation, etc., but if we locate it in this other area, we might have less interference with the natural environment. In other words, we need to go from tree hugging to tree prediction.
Can the science of biocomplexity predict how systems may or may not survive on Earth?
Colwell: That’s the big question. I think it can certainly tell us why species have gone extinct and the pressures that caused extinctions, such as environmental pollution, human population growth, etc. You might say we must already know that but we really don’t. We don’t quite know the tipping point, say, for codfish or haddock. Is it really just overfishing or some combination of factors such as changes in temperature and salinity, introduction of chemicals into the ocean, and so on? We certainly need to know these things soon or we will have more Dead Seas instead of Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
How does biocomplexity help us understand certain aspects of evolution?
Colwell: Evolution goes on all the time. It doesn’t stop. Biocomplexity can help us understand how the physical-chemical environment exerts pressure on a species so that selection, and perhaps evolutionary change, occurs in response to those pressures. For example, we know that when bacteria are growing in an environment that has a lot of heavy metals, the bacteria will pick up genes, through lateral transfer, for resistance to the heavy metals and perhaps for the ability to metabolize the metals for energy. We already know that for unicellular organisms. Eventually, we will be able to project, through the analyses of biocomplexity, what happens to higher forms as well.
How would you teach biocomplexity in the classroom?
Colwell: Biocomplexity is really all of the things we now study—biodiversity, endangered species, biochemistry of the environment, molecular genetics, and so on. But they’re like silos in a desert, all stacked up individually. We need to make the connections so that data flow among all of the silos can help us draw science-based conclusions.
Biology is becoming more mathematical. And I would say that one of the most important actions we need to take is to work hard to improve and strengthen instruction in mathematics, particularly in middle schools. A strong foundation in mathematics will help students to understand biocomplexity.
It’s important to emphasize to students that the biosciences are in the midst of a glorious age of knowledge expansion and excitement, and they are gaining a depth and breadth of understanding that we never have had before. Now we can sequence the entire genome of a species for a few thousand dollars, when it was millions of dollars 10 years ago. We can actually understand genomic complexity. We can understand what genes do. We can understand the regulation the environment places on gene functions. All of this gives us a systematic understanding of our planet in a way we’ve never been able to have in the past. The most important thing is that it gives us a predictive capacity so that we can say with greater reliability that, if a certain action is taken, what the outcome will be. We need to be able to have that power so that we can protect habitats and move from emotional argument to a solid scientific understanding and prediction.
Why do you favor establishing a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), and what can NEON accomplish?
Colwell: NEON is a concept whose time has come. We must have a finger not only on the pulse on the environment of our continent and our country but also on that of other continents that make up our planet. We can do this in the same way as astronomers have their eye on the sky with their telescopes.
In the U.S., we need to focus our eyes on terrestrial and aquatic systems by locating 25 or 30 sites where sophisticated instrumentation taking the same kind of measurements gives us data such as temperature, nutrient concentrations, weather patterns, and genomic analysis of microorganisms in the soil, water, and air. Combining all these data will allow us to draw out common operating principles, whether a marine coastline, grassland, or alpine meadow. It will also enable us to determine the specific principles operating for a particular system, that is, a marine site as opposed to a prairie grassland.
We need to undertake this activity for the simple reason that it will help protect this blue planet. It’s the only one we’ve got. We all want to make sure it’s there for future generations.
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