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Biocomplexity: The New Bioscience Frontier

Rita Rossi Colwell


The science of biocomplexity aims to:

  • provide an understanding of complex systems, such as environmental and biological systems
  • integrate data about these systems from many disciplines, for example, physics, chemistry, and biology
  • monitor the interplay among systems of our planet across multiple levels of space and time

May 2004

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.


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?

Biocomplexity is a quantitative and integrative approach to how planetary systems work.

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?

Information technology expedites biocomplexity data gathering.

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.

Studying the DNA sequences of diverse organisms will help answer questions about resilience.

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 data from various disciplines.

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.

The challenge is to facilitate communication between the disciplines.

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.

“We need to go from tree hugging to tree prediction.”

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?

Science will tell us about extinction pressures on species.

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?

It will also help us gain insight into the evolution of species.

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.

All sciences require a strong foundation in math.

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.

Students should realize that this is the age of the biosciences.

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?

NEON can check the pulse of the environment.
This monitoring network can determine the principles operating in ecosystems.
The network’s data may help ensure our planet’s survival.

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.

Rita Rossi Colwell, Ph.D., became the 11th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1998. The NSF is an independent agency of the U.S. federal government that provides support for research and education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. In February 2004, Dr. Colwell joined Canon US Life Sciences as chairperson and both the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health as distinguished university professor. Before coming to NSF, she was president of the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Institute. Dr. Colwell holds a B.S. in bacteriology and an M.S. in genetics from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington. She has authored or coauthored 16 books and more than 700 scientific publications. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Outstanding Service Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences in 2004, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Colwell was interviewed at the 2004 AIBS annual meeting where she received the AIBS Outstanding Service Award.

Biocomplexity: The New Bioscience Frontier

Biocomplexity: A definition under development

Information about this emerging field, from Beloit College and BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium.

Atlas Biosphere

A collection of maps that focus on human populations, land Use, ecosystems, and water resources. The Schematics section looks at the various resource flows and pools that make up individual Earth systems.

Biocomplexity and the Art of Planetary Management

Online article on the merging of biodiversity and ecology studies.

“World Enough, and Time:” A Global Investment for the Environment

Rita Colwell talks about the global challenges that require researchers to take a broad, systematic—even a holistic—view of the environment. Presentation at American Institute of Biological Sciences meeting, 24 March 2001.

National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

Fact sheet on the blueprint for NEON.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The 2002 meeting report, “Visions of the Future,” illustrates why the NIH considers that biocomplexity should be a major focus of future biomedical research efforts.

Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE)

CIESE helps educators exploit the power of technology to improve instruction and to bolster student achievement in mathematics and science.

National Institute for Science Education (NISE)

NISE conducts research and evaluations to encourage systemic reform and improve teacher development in math, science, engineering, and technology education.

For educators: Biocomplexity Project

The Biocomplexity Project of the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium is an initiative “to develop teaching strategies for integrating biocomplexity and its multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving in undergraduate education.”

Long Term Ecological Research: Teacher’s Manual

The Handbook for LTER Education (first edition, 2005). Includes information on program delivery, LTER schoolyard education guidelines, and tips on using LTER data.