"Biocomplexity and the Environmental Portfolio"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks at the US-Japan Joint High Level
May 2, 2000
Thank you, for the kind introduction.
Minister Nakasone and Japanese delegates, Dr. Lane
and American colleagues, good morning.
It is a pleasure to address the US-Japan Joint High
Level Committee with the backdrop of the Millennium
The Millennium Dialog report is both a retrospective
view and a status report of some of the many areas
where we have enjoyed productive cooperation.
It is also a bold challenge to extend our efforts to
address important issues, which are emerging as we
enter the 21st century.
As we extend our efforts to the global environmental
portfolio of the 21st Century, we conceive a new approach:
This morning, I want to introduce biocomplexity-a new
initiative in research that will help us form an understanding
of the complexity of our planet with a global perspective.
I will highlight biocomplexity-not only as an important
theme for the National Science Foundation-but as a
focus for US-Japan cooperation.
As a few select examples will illustrate, the breadth
and scope of biocomplexity provides a common agenda
for global cooperation and perspective.
It's really the guiding principle to tracing the complex
interactions in biological systems, including human
beings, and between systems and their physical environments.
We stand at the very threshold of forming a new and
deeper understanding of our planet, across the scales
of space and time.
Our new tools-information technology and genomics foremost
among them-are expanding our vision from the minute
to the global.
In parallel is the convergence of the disciplines that
accelerates our understanding. At last we are poised
to chart the complexity of our environment at multiple
We can create observatories that span the globe and
that bring integrated environmental insight into how
to sustain the systems of our planet.
Our task now is to broaden and sustain our societal
investments across science and technology long enough
to reap those profound insights.
This will herald a new era of environmentalism based
on predictive understanding.
I would like to discuss our pursuit of complexity-a
critical perspective for environmental understanding-within
the context of this bi-national dialog.
The logic of NSF's integrative role is reflected in
John Muir's words. As he wrote, "When we try to pick
out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything
else in the universe."
Recognizing the connectedness around us suggests the
outlines of complexity.
The science of complexity has its foundations in systems
theory and chaos theory, but it delves deeper into
the underlying order of our universe.
Complexity brings insight to many worlds, from artificial
intelligence to economics, from ecology to materials
science, and beyond.
We care about complexity because it gives us a perspective
spanning all fields of study and all scales.
Allow me to illustrate biocomplexity in our environment,
including some specific examples where international
cooperation can add power to our scientific endeavor.
Let's begin at the level of microorganisms-our microbial
world, the planet Earth.
We have learned that microorganisms are the oldest,
most diverse, and most abundant form of life on our
They have been evolving a thousand times longer than
all of human history.
They mediate most key chemical transformations of oxygen,
carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in our biosphere.
They purify our water and keep soils fertile. NSF has
set up new microbial observatories to study this astonishing
diversity. We are finding life everywhere.
Ocean exploration has revealed to us an incredible
array of deep-sea microbes with remarkable physiological,
biochemical and molecular adaptations.
These adaptations are important topics that the science
communities of both Japan and the United States can
pursue with shared expertise and capabilities.
Both countries have substantial capabilities for deep-sea
exploration using both manned and remotely operated
Shared access to these vehicles or other laboratory-based
research equipment should be facilitated to encourage
and nurture increased collaborations between research
Increased global collaboration will facilitate a broader
understanding of the diversity of life on our planet-and
how these life forms relate to one another.
For example, just a few years ago, modest support to
a small group of scientists set off a revolution in
how we conceive of the relationship between lifeforms.
DNA sequencing shows that plants, animals, and fungi
now cluster together at the top of the tree of life.
Tracing the family tree will bear fruit in plant breeding,
drug development, and many environmental challenges.
Several initiatives for US-Japan cooperation will add
value to genome databases for greater understanding
of evolutionary relationships and for practical uses
The Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis thailana
Genome Research Project, supported by US (NSF, USDA
and DOE) and Japanese (and also European) researchers,
will sequence the entire genome of Arabidopsis,
an important plant research species.
Moreover, the current international cooperation on
the rice genome assures us that we will soon add the
genomes of the world's staple crops to this tree.
Similar to the Deep Green Project, the Protein Data
Bank catalogs the three dimensional structure of proteins
and nucleic acids, the building blocks of life.
In recent years, Japan has submitted 5 to10 percent
of all new entries. Those contributions will be significant
in the developing field of structural genomics.
Now let's survey a grander scale where systems theory
and chaos pose a challenge. Here we see a computer
simulation of turbulence that simply could not be
matched in the laboratory.
Once more, links between scientific disciplines emerge.
As science writer Curt Suplee points out, the same
equations can describe weather systems and animal
He writes that it all comes down to "understanding
how nature creates order...on the smallest and largest
This understanding will require access to greatly expanded
These machines will accommodate the predictive simulations
of the earth system made possible by increasingly
sophisticated and complex models.
Both NSF and Japanese research institutes are planning
significant new investments to achieve these objectives.
NSF has the Information Technology Research Initiative
and Biocomplexity in the Environment.
While Japanese research institutes have the Global
Change Research Center including the Earth Simulator
and data information facility.
Increased collaborations between US and Japanese communities
would enhance progress.
Our ability to predict El Niņo-the irregular cycle
of shifts in ocean and atmospheric conditions-is a
superb example of our progress on the global scale.
In the early 20th century, British mathematician, Sir
Gilbert Walker, first noted the link between atmospheric
pressure in the eastern South Pacific and the Indian
Ocean-and the monsoon rains in India.
But only after we gathered voluminous amounts of ocean
data and refined our computers could we actually model
and predict El Niņo.
Advances in science and in computing capability make
it possible for scientists to begin to understand
the interconnectedness of phenomena occurring in the
A good example is the disturbing trend of coral bleaching,
which is expanding rapidly on a global scale. This
is an environmental challenge ripe for the biocomplexity
Here we see a diseased star coral, one of the prime
reef-building corals of the tropical Atlantic.
Coral reefs have value in fisheries, tourism, and protecting
coastlines, to mention just a few areas.
But bleaching-the deterioration of symbiosis between
corals and their micro-algal symbionts-has been growing,
even in some of the most remote and pristine reefs.
A major culprit seems to be the global rise in sea
Bleaching is under scrutiny across the scales-from
the level of the cell to the population to the history
of reefs and climate on our planet.
We should explore the possibility of cooperation in
understanding the dynamic systems and complex interactions
that shape our world in this regard-especially of
the oceans that cover two-thirds of the globe's surface.
Now let's look below these oceans-deep inside the Earth-into
the deep mantle that lies below the Pacific Ocean
basin-for the very roots of the Pacific "Ring of Fire."
Years of observations from earthquake waves, recorded
around the world, collectively give us a kind of "cat-scan"
of the planet's interior.
The blue, curved structure in the earth's mantle seems
to be related to the ring of volcanoes and associated
earthquakes that encircle the Pacific Ocean.
To study related phenomena, Japan and the US have developed
the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP).
Beginning in 2003, this equal partnership will study
earth history and earth system processes through ocean
As part of the IODP, Japan has begun construction of
an advanced ocean drilling vessel to be equipped with
deep ocean well-control equipment.
This will allow deeper scientific drilling-and drilling
under more hazardous conditions-than has been done
previously in scientific research.
The United States (NSF) will seek resources to provide
a lighter drillship for recovering large arrays of
shallower, high--resolution cores.
As other countries are expected to join, this new international
undertaking will shed light, literally, on the core
of the Earth's biocomplexity.
As we have seen from these examples, the NSF biocomplexity
initiative focuses on funding efforts that involve
multiple disciplines to solve important problems-including
the social, behavioral and economic sciences.
Our broader environmental portfolio supports discipline-specific
research and serves as a source of science problems
that are large-scale, important and multidisciplinary
to feed into the biocomplexity initiative.
The emergence of biocomplexity as a new perspective
on our world, and as a research initiative, offers
the exciting opportunity to refocus our joint efforts.
We look forward to fruitful discussions on the identification
of coordinated research efforts that will yield better
understanding of, and real improvements in, the natural
world around us.