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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


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

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences
Arlington, Virginia

March 24, 2001

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good morning everyone and thank you, Gene, for the kind introduction. I'd also like to thank Greg Anderson, Alan Covich, and Richard O'Grady for extending the invitation.

It seems we need a bigger room each time we meet. The number of member organizations in AIBS has roughly doubled in the same length of time that I've been NSF Director.

I doubt these figures have anything to do with each other, but it is extremely gratifying none-the-less.

As the first plenary speaker, it's also gratifying to officially welcome you to Washington.

We like to refer to Washington as "the land of the VIPs". . . or the very important pandas. As you may know, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are beginning their first spring season here at the National Zoo.

When pondering the theme of this year's meeting, "From Biodiversity to Biocomplexity," I couldn't help but think of our new pandas-and the national media coverage they command.

We repeatedly hear about these cuddly cubs in the headlines. We're fortunate that they keep the issue of biodiversity in the public spotlight.

But unfortunately, they are also a reminder of the work we have to do on this front, and in an even larger arena.

[Title slide: Earth from space]
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This underscores the title of my talk today-"World enough, and Time." I borrowed it from a rather unlikely source. It comes from a poem by the 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell.

Marvell used this theme to convince a young woman that they should "live for today." He argues that they did not have enough time to play "coy" games.

In contemporary times, we can easily apply the theme "World enough, and Time" to our quest to understand our Earth's biosphere.

The clock is ticking for a host of environmental issues. We've all heard the list: deforestation, ecosystem health, global climate change, loss of biodiversity, and so on.

These are specific global challenges that require researchers to take a broad, systematic--even a holistic--view.

[Biocomplexity slide with two arrows]
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For the first time, we stand at the very threshold of a new and deeper understanding of our planet. It's a dynamic web of often surprising interrelationships between living things at all levels.

Biocomplexity sums it up nicely. Many of you may have heard me address this previously, and I'd like to bring you up-to-date in our thinking.

Biocomplexity is expanding our vision from the molecular to the global, and it's given us a viable multi-disciplinary approach to environmental research.

Traditionally, scientists in all fields have taken the reductionist approach. We've looked at disconnected or individual pieces of systems, like the manipulation of a single variable in a community or the behavior of one weed in one cropping system.

This approach has given us the lion's share of scientific knowledge to date and provides us with the intellectual platform to address the interplay between parts of complex systems.

It draws upon science and engineering, and the latest technologies as well.

We now have the tools and infrastructure to observe the earth's systems across dimensions.

Developments in genomics, information technology, and nanotechnology allow us to tackle the intricacies of interactions among biological, ecological, physical, and earth systems.

This brings us to a new era of environmental research and policy based on predictive understanding that also includes human activities.

This morning, I would like to take us on a virtual tour across different levels of organization. We can glimpse linkages between biocomplexity and biodiversity, other disciplines, and new tools.

Step one of this tour is exploring complexity itself.

The science of complexity has its foundations in systems theory and chaos theory, but delves deeper into the underlying order of our universe.

To quote from an article on complexity that ran in the journal Science last year, "very simple ingredients can produce very beautiful, rich and patterned outputs."

[three spirals]
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We study complexity because it gives us a perspective spanning many disciplines and scales. Here's an example that looks across space: literally.

These three spirals connect on grand scales--beginning with the hurricane on the left and moving to the spiral galaxy in the middle.

Even gravitational waves--the blue circles on the right--ripple across this cosmic vision. The blue circles are an artist's depiction of two black holes orbiting each other.

From this common spiral pattern, we gain a richer perspective of the uniformity that can be charted across space and time.

[metabolic rate graph]
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Metabolic rates offer another example. Obvious orders, or scales of size, emerge from this comprehensive view.

The rate follows a hierarchy-from mammals on the upper right to ever-smaller entities down through a cell, a mitochondrion, and a respiratory complex.

We see a suggestion, perhaps, of a universal principle underlying life at all scales.

[Japanese atoms]
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Now, let's embark on a virtual tour across the hierarchy of scales we find in nature. We'll start at the atomic level and move to systems covering the entire planet.

This journey, with discoveries at every step, reflects the breadth of NSF's mission.

Let's start on the smallest end of the scale, at the atom--or the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale.

Here we see the word "atom" literally written out in Japanese with atoms. Each character is just a few nanometers across. One nanometer--one billionth of a meter--is a magical point on the dimensional scale.

[fly's eye and nano-needles]
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At this scale the biological and the physical worlds meet. I've symbolized this with a pair of images that take us from in vivo to in silico.

On the left are the tiny structures of the eye of a fly. On the right are artificial structures: micromachined needles with sharp tips of less than a micrometer across, developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

These needles are a novel new method of painless drug delivery.

Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this same scale. We are now at the point of connecting individual sensors to particles of dust.

[pollen on bee's leg and microscopic shot of nanodust]
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We call this "smart dust." It's a beautiful example of how nanotechnology is being used to understand the Earth's biodiversity.

Jeff Brinker and colleagues with undergraduate students at the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Labs are developing microscopic nanosensors that are carried like ordinary pollen on a bee's body. This research is part of NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates portfolio.

[bees on dust and sensor]
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Now for the action. On the left, you see a bee collecting the "smart dust" at a sugar water station. After buzzing by the dust, this bee is "nanosensored," to coin a term.

The bee carries these nanosensors, which range from 30 to 300 nm in diameter, throughout its normal daily activities. When it returns to the hive, which we see on the right, the sensor plate assimilates the data from these nanosensors.

We now have insight into the bee's itinerary: where it traveled and which environmental contaminants it has contacted. Currently, the researchers are charging these particles to search for TNT, an explosive that indicates the presence of land mines in an area.

["Deep Green:" You are here]
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Let's now venture to the molecular level and reorient ourselves on the tree of life. Some of our new molecular mapping tools have set off revolutions.

This is the case of "Deep Green." What began as modest support from NSF to a group of scientists has revolutionized the way we view relationships between lifeforms.

This work has given us new insights into the upper reaches of the earth's 3.5-billion-old-tree of life. DNA sequencing shows that plants, animals, and fungi now cluster together at the top of the tree.

Tracing the family tree will bear fruit in plant breeding, drug development, and many environmental challenges.

It's that proverbial library that enables much of genetic engineering-making possible the advances we read about each day.

[globe of microorganisms]
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Let's continue up the scale to 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 planet.

They have been evolving a thousand times longer than all of human history. NSF has set up new microbial observatories to study this astonishing diversity.

[Science cover with acid mine tailings]
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Science magazine featured this newly discovered bacterium. It lives in highly acidic and corrosive drainage from an iron mine. In fact, the organism contributes to the drainage.

Isolated by Katrina Edwards of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues, the bacterium forms biofilms--streams of slime.

It may ultimately be useful in dealing with acid mine drainage that causes millions of dollars of environmental damage every year around the globe.

[oldest bacteria]
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Here we see the oldest living organism found to date, a previously unrecognized spore-forming bacterium.

This 250 million-year-old bacterium was found entombed in salt crystals 850 ft deep in a Permian Salado Formation in New Mexico.

Needless to say, most folks would never imagine life to survive in pure salt-though it's no surprise to us microbial ecologists.

This raises some issues we need to think about.

As the broader scientific community continues to look for life in these extreme environments, our need for a systematic data collection and to interconnect these databases will continue to grow.

Current data about biodiversity are scattered in many local databases, or reside on paper not amenable to interactive searching.

It is estimated that over 3 billion specimens are catalogued in natural history collections around the world.

Linking current collections will provide a global, historical perspective to study patterns of global species distribution on a larger scale.

A steering committee has been established to form a Global Biodiversity Information Facility. NSF's Jim Edwards has chaired part of this effort. Jim's deputy assistant director of the Biological Sciences Directorate.

This speaks to the sustainable use and management of biodiversity, which will require that information be available when and where it is needed by decision makers and scientists alike.

First, this facility will catalog all of the world's species by scientific names, and then develop both a digital library of biodiversity knowledge and a compilation of facts about each individual species.

This information will be available to anyone with access to the Web.

[bacteria in petri dishes]
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The biological exploration of the earth has resulted in enormous collections of all forms of life. A familiar example is the American Type Culture Collection. It receives NSF funding and catalogues more than 17,000 bacterial strains.

The first culture dates from 75 years ago. I served on the Board of Trustees for 20 years and, therefore, am very familiar with its value to microbiology.

We know that US collections are held by more than 150 museums, botanical gardens, and research institutions. Specimens and their associated data document the biodiversity of our planet.

We are now drawing on these data to predict how populations of organisms respond to catastrophic events or urban sprawl, for example.

And we now know that responses are not always linear.

[flour beetle graphs]
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An example is a population of flour beetles, the first demonstration of chaos in a biological population. The flour beetle, or Tribolium, is an age-old pest. It first turned up in the granaries of ancient Egypt.

Its population dynamics in the laboratory demonstrate that disturbing a non-linear system can produce unexpected effects.

Here, for example, one would expect that higher mortality would produce fewer larvae-but the opposite is true. On the right, in red, we see wild, chaotic oscillations of high and low numbers.

This is from the work of J. M. Cushing at the University of Arizona and colleagues. As Cushing says, "The ACME Pest Control Company, instead of controlling an infestation, could create severe and unpredictable pest outbreaks!"

These results have lessons for managing biological populations, such as fish at hatcheries.

[Invasive species: Asian long-horned beetle]
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The spread of invasive species underscores the need to understand complex behaviors in populations. The white circles that we see here are actual infestations of Asian long-horned beetles, which are literally eating their way through our nation's trees. With data from 40 environments in China-where the Asian Long-horned beetle naturally occurs-NSF-funded researchers from The Biodiversity Research Center at Univ. of Kansas have predicted the potential spread of this insect throughout the United States.

The gold stars identify the most likely ports of entry. The areas in red are the most suitable habitats for infestations, while the areas in white are the least likely to support this newly introduced pest. This modeling translates into policy as USDA's quarantine efforts are now concentrated in these locations.

[Dolphin fins]
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We are not only tracking unwanted invaders, new tools are allowing us, for the first time, to correlate population survival with habitat change.

In Florida, researchers at Eckard College have created an NSF-funded digital library with images of individual bottlenose dolphins that live in Boca Ciega Bay. Individual dolphins are identified by notches and scars on their dorsal fins.

Researchers are monitoring annual changes in dolphin populations with habitat change. When Florida banned commercial netting in the state's in-shore waters, researchers were able to track an increase of about 30% in the dolphin population in one year.

New, cheap, nanosensors hooked to networks will ultimately let us take the pulse of desired species in ecosystems in real time.

We are to the point of giving to individual frogs in lakes their own chips. This "wireless technology" sends a signal of their whereabouts to their own URLs. Who knew that frogs would have their own WebPages?

[Virtual Chesapeake Bay]
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Large computer networks will allow researchers to share massive amounts of environmental data in real-time.

For example, researchers from around the country are exploring a virtual bay in 3-D together, as avatars.

Prediction, as well as collaboration, are hallmarks of this three-dimensional simulation of the Chesapeake Bay developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

One possible application for this capability was just front page news in the Washington Post. Rockfish-pushed to the edge in the 1980s--have returned to historical numbers. And they're rapacious eaters.

They're gobbling up the blue crabs in the bay. We don't know the total impact but the estimate is that rockfish are eating more the 73 million young crabs a year. In just a few days, one fish can consume over one hundred small crabs.

This provides a general lesson for biodiversity. Reestablishing balance in some systems may be difficult, if not impossible.

With virtual ecosystems, we can imagine one day assessing the entire environment of our planet, and being able to make solid choices for sustainability based on knowledge gained from biocomplexity research.

[George Bank]
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This type of approach can be used to preserve biodiversity in large scale ecosystems.

The Georges Bank in the Atlantic Ocean has been called "the breadbasket" of fishing for New England for a century-and-a-half. By the early 1990s its fisheries were almost depleted.

In the case of the George's Bank, the perspective of biocomplexity can link basic study of ocean ecology with fisheries management.

A major study--GLOBEC, Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics--traced how complex ocean physics interact with ecological relationships. NSF funded GLOBEC to model how global change might affect marine resources.

[closeup of scallops]
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken the model results and applied them directly to manage scallop harvesting on the Georges Bank.

The models can predict where the regions that are good sources of scallop larvae are--areas that should not be harvested.

One region that had been made safe from harvesting was reopened recently. That new harvest netted $30 million for the New Bedford, Massachusetts community alone. Who says economics doesn't mix with the environment?

[Florida water/deer modeling]
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At the regional scale, another good example of biocomplexity in practice: to restore the Florida Everglades, it is essential to understand how different hydrologic schemes will affect key species of animals.

Researchers with support from NSF and the U.S. Geological Survey have been developing models that allow tracking of individual animals--notably the panther and deer populations of Florida.

We see a map of water flow on the left--with wetter areas depicted in red. On the right is vegetation, with the bluest areas denoting flooding and less vegetation--and, therefore, poor habitat for deer.

Various plans for water release can be modeled to detect the effect on different animal populations, especially the highly endangered Florida panther.

We now have the computing capacity to analyze data sets we have been accumulating for years and to predict environmental consequences.

[bleached coral]
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Turning to the disturbing phenomenon of coral bleaching-which is expanding rapidly on a global scale-we have another environmental challenge that is ripe for the biocomplexity approach.

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.

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 appears to be the global rise in sea surface temperature.

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've found, for instance, that this star coral is not a single species but a complex of closely related ones.

We've also learned that the microscopic algae that live symbiotically with the coral are also from different strains. Mapping this diversity will help us know if coral will repopulate after severe bleaching, or if we can expect dramatic losses.

[LTER map]
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On a continental scale and beyond, NSF's Long-term Ecological Research Network, now in its 22nd year, supports scientists and students studying ecological processes over long periods and across broad scales.

The 24 sites, including two in Antarctica, target diverse ecosystems.

[Baltimore LTER]
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The Baltimore, Maryland LTER site, for example, focuses on what has been called "ecology's last frontier:" the urban ecosystem.

The studies include social and economic factors. One of the participating ecologists is Grace Brush of Johns Hopkins University.

She says, "For ecologists this is really a new thing. Humans were to be avoided. For me at least, it has changed my thinking-to look at humans as part of the natural system."

[El Niño]
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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.

It took leading-edge computers to process the reams of data, not to mention new mathematical techniques to analyze the data, in order for us to predict the onset of El Niņo.

[pinon-juniper ecosystem]
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Now, to one last stop on our tour, to a pinon-juniper ecosystem near Sunset Crater, Arizona.

A long-term ecological study began when Tom Whitham and his colleagues at Northern Arizona University took students on a field trip to this desert environment. Some inquisitive students asked the profound question, "Why do some trees look so funny?"

This question is now a large-scale interdisciplinary research program spanning all scales of biocomplexity, from the molecular to a global model for climate change studies.

[cropped tree]
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Some pinon pines in this system resemble bonsai because massive outbreaks of moths attack stem tips and "prune" the trees.

The consequences of this pruning are more profound than altered plant architecture. These pruned pinons don't set seed. (Try saying that three times fast.)

Birds and small mammals depend on the pinons as a food source, and hence, biodiversity crashes. Native Americans, who sell the pinon nuts, are also deprived of a source of income.

So why are some trees attacked by these insects and some not? Functional genomics has revealed that the trees with low insect populations carry genes for stress resistance.

These resistant trees produce more resin to ward off insects and are better adapted to the low water and nutrient content of this cinder field.

Resistant and susceptible trees also have different species and numbers of bacterial symbionts and associated mycorrhizal fungi.

The populations found in association with the resistant trees serve to buffer them further from environmental stresses common in this hot, dry climate.

[ecosystem schematic]
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Integrating these diverse disciplines has revealed a gene-to-ecosystem link that is serving as a quantitative model to predict species adaptation with global warming.

These fascinating interactions start at the molecular level, quickly assimilate to differences in the microorganism populations, and then move up the scale to community and ecosystem.

This is the "biocomplexity" of life, that will continue to provide insight into biodiversity.

The noted biologist and author, E. O. Wilson, refers to biodiversity as the "very stuff of life."

He is right. Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on Earth, which includes the millions of people.

But biodiversity is much more than the vast variety of species. It includes the genes that every individual inherits from his or her parents and passes to the next generation.

We have seen examples where biocomplexity includes studies of this type, like "Deep Green." With the human and Arabidopsis genome now complete, we are only beginning to incorporate this knowledge into our web of life.

Biodiversity also encompasses individuals. I showed you dolphins from the digital library. We then moved to the scale of populations, like the chaotic flour beetles and Georges bank' scallops.

Biocomplexity then crossed ecosystems with a look at our coral reefs in crisis. And lastly we have seen the interaction of species with in their physical environment, the insect-pruned pinon trees.

[Robert Frost]
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Research in our environmental portfolio reminds us that we are all connected, and some of the strongest connections must be with education.

That's the best part, because virtually all of the projects I cited involve students of all levels, from grade school to grad school to elder hostel.

That's something all of us can incorporate into our work, and I know many of you are providing leadership in this area.

I will close now as I opened, with the words of a poet-a quotation from Robert Frost. "Nature is always hinting at us," he wrote. "It hints over and over again. And suddenly we take the hint."

Now we've taken nature's hint. Our world is fundamentally not linear at all. The whole is usually much more than the sum of the parts. The web of connections is our cartography for a sustainable future.

Thank you. And, once again, on behalf of the pandas and other VIPs, welcome to Washington.



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