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News Release 08-097

National Science Foundation Funds Research Addressing Enduring Questions of Life

Secrets of life may be revealed by studies of whales, cloud forests, the Amazon and one-celled organisms

Photo of researchers in Amazon, cloud forest, cellular colony and pygmy right whale skull.

The Amazon, cloud forests, the origins of multi-cellular life and baleen whales will be researched.

June 6, 2008

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Four new studies addressing basic questions about how life originated and has evolved will be supported by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology (DEB). Ranging from nearly $530,000 to just over $1.3 million, NSF's awards for these studies will help resolve long-standing controversies about evolution and about fundamental biological responses to environmental changes, including climate change.

These four NSF-funded studies are "particularly exciting because they incorporate innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to advance our understanding of life in transition, which is the story of life on earth," says Robert Sterner, DEB director. In addition, "these studies address timely, important questions about how humans got here and have impacted our planet," says Sterner. Therefore, NSF expects these studies to generate broad public interest.

These four studies are as follows:

1. How toothless giants feed: A team led by Annalisa Berta of San Diego State University will study the origins and evolution of the unique feeding method that supports some of the world's biggest eaters: baleen whales. Generally larger than toothed whales, toothless baleen whales include the blue whale, which is believed to be the largest animal that ever existed on Earth.

As a filter feeder, each baleen whale strains sea water for plankton and other small creatures through its baleen--a comb-like structure that hangs from its upper jaw. By integrating anatomical studies of fossils and skeletons with genetic studies of baleen whales, the research team will help explain the molecular, structural and genetic changes involved in the evolution of the baleen whale's feeding method. In addition to improving our understanding of baleen whales, this research is expected to yield important insights about how species diverge from one another.

(In addition to receiving support from DEB, this study is also receiving support from NSF's Geosciences Directorate.)

2. Forests in the mist: A team led by Heidi Asbjornsen of Iowa State University will help identify the impacts of environmental changes on cloud forests--tropical mountain forests that are perpetually cloaked in clouds and fog. These forests, which currently account for no more than 2.5 percent of all tropical forests, harbor many species found nowhere else on Earth. In addition, they capture large volumes of water that would not otherwise fall as rain.

But despite the ecological importance of cloud forests, these rare habitats are rapidly being logged, burned and paved into new land uses and remain vulnerable to climate change. Asbjornsen's team will conduct field work, lab work and computer modeling designed to identify the impacts of these environmental changes on the water budgets of cloud forests.

The team's work will include quantifying how much rain is captured by cloud forests, determining how these quantities change as cloud forests are converted to other land uses, and identifying flow paths followed by water through cloud forests. By providing their results to stake-holders and decision-makers, the team will promote the conservation of cloud forests.

(In addition to receiving support from DEB, this study is also receiving support from NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering.)

3. How pristine really is that symbol of natural, wild beauty--the Amazon? A team led by Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology will tackle one of the most contentious questions in Amazonian studies: how much were Amazonian ecosystems exploited by indigenous people before indigenous people were decimated by European contacts starting in 1492? This question has loomed since the 1990s, when archeological evidence of long-term settlements was discovered in parts of Amazonia; this discovery suggested that Amazonia's supposedly unspoiled ecosystems actually reflected pre-Columbian human influences.

By collecting soil samples throughout Amazonia and measuring and dating any charcoal they contain that was deposited by fire--the oldest human tool used to manipulate landscapes, Zimmerman's team will help determine where and when pre-Columbian human populations settled in the Amazon. This study, which will include the most extensive soil sampling survey of Amazonia ever conducted, will help reveal whether Amazonia's unparalleled biodiversity evolved independently or in spite of human impacts, a revelation that could influence future land-management decisions.

(In addition to receiving support from DEB, this study is also receiving support from NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering.)

4. One giant step for evolution--the transition from one-celled to multi-celled organisms: A team led by Richard Michod of the University of Arizona will address key questions about evolution: how and why primitive one-celled organisms that constituted the sole life forms on Earth for billions of years evolved into multi-celled organisms whose cells have specialized functions--a transition that set the stage for the relatively rapid cascade of evolution that produced most of the tree of life.

Using a group of algae known as volvocine algae as a model, the team will study the pathway that led from one-celled to multi-celled volvocine algae. Volvocine algae serve as an excellent model for studying evolution because one-celled species of volvocine algae evolved into multi-celled species of volvocine algae relatively recently and because various species of volvocine algae display a range of intermediate grades between one-celled and multi-celled species.

Specifically, the researchers will: 1) Identify the genetic changes that triggered the transition from one-celled to multicellular species of volvocine algae. 2) Evaluate how the increased specialization and complexity of cells in species of volvocine algea impacts the ability of these species to survive and reproduce. This study is expected to offer insights that can be broadly applied to the life histories of other organisms besides volvocine algae.

(In addition to receiving support from DEB, this study is also receiving support from NSF's Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.)

"Each of these studies will reveal a different piece of the puzzle of evolution," said Sterner. Therefore, when they are completed, we will have a much better understanding of the history and future of life on earth."


Media Contacts
Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-8310, email:

Program Contacts
Robert Sterner, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-8480, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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