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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Biocomplexity and the Environmental Portfolio"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks at the US-Japan Joint High Level
Committee Meeting

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 Dialog report.

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: biocomplexity.

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 levels.

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 planet.

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 submersibles.

Shared access to these vehicles or other laboratory-based research equipment should be facilitated to encourage and nurture increased collaborations between research communities.

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 as well.

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 population oscillations.

He writes that it all comes down to "understanding how nature creates order...on the smallest and largest scales."

This understanding will require access to greatly expanded computing resources.

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 natural world.

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 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 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 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 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 drilling research.

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.

Thank you.



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