Biocomplexity: A New Science For Survival

The Scientist 14[19]:1, Oct. 2, 2000

This article originally appeared in The Scientist with an accompanying interview with Dr. Colwell. 


Biocomplexity: A New Science For Survival?

NSF director Rita Colwell sees great potential in integrating the physical universe with biology

By Arielle Emmett

Going beyond biodiversity and traditional ecology, the new research field called biocomplexity is emerging as a kind of meta-ecology, an “all things connected” study of global systems, living and inorganic, and how they interact to affect the survival of ecosystems and species.

Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
Dr. Rita Colwell



“Biocomplexity is understanding how components of the global ecosystem interact–biological, physical, chemical, and the human dimension–in order to gain knowledge of the complexity of the system and to derive fundamental principles from it,” explains National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell, a world-renowned expert on the relationships between environment and infectious disease. Following the lead of mathematical studies of complex systems, biocomplexity research involves the use of supercomputers, statistical modeling, and predictive simulation. Using these tools, “we’ll be able to construct a scientific underpinning for sustainability,” says Colwell, “even perhaps formulae and mathematical equations to help explain and define ecosystems.” Biocomplexity research will also help scientists predict how human actions affect the environment.

Colwell is an esteemed University of Maryland microbiologist and former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. She is also a pioneer in studying the environmental factors contributing to outbreaks of Vibrio cholerae. Her research team was the first to prove a relationship between cholera epidemics in South America and Bangladesh in the 1990s and ocean warming associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

With biocomplexity, Colwell may be launching the next great biological frontier. She is also transforming NSF into a ” think big” organization at the vanguard of scientific change. “Rita is a joy to have around, like opening windows to let in a breath of fresh air,” said Mary Clutter, assistant NSF director for biological sciences since 1989. Having seen many scientific administrators come and go, “Rita encourages people to think outside the box. She’s given program officers the freedom to think much more creatively about what we might really do,” Clutter says. Although the NSF budget is still limited, “Rita doesn’t hesitate to tell people the size of an appropriate budget. Her goal is at least to double the budget [to support wide-ranging global programs].”

Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationbluemarble
Biocomplexity projects will use the latest technology to study how the biological, physical, chemical, and climatic worlds relate.

Science for Survival

Integrating the physical universe with biology goes beyond the revolution of functional genomics today. Biocomplexity predicts how systems may or may not survive on the planet–especially important given the range of alarming environmental data being accumulated today.

Indeed, biocomplexity could help scientists pinpoint physical, chemical, climatic, and human dynamics occurring in both time and space–from real-time biophysical interactions in nanoseconds to studies of change during eons of recorded time. “It’s the complexity of all living things on this planet, and the interrelationship of all living things–ecology in the broadest sense,” Clutter noted.

The timing could not be more critical. Mathematicians have already done pioneering studies of complex phenomena. And today, with supercomputing tools, scientists can study how biological, human, and physical interactions in a particular ecosystem shape biodiversity. Alternately, they might look at how complex systems are associated with the resurgence of vector-borne illnesses, or the outbreak of pandemics related to ocean temperature and other climatic events. Predictive models may help clarify the effects of burning rain forests, thinning ozone, and the well-documented fact that Earth has grown warmer.




Cosmic Cartography

During a talk last December, Colwell described biocomplexity in startling visual terms–using images drawn from an IMAX film titled Cosmic Voyage, sponsored by NSF, which detailed a “cosmic zoom” across orders of magnitude from inner to outer space. She showed a clip of three different spirals across the continuum: “Beginning with the form of a hurricane on the left and moving to the spiral galaxy in the middle…even gravity waves–the blue circles on the right, which we have thus far detected only indirectly,” she began, ” … we have framed a new and encompassing approach to studying our world. My term for it is biocomplexity,” she said. “The earth sciences will be essential to making this approach mature and succeed.”

NSF is sponsoring annual biocomplexity award competitions to encourage scientists to study global phenomena. Examples of research problems include the analysis of bacterial metabolites in rain clouds, the relationship between ocean warming and outbreaks of cholera, and the role of human activities and the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases, such as Dutch Elm Disease and West Nile Virus.

With Colwell’s ascent in 1998 to the leading science post in the country, biocomplexity is fast becoming a whole new research thrust. NSF is now in the second year of its award competitioin. The first year focused on the functional relationships between microorganisms and biological, chemical, physical, and social systems. Two of seven projects awarded in the first year–for a total of $13 million–exemplify the interdisciplinary nature of the work. Caroline Bledsoe, of the University of California at Davis, won an award to study the biocomplexity of “Common Mycorrhizal Networks (CMNs)–Active or Passive Channels? Interacting Roles of Mycorrhizal Fungi, Plants and Soil Resources in Carbon and Nutrient Transfers.” The study tests a hypothesis that the flows of carbon and nutrients in CMNs underground are determined by complex interactions between plants, mycorrhizal fungi, and soil resources. Researchers now predict that changes in these three components can result in long-term changes to the ecosystem–alterations in plant species composition, soil stability, and nutrient recycling rates.

A second research project, led by Richard E. Lenski of Michigan State University, conducts parallel experiments with living bacteria and computer models simulating the bacterial world. The latter consists of special computer programs that self-replicate, mutate, and evolve novel sequences of instructions to solve biocomplexity problems. These experiments are on the cutting edge, according to NSF’s Clutter. “We’re right on the edge of a new revolution,” she says. The second competition–$50 million for FY 2000–“is focused on higher level organisms and whole systems, including human interactions, with an emphasis on mathematical modeling.”

The NSF also has been coordinating a number of environmental-biological projects with other federal agencies. These include the National Institutes of Health (Fogarty Center); the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is well known for its studies of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO); and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NSF, however, is the centerpiece for Colwell’s vision, and she is aggressively recruiting new scientific talent. Among the new hires are oceanographer Margaret Leinen, of the University of Rhode Island, who coordinates the NSF biocomplexity intra-agency working group. As assistant director for geosciences at NSF, Leinen also coordinates all environmental activities with the assistance of staffer Marge Cavanaugh, “a chemist who brilliantly translates concepts into practical action,” Colwell states. Another recruit, Ruzena Bajcsy, is the assistant director of computer and information science and engineering directorate. Bujcsy, on leave from the University of Pennsylvania, is a strategist who chairs the federal government committee on information technology.

NEON Networks

Today Colwell is specifically focused on an expansion of research possibilities. She asked Congress for $136 million for biocomplexity funding for NSF in FY 2001–and plans to get it. Further, she has opened the door to a new “earthwatch” program–including the probable construction of a new National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which is conceived as a network of 10 biocomplexity/environmental observatories located in different ecosystems throughout the country. “NEON has been conceptualized in detail by a series of seven scientific workshops held around the country,” noted Terry Yates, NSF’s director of the division of environmental biology. “NEON will be a very large biological array that will constitute a research platform; observatories will be linked to all the others to form a network of state-of-the-art research facilities.

“We don’t have the funding yet, but NEON will allow us to address some of the grandest and most challenging questions in environmental biology, such as those involving biocomplexity,” Yates said. These questions include the nature and pace of biological change from genes to ecosystems. NSF is requesting $10 million per site ($100 million has been requested over a five-year period).

“I’m optimistic,” Yates said. “It’s pretty clear to everybody that the current prosperity is a result of previous investments in science and technology. And it’s critical that we address important biological questions on this kind of scale … in the field, in real time,” he continued. Cutting-edge technology, from DNA sequencing projects to remote sensing will be part of NEON, he adds. “We’d not be at all surprised to see that after NEON becomes established in the [United States], it will become a global enterprise.”

Colwell is equally optimistic about Congressional support for science, even in an uncertain election year. “The biocomplexity initiative has been extremely well received,” she says. “We have excellent support on both sides of the aisle, and a desire to understand how environmental systems work.”S

Arielle Emmett is a contributing editor for The Scientist.

Editor’s Note: For an expanded version of The Scientist’s question-and-answer session with Rita Colwell, please go to the next article.


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