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Biologists Dig Deeper

Earth's Secrets: How might soil bacteria be affected by global warming?
Canada's new Biotron superlab contains miniature chunks of the natural world that will help us predict the impact of climate change on living organisms.
A group of plant scientists gathered in Vienna in 2005 at the International Botanical Congress. The meeting was pretty much what you would expect until its conclusion, when the congress declared: "As a matter of urgency, facilities for controlled, ecosystem-scale experiments are required now." Without a better toolbox to study how the natural world responds to global climate change, "sustained human habitability of Earth" would be at risk.

Fortunately, just such a toolbox was already being designed by Norman Hüner, a Canadian biochemist and plant biologist. Hüner had begun work on his Biotron Institute for Experimental Climate Change Research in 1999. In early 2008 it will open its doors, the first facility in the world that will allow researchers to re-create and study how a complete ecosystem, such as Arctic tundra or boreal forest, responds to climate change. The Biotron, Hüner says, is "as close as you can get to nature [in a lab]."

The Biotron will help integrate biology into the scientific study of global warming. Existing climate change models, says Hüner, are more about physics than biology; moreover, they describe changes that are happening to the planet rather than to particular habitats, species, or individuals. Scientists haven't been able to create predictive models, for example, of how changes in rainfall and temperature will affect soybean yields in the U.S. grain belt or butterflies in the Amazon basin, because, with a few exceptions, they haven't had the tools to measure the impact of climate change on living organisms.

Now there's a place where whole ecosystems can be scrupulously re-created and organisms scrutinized, from their DNA to their interaction with other organisms. With more complete data, scientists will be able to make better predictions -- and their experimental findings could better inform policy makers, who might, for example, provide subsidies for crops that respond well to emerging climate patterns.

The Biotron may call to mind Biosphere 2, the large artificial habitat plopped down 20 years ago in the Arizona desert, where researchers tested in two separate "missions" whether humans could live sustainably in a sealed, self-contained environment as a precursor to colonizing outer space. The Biotron, scientifically speaking, is in a different league.

The superlaboratory is a joint project of the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph, Ontario, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a federal agency. The nondescript five-story building, located in the agricultural heartland of southwestern Ontario, is an engineering marvel, yet a bargain at just U.S. $28 million.

Inside are state-of-the-art facilities that support research into microorganisms, insects, and plants, all of which can be genetically modified to suit researchers' needs. Temperature in the Biotron's climate chambers can be varied from -40 degrees Fahrenheit to 122 degrees, to simulate anything from the Arctic winter to a tropical rainforest. On the roof of the building are six "biomes" -- airlocked, greenhouse-like structures that have been custom designed to precisely control environmental factors such as temperature, UV radiation, light intensity, wind, precipitation, and CO2. Each biome is large enough to house trees more than 30 feet tall and to allow for the re-creation of complex biological communities that can extend from the highest tree canopies to underground soil layers.

If the possibilities seem endless, they nearly are. The plan is for the world's leading scientists to rotate in and out of the lab space, and the biomes will be regularly reconfigured. One such setup will use cross sections of Arctic permafrost, transported from northern Canada, so researchers can study how it reacts to rising temperatures: As the permafrost thaws, how much methane gas will be released? How will bacteria and overwintering insects be affected by changing freeze-thaw cycles? Scientists will design and study more temperate ecosystems, as well, to learn how changes in temperature and CO2 affect the growth of photosynthetic organisms, including crops and boreal forest.

Biotron researchers will also be able to study the benefits and risks of biotechnology in agriculture, forestry, and medicine by examining the basic biology of genetically modified organisms: What is the rate of gene transfer from transgenic plants to wild ones? Can plants be engineered to manufacture medicinal compounds that will benefit humans?

The Biotron will be equipped with a sophisticated imaging and analysis system -- a virtual control room -- that will expand its reach globally, allowing researchers anywhere to manage and monitor experiments remotely over the Internet in real time. A scientist in India studying the impact of climate change on rice could instruct the Biotron to raise the temperature or CO2 concentration in a biome set up to simulate a South Asian rice paddy. Then he or she could monitor the impact of this change through images and other data automatically collected and stored in a supercomputing network.

Researchers will vie for access to the Biotron in much the same way that physicists compete to use the world's few particle accelerators or astronomers the latest and biggest optical telescopes. Like them, it is a place for frontier science, where old models will fall and new and unexpected ones will arise -- except that the goal is not to understand our cosmic origins but to influence our destiny.

image of Lindsay Borthwick
Lindsay Borthwick writes about the environment, health, and science for a variety of publications. Before venturing to tell her own stories, she was the editor of Green Living, a sustainable living magazine in Canada. She is also a former editor of S... READ MORE >