ORNL scientists looking at nature in a new way

November 30, 2005

Improved tools and increasingly sophisticated approaches are helping researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory gain a better understanding of how organisms respond to and interact with their environment.

Through the Detection and Simulation of Ecosystem Response Initiative, scientists are taking advantage of advances in genomics, sensor technology, applied mathematics, analytical technologies, computational sciences and the social sciences. This integrated approach is enabling scientists at ORNL to tackle complex questions in ecology previously thought to be unanswerable.

"These advances are providing unprecedented new resources for exploring in ever-increasing detail the mechanisms that enable organisms to develop, survive, carry out normal functions and reproduce under changing environmental conditions," said the Environmental Sciences Division's Stan Wullschleger, who heads the DSER.

Where climate change and ecosystems are concerned, the problem is that researchers still can detect change only with broad-scale measurements after the change has occurred. They would like to be able to accurately predict what changes will occur in a time frame that allows policy- and decision-makers to have a chance to react.

"We need to see change coming," Wullschleger said. "Just like weather forecasting, we need to forecast change in other ecosystems. Hindsight is 20-20, but hindsight is not a substitution for prediction."

DSER relies on a scientific community vision with staff at ORNL and scientists from other institutions collaborating to advance studies of the human-environment interface. Gary Jacobs, director of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division, believes the DSER initiative will revolutionize the field of ecology by relying on genomic-based approaches to understanding ecosystem responses that are scalable across levels of biological organization.

"The usefulness of scaling processes from the molecular level to the ecosystem is hotly debated in the scientific community," Jacobs said. "Some argue that scaling in this manner may not be the best approach to understand how ecosystems function, but if we don't push our science to explore such systems in new ways we won't discover what we can achieve."

The key to success will be collaborations within ORNL and beyond.

"In the past, research has been compartmentalized, and environmental scientists have typically used the same tools for years," Wullschleger said. "Now, we're looking at new tools, instruments and techniques, and we plan to have a role in developing some of those tools."

Traditionally, ecologists have relied on instruments that were commercially available, thus limiting their ability to explore the natural world. Wullschleger believes researchers should play a part in the process to develop sensors and tools to help them do their jobs more effectively.

"For example, ecologists have good information about how trees grow and interact with their environment, but have a limited ability to understand what happens below ground because they cannot see below the soil surface," Wullschleger said. "New tools in molecular biology could provide us with more accurate information about how roots grow, how they take up nutrients and the relationships between plants and microbial populations.

"Ultimately, new ecological tools can revolutionize how ecologists do their research and lead to a better understanding of how the natural world works."

At the other extreme, researchers plan to make greater use of satellite imaging and remote sensing to help answer fundamental questions about ecosystems.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy.

NOTE TO EDITORS: You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab at http://www.ornl.gov/news.

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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