The University of Southampton

Biosphere project brings evolutionary theories into the real world

Published: 17 August 2009

ECS researcher Dr Alex Penn has been awarded funding to predict the effects of climate change on soil behaviour.

Dr Penn, who is based in the SENSe group (Science and Engineering of Natural Systems) in the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, has been awarded a British Council Darwin Researcher Exchange Grant to carry out research into soil ecosystems in Biosphere 2, the largest closed system ever created.

Biosphere 2 is a 3.15-acre, 12,700 m2 structure built as a materially-closed ecological system in Oracle, Arizona, USA, by Space Biosphere Ventures. The nature of the structure allows scientists to monitor the ever-changing chemistry of the air, water and soil contained within.

Dr Penn, who carried out PhD research on artificial ecosystem selection, says that Biosphere 2 runs many possible climatic zones, making it possible for her to look at the effects of climate change on complex soil ecosystems.

'This is quite a challenge as there are about a million bacterial species in just one gram of soil,' she said.

Over the next 10 months, Dr Penn will expose soil samples to long periods of drought and heavy rainfall, which will become typical conditions as climate change progresses, and she will monitor how ecosystems may evolve within these scenarios.

'Some ecosystems may be killed off by extreme conditions, allowing neighbouring ecosystems to spread,' she said. ‘This could have a strong impact on soil ecosystem function which is vital for ecosystem services that we depend on.'

Dr Penn plans to take the microcosms that are performing best and use them to emulate ecosystem evolution in a spatial metacommunity. This approach takes into account the co-evolution of the interconnected species.

'We already know of the significant effects if we expose soil to these sorts of evolutionary conditions in the lab; now we have an opportunity to see what happens in the natural world using new models of complex communities rather than our simple models of single gene evolution.'

For further information contact Joyce Lewis; tel. +44(0)23 8059 5453.

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