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NSF Awards $37.9 Million in Grants to Study Biocomplexity in the Environment

NSF PR 02-83 - October 15, 2002

Media contact:

 Cheryl Dybas

 (703) 292-8070


Program contact:

 Marge Cavanaugh

 (703) 292-8002


To foster a better understanding of the interrelationships among living things at all levels--from molecular structures to genes to ecosystems--and how they interact with their environment, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $37.9 million in 47 research grants to scientists and engineers across the country.

"The interplay between life and its environment is complex," explained NSF Director Rita Colwell. "The connections are not necessarily straightforward or easily discerned. These ribbons of interconnections, often difficult to tease apart, are what NSF's biocomplexity in the environment awardees will study."

Research on biocomplexity in the environment, said Colwell, provides science with a more complete understanding of natural processes, of human behaviors and decisions in the natural world, and of ways to use technology effectively to observe the environment and to sustain the diversity of life on earth.

This systems approach is the crux of biocomplexity studies, believes Colwell. Scientists and engineers must work in teams across diverse fields that go well beyond biology to include physics, systems engineering, economics, geochemistry and others, on studies that extend from the submolecular to mass changes in climate with potential for worldwide impact. "Past investments in molecular biology, remote sensing, information science, and mathematics have yielded tremendous advances and powerful new technologies and tools that now make biocomplexity research possible," she said. "The biggest, most exciting scientific questions are now at the interfaces of disciplines, such as biological chemistry, computational ecology, and environmental genetics."

NSF's Special Competition in Biocomplexity in the Environment: 2002, is the third phase of a multi-year effort. Five subcategories of awards were made: Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH), with 10 awards totaling $7.5 million; Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles (CBC), with 18 awards totaling $16.6 million; Genome-Enabled Environmental Science and Engineering (GENEN), with four awards totaling $7.2 million; Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities (IDEA), with four awards totaling $5.4 million; and Materials Use: Science, Engineering, and Society (MUSES), with 11 awards totaling $1.2 million.

Research projects in the CNH sub-category include studies of: complex interactions among policies, people and panda habitat in the Wolong Nature Reserve landscape; coupled human and natural systems in Yellowstone; and human-climate interactions in a desert metropolis. Those in the CBC sub-category focus on: coupling of carbon and water cycles in a cold, dry ecosystem; ecosystem response to elevated arsenic concentrations; and biogeochemistry of iron and sulfate reduction in extreme acidic environments. GENEN awardees will conduct research in such areas as: the interaction of viral genomes with the marine environment; analysis of factors determining the ecological function and resilience of microbial communities; and development of methods linking genomic and ecological responses in a freshwater species. IDEA grantees will study ways to develop: an autonomous sensor for environmental water quality monitoring; multifunctional scanning nanoprobes for analysis of chemical processes at the interface of microbes and minerals in the environment; and an instrument for measurement of microbial enzyme activities in aquatic ecosystems. MUSES investigators will study: the industrial ecology of particulate materials; disposable and reusable textile materials in healthcare facilities; and defining sustainable uses for agricultural products.

For a complete list of research projects, please see:


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