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Biocomplexity in the Environment

photo of two researchers near a stream

Biocomplexity in the Environment research tracks streams.

October 20, 2004

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

What is the Biocomplexity in the Environment Priority Area?

From individual cells to entire ecosystems, biocomplexity refers to phenomena that arise from the dynamic interactions that take place between biological systems, including the influence of humans and the physical environment.

The National Science Foundation, through its Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE) Priority Area, is undertaking a multi-year, agency-wide set of activities in environmental science, engineering and education. This includes funding of both focused initiatives and core programs that foster research on interdependencies among the elements of specific environmental systems and the interactions of different systems. BE is included in NSF's Environmental Research and Education (ERE) portfolio; the first BE awards were made in fiscal year 1999.

All organisms--from microbes to human beings--fall within the BE framework, as do environments that range from frozen polar regions and volcanic vents, to temperate forests and agricultural lands, to the neighborhoods and industries of urban centers.

What kinds of research does the Biocomplexity in the Environment Priority Area support?

BE research is adding to knowledge in a variety of fields, from global climate change to the development of new technologies like sensors and other observing instruments. This new knowledge is helping scientists develop a better understanding of the role of living organisms in biogeochemical cycles, including the global carbon, nitrogen and water cycles. Researchers will also study human influences on natural processes, and the reverse, the influence of natural processes on human behavior.

BE fosters new ways to model complex systems using new theories, methods and computational strategies. BE research also allows scientists to develop genetic, nano- and molecular-level methods of examining complex processes in the environment and to increase understanding of the relationship between genetic information and the functioning of ecosystems. Projects funded under the BE Priority Area use design strategies that incorporate elements of several disciplines of science to discover new materials, sensors, engineering processes and other technologies.

BE funding supports investigations, for example, that yield a greater comprehension of how the external environment affects cellular- and organism-level biosystems, as well as the development of genetic and molecular-level tools to investigate complex nano-molecular scale environmental processes.

To establish and strengthen interdisciplinary areas of investigation, new communities of scientists need to be formed. BE brings together members of disparate disciplines into teams that focus on complex environmental systems that include humans and non-human organisms and emphasizes scientific inquiries of so-called non-linear behavior, or characteristics that do not function or unfold in a logical, step-wise progression. By its very nature, biocomplexity is...complex.

What specific disciplinary area does the Biocomplexity in the Environment area support, and at what funding levels?

Five topical areas, funded at approximately $35 million per year, are currently the focus of BE studies:

Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH): Promotes quantitative, interdisciplinary analyses of human and natural system processes and the complex interactions among human and natural systems at diverse scales.

Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles (CBC): Focuses on the interrelations of biological, geochemical, geological, and physical processes at all temporal and spatial scales, with particular emphasis on understanding linkages between chemical or physical cycles and the influence of human and other biotic factors on those cycles.

Genome-Enabled Environmental Science and Engineering (GEN-EN): Encourages the integrated use of genomic and computational approaches to gain novel insights into environmental questions and problems.

Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities (IDEA): Supports the development of instrumentation and software that takes advantage of microelectronics, photonics, telemetry, robotics, chemical and physical sensing systems, modeling, data mining, and analysis techniques to bring recent laboratory instrumentation advances to bear on the full spectrum of environmental biocomplexity studies.

Materials Use: Engineering & Society (MUSES): Supports projects that study reducing adverse human impact on resource use; the design and synthesis of new materials with environmentally benign impacts; and maximizing the efficient use of individual materials throughout their life cycles.

In Fiscal Year 2005, proposals in the CHN and MUSES areas will be solicited.

To view awards that have been made under the BE Priority Area, link to and click on "List of BE Awardees" at the bottom of the page.


Media Contacts
Cheryl L. Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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