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News Tip


May 7, 2001

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, please contact the public information officer at the end of each item at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Cheryl Dybas

Protecting Plant Biodiversity Helps Safeguard Ecosystems

Human activity is shaping ecosystems such that they contain fewer species of plants, at a time when levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen pollution are on the rise. A study led by scientists affiliated with the Cedar Creek (Minnesota) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has found that prairie plots with greater plant biodiversity respond to augmented carbon dioxide and nitrogen better than plots with fewer plant species. If the findings hold true for ecosystems worldwide, human simplification of ecosystems to those with fewer numbers of species will hamper ecosystems' ability to remove carbon dioxide and nitrogen from circulation.

Says Peter Reich, a plant physiologist and ecologist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul, "When levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen were elevated to those we likely will see later this century, plots with greater numbers of plant species made better use of these nutrients than plots with few species."

The experiment, called BioCON (biodiversity, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen) used a unique technology to grow plants in elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in a natural field environment, without chambers or greenhouses. "We need to consider the disadvantages of decreasing diversity as we manage our landscapes," says Reich." [Cheryl Dybas]

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At The "Moving Edge of Discovery," Pushing the Frontier Without a Map

The National Science Foundation (NSF) thrives on argument because it pushes the frontier, NSF Deputy Director Joe Bordogna pointed out at a policy roundtable in Washington D.C. May 3. Bordogna spoke at the 26th Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology, hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"When you're at the frontier, there's very little agreement. Everything NSF does is arguable. And that's good -- it reflects the richness of what's going on," said Bordogna.

However, a capacity for argument doesn't necessarily mean a lack of direction. NSF has specific goals, he added. "We have three strategic questions we ask of all our work. Is this an investment in intellectual capital? Second, does it integrate research and education? And third, does it promote partnerships of all kinds? That's why the President's math and science partnership initiative [proposed for the FY02 budget] was such a natural for us."

Bordogna also emphasized the trend toward research across disciplinary boundaries. "New clusters will emerge at the moving edge of discovery, and these will inevitably transform the 'core' disciplines," he said. "We need to accommodate these transformations in the design of our education and research activities." [Mary Hanson/Bill Noxon]

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Students' Robots Perform Surgery on ... A Grape?

Four students build with LEGOs
Students create a surgical robot from a LEGO kit

A group of high-school students showed remarkable engineering potential in a recent race to create surgical robots. Seven student teams competed in April at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., using special LEGO kits and computer software to design and operate robots that perform surgery-like functions.

The test for the robots: to insert a needle into a grape suspended in red gelatin, simulating a biopsy on a prostate tumor. The substances bear a surprising resemblance to human tissue, said Jeff Jarosz, education director for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology. The NSF center, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., sponsored the competition.

The enthusiastic students got a good introduction to hands-on teamwork, Jarosz reported.

"The point of the competition is to distribute the tasks so that each person does what they're good at," said Hopkins graduate student Oleg Gerovichev, president of the Computer-Integrated Surgery Student Research Society. "For the high school students, this is an introduction to computer-integrated surgery, and for students like me, it's a teaching experience." Gerovichev and other undergraduate and graduate students plan and manage the competition with support from the Hopkins faculty.

Three previous competitions took place at Hopkins, and another is slated there for Fall 2001. [Amber Jones]

For more information, see:

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