The Transforming Strategy

The first task toward an integrated understanding of the Earth's ecosystems is to identify and study the most important components. Focus on microorganisms is warranted based on their sheer abundance and metabolic versatility. The first two disciplinary partners, molecular biology and nanoscience, have already taken center stage with the integration of molecular biology and genome-enabled technologies (e.g., whole genome expression microarrays). In the next few years, these tools will allow us to decipher the full diversity of ways in which individual organisms grow, develop, reproduce, and evolve. These breakthroughs are critical to medicine, agriculture, and biologically assisted manufacturing and waste management.

Inorganic components also play key roles in natural systems. As noted above, exceedingly small particles intermediate in size between molecular clusters and macroscopic materials (nanoparticles) are abundant components of natural environments. Study of nanoparticle formation, properties, and stability is at the intersection of nanoscience, biology, chemistry, and geoscience. The unique characteristics of materials structured on the nanoscale have long been appreciated in the fields of materials science and engineering. It is now essential that we determine whether the nanoparticles in soils, sediments, water, the atmosphere, and in space also have unusual and environmentally important surface properties and reactivity. Do nanoparticles partition in natural systems in size-dependent ways? Are they transported readily in groundwater, and is this the mechanism by which insoluble contaminants and nutrients are dispersed? There are also potentially intriguing questions relating to interactions between inorganic nanoparticles and organic molecules. For example, do nanoparticles in dust react in unusual ways with organic molecules (perhaps in sunlight)? Is the assembly of nanoparticles by organic polymers central to biomineralization processes, such as generation of bone? Can these interactions be harnessed for biomimetic technologies? Did reactions at nanoparticle surfaces play a role in prebiotic synthesis or the origin of life? Were nanoparticles themselves captured by organic molecules to form early enzymes? The answers to these questions are important to our understanding of inorganic and biological systems. However, far larger challenges remain.

The second task will be to investigate entire communities of microorganisms at the genetic level to provide new insights into community structure and organization, including cell-cell signaling and the partitioning of function. This challenge requires complete genetic analysis of all community members without cultivation. This task will require extension of current biological, computational, and information technologies to permit simultaneous reconstruction of genome content from multiorganism assemblages at the level of strains without isolation of each community member. Resulting data will also allow comparison of the microbial community lifestyle — characterized by the ability to directly control the geochemical cycles of virtually every element — to its alternative, multicellular life. These analyses will also unveil the pathways by which all biologically and geochemically important transformations are accomplished. This work must be initiated in the laboratory, but ultimately, must be expanded to explicitly include all environmental parameters and stimuli. Consequently, the task of understanding organisms in their environments stands before us as the third and longest-term task.

An additional component, geoscience, must be included in order to meet the challenge of molecularly resolved ecology. Environmental applications have lagged behind investigations of organisms in the laboratory because natural systems are extremely complicated. Critical environmental data include time-resolved measurements of the structure and organization of natural systems, organism population statistics, measurements of the levels of expression of all genes within communities of interacting species, and quantification of how these expression patterns are controlled by and control geochemical processes. This approach, which must ultimately include macroorganisms, will be essential for medical and agricultural, as well as environmental, reasons.

Education and Outreach

Analysis of complex systems, through integration of nanotechnology, nanoscience, geoscience, biology, ecology, and mathematics, will place special demands on the educational system. It will require training of a new generation of researchers with special experimental, communication, and quantitative reasoning skills. Because the task of ecosystem analysis is too large to be tackled in an individual project, it may be necessary to reconsider the structure of graduate student training programs. It is possible that traditional, carefully delineated, individual PhD projects will be replaced by carefully integrated, collaborative PhD research efforts that include individuals at all career levels. Changes such as this will have the added advantage of generating scientists that are able to work together to solve large, complicated problems.

The integration of science and technology to develop understanding of the environment should extend to all educational levels. For example, an effective use of nanotechnology may be to monitor processes in the vicinity of K-12 classrooms (e.g., bird migrations, air quality, pesticide degradation in soil) and to compare these data to those collected elsewhere. This may improve the public's appreciation of the Earth's environments as complex biogeochemical systems that change in definable and predictable ways as the result of human activities.

0 0

Post a comment