NSF Grants Awarded For Biodiversity Research
September 26, 2012

NSF Awards $26M For Research Into Earth’s Biodiversity

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The sheer diversity of life on Earth is staggering. After centuries of discovery, the majority of the planet's species of life remain unknown. As recently as a few years ago, scientists thought it might be beyond cataloging, but that is no longer the case.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 14 grants totaling $26.4 million to characterize the lesser-known aspects of the diversity of life as part of the third year of its Dimensions of Biodiversity program.

Dimensions of Biodiversity is part of NSF's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability investment, and is supported by the Directorates for Biological Sciences and Geosciences, and Office of International Science and Engineering.

NASA also co-funds the program's projects that use its remote-sensing platforms, and other partnerships have been formed with funding agencies in China and Brazil.

"By establishing networks of interdisciplinary, globally-engaged scientists, the Dimensions of Biodiversity program will have a lasting effect on biodiversity science," says John Wingfield, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. "The program has the potential to transform the way we conduct biological research."

The recipients of this year's grants will study subjects ranging from the biota of the Amazon and its environment, how nutrient input drives biodiversity in China's extremely oxygen-deprived Lake Taihu, the components of tree biodiversity and the lineage of species in Hawaii.

"The innovative and interdisciplinary teams of the Dimensions of Biodiversity program may accomplish in 10 years what, with a piecemeal approach, would have taken 50 years — a half-century we can no longer afford to wait," says Joann Roskoski, NSF deputy assistant director for Biological Sciences.

New advances in the ability to collect, analyze and integrate biological data have provided researchers with new tools to expand knowledge of Earth's biodiversity. These advances and new tools will revolutionize our understanding of the living world.

There is a rapid and permanent loss of diversity that increasingly offsets the pace of discovery. This loss is caused by climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources and so-called "planetary re-engineering", which includes changes in land usage, water diversions, coastal development, the use of fertilizers and the intentional or unintentional movements of invasive species.

Humanity is losing links in the web of life, forfeiting opportunities to understand the history and future of the living world and giving up opportunities for future beneficial discoveries in foodstuffs, fuels, pharmaceuticals and bio-inspired innovation with every new loss in biodiversity.

Biodiversity research has often focused on a single dimension instead of an entire system. For example, researchers have concentrated on the taxonomic diversity or phylogenetic history of a clade (an ancestor and all its descendants), the genetic diversity of a population or a species, or the functional role of a taxon (a group of one or more populations of organisms) in an ecosystem.

Thus, despite the important advances yielded by such research, there are still enormous gaps in our understanding of biodiversity. We still know very little about these various dimensions both in terms of individuals instances of biodiversity as well as how they harmonize with others to contribute to environmental health, ecosystem stability, productivity and resilience, and biological adaptation to rapid environmental change.

The Dimensions of Biodiversity program takes a broad view of biodiversity that ranges from genes through species to ecosystems, with the long-term goal of developing an integrated understanding of the most critical dimensions of biodiversity in our ever-changing world. By 2020, the Dimensions program is expected to have transformed our understanding of the scope and role of life on Earth.