Biology: Enabling discoveries for understanding life

The mission of the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), is to enable discoveries for understanding life, as Open Access Government discovers

The clear mission of the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is to enable discoveries for understanding life. BIO-supported research furthers the frontiers of biological knowledge, increases our understanding of complex systems and provides a theoretical basis for original research in various scientific
disciplines.

BIO supports research to advance our understanding of the principles and mechanisms that govern life itself. The research studies of BIO extend across systems that encompass biological molecules, cells, communities, tissues, organs, organisms, populations and ecosystems up to and including, the global biosphere.

In addition, it is worth noting that BIO is divided into five divisions, which are:
• The Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI);
• The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB);
• The Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS);
• The Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) and;
• The Emerging Frontiers (EF) Division.

To deal with ecological questions that cannot be resolved with short-term observations or experiments, NSF established the Long Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) way back in 1980. This research is located at specific sites chosen to represent major ecosystem types or natural biomes. It places focus on the study of ecological phenomena over long periods of time. According to the NSF, long-term studies are crucial to arrive at an integrated understanding of how populations, communities and other components of ecosystems interact, as well as to test ecological theory.

One recent example of LTER’s work can be found concerning scientists at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Alaska, one of 28 such LTER sites. Here, they are working to understand interactions between changing tree lines and plant-eating animals, like the snowshoe hare.

“This study is a reminder that there will be winners and losers as climate changes and that species’ interactions with their environments will play a critical role in how the landscape changes,” said Colette St. Mary, an NSF LTER programme director. (1)

Another example of LTER’s research is when scientists wanted to find out where the greatest risk of a mosquito bite is if you live in Baltimore, Maryland. Studying in Baltimore neighbourhoods where residents have low, median or high incomes, the scientists concluded that people are most at risk in areas with median incomes.

Providing insight into this fascinating area of research, Doug Levey, a director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program says: “Nature is all around us, including in downtown Baltimore. In this case, urban landscapes provide excellent habitat for rats and mosquitoes. Understanding how they live can help protect us from diseases.”

Shannon LaDeau, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York and co-author of the paper, explains that: “Mosquitoes are a global threat to public health. We’re interested in knowing how urban landscape features and social patterns influence mosquito biting behaviour.”

“Our findings suggest that median-income areas are where people are most at risk of being bitten,” adds LaDeau. “There are plenty of people for mosquitoes to bite and residents may be more likely to spend time in community gardens and shared green spaces, which
makes them available to mosquitoes.” (2)

Staying on the subject of ecology, it’s worth looking at another example of NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program’s recent research. It concerns a study which ties phosphorus loading in lakes to extreme precipitation events. Going into more detail, the study shows that April showers contribute to toxic algae blooms, dead zones and declining water quality in U.S. coastal waters, reservoirs and lakes.

“This is an important example of how changes in one aspect of the environment, in this case, precipitation, can lead to changes in other aspects, such as phosphorus load,” says Tom Torgersen, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Water, Sustainability and Climate program, which, along with NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, funds the research.

David Garrison, chair of NSF’s LTER Working Group, comments: “This study’s findings, which depend on long-term data, are important to maintaining water quality not only today, but into the future.” (3)

The above examples tell us about the guiding principles of LTER, in that long-term studies are vital to gain an integrated understanding of how populations, communities and other components of ecosystems interact. They also bring us back to the fundamental point that BIO research always aims to increase our understanding of the principles and mechanisms that govern life on earth.

References
(1) https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=244505&
org=NSF&from=news
(2) https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=244938&
org=NSF&from=news
(3) https://www.nsf.gov/news/newsmedia/ENV-discoveries/LTER-discovery-
series.jsp

Open Access Government

JMiles@openaccessgovernment.org

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