Berkeley Lab is one of 14 organizations from around the world that have collectively been awarded $12.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a new Biology Integration Institute (BII), called EMERGE and led by Ohio State University. The Institute aims to improve understanding of ecosystem-climate interactions, focusing on permafrost systems. Bill Riley of the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division and Eoin Brodie of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab will lead the Berkeley Lab contributions, and will focus on microbial and full ecosystem modeling. Simon Roux and Emiley Eloe-Fadrosh of the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) will support bioinformatics analyses.
EMERGE, which stands for “EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE,” is an ambitious five-year effort that will pioneer a new “genes-to-ecosystems-to-genes” (G2E2G) framework for understanding connections between small-scale microbes and large-scale ecosystem changes. The goal is to discover how the processes that sustain life and enable biological innovation operate and interact within and across scales, from molecules to cells, species and ecosystems, under dynamically changing conditions. The end result will be a framework to enable predictive modeling of ecosystem response to change.
“Ecosystems are complex dynamic systems that respond to changes in climate forcing or management in ways that are difficult to predict based on understanding of individual components,” said CESD senior scientist Bill Riley, who is one of six executive committee members and a research activity co-lead for EMERGE.
“The emergent carbon cycle responses to, for example, climate warming or increased CO2 concentrations, require a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort that the EMERGE Biology Integration Institute will develop and apply to a high-latitude rapidly changing permafrost system. It is very exciting to be taking on this complex challenge.”
Riley said that the new institute is particularly relevant now because it ties in with several large ongoing and planned projects at Berkeley Lab. “The idea that microbiomes are critical to high-latitude ecosystem dynamics, and thereby to multiple ecosystem processes important to humanity (e.g., atmospheric CO2 and CH4), motivates our work for this effort. We are also interested in the broader interactions with plants and abiotic processes (e.g., thermokarst, hydrology) that together shape ecosystem responses over decades or centuries.”
EMERGE will focus on five research activities centered around how microbes respond physiologically to a changing climate as individual organisms, through their interactions as a collective or community, and how these processes evolve over time. The case-study ecosystem is Stordalen Mire, a long-studied peatland in northern Sweden where permafrost thaw is driving changes in the landscape, plants, and microbes. The driving question is how much the thawing of these kinds of permafrost systems will increase emissions of the greenhouse gases CO2 and CH4, thereby accelerating climate change.
The EMERGE team will leverage and expand upon a rich catalog of multi-omics data generated through the DOE User Facilities, EMSL, and the JGI. “Translating ‘omic information into model predictions for how microbial communities function, interact, and adapt across a landscape under global change is a key and timely challenge that we are excited to tackle,” according to Brodie. In addition to the hundreds of shotgun metagenomes that are being generated through the FICUS and BER Support Science programs, Viral Genomics Group Lead Simon Roux and Metagenome Program Head Emiley Eloe-Fadrosh will continue their strong collaboration with the EMERGE team. Both Roux and Eloe-Fadrosh supported DOE SCGSR Fellows Gareth Trubl and Moira Hough at the JGI. According to Eloe-Fadrosh, “The EMERGE team exemplifies interdisciplinary team science and is well-positioned to address fundamental questions about how tiny microbes have global-scale impacts.”
The institute, which will launch in September and operate for five years with the potential for renewal, also has a strong training, education, and outreach component. It will train a group of biologists at the postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate levels in cutting-edge multidisciplinary science. Activities will include a summer undergraduate research program, a TEDx-style event for the public, a summer institute for early career researchers, online openly-available curriculum, and a workshop to foster connections with researchers from other long-term research sites.
Participating universities in EMERGE include the University of New Hampshire, the University of Arizona, Florida State University, Colorado State University at Fort Collins, Case Western Reserve University, UC Berkeley, Rochester Institute of Technology, Berkeley Lab, and Joint Genome Institute, all in the United States; Lund University, Umeå University, and Stockholm University, all in Sweden; and Queensland University of Technology in Australia.