YIBS Five Year Report
Research and Development: Furthering Knowledge in Specialized Fields
These achievements in strong interdisciplinary collaboration were effected by the Institute's role as an "internal foundation." Through a competitive proposal process, the Institute's Faculty Council established seven synergistic research and teaching Centers focused on three major areas of concern: global change, the evolution and diversity of life, and the engagement of people with their planet and its other forms of life. The first two areas encompass important environmental issues, including changes in the earth's climates, atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems, and oceans, and the rapid reduction of terrestrial and marine biodiversity at all latitudes. The third area focuses on the ways in which people contribute to and attempt to manage the broad changes underway in their environment.
Over the five year period, $1.733 million was allocated to the Institute's research centers. (More detailed information regarding these allocations is included in the Summary of Resource Allocations beginning on page 23.) These Centers represent those channels of collaboration that have led to the Institute's overall success in advancing its mission:
Collectively, these Centers have pushed the frontiers of current scientific knowledge, expanded technological capabilities that will in turn expand the frontiers of what can be discovered, and developed novel applications for existing technology. Each has a unique focus and contributes tangible outcomes to the advancement of our understanding of critical environmental management issues such as how bacteria may be used to remove, or even prevent, pollution; how satellite images can be used to help municipalities plan more effective watershed management strategies; or what effect a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would have on common mammal species in the Continental United States. It is the work of these Centers, more fully discussed on the following pages, that constitutes the heart of the Institute for Biospheric Studies.
These "shoulds" represent just a few of the questions that inspire and challenge Center for Biological Transformation (CBT) Director, Professor Nicholas Ornston, and co-director, Professor Margaret Riley. In its first five years, the CBT research team has undertaken a comprehensive research program to understand the biological processes underlying the bacterial transformation of chemicals to create useful products as well as those processes underlying successful biological removal of toxic chemicals from the environment. Building upon this basic research, scientists can begin to develop applications for removing and preventing pollution.
The Center's most notable achievement to date is the complete characterization of a segment of bacterial DNA as a basis for understanding how chemicals are degraded in the environment. The segment contains 20,000 nucleotide base pairs and 17 genes; many of the genes encode enzymes with specific catalytic functions. This groundbreaking basic research has been achieved through interdisciplinary efforts combining the insights of biochemistry, physiology, genetics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. The results of CBT studies to date promise generalizations that may permit the design of enzymes with novel catalytic activities. The experimental system also opened mechanisms of genetic variation (mutation and recombination) to analysis. Findings from these studies indicate the steps that will be necessary in establishing and maintaining biodegradative systems in the natural environment.
The Center's work has spawned a successful industrial/academic collaboration with DuPont and has attracted support from the General Reinsurance Corporation, the largest professional property/casualty reinsurer domiciled in the United States. CBT research has also been recognized by the scientific community with the naming of Professor Margaret Riley as a Presidential Young Investigator.
In addition to conducting research, CBT is extremely active in advancing the study of biological transformation beyond the Yale community. In the 1994-95 academic year alone, for example, the Center hosted 11 visitors from seven universities in the US, Korea, Germany, The Netherlands, and France; Center researchers participated in eight invited lectures, seminars, and workshops at universities and professional meetings throughout the US, Spain, and Scotland.
These seemingly unrelated questions are at the very heart of collaboration among Center for Computational Ecology (CCE) researchers, each of whom contributes the unique perspectives of biology, engineering, geology, wildlife ecology, genetics, and computer science to their common fields of inquiry. Two of the Center's researchers, Professors Leo Buss and Günter Wagner have been recognized as John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellows.
CCE's long-term research goal is to understand how complexity in ecological systems emerges and is sustained, further enabling researchers to:
While CCE researchers represent numerous disciplines, they share underlying conceptual problems that require the solution of structurally similar mathematical challenges. Each research project, therefore, has the potential for producing two types of outcomes: 1) findings specific to the project that advance knowledge in a particular field and contribute to our collective understanding of complexity in ecological systems; and 2) innovations in and applications of computational and mathematical tools, including software, that enhance the knowledge shared by the interdisciplinary community.
CCE research projects are structured around three simulation platforms, which continue to evolve as the related research unfolds; each of these platforms contributes to the computational keys by which researchers have begun to unlock our understanding of complexity:
The overall objective of the Center for Earth Observation (CEO) is to enhance and coordinate the use of remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) technologies for research and academic purposes. The Center is an interdisciplinary research community that brings together researchers from the Departments of Geology & Geophysics and Anthropology, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the School of Medicine's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health; its resources are used by research teams in at least nine academic areas.
The technology used in the Center can be applied to numerous research topics, many of which have significant economic and environmental implications, such as: mapping mineral deposits, monitoring major storm formation, detecting forest damage, charting atmospheric changes (e.g., holes in the ozone layer), and mapping local cloud patterns and wind circulation to aid in the management of air pollution sources. The Center also enables Yale to join a handful of American universities serving as libraries for satellite images. The Center receives and archives processed satellite images and data sets from NASA, public network sources, and commercial network services. The Center thus acts as a service bureau providing both data and an array of training programs to Yale's entire academic community.
The number of active research projects has grown substantially from four in the spring of 1994 to approximately 20 in the spring of 1995; such growth in project numbers has also expanded the number of disciplines and variety of research questions to which remote sensing can be applied. Most projects involve one to two collaborating researchers and have a duration of approximately six months, while others may evolve over a number of years and engage a number of graduate students whose interests are compatible with the faculty investigator.
The Center for the Study of Ecology and Systematics of Animals on the Verge of Extinction (ECOSAVE) is designed to make Yale one of the few research institutions that focuses specifically on providing the vital scientific basis for conservation strategies to help diminish the loss of threatened species. ECOSAVE concentrates research efforts in two major areas: studying evidence of ecosystem changes found in fossil records and understanding a species' "family tree" by combining the traditional method of analyzing physical form and function with new techniques to analyze underlying genetic similarities. Information of this type will be essential for creating animal and plant reserves and for developing effective management strategies in the future.
Under the leadership of Yale paleontologist Elisabeth Vrba, ECOSAVE has entered into collaborations with scientists from the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History. These collaborations currently focus on deer and antelope species, specifically the new genus and species Pseudoryx nghetinhensis found in Vietnam, as reported in the June, 1993 issue of Nature. The study of this newly identified species includes mitochondrial DNA studies, skeletal studies of fossil and recent related taxa, and ecological and behavioral studies in the field. In a related endeavor, researchers are studying the biology, including morphology, behavior, ecology and conservation status of other new species of antelope and deer recently found in Laos and Vietnam.
Dr. Vrba also continues to collaborate in the Middle Awash Research Program (MARP), which involves annual field trips to find new fossil sites in the eastern African Rift in Ethiopia and to excavate and study the stratigraphy and fossil contents of the most promising strata. This effort not only advances scientists' understanding of the evolutionary process, it brings Yale researchers into direct interaction with students and scientists in developing countries, furthering the transfer of intellectual resources among scholars and potentially attracting graduate students from Third World research institutions.
The Center's efforts have also resulted in the publication of Paleoclimate and Evolution, with Emphasis on Human Origins, to be released by the Yale University Press in early 1996. The book is edited by Dr. Vrba and colleagues from the University of Maine; the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, New York. The collection of writings focuses on how climatic change during the last 15 million years-especially the last three million-has affected human evolution and other evolutionary events.
The Center for Global Change (CGC) was established to encourage the interdisciplinary study of changes occurring on the plant's surface over time scales ranging from tens to millions of years. The only way to evaluate global climate change over such long periods is to examine the geological record; isotope geochemistry is the principal technique used for such analysis. Research in isotope geochemistry is therefore the means by which CGC researchers work to fulfill the Center's mission of providing a richer scientific base on which to build the environmental policies that are critical to protect and manage our biosphere and atmosphere.
In collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Karl Turekian, CGC Director, Professor of Geology & Geophysics, and member of the National Academy of Science, is developing and refining research techniques that enable researchers to better distinguish long-term global climate changes from natural fluctuations in climate occurring over long periods. In the course of his distinguished research career, Professor Turekian has introduced many of the modern techniques for examining geological indicators of global climate change; his current research focuses on measurements of the isotope ratios of osmium in dated deep sea cores.
The radioactive decay of an isotope of rhenium enhances one of the isotopes of the platinum group element osmium (os-187). The higher the rhenium concentration of a geologic deposit and the older it is, the higher the Os-187 will be relative to the other isotopes of osmium. Black shales, a common source rock type for petroleum, are enriched in rhenium, uranium, and phosphorous. The weathering of old black shales or similar deposits burdens the oceans with Os-187 enriched osmium. This burdening changes with the rate of weathering, which in turn depends on the extent of mountain building and land exposure above sea level. By following the changing osmium isotope complexion of sea water over time, we can determine the changing intensity of mountain erosion. This information, combined with profiles of uranium and phosphorus found by studying ancient corals, reveals the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the control of which lies at the heart of the climate change question.
In addition to pursuing a world-renowned research agenda, Professor Turekian has recently published Global Environmental Change: Past, Present, and Future as an outgrowth of the undergraduate "Global Change" course (which is itself an outgrowth of two smaller Berkeley College seminars entitled "The Earth and Human History" and "The Human View of Earth"). The book addresses issues of natural and human induced or accelerated environmental change on a global scale at a level appropriate to a general audience. Each of the book's 11 chapters examines a topic in global change from an interdisciplinary perspective that at various points incorporates aspects of geology, atmospheric science, oceanography, biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, geography, political science, history, archaeology, and economics.
Tropical rainforest destruction has caused not only drastic economic, social, and environmental changes in many countries in recent years, but has also exacted a heavy toll through an increase in infectious diseases such as malaria. The Center for Human Ecology, Environment and Infectious Disease (CHEEID) is charting the impact of social and economic factors and of environmental change, such as deforestation, on infectious diseases. This fundamental research will provide the basis for scientifically sound health and environmental policies.
Initial research activities have focused on the Amazon River Basin of Brazil and on three insect-transmitted diseases-malaria, leishmaniasis, and yellow fever. The project Land Use and Health in the Amazon is the first intensive study to integrate health and environmental factors in an effort to guide settlement in the Amazon basin. Developed as a collaborative effort among Yale scientists and colleagues from Brazilian institutions, this project focuses on the relationship between insect transmitted diseases and deforestation, and on sustainable land-use for socioeconomic development. The multidisciplinary project is set in the frontier settlements of the state of Rondonia and in the floodplain communities of the Amazon estuary in Pará, Brazil. Two research projects are currently in progress through CHEEID: A soil and vegetation characterization of the tidal floodplains, and a socio-economic study in the Amazon estuary of Pará, Brazil. However, with the 1994 departure of Professor Burt Singer, CHEEID Director and Dean of Epidemiology and Public Health, the Center is now re-assessing the direction that new research will take.
The Center for Molecular Ecology and Systematics (CMES) will further develop and utilize the latest advances in molecular biology to rapidly survey the genetic status of natural populations. In addition to providing a focus for the development of new technology, the Center will serve the increasingly important demands of the community of ecologists, conservation biologists, and evolutionists for access to such tools. In carrying out their work, Center researchers intend to ultimately build a molecular collection destined to become a new division of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. This Center's programs await the construction of the new Environmental Sciences Facility.