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Biosphere study to test climate impact on soil

biosphere-2A researcher at the University of Southampton plans to study the effects of climate change on soil ecosystems in Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 is a 3.15-acre, 12,700-square-metre structure originally built by Space Biosphere Ventures as a man-made, materially-closed ecological system in Oracle, Arizona. The largest closed system ever created, the structure allows scientists to monitor the ever-changing chemistry of the air, water and soil contained within.

Alex Penn at the University of Southampton’s Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group, part of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, was awarded a British Council Darwin Researcher Exchange Grant to carry out research into soil ecosystems in Biosphere 2.

According to Penn, who did her PhD on artificial ecosystem selection, the fact that Biosphere 2 runs many possible climatic zone, makes it possible for her to look at the effects of climate change on complex soil ecosystems.

“This is quite a challenge as there are about a million bacterial species in just one gram of soil,” she said.

Over the next 10 months, Penn will expose soil samples to long periods of drought and heavy rainfall, which will become typical conditions as climate change progresses, and she will monitor how ecosystems may evolve within these scenarios.

“Some ecosystems may be killed off by extreme conditions, allowing neighbouring ecosystems to spread,” she said. “This could have a strong impact on soil ecosystem function which is vital for ecosystem services that we depend on.”

Penn plans to take the microcosms that are performing best and use them to emulate ecosystem evolution in a spatial metacommunity. This approach takes into account the co-evolution of the interconnected species.

“We already know of the significant effects if we expose soil to these sorts of evolutionary conditions in the lab,” she said. “Now we have an opportunity to see what happens in the natural world using new models of complex communities rather than our simple models of single gene evolution.”

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