Biocomplexity: A New Science For Survival?

Excerpts from Rita Colwell's interview with The Scientist.This interview was not published in the print edition. Q. Is biocomplexity your own idea? A. The biocomplexity initiative was begun at NSF after I arrived, building on programs already instituted, such as Life in Extreme Environments. The fundamental and underlying principle is that we must move from strictly reductionist research to research that synthesizes information and work toward a holistic approach to understanding and wisely m

Arielle Emmett
Oct 1, 2000

Excerpts from Rita Colwell's interview with The Scientist.
This interview was not published in the print edition.

Q. Is biocomplexity your own idea?

A. The biocomplexity initiative was begun at NSF after I arrived, building on programs already instituted, such as Life in Extreme Environments. The fundamental and underlying principle is that we must move from strictly reductionist research to research that synthesizes information and work toward a holistic approach to understanding and wisely managing the environment. We now have the computing capacity to analyze large databases. Thus, we can develop an integrative approach to study of the environment. Some of us remember attempts to build computer models 10 or 25 years ago. We simply weren't advanced sufficiently in either computer information technology or understanding the fundamental elements and constructs that comprise environmental systems. Now we're in a position to be able to study the complexity of ecosystems, especially since mathematicians have been looking at complexity as a phenomenon.

Q. How do you define biocomplexity?

A. Biocomplexity is understanding how the components of a global system interact the biological, physical, chemical, and human dimension, all taken together both to gain an understanding of the complexity of the system and to be able to derive fundamental principles from it. I personally think we'll be able to have a scientific understanding of sustainability even perhaps a series of formulae or equations, developed by mathematicians to explain and define sustainability. We'll be able to develop a predictive capacity for actions taken with respect with the environment to predict specific outcomes. We can't do this yet well, we can predict, but it's not precise and quantitative. After investing in biocomplexity research, we'll be able to make predictions concerning environmental phenomena as a consequence of human actions taken.

Q. How will biocomplexity be studied?

A. Integrative research can be incorporated into the kinds of studies already being done and in new initiatives. For example, EPA already sponsors research on the environmental impact of human activities. Studies of global climatic variability and human health, sponsored by NOAA in collaboration with other agencies (including NSF, EPA, NASA, and the Electric Power Research Institute), are examples of interdisciplinary research. Biocomplexity may eventually become an interagency initiative. The initial program for the Biocomplexity Special Competition in 1999 was focused on microorganisms and microbiology; we were able to launch studies on microbial aspects of biocomplexity. Now, in the year 2000, we're moving to include higher organisms and more multidimensional aspects. The second year awards are being made in September 2000.

Q. How will the complexity initiative be organized?

A. What we've done at NSF is something entirely new, creating interdirectorate cooperation across the whole agency. The working group is headed up by Margaret Leinen, who is specifically focused on biocomplexity-she is assistant director at NSF for Geosciences. Marge Cavanaugh, staff associate for the environment, is staff to Leinen; Marge is terrific at reducing ideas and concepts to practice. Mary Clutter, assistant director for biological sciences at NSF, and Margaret work closely together on this initiative.

Q. Are there any precedents for this effort?

A. This is a new field, a new discipline. This year, NSF, NIH, NASA, and NOAA joined together to make awards on climate and health, with a focus on emerging diseases.

Q. How has your work on cholera epidemics influenced your thinking on biocomplexity?

A. The cholera work has progressed tremendously; I've been able to keep my lab at the University of Maryland, and just this month, we published the genome sequence of Vibrio cholerae. (John Heidelberg, the senior author of the paper, was a Ph.D. student in my laboratory before joining The Institute for Genomic Research). People now accept that Vibrio cholerae is a bacterium naturally occurring in the environment. It's associated with zooplankton, and we've discovered, using remote sensing, that the two peaks in cholera epidemics in Bangladesh are preceded by pre-cholera-season increases in sea surface temperature in the Bay of Bengal.

Q. Given environmental impact, what steps are being taken to prevent further outbreaks?

A. Attempts to develop effective cholera vaccines have been only partially successful. But because the cholera bacteria are attached to copepods, up to 99 percent can be removed from drinking water in Bangladesh by simple filtration, and preliminary results are positive in reducing the number of cholera cases. We have a major study under way involving 90,000 villagers in Bangladesh. Women there are instructed to use sari cloth folded four to eight times as a filter for their drinking water, successfully removing 99 percent of the vibrios the cloth actually filters them out because the bacteria are attached to plankton and to particulates in the water. We've been able to show, by using gene probes and fluorescent antibody detection methods, that the surface water used for drinking water is very much reduced in numbers of vibrios after filtration. Because cholera is dose-dependent, with 1-10 million bacteria per milliliter of water needed to cause disease, filtration can be very effective in preventing the disease.

Q. What is the upshot of your research?

A. We are now beginning to understand that the relationship of climate and seasonality is fundamental to understanding waterborne disease epidemics. Outbreaks of vectorborne diseases, such as dengue and malaria, as well as West Nile virus, are also related to climate and season. Thus, we need to develop a better understanding of the basic ecology of emerging and re-emerging diseases.

Q. Isn't there some well-founded suspicion, though, that man-made pollution and toxicity are causing some of the more extreme environmental changes that, in turn, affect human health?

A. I don't deny that there are environmental changes and that they may be contributory. But scientific evidence is growing that indicates a relationship of cholera epidemics, such as that which occurred in Madras, India, in 1992, to climate and seasonal climate events. However, we need to do a lot more research before making predictions of coming castastrophe caused by climate change. We still have a lot to learn 1/4. We need to determine the correlations, a good example of biocomplexity that incorporates human health as a vital component of the total picture. Research teams are working on these problems.

Q. Aren't you worried about pollution, greenhouses gases, and global warming?

A. There's a concern about pollution, but there's a need to gather good, reliable information. I don't think things are going to get increasingly worse. Public health measures can be put in place to address significant problems for example, the chance of a massive cholera epidemic as a result of global warming is highly unlikely. What might happen is that more intense and frequent epidemics could occur in some parts of the world, but public measures can be put in place. Climate-related diseases may spread more widely into regions that are affected by higher temperatures, if warming continues. Yet, there will be accommodations. For example, more wheat may be grown in Saskatechwan and human settlement in areas such as Labrador may increase. But we need to determine the complexity associated with these events to make valid predictions.

Q. How will your work on biocomplexity and other environmental issues be translated into policy and public health measures?

A. We work through the National Science and Technology Council, in cooperation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Neal Lane, Director of OSTP and Science Advisor to the president. We also provide information directly to Congress. These interactions are constant and highly productive.

Q. Is the Congress really concerned about this? Do the senators and representatives care about biocomplexity and environmental issues? Do they even understand what you are trying to achieve?

A. The biocomplexity initiative has been extremely well received in Congress. It's an approach that brings science and engineering to understanding the complex nature of environmental systems. We have excellent support on both sides of the aisle and a desire on the part of Congress to obtain information about how environmental systems work.

Q. Will you get the funding you need after the Election?

A. I don't think changes in the White House or Congress will adversely affect funding for this research. We have had $50 million approved by a Republican-controlled Congress for biocomplexity research. We have a request for $136 million before the current Congress that will allow us to advance interdisciplinary science, especially those areas of research where math, chemistry, biology, and physics come together, in programs that will allow complexity to be understood. The support is bipartisan.