Canada's Biotron superlab contains miniature chunks of the natural world that will help us predict the impact of climate change on living organisms.
Now there's a place where whole ecosystems can be scrupulously re-created and organisms scrutinized, from their DNA to their interaction with other organisms. With more complete data, scientists will be able to make better predictions -- and their experimental findings could better inform policy makers, who might, for example, provide subsidies for crops that respond well to emerging climate patterns.
Norman Hüner, a Canadian biochemist and plant biologist, began work on his Biotron Institute for Experimental Climate Change Research in 1999, and in early 2008 it opened its doors.
The Biotron may call to mind Biosphere 2, the large artificial habitat plopped down 20 years ago in the Arizona desert, where researchers tested in two separate "missions" whether humans could live sustainably in a sealed, self-contained environment as a precursor to colonizing outer space. The Biotron, scientifically speaking, is in a different league.
The superlaboratory is a joint project of the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph, Ontario, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a federal agency. The nondescript five-story building, located in the agricultural heartland of southwestern Ontario, is an engineering marvel, yet a bargain at just $28 million.
Inside are state-of-the-art facilities that support research into microorganisms, insects, and plants, all of which can be genetically modified to suit researchers' needs. Temperature in the Biotron's climate chambers can be varied from -40 degrees Fahrenheit to 122 degrees, to simulate anything from the Arctic winter to a tropical rainforest. On the roof of the building are six "biomes" -- airlocked, greenhouse-like structures that have been custom designed to precisely control environmental factors such as temperature, UV radiation, light intensity, wind, precipitation, and CO2. Each biome is large enough to house trees more than 30 feet tall and to allow for the re-creation of complex biological communities that can extend from the highest tree canopies to underground soil layers.
If the possibilities seem endless, they nearly are. The plan is for the world's leading scientists to rotate in and out of the lab space, and the biomes will be regularly reconfigured. One such setup will use cross sections of Arctic permafrost, transported from northern Canada, so researchers can study how it reacts to rising temperatures: As the permafrost thaws, how much methane gas will be released? How will bacteria and overwintering insects be affected by changing freeze-thaw cycles? Scientists will design and study more temperate ecosystems, as well, to learn how changes in temperature and CO2 affect the growth of photosynthetic organisms, including crops and boreal forest.
Biotron researchers will also be able to study the benefits and risks of biotechnology in agriculture, forestry, and medicine by examining the basic biology of genetically modified organisms: What is the rate of gene transfer from transgenic plants to wild ones? Can plants be engineered to manufacture medicinal compounds that will benefit humans?
The Biotron will be equipped with a sophisticated imaging and analysis system -- a virtual control room -- that will expand its reach globally, allowing researchers anywhere to manage and monitor experiments remotely over the Internet in real time. A scientist in India studying the impact of climate change on rice could instruct the Biotron to raise the temperature or CO2 concentration in a biome set up to simulate a South Asian rice paddy. Then he or she could monitor the impact of this change through images and other data automatically collected and stored in a supercomputing network.
More: Biotron Website