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Castle Lecture Series
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Talks are held monthly and are webcast live. Videos archived here.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
Archive available here.

Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
Archive available here.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
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Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
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Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet


2011 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects


Submersible on the crane being placed into the water
Submersible on the crane being placed into the water
Photo credit: Lee Weigt

Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP): A Smithsonian-Substation Curacao Collaboration
Teams of Smithsonian marine scientists will travel to Curacao in the southern Caribbean to study shallow- and deep-reef biodiversity via resources and facilities at the Curacao Sea Aquarium.  Deep-reef collecting will be conducted in a state-of-the-art, five-person submersible capable of descending to 1,000 feet. We propose that the planned Smithsonian MarineGEO® initiative include a deep-reef component and that Smithsonian deep-reef sampling efforts in Curacao serve as the initial phase of that endeavor.

To ensure that the work in Curacao is consistent with MarineGEO® and to maximize its long-term value, scientists will not only make general collections, but also explore and implement methods of standardized sampling in the deep-reef environment for long-term monitoring. Upon completion of renovations to a Curacao research vessel, the submersible can be transported to other deep-reef sites, including Smithsonian marine stations in Panama and Belize, for comparative biodiversity assessments. Samples of all taxa from shallow and deep water will be subsampled and processed at the Smithsonian’s Laboratories of Analytical Biology (minimally DNA Barcoding). Short-term goals of the collaboration include facilitating discussions between education specialists at the Smithsonian and Curacao Sea Aquarium to develop an international educational program.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Carole Baldwin (Principal Investigator)
Lee Weigt

National Museum of Natural History
Mary Hagedorn

National Zoological Park
Harilaos Lessios
Ross Robertson
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute



Interns sort frozen vials of Nemertean worms.
Interns sort frozen vials of Nemertean worms.
Photo by Azhar Husain.


An intern pours liquid nitrogen into a container where tissue samples will be sorted.
An intern pours liquid nitrogen into a container where tissue samples will be sorted.
Photo by Azhar Husain.

Developing the Virtual Global Biorepository: Planning Workshop
The Global Genome Initiative (GGI), spearheaded by the National Museum of Natural History, has already begun to take shape within the Smithsonian. GGI aims include, among other things, the development of research questions that will yield information, strategic collecting, best practice management, and responsible access to newly collected specimens in the world’s biorepositories to contribute to the effort of saving the world’s biodiversity in genetic form.  The Global Genome Initiative at full implementation will be a network of organizations and people all contributing to preserving and responsibly using biorepository collections, acquiring new specimens, and sharing data and tools, protocols, and standards. To achieve this aim, this project will bring key Smithsonian, national, and international partners together to discuss the issues involved and to plan for a larger international workshop centered on forming a virtual global biorepository. 

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Carol Butler (Principal Investigator)
Lee Weigt

National Museum of Natural History
Pierre Comizzoli

National Zoological Park
Melissa McCormick

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Oris Sanjur Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


IndiGEO: Long-term monitoring of cultural and biological diversity on tribal lands
Environmental concerns, especially climate change and the loss of biodiversity, are among the most pressing issues facing our society today. These changes are taking place across the planet and affect all habitats and cultures. Living closer to the environment, Indigenous peoples are on the front line of these changes. They posses unique knowledge systems that bring greater understanding to the environment and our relationship to it.

This project combines elements of two existing projects into a new synergy that will produce new research tools, questions, and approaches to environmental issues on Indigenous lands and beyond. The Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories (SIGEO) is employing modern scientific tools to monitor the transformation of biodiversity as these major environmental changes accelerate. The observatories, based on tested methodologies, are currently forest-based and soon marine-based, but can be developed for any habitat and geographic location for the description and measurement of biodiversity over time. The National Museum of the American Indian, in reconstituting its web-based Indigenous Geography project, has devised and environment-focused platform for documenting and presenting place-based Indigenous knowledge in a holistic and comprehensive format with educational tools.

The merged Indigenous Global Earth Observatories (IndiGEO) project will combine modern and traditional tools to investigate and integrate environmental as well as cultural knowledge in Tribal lands in order to develop an in depth understanding of human-environment relationships. IndiGEO should provide a new standard for scientific information, cultural heritage, scholarship, and educational tools and resources on global environments.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Douglas Herman (Principal Investigator)

National Museum of the American Indian
Jonathan Thompson

National Zoological Park
John Parker Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and the Consortium for World Cultures


Pacific Island Initiative
The Smithsonian Institution is well-positioned to enhance understanding of the ecological and evolutionary processes that are shaping biodiversity in the Pacific region by virtue of its longstanding scientific engagement in the area. In particular, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History holds extensive scientific and cultural collections from the Pacific and has an enduring commitment to scholarly research in the region. The Institution as a whole has over 38 scientists from NMNH, NZP, STRI, NASM, and NMAI in the fields of biology, geology, and anthropology actively conducting research there. However, to date there has been very little coordination and no support for organized, collaborative research that could answer pressing questions about the origin and fate of Pacific biodiversity. The Pacific Island Initiative project will leverage this rich intellectual heritage and expertise by bringing Smithsonian and external scholars together to define research priorities and to identify an agenda for integrative, cross-disciplinary research that will address the following questions:  How have physical, ecological, evolutionary, and cultural processes interacted to form Pacific island ecosystems and their native biota?; What forces are currently acting to cause changes in these ecosystems?; and, How can we use this knowledge to help preserve sustainable natural systems into the future, on both islands and continents?

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Warren Wagner (Principal Investigator)
Vicki Funk
Helen James
Chris Meyer

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Fleischer

National Zoological Park
Doug Herman National Museum of the American Indian


Smithsonian Conservation Medicine Program
The Smithsonian is a pioneering leader in conservation biology and is engaged in wide-ranging efforts to understand and sustain global biodiversity. Wildlife health is increasingly recognized as a critical and often threatened component of even the most biodiverse ecosystems. Establishing a united and coordinated Smithsonian program to better address challenges to global wildlife and ecosystem health challenges, and to help sustain healthy wildlife populations will serve Smithsonian’s mission, vision, and specific priority of understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet. To meet that goal, we propose to establish the Smithsonian Conservation Medicine Program.

This project will bring together multiple Smithsonian scientific units and external collaborators with the overall aim of integrating, supporting, and coordinating innovative wildlife health research, monitoring, training, and conservation activities. It will utilize Smithsonian’s expertise in wildlife health (including clinical medicine, pathology, and reproductive sciences) to supplement Smithsonian’s field research and conservation activities in order to support and expand Smithsonian wildlife and ecosystem health efforts around the world. Consortium funding for this Level One project will allow the investigators to host an organizational development and strategic planning workshop with relevant stakeholders and to prepare a Grand Challenges Level Two funding proposal along with at least one external funding proposal.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Suzan Murray (Principal Investigator)
Pierre Comizzoli
Francisco Dallmeier
Rob Fleischer
Tim Walsh
Chris Whittier

National Zoological Park
Kris Helgen

National Museum of Natural History
Margaret Kinnaird Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Level Two Projects

Building the Framework of Biodiversity Science: Next Generation Phylogenetics
Few problems are more central to biology than inferring the evolutionary relationships of living organisms. This “Tree of Life,” provides a comparative framework with which to organize and understand the vast amounts of biological information rapidly accumulating across the life sciences. Phylogenomics, a new branch of systematic biology focused on reconstruction of relationships using genome scale data, has been born of new computational methods and Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies that vastly increase the scale and complexity of both data collection and hypotheses tested. While well suited to studying whole genomes of model organisms, current NGS approaches are inefficient for problems in phylogenomics, where we ideally want to compare a portion of the genome from many nonmodel organisms.

This project focuses on developing laboratory and bioinformatic approaches to target, collect and analyze informative components of genomes via NGS. We will target two classes of DNA elements (exons and ultra-conserved elements), develop sequence capture protocols across diverse taxonomic groups, and evaluate their ability to accurately reconstruct phylogenies. We will build strong collaborative ties among Smithsonian laboratories, and connect them with a nationwide network of external collaborators to leverage infrastructure, investment and intellectual synergy to fuel our ongoing efforts.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Michael Braun (Principal Investigator)
Sean Brady
Kris Helgen
Ken Wurdack

National Museum of Natural History
Jesus Maldonado

National Zoological Park
William Wcislo Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP): Phase II
Deep reefs are underexplored and poorly monitored marine exosystems worldwide. In 2011, Smithsonian marine scientists collaborated to investigate deep reefs off Curaçao in the southern Caribbean through submersible diving to 300m (ca. 1,000 ft.) The results comprise the first level of baseline information necessary to understand the evolution and geographical distribution of biodiversity in Caribbean deep-reef systems and how it changes over time. Considerably more exploration of deep reefs off Curaçao is needed to fully document local biodiversity, and a new opportunity exists to transport the submersible to nearby Caribbean locations. Information from multiple sites will provide the foundation necessary to elevate the scope of the project to large-scale, Caribbean-wide research questions capable of attracting outsides funding. Various standardized sampling strategies were devised and implemented in 2011 for long-term monitoring of temperature and diversity/abundance of deep-reef marine life, including the invasive Pacific lionfish. These efforts will be improved upon or replaced as appropriate following the establishment of protocols for marine monitoring by the Smithsonian’s Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO®) program. Smithsonian research in Curaçao is facilitated through a productive collaboration with the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, which operates Substation Curaçao, and it has been publicized through several branches of media. Future outreach efforts and international educational activities are planned.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Carole Baldwin (Principal Investigator)
Barrett Brooks
Jerry Harasewych
David Pawson
Lee Weigt

National Museum of Natural History
Mary Hagedorn

National Zoological Park
Harilaos Lessios
Ross Robertson
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Establishment of the North American Orchid Conservation Center
A collaboration of four Smithsonian Institution units and the United States Botanic Garden has used Level One funding from the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenges Award program to plan and organize the development of a continentally focused effort to conserve North American orchid species. The North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC) will be funded with public and private resources and will consist of a continental network of botanic gardens and public and private conservation organizations that are committed to the conservation of native species. The vision for NAOCC consists of highly coordinated research, cultivation, conservation (both ex situ and in situ), education efforts, and a dynamic interactive website focused on native orchid species. The NAOCC collaborators have been encouraged by the enthusiasm received from across the country and the desire of numerous organizations to partner with NAOCC during its establishment and development.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Dennis Whigham (Principal Investigator)
Melissa McCormick

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Gary Krupnick

National Museum of Natural History
Frank Clements

National Zoological Park
Barbara Faust Smithsonian Institution Gardens


Marine Parasitism: Understanding Broad-Scale Diversity, Effects, and Processes
Parasites and pathogens are pervasive in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, contributing strongly to biodiversity and playing important roles in ecosystem function. In marine systems, parasite diversity may approach freeliving diversity, and parasite biomass can exceed that of top predators. Among the most conspicuous effects of parasites are emerging marine diseases, with outbreaks causing massmoralities that can radically alter marine communities over wide regions. Despite their clear importance and a recent increase in emerging diseases, we know remarkably little about parasites and pathogens in the world’s oceans, especially over large spatial and temporal scales. With SI scientists (SERC, STRI, NZP, SMS, and NMNH) and external collaborators, we will measure patterns, processes, and effects of marine parasites on these broad scales. This represents a new initiative within SI, combining in novel ways our diverse expertise in invasion ecology, parasitology, disease ecology, benthic ecology, molluscan systematic, and molecular genetics. We use Smithsonian MSN sites as focal points of our research, as an initial starting point, and seek explicitly to establish a longterm research program on marine parasitism as part of MarineGEO®. The current project is intended as a catalyst to develop a broader, longterm program in this important topic area.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Greg Ruiz (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Ellen Strong
Bjorn Tunberg

National Museum of Natural History
Rob Fleischer

National Zoological Park
Mark Torchin Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Tracking Ecological Change from Ocean Acidification Across Latitudes Using Autonomous Monitoring and Manipulative Field Experiments
Because of their relative shallowness and reduced salinity and alkalinity, coastal marine habitats and estuaries are inherently less buffered to changes in pH than is the open ocean, making them prone to CO2induced changes in pH. Despite their natural variability in pH and pCO2, increases in atmospheric CO2 will likely create a shifting baseline for environmental variability, much more complex than is expected in the open ocean. To date, no studies have focused on measuring and understanding the complex nature of carbonate chemistry dynamics in coastal systems, especially at spatial and temporal scales that are ecologically relevant to the biota that inhabit such locations. This cross SI unit/cross latitudinal coastal ocean acidification monitoring network will have two components: 1) collection of continual, long term pCO2, pH, and total alkalinity data at SERC, SMS, and STRI to track acidification dynamics across latitudes and habitat types and; 2) use of CO2enrichment systems to conduct insitu field experiments that will test for the ecological effects of acidification on organisms, species interactions, and community assembly. Initiation of this research program will represent the first ever coordinated monitoring of ocean acidification in coastal ecosystems directed explicitly at ecological scales.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Whitman Miller (Principal Investigator)
Valerie Paul

National Museum of Natural History
Denise Breitburg
Pat Megonigal
Gerhardt Riedel
Greg Ruiz

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Rachel Collin
Mark Torchin
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Understanding Pathogen Mediated Population Decline and Extinction
Disease can reduce reproductive success and lead to illness and mortality. However, few studies have convincingly demonstrated the role of pathogens in disastrous population declines and species extinctions. Recent research by Smithsonian scientists illustrates the impacts of introduced or emerging pathogens on wildlife (e.g., West Nile Virus and avian malaria in birds, chytrid fungus in amphibians, and herpesvirus in elephants). Some SI scientists have been working together in loose collaborations, but many have not, and this project offers additional opportunities to work more cohesively and strategically to further our understanding of pathogen mediated population decline and extinction. We will develop and apply exciting, innovative tools to the study of pathogens and their interactions with hosts and vectors (e.g., next generation DNA sequencing, proteomics, genomics, ancient DNA). These novel methods, in combination with standard or classical pathological approaches, will enable us to assess the presence of pathogens in historical and current day specimens. We will study all major groups of pathogens, including viruses (elephantid herpesvirus; monk seal poxvirus), bacteria (in Australian marsupials), fungus (in amphibians, fish, and bats), and parasites (malaria in birds and gorillas).

Our analyses will enable reconstruction of a pathogen’s appearance and spread, whether its arrival correlates with changes in host population size or genetic variation, and whether and how the pathogenic organism has been modified genetically over time from its original colonizing inoculum. Arising from these studies we hope to build theory to understand, predict, and ameliorate the consequences of invasive and emerging pathogens on wildlife populations. We will form a dynamic and interactive nucleus of Smithsonian researchers studying animal disease, have research design and results meetings, recruit exemplary speakers to present pathogen research, and develop further a cutting-edge research program.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Rob Fleischer (Principal Investigator)
Kustin Calabrese
Brian Gratwicke
Suzan Murray
Tim Walsh

National Zoological Park
Kristofer Helgen National Museum of Natural History


Urban Waterways
Researchers and scholars from the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM), National Museum of American Indian (NMAI), National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), and Smithsonian Gardens (SG) are working collaboratively to investigate citizen engagement with urban waterways, specifically rivers, their watersheds, and associated creeks and streams. The goal of their collaboration is to raise public awareness about human-biosphere interaction, engender appreciation for rivers and their role in sustainable urban development, and foster civic responsibility and advocacy for waterways.

The interdisciplinary Urban Waterways Project is based upon ACM research on the Anacostia River and its watershed. Long considered one of the nation's most troubled urban rivers, the Anacostia River faces problems that confront other rivers in the industrialized world. Project outputs will shape the development of ACM's upcoming exhibition Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement (September 16, 2012–August 13, 2013), NMAI's Aloha `Aina: A Hawaiian Voyage scheduled for 2013, the collections and research of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute on wildlife in riparian and urban settings, and the collections, research, and outreach of Smithsonian Gardens with native flora associated with riparian systems and adapted for community uses.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Gail Lowe (Principal Investigator)

Ancostia Community Museum
Jeffrey Stine

National Museum of American History
Doug Herman

National Museum of the American Indian
Bill McShea

National Zoological Park
Barbara Faust Smithsonian Institution Gardens

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience



Nitrogen freezers housed in the National Museum of Natural History's Biorepository. These freezers, along with others across the Global Genome Biodiversity Network, will be used to cryo-preserve 50% of the diversity of life in five years.
Nitrogen freezers housed in the National Museum of Natural History's Biorepository. These freezers, along with others across the Global Genome Biodiversity Network, will be used to cryo-preserve 50% of the diversity of life in five years.
Image by Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

Virtual Repository for the Tree of Life (VRTL): Phase 2
The most rapidly expanding source of new biodiversity data is ‘next-generation’ genome sequencing technology, which literally produces whole genome sequences on a daily basis. The Smithsonian’s research is expanding in this direction as witnessed by many cross-unit initiatives, including several proposed under the Biodiverse Planet pillar of the 2010 Strategic plan. These initiatives range from tropical forests to the marine realm, from microscopic pathogens to entire ecosystems, but they all share two characteristics: they rely on access to well-preserved, well documented genome-quality tissue samples, and they are all conducted within the framework of evolutionary relationships. The Smithsonian’s biodiversity research enterprise has started to prepare for the new challenges associated with this new technology and the same is true for leading research museums around the world. No single institution will hold all the samples needed for research, and duplicating genome-quality samples already available elsewhere is too costly. Global standards for managing tissue and data and open data sharing are the optimal approach for institutions. The Virtual Repository for the Tree of Life (VRTL), a component of the Global Genome Initiative led by the Smithsonian, is envisioned as a global network of leading museums and biodiversity repositories that will collaborate to meet these challenges.

Related Resources

  • The development of the Virtual Repository for the Tree of Life, now known as the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN), is helping to strengthen Smithsonian capabilities, deepen relationships with collaborators, and ultimately create a global network of biorepositories, research organizations, and biodiversity information management facilities that work toward information sharing and access to genomic samples.
  • Principal Investigator Carol Butler, Chief of Collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, discusses her work with the objects and specimens in the museum's collection: why are they collected; why are collections important; and what will collections will look like in 100 years?

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Carol Butler (Principal Investigator)
David Schindel
Lee Weigt

National Museum of Natural History
Pierre Comizzoli

National Zoological Park
Oris Sanjur Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute