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Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
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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
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
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Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet


2012 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects

BiodiversiTREE @ the Smithsonian Institution
Forests are the world’s most diverse ecosystems and provide valuable goods to our economy and services to the environment. Global change is threatening forest diversity worldwide, potentially limiting these ecosystem services. Here, we propose to establish a unique decades-long experiment, called BiodiversiTREE, to test the effects of tree diversity on ecosystem function and overall forest biodiversity. To accomplish this, we are proposing to convert 125 acres of crop land at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) to experimental forest by planting tree saplings at controlled combinations of species diversity in replicated plots for scientific study over the next 100 years of climate change.

This study will be conceptually linked to existing studies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and to a complementary planned study at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Center (SCBI). The ultimate goals of these projects will be to study effects of tree diversity on forest function, including tree growth and stand productivity, carbon sequestration, nutrient retention, associated biodiversity of forest residents, and resistance to disturbance. BiodiversiTREE will also determine best management practices to restore forests along the critical zones buffering important watersheds. Once established and linked to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Ecological Observatories (SIGEO) and the Center for Tropical Forest Studies network, BiodiversiTREE and SIGEO will be a significant research platform from which to study the dynamic interactions between forested ecosystems and global change.

This project will plan the implementation at SERC and SCBI (particularly with respect to leveraging the existing experiments at STRI), conduct and archive preliminary analyses of ‘starting conditions’ at SERC, and identify external sources of funding and write proposals.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
John Parker (Principal Investigator)
Cindy Gilmour
Tom Jordan
Melissa McCormick
Sean McMahon
Pat Megonigal
Geoffrey Parker
Dennis Whigham

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Jonathan Thompson

National Zoological Park
Jefferson Hall
Ben Turner
Joe Wright
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Enhancing SI Marine Collections Through Cryopreservation
The Smithsonian is planning a long-term, comprehensive marine monitoring and collection program over multiple longitudinal and latitudinal gradients, called the Marine Global Earth Observatory or MarineGEO®. Smithsonian is renowned for its extensive, historical biomaterial collections. The vast majority of its 137 million specimens are maintained in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Each MarineGEO® site will provide an unprecedented opportunity to expand these collections to describe a broad range of Earth’s diverse animals and plants, including all available marine taxa as well as soil and water samples. Vouchers, including whole specimens (living and fossil), tissue, DNA, of species of all major taxa will be accessioned and catalogued at the NMNH with some collections distributed to other museums. Cryopreserved specimens will make the archive a living collection to address societal questions that we or future generations may pose, such as how to ensure reproduction, battle disease, and understanding fundamental questions about development, genetic mechanisms and evolution.

Natural history collections will be amassed at a great rate and, at some sites, will include the first and only known specimens of some species. This is both exciting and challenging, because in addition to our standard collections, we will create one of the world’s largest marine cryopreserved collections. These are live samples maintained, or suspended, at ultra-cold temperatures that may include sperm, eggs, stem cells, endo- and ectobacterial cells, embryonic and other important cells types, and DNA of targeted marine organisms. Living cells provide enormous opportunities for future scholarly and collections research (such as the ability to propagate populations, hence minimizing the need for repeated collections). The issues posed by frozen collections are numerous and fascinating, and parallel those for traditional collections: 1) amount of material and sampling protocols to ensure diversity; 2) optimal species-specific preservation protocols (low vs. ultralow temperatures vs. desiccation); 3) value and potential of storing DNA versus whole cells; 4) complexity of storing specimens that host symbiotic complexes or gut material; 5) database considerations; and 6) accessibility issues for researchers and collection managers. Most important, collections must remain viable, usable and safe for hundreds of years. By creating these important cryocollections, the Smithsonian will take a world leadership role in maintenance of these unique marine biodiversity collections. We will organize a two-day workshop to examine some of the issues surrounding creating this new type of marine collection to help us be ready when MarineGEO® studies and collections get fully underway.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Lynne Parenti (Principal Investigator)
Carol Butler

National Museum of Natural History
Mary Hagedorn

National Zoological Park
Denise Breitburg

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Harilaos Lessios Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Gateway to the East: Smithsonian's Role in Myanmar's New Spring
Myanmar is pivotal to biodiversity knowledge and conservation science in Asia. The Smithsonian has a long and rich history in Myanmar. Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues have discovered new species of plants and animals, initiated community conservation projects, mapped remaining forests, tracked wild elephants via satellite, and helped build capacity of Burmese to research, catalogue, and conserve their biodiversity. Significant reforms undertaken recently by the government in Myanmar have led the U.S. government to renew diplomatic relations with Myanmar. As the country becomes less isolated we will likely see a rapid increase not only in research on Myanmar’s biodiversity but also in exploitation of their natural resources.

Smithsonian scientists and policy experts seek to renew research and conservation efforts and to expand our role by facilitating science and diplomatic involvement in Myanmar. A fact‐finding mission will renew contacts, strengthen partnerships, and assess the situation on the ground. This project will also convene a meeting of experts, including governmental and non‐governmental organizations, to assess the current state of biodiversity knowledge and plan future work in Myanmar that we hope to expand to include cultural, historical, and anthropological research.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Melissa Songer (Principal Investigator)
Janine Brown
Peter Leimgruber
Bill McShea

National Zoological Park
George Zug

National Museum of Natural History
Leonard Hirsch Office of the Undersecretary for Science