Bringing together all the systems that create a functioning natural world might seem like an overwhelming task. To overcome this the members of UWA's Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Initiative (TERI) break it all down to the tiniest parts - microbes - to start to understand how the systems function.Their objective is to evaluate environmental and production issues that affect society both locally and globally.
A key aspect of their research is understanding ecosystem responses to human impact and climate change, both in natural systems and managed (agriculture and mining) systems.
With three areas of research - soil, plants and water - the new collaboration has attracted funding from a wide range of Extra terrestrial research sources with nearly $3 million annually from Australian Research Council grants and federal and state government funding.
Dr Pauline Grierson (Plant Biology) is the director of the Western Australian Biogeochemistry Centre, based at UWA, which includes the new stable isotope facility laboratory. TERI will gather much of its data from the Centre and the laboratory, which offers great potential for cross-disciplinary collaborations in hydrology, ecology and geology.
Dr Grierson's Ecosystems Research Group studies the ecological sustainability of natural ecosystems, particularly of the jarrah and karri forests and semi-arid plant communities (such as the Pilbara and the Great Western Woodlands). They seek to understand the response of natural ecosystems to environmental change, including from disturbance by bushfire and altered hydrology associated with mining activities, through to changes in rainfall.
Complementing their work, Associate Professor Dan Murphy's Soil Biology Group concentrates primarily on managed ecosystems, studying the impact of land management practices and climate on the activities of soil
organisms, with particular interest in nutrient cycling processes.
The third partner in the collaboration, the Hydro-environmental Systems Group, is co-led by Research Assistant Professor Matt Hipsey. The group studies the functional relations between hydrology, biogeochemistry and animal and plant life to predict the response of inland water ecosystems to variation in land-use practices and climate change.
"Cutting across discipline boundaries and working together is very attractive," Dr Hipsey said. "Conducting research about the interactions between physical, chemical and biological processes requires a mix of multi-disciplinary laboratory, field and computational activities.
" TERI means there is no duplication of research and a sharing of technology and knowledge, particularly new methods. "We have a common interest and we're committed to using and developing common tools," Dr Grierson said. Their approach is underpinned by the recognition that microbial communities are central to many ecological processes.
"Our research strengths lie in the application of stable isotope methodologies, molecular characterisation of microbial communities,
secondary ion mass spectrometry (using the nanoSIMS at the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis) and complex systems modelling to study biological processes," she said.
The key themes in TERI's research are ecosystems in flux, organic matter cycling and soil-plant-microbe interactions. TERI's combined staff totals 57, including 21 postgraduate students, 29 staff and seven adjunct positions. "This collaboration is great for the postgrads: they feel very engaged and enjoy having access to the range of expertise," Dr Hipsey said.
Their work is also spreading out from concentrating on the dynamics of local systems to other systems around the globe. Dr Murphy is involved in research in polar regions and will be returning to the Arctic annually for the next five years. "Global warming means the snow is melting sooner, which causes a greater breakdown in soil matter and results in greater nutrient flow in the fjords, which is changing primary productivity," he said.
Working from the British base in the Arctic, Dr Murphy will use some of his techniques to study the Arctic ecosystem.
"Although we all come from different backgrounds, TERI gives us the scope to sit down and look at the bigger picture presented by bringing soil, water and plants together," Dr Murphy said.
from UWANews 27 July 2009 pg 8-9