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Sustainable Systems SFA 2.0 Launches!

Source:  Susan Hubbard and Dan Hawkes

Illustration By: Diana Swantek
A growing human population, whose numbers and lifestyles drive an ever-increasing demand for resources—including clean water, food, and energy—is reshaping interactions among plants, microbes, and the environment on a global scale. Because the urgency of developing scientific approaches to effectively steward our Earth’s resources is becoming increasingly evident, we must know more about what’s underground—what earth scientists would call the subsurface. Our present lack of scientific understanding about the subsurface, and our corresponding limitations in simulating terrestrial system biogeochemical behavior, hinders our ability to develop robust solutions to a variety of DOE mission-relevant challenges, including those associated with contaminants, carbon cycling, and sustainable biofuel crops.  

Berkeley Lab and the Earth Sciences Division is proud to announce a substantial effort to rise to these challenges, through a new science project called the Sustainable Systems Scientific Focus Area 2.0 (the “SFA 2.0”). The project is newly funded by the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research, through the Subsurface Biogeochemistry Program of the  Climate and Environmental Science Division. The project, which will involve over 50 scientists from Berkeley Lab and other institutions, will develop understanding and simulation capabilities for predicting the metabolic potential of subsurface microbiomes and implications for watershed-scale biogeochemical processes. The goal of this genome-through-watershed-scale project is to quantify processes and develop simulation capabilities that enable prediction of  how global climate change affects microbially induced biogeochemical processes within the earth’s subsurface, and the ways those processes in turn affect biogeochemical cycling relevant to terrestrial environment feedbacks to climate, contaminant mobility, and agricultural sustainability. A description of the project is given on the new SFA 2.0 website.

The SFA 2.0 is broken up into three phases. Phase I launches October 1st, 2013, and will be primarily conducted at Rifle, CO. The Rifle-based study will be the first coordinated attempt to quantify the metabolic potential of an entire subsurface ecosystem, which requires an understanding of the underlying genetic, biochemical, and physiological bases of microbial activity in the context of floodplain-wide fluxes and biogeochemical processes that occur within a heterogeneous aquifer. A key objective of the first phase of the project will be to demonstrate an approach for investigating, and a simulation framework for predicting, how information stored in a genome is translated into microbial and terrestrial ecosystem processes, and how larger-scale climate and ecosystem changes can impact smaller-scale biological functioning. As an analogue for global change, the team will initially focus on how oxygen and moisture perturbations affect metabolic potential and system biogeochemical functioning.

The choice of Rifle for Phase I of the SFA 2.0 is no accident. A former uranium mine, Rifle has been the site of a number of major BER investigations, including the 2007 Rifle Integrated Field Research Challenge (IFRC), focused on improving understanding of subsurface flow and transport relevant to metal and radionuclide contaminants. Many other scientists from across the nation have performed subsurface biogeochemical investigations at this “community” field site (the Rifle Community Site). Those previous studies of Rifle provide foundational understanding to launch the SFA 2.0, as well as infrastructure needed to carry out experimental activity. Moreover, since it is located in the semi-arid Colorado River Basin region, scientific interest in Rifle has broadened, in that it is a region being threatened by different aspects of global climate change—including droughts, diminished snowpacks and earlier snowmelt, and increased wildfires. Located next to the Colorado River, the floodplain setting of the Rifle site also allows investigations of terrestrial-aquatic system interactions and their role in biogeochemical cycles.

The Phase I study of the SFA 2.0 will address several gaps in our current scientific knowledge. At this time we know very little about subsurface biogeochemical processes, with this lack of knowledge leading to uncertainty about carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. There has also been little work toward quantifying metabolic activity in dynamic subsurface environments—for example, the manner in which subsurface microbial communities are organized, or how they evolve, or the nature of the interactions between these communities and their physical/chemical environment. Finally, we lack—and need—simulation approaches that couple microbial competition and activity to biogeochemical processes and the hydrological cycle up to watershed scales.  

To develop this predictive understanding, the SFA 2.0 is organized around crosscutting challenges that are tackled by teams focusing on quantification of: the metabolic potential of the subsurface; organic matter-mineral dynamics; water, nutrients, and carbon migration in the subsurface; and watershed biogeochemical functioning—as well as the development of genome-enabled watershed simulation capability (GEWaSC) and data management/assimilation approaches. Developed simulation capabilties will take advantage of DOE high performance computational facilities, such as NERSC and Chinook. Intense metagenomic analyses will be performed using the DOE Joint Genome Institute community sequencing program. A series of recent, high-impact SFA publications have provided significant insights into the subsurface microbiome at Rifle  - these studies suggest the potential of quantifying how information stored in microbial genomes can be translated into the biogeochemical functioning of larger systems.

Because it is such a well-investigated site, Rifle offers a perfect test bed for developing new understanding, approaches, and simulation capabilities. The SFA 2.0 team is currently searching for a “Second Site” test bed that they will move to in Phase II—a terrestrial environment that has additional complexity relative to Rifle, such as greater changes in elevation, and more or diverse vegetation and soil structure.  In this way, the subsequent phases of SFA 2.0 will learn from and build on Phase I. 

Many LBNL scientists are involved in the new SFA 2.0, including: Susan Hubbard (Science Lead and ESD Division Director), Ken Williams (ESD Environmental Remediation and Water Resources Program Head), Jill Banfield, Harry Beller, Eoin Brodie, Jim Davis, Tetsu Tokunaga, Phil Long, Carl Steefel and Deb Agarwal.. A complete list of the team members and collaborators is provided here.