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Why did the bacterium cross the road?
It was inside the sloth

October 31, 2016

Why did the bacterium cross the road? <br/>It was inside the sloth

Several major publications from STRI suggest that microbes may be responsible for maintaining tropical biodiversity

Seriously… Why Study Microbial Ecology at the Smithsonian in Panama?

Nearly every animal, plant and insect contains millions of microbes—bacteria, fungi and other organisms, often too small to see. Without them, garbage would pile up and we couldn’t digest our food. Microbes in water, soil and air connect us all. Several major publications from STRI suggest that microbes may be responsible for maintaining tropical biodiversity.

New genetic techniques are suddenly making it much easier and cheaper to understand microbiomes—the microbes associated with a given environment. The results have been surprising: for example, the microbes in our own guts have huge effects on our health and mood. News headlines this week announced that independent researcher Jeff Leach plans to have a fecal transplant from a Hadza hunter-gatherer to change his microbiome.

In his opening remarks at STRI’s first-ever Tropical Microbial Ecology symposium held on Oct. 26 and 27, Matt Larsen, STRI director, thanked deputy director, Bill Wcislo for persistently pursuing the $5 million grant from the Simons Foundation to study tropical forest microbiomes, which paid for the symposium; staff scientist Allen Herre for organizing and Alexandra Barrancos and all the other STRI staff who made it happen.

Staff, visiting scientists and students already studying microbial ecology shared info about the resources here and were inspired to collaborate and piggyback off of each other’s ideas.

The whole program is available online.

Some of the resources at STRI that make this an ideal place to study microbial ecology:

• Panama’s high biodiversity forest and ocean ecosystems provide both related and unrelated organisms for comparative studies, a wide variety of landscapes, land uses
• An amazing variety of colleagues from universities and research institutes around the world
• Great background information on many topics in tropical biology: More than 13,000 publications from STRI affiliated authors plus one new publication about every 19 hours
• Illumina MiSeq sequencer at the Naos Molecular Lab
• Labs set up for traditional microbiology work (positive pressure hoods, autoclaves, etc.) only minutes from tropical forest and reefs.
• Nearly all of the plant species on Barro Colorado Island have been barcoded, which means that it’s relatively easy to identify them, even the roots
• The soils on Barro Colorado have all been classified and mapped, range of pH and other soil properties
• The flora is known, published and updated regularly
• There is a flora for the seedlings
• The pollen flora has been published
• Online databases for flora and fauna
• 30 years of growth, mortality, species composition data from the 50 hectare forest monitoring plot on Barro Colorado as well as 65 other long-term monitoring plots in 25 countries around the world that take the same data
• Insect reference collection
• Heliconius butterfly insectarium with living butterflies representing genetic diversity across the Andes, sequence data for many
• Amphibian rescue project pods containing live amphibians (and studies of the chytrid fungus
• Herbarium and online data base
• Camera trap network recording mammal presence in the BCNM, and beyond
• Experimental facilities for animals: bat cage, frog pond, insectaries
• Long-term information about land use and vegetation change
• Nutrient addition experiment now running for 30 years in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument
• New nutrient addition experiment set up in abandoned pastureland
• Canopy cranes in dry and wet forest make it possible to study microbiomes in tropical forest canopies
• 100 years of climate data
• Permanent forest monitoring plots set up across Panama’s rainfall gradient (1.8-3.3m across 70 km)
• Scanning electron microscope at the Tupper Center
• Spectrophotometry machines available at INDICASAT
• Can work in commercial cacao, coffee, banana, shrimp farming situations
• Growth chambers, greenhouses, domes available where temperature, humidity, water availability and carbon dioxide concentrations can be controlled
• Panama Watershed (Agua Salud) Project, 700 hectares of varied land use from lowland tropical forest to pastureland as well as reforestation with native tree species, teak
• And much, much more…

Some major colaborations already in progress:
• $5 million from the Simons Foundation to study the role of microbes in shaping the ecology and evolution of tropical forest ecosystems
• NSF: MacroSystems (Mike Kaspari with Jizhong Zhou, Jim Brown, Robert Waide, and Brian Enquist): Experimental Macroecology: the effects of temperature on biodiversity ($4.8 million total)
• Jack Gilbert (Argonne National Labs, with STRI’s Ben Turner, Stuart Davies and others) is looking at the microbiomes of several of the ForestGEO plots as part of his Earth Microbiome Project
• Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project

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