Research Projects


Gamboa, a small town located on the east bank of the Panama Canal and immediately north of the Chagres River, has served as transit station for scientists going to Barro Colorado Island . Its location halfway between Panama City and BCI makes it an ideal place to develop a new research site. Located 27 km north of Panama City , the township of Gamboa is easily accessed by a single road that runs for 10 km through the center of the Soberania National Park (Parque Nacional Soberania, or PNS). The PNS extends for a minimum of 7.5 km in three directions from Gamboa and is entirely covered by tall tropical forests. It has been protected as a National Park since its establishment in 1979.

The government of the Republic of Panama seeks to develop Gamboa as a center for ecotourism and forest research. A combination of factors—access by a single road, its location in the center of an established national park, and plans for limited development consistent with a historic district—make Gamboa the perfect future home for the center of STRI's forest research programs.

Already, STRI's field experimental plant physiology program has been relocated to Gamboa, and Smithsonian fellows and scientists have received permission to construct temporary aviaries, insectaries and plant-growing houses that now cover nearly 20% of the site. The future construction of permanent insectaries and growing houses will greatly enhance forest research capabilities at STRI.

Scientifically, the primary rationale for bringing these facilities together is to provide a large outdoor laboratory capable of supporting a wide array of experimental studies that require controlled (or ambient) conditions, high replication and dependable security.

Fundamentally, over 80 years of observational and correlational studies on plants, insects, and vertebrates at STRI have generated a series of hypotheses that require experimental testing on a larger scale than existing facilities permit. In addition, newer STRI programs such as the Canopy Access Program, the Forest Fragmentation Program, the ecologically driven bioprospecting (ICBG), Global Climate Change, and microbial and soil initiatives all require increased lab and office space. Centering this complex in Gamboa will allow sufficient space for the individual projects, as well proximity that will encourage synergies among them.

Further, we see that Gamboa development plans will provide STRI with solutions to a series of overcrowding problems. Moreover, the expansion in Gamboa will provide novel research opportunities that will help insure STRI's position as the world's premier tropical research institute.

International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups for Panama

Ecologically Guided Bioprospecting Project

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups Project (ICBG) is an effort dedicated to the discovery of natural drugs in the tropical forest and the conservation of biodiversity. The ICBG program is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture.

STRI houses and administers the Panama International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG). The over-arching goal of this work is to discover new lead compounds from plants, algae and marine invertebrates for the treatment of several tropical diseases (such as malaria, Chagas’ disease, leishmaniasis, and dengue) and cancer, employing a spectrum of innovative as well as traditional bioassays. This pursuit is connected to the development of scientific training and professional advancement in the host country. The technology transfer and infrastructure development component requires lab space with forefront specifications.

Building on a previous five-year ICBG award (1998-2003), the project has received a second grant (2003-2008) to continue using ecological insight to build a sustainable bioprospecting program in Panama for the discovery of both pharmaceutical and agricultural products from plants and marine algae. This second phase will provide opportunities to seek additional funding for consolidating a Center for Bioprospecting in Panama.

The project is led by Dr. Wiliam Gerwick (from Oregon State University and a STRI Research Associate) and includes a team of 4 Principal Investigators: Phyllis Coley (Collecting Strategies for Drug Discovery), Eduardo Ortega (Bioactivity Against Cancer, Tropical Diseases and Agricultural Pests), William Gerwick (Isolation and Structure Elucidation of Bioactive Compounds) and Todd Capson (Conservation, Outreach and Biodiversity Inventory in Panama). In total, there are 22 Panamanian undergraduate students currently working on the Panama ICBG program, in the disciplines of botany, tissue culture, microbiology, parasitology, bioassay-guided fractionation and structural elucidation. Collaborating institutions are: Oregon State University, Panama 's National Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation, the Fundacion Natura of Panama, the University of Panama , Novartis Oncology, and Dow Agrosciences. Significant progress has been demonstrated with one group of compounds active against leishmaniasis and another against a form of malaria.

Molecular Systematics and Evolution Program

The emphasis and concern for biodiversity and conservation have focused international attention on systematics and biodiversity, placing increased importance on molecular genetic studies such as those being carried out at STRI. These studies, based on the same methodologies used to unravel the mysteries of human disease, are helping us understand the consequences of global diseases such as environmental degradation and loss of biological diversity. The utility of molecular approaches to the study of global issues of fundamental importance to both the Smithsonian and the public-at-large is evident in the very large number of publications that have emerged from STRI's molecular evolution program. For example, recent DNA-based studies by STRI staff have appeared in Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the United State ’s preeminent scientific research magazines, addressing the prominent issues of global climate change, biodiversity and the history of plant domestication by Native Americans.

The project is led by Dr. Eldredge Bermingham (STRI Deputy Director and Senior Staff Scientist), 4 visiting scientists, 10 postdoctoral and 10 predoctoral researchers, 4 research interns and 8 technicians. This team needs modern lab facilities equipped with specialized equipment.

Functional Diversity of Tropical Plants and Global Climate Change

STRI has a leadership role in the comparative study of CO2 (carbon dioxide) budgets of a large number of tropical plant species under controlled environmental conditions. The Plant Physiology Research Program at STRI relies more and more on Santa Cruz Site, a unique “Tropical Outdoor Laboratory” for experimental plant research. Research installations include: large photosynthesis chambers to monitor carbon dioxide fluxes of trees; open-topped chambers to study plant responses to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations; screen houses to study sun/shade acclimation of trees; facilities to grow trees in large soil containers for water use measurements; and facilities to establish live collections of particular plant groups for comparative photosynthesis studies.

Our research addresses several fundamental questions in tropical plant biology: responses of tropical plants to global climate change (increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations); carbon sequestration of tropical trees; mechanisms underlying successional patterns of pioneer and late successional trees; water use of tropical trees; protective mechanisms of tropical plants against high solar radiation (including natural UV-B); and functional significance of nocturnal carbon dioxide uptake, a mechanism to conserve water under conditions of drought stress, in Panamanian trees (e.g. Copé) and epiphytic bromeliads and orchids.

This research program is lead by Dr Klaus Winter (STRI staff scientist), and hosts an increasing number of collaborating visiting scientists (e.g., Dr. Holtum, Queensland-Smithsonian Fellow, James Cook University and Dr. Skillman, University of California) and Panamanian graduate students (e.g., M. Mejia, University of Cambridge).

Insect studies

Insects are among the most diverse organisms on Earth. Furthermore, through pollination, herbivory, consumption of wood, and providing a foodbase for insectivores, insects are among the most ecologically influential.

Currently, two large projects that investigate insect-plant interactions at STRI deserve special mention: 1) the associations between leaf eating beetles, the toxic chemicals that their host plants produce to defend themselves against the beetles, and the beetles co-opting those chemicals to defend themselves against potential insectivores, and 2) the associations among Leaf Cutter Ants, their mutualistic and pathogenic fungi, and the host plants that they harvest.

In each case, subtle behavioral, biochemical, and ecological interactions are being explored. One result has been the discovery that many chemical pathways are being used and exploited in novel ways by insects, plants and microorganisms. Much of this work has great potential for useful application, either in controlling crop pests (e.g., leaf cutter ants) or in the discovery of uses for novel compounds, but needs manipulative trials and thus requires special infrastructure (growing chambers, insectaries, etc).


STRI has a very strong tradition in research on three vertebrate groups: bats, birds, and amphibians. Long-term censuses of birds conducted on Pipeline Road and of bats conducted on Barro Colorado Island provide the best glimpse of populations of these groups in tropical regions. In particular, we now have assembled a complete collection of the bats' sonar calls, such that all species that occur in the vicinity of the Canal can be identified by their call. These studies have provided the essential background natural history to motivate a next generation of questions: Why are the common bird and bat species common? What roles do their behavior, physiology, and endocrine systems play in shaping their ecologies and reproductive cycles? What sensory modalities do the nocturnal bats (and birds) employ to locate prey?

More recently, a long-term project has been initiated that focuses on a remarkable phenomenon discovered at STRI: the larvae in eggs of certain amphibian species are able to accelerate development and hatching in response to a range of threats. The sensory and developmental physiology underlying this phenomenon is currently only dimly understood.