Recreating nature

Recreating nature

Simulating climate change at Western's new Biotron facility
March 18, 2009
A soil sample from Canada

A soil sample from Canada's North is destined for the Biotron.
Western News

Doing field research in Canada's Far North is a tricky and costly undertaking. So that is why Robert Schincariol, a hydrogeologist at the University of Western Ontario, proposed and then helped design a new facility on campus that would let him recreate Arctic conditions in a laboratory setting.

But first, he had to bring a bit of the Arctic to London, Ont.

During a field trip to the Mackenzie River basin in the Northwest Territories in August 2007, Schincariol excavated four 150-kilogram peat samples. “We hand cored the samples, dug a trench and then pulled them out with the help of some very strong field assistants,” says Schincariol. From there, the samples were airlifted by helicopter to Fort Simpson, and then shipped via cargo plane to London.

Today, the samples are preserved in an artificial “biome” chamber at the recently opened Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre, where the mosses and lichens are still preserved in the permafrost samples. With sensors at varying depths, Schincariol can monitor how changes in temperature at ground level, for example, affect the flow of water and growth of microbes over time.

The permafrost samples will be kept in a closed system and under surveillance for the next two years, Schincariol says, creating an ideal opportunity for other researchers with similar interests to piggyback on the experiment and collect data without having to travel to the Arctic.

Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research

Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre at the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario
Carrie Hay, the University of Western Ontario

This is just one aspect of climate change that is under investigation at the Biotron. The $30-million centre at the heart of Western’s campus features an array of one-of-a-kind labs and state-of-the-art equipment that allows researchers to examine the effects of climate change throughout an ecological system — from tiny soil microbes to agricultural crops. “One of the things we hope to do is find out how robust ecosystems are and then start looking at where they might start to break down,” says Jeremy McNeil, the centre's scientific director.

Opened in September 2008, the Biotron aims to provide researchers with an unparalleled range of tools to track the effects of climate change and test the leading predictive models about what the future may hold. "We can actually do research and look at what happens under the best- and worst-case scenarios," says McNeil.

Those findings will provide valuable insight into the agricultural, forestry, medical, and energy sectors. "Our work will be driven by science, but we're going to meet with end-user groups and ask, ‘How can this research help you?’” he adds. Decisions about which ecosystems are used will be partly determined by industry partners, he says, including farmers and plant growers interested in determining the best species suited to changing climate conditions.

While many of the experiments in the Biotron are not expected to be running before early summer, McNeil has begun a study on the armyworm, a sporadic but serious agricultural pest. With adult moths immigrating from the United States each spring and their offspring emigrating south in the fall, McNeil and his collaborators are using the species as a model for how environmental cues influence flight performance and, thus, how climate change could impact migratory insects.

McNeil plans to examine the interaction between host plants, such as corn, and armyworm larvae under different ecological conditions in the Biotron's six unique “biomes,” where he can manipulate temperature, light intensity, soil irrigation and carbon dioxide levels. He can rear up to 10 generations of the species a year, which accelerates the natural selection process by exposing successive generations to gradually increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide, and then comparing selected and unselected lines.

Student David Lagacé shows off an armyworm moth,

Student David Lagacé shows off an armyworm moth, which is devastating cereal and hay fields in eastern Canada.
Western News

The results of his experiments could help farmers understand if changing environmental conditions will mean the armyworm will become a bigger pest than in the past and, if so, help breeders determine the traits required for pest-resistant plants in the future.

Researchers do not have to be on the Western campus to use the Biotron. The biomes, and many of the facility’s growth chambers and incubators can be remotely controlled, allowing researchers to collaborate with the Biotron’s technical staff to manipulate their experiments from their home institution, anywhere in the world.

The facility’s more advanced microscopes can also remotely control some of the Biotron's most advanced microscopes. "The only thing the scientist would need the physical presence of the operator for would be to change the slide," says Richard Harris, the Biotron’s manager of imaging and data systems.

Among the centre's top-of-the-line imaging equipment is a confocal microscope, which takes cross-sectional images of a sample, much like a CT scan. Harris says it is the only one of its kind in Canada and one of about 15 in the world. "It allows us to create three-dimensional models of our specimens, which is something we weren’t able to do before," he says.

McNeil hopes the Biotron's unique biome facilities and technology will draw a range of researchers from various disciplines to the centre. "The Biotron is timely,” he says, “and will remain so as climate change isn't going away."