My own Biosphere, minus the jumpsuits


I was trained as a biologist, and for some years worked in ecological research. I’ve authored papers in highfalutin journals like the Journal of Ecology and the American Naturalist. But I’ve learned more about ecology from gardening.

I never understood the depths of cooperation between plants and animals until I had spent half a year of mornings, sitting outside half-awake with my coffee, watching a lupin going through its cycles. The same damn bumblebee (it seemed) was there at the lupin every single day, tireless and systematic in its quest to visit every blossom on every stalk, once, twice, maybe 3 times. Soon enough those flowers were turning into hundreds of seed pods — entirely due to this individual (or his dopplegangers).

Now it’s time to take my gardening a little farther into the future. Like this far:
picture of exterior of biosphere 2 by flickr user pwachaser, licensed under creative commons - thanks!!

In an effort to understand the way ecosystems work, I’m creating some materially sealed, energetically open microcosms. Translation: I’m creating little “Biosphere 2″ style worlds, except no one wears jumpsuits. Translation: I’m sealing up some plants and bugs in glass jars and seeing what the heck happens.

There’s a certain logic to it.

One test of a mechanic is their ability to take something apart, put it back together again, and see it work just as before. You’d think that modern ecological science would be able to pass a similar test — to assemble an ecosystem that can function and maintain itself for a relatively long period of time. Such designs will be absolutely necessary for long-term life support in space exploration and colonization.

But experience has been frustrating. The most famous “enclosed ecosystem” was Biosphere 2, which despite hundreds of millions of dollars and a public relations juggernaut, managed to see its ecology run out of control, its pollinators die, its oxygen decline to near deadly levels, and its security threatened by ants. Its human “crew” were happy to leave, and the media that had been so enchanted were happy to start in with the ridicule — which was pretty easy given the weird survivalist, sci-fi aura of the whole operation.

Other work in the field seems to be progressing glacially and modestly — maybe out of a desire to not seem at all similar to those Biosphere 2 freaks, what with their jumpsuits and all. NASA is taking forever to get a human-scale test together for its own new life support system, aimed at long-term space journeys.

I’ve decided to step into the void and satisfy my own curiosity with an experiment of my own. So, America, Earth, meet your new ambassador of ecological understanding:

Or actually, it’s a stunt double. My astronauts aren’t crew-cut pilots or unfortunate dogs, they’re “ghost shrimp” from the aquarium store. They eat algae and other gunk! Just like the aquarium guy said. A small aquatic plant provides enough oxygen for them to live. All the system needs is a little light and they’ve got a nice little place to live.

I was even thinking I could get them to reproduce. I stuck two of them in one of my microcosms (which I’ll describe in more detail in a future post). One was female, the other male, I’m pretty sure. But there was no invertebrate love. The female killed the male and ate him. The system has been stable since, about a week so far.

It’s a savage world in there. There’s no mercy or pity, just the logic of living in a place with limited resources. That’s something I never learned in school, either.

God speed, remaining micronauts! I’ll be reporting more on your progress.

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