Planetary Biology

Spanning multiple ecosystems, the Planetary Biology research theme aims to understand, from the molecular to the population level, how microbes, plants, and animals respond to each other and to their environment.

To achieve this, EMBL will combine direct investigation of diverse planetary ecosystems from field studies with controlled laboratory research on experimental model systems. Planetary Biology will address fundamental and pressing scientific questions about the influence of environmental parameters on the molecular mechanisms underlying biological processes, while also addressing societal questions about planetary health.

From plankton in the oceans to the myriads of species in tropical rainforests, unicellular or multicellular – all organisms constantly respond and adapt to complex and dynamic ecosystems, living in communities and exposed to their physical environment. The molecular processes and mechanisms that drive these responses have largely remained obscure. For the first time, scientists now have many of the molecular tools needed to understand life in its natural context. This coincides with an increasingly pressing need to understand the impact of the environment on living systems, and the impact of organisms on their environment.

With its new Planetary Biology theme, EMBL now takes on the molecular study of life in context. We strive to understand ecosystems at the mechanistic level and aim to provide strategies towards creating ecological therapies for our burdened planet. EMBL researchers will study microscopic (microbes) and macroscopic (algae, plants, or animals) organisms in their natural environment and in the laboratory, seeking to understand their dependencies and adaptations, individually and in communities, and at all scales. This will reveal the molecular mechanisms of community function in relation to defined environmental factors.

To achieve these aims, EMBL will systematically integrate sampling expeditions and in situ fieldwork with laboratory analyses of selected ecological model systems. Reaching out to our member states, we will cooperate with local scientists for sample collection and longitudinal sampling projects. We will establish mobile laboratories to enable the use of state-of-the-art technology during sampling expeditions, including imaging and omics technologies.

For in-depth analyses and hypothesis testing, EMBL researchers will establish and analyse key model systems in the laboratory, ranging from individual species and symbiosis models to microbial communities. These will be exposed to variable experimental conditions to deduce the impact of the biotic and physical environment on their physiology and behaviour in controlled settings. Future projects in planetary biology will also involve larger infrastructure, such as mesocosms, to study responses and adaptations of entire ecosystems to changing environments.

These studies will help shed light on the molecular underpinnings and impacts of pressing societal issues, in particular microplastic pollution, CO2 accumulation, antimicrobial resistance, environmental consequences of pesticides, and biodiversity decline, with the aim of providing novel solutions for improving planetary health. The Planetary Biology theme will tightly link with other transversal research themes (such as Microbial Ecosystems and Theory) to help provide a holistic picture of life on Earth.

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