Microbial Systems Open a New Chapter in Biosphere Research

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A New Study from Freie Universität Berlin in Cooperation with the University of Virginia

No 139/2019 from May 21, 2019

In a recent study, biologists from Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Virginia (USA) examine ideas about closed ecological systems and how to further develop them. The goal of the study is to establish concepts that will make it possible to conduct experiments with self-sustaining ecosystems. These closed systems involve, for example, transfers of energy in the form of light but no transfer of matter with the surroundings. The study by Professor Matthias Rillig from Freie Universität Berlin and Professor Janis Antonovics from the University of Virginia appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.­1904326116 ) and was supported through a Humboldt Research Award and a European Research Council Advanced Grant.

The authors used Biosphere-2 as a reference point for their study. The experiment was carried out in the 1990s in Arizona (USA) with the aim of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem completely cut off from the rest of the world. After two attempts, the scientists had to abandon the experiment. The topic, however, has never lost its appeal; but typically, closed ecological systems are associated with space travel and life support systems for astronauts. One of the goals of the paper, according to Matthias Rillig, is to disentangle the study of these closed systems from this particular context. The biologists want to establish microbial biospherics as its own ecological discipline, in which microbial ecosystems can be used to expand our knowledge of closed biospheres.

Rillig and Antonovics hope to spark new ideas in not only ecological and evolutionary research, but also teaching. Rillig notes that first semester biology students are usually sent out to study ecosystems, like grasslands or rivers, which are extremely complex systems. But it would be better for them to observe simple ecosystems and material cycles, especially early on in their studies, he says. Ultimately, closed ecological systems can also provide insights into how circular economies work.


Rillig MC, Antonovics J. 2019. Microbial biospherics for the experimental study of ecosystem function and evolution . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA . DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.­1904326116

Matthias C. Rillig, Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Biology, Ecology of Plants, Tel.: +49 30 83853165, Email: matthias.rillig [at] fu-berlin (p) de