From The University of Arizona (US) : “Life on LEO: Plants to be Added to the Landscape Evolution Observatory at Biosphere 2” 

From The University of Arizona (US)

Daniel Stolte

Surprisingly little is known about how rain moves through landscapes once it’s on the ground. The University of Arizona’s Landscape Evolution Observatory is designed to provide answers. A $3.5 million grant will allow scientists to study the roles plants and microbes play in the process.

One of three artificial hillslopes in the Landscape Evolution Observatory. Each is equipped with 1,900 sensors and sampling devices that enable scientists to monitor water, carbon and energy cycling processes and the physical and chemical evolution of the landscape at small and large scales. Credit: Aaron Bugaj.

The National Science Foundation (US) has awarded $3.5 million to a team led by University of Arizona researchers to study how life prevails in barren landscapes, such as those disturbed by wildfires, volcanic eruptions or mining operations.

The research will yield new insights into the effects of a changing climate on such landscapes, and could someday even help astronauts raise crops on Mars.

Researchers from The University of Arizona, DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (US) and California Lutheran University (US) will establish a complete ecosystem – with plants, artificial rain and sophisticated monitoring technology – on the large artificial hillslopes at the Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, located inside The University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2. The experiment will offer scientists a detailed look at how emergent plant life interacts with soil, water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create more complex ecosystems.

“In a nutshell, we’re getting ready to put life on LEO in the form of plants,” said Scott Saleska, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who took over as LEO’s director of science earlier this year. “This grant will allow us to answer a question central to ecology: Can we predict what is going to happen when we build up an ecosystem from scratch? LEO allows us to literally watch life’s complexity build up from ground zero.”

LEO is the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary earth sciences. The experiment consists of three artificial landscapes that mimic watersheds in the natural world, each contained within elaborate steel structures housed in three adjacent bays under the glass-and-steel domes of Biosphere 2. Each hillslope is 100 feet long and 35 feet wide and blanketed with 1 million pounds of crushed basalt rock, layered 3 feet deep. Each of LEO’s hillslopes is studded with 1,900 sensors that allow scientists to observe each step in the landscapes’ evolution – from lifeless soil to living, breathing landscapes that will ultimately support complex microbial and vascular plant communities.

The first organisms to colonize barren landscape are microbes and less complex plants, such as these mosses growing in the Landscape Evolution Observatory, on the hillslope soils created from crushed basalt rock that originated in a volcanic eruption. Credit: Aaron Bugaj.

Over the past five years, researchers have used LEO to gain in-depth knowledge of how landscapes evolve in the absence of plant life other than microbes and mosses. Those studies focused on the interactions between soil and water, with the water being provided through a sophisticated irrigation system that simulates various kinds of rain. The new NSF grant kicks off a new phase of the project, allowing researchers to study more complex interactions between the physical and biological components of LEO’s ecosystem, particularly between tiny microbial communities and higher plants.

Water, Water Everywhere – But What Does it Do and Where Does it Go?

The world faces the increasingly urgent question of how to better understand and manage complex physical-biological systems to address pressing problems such as how to restore degraded landscapes, practice sustainable ecosystem management and terraform planets beyond Earth. Terraforming is the science of transforming hostile environments into land that can grow crops.

By adding plants with roots and vascular systems to LEO, Saleska’s team will study how plant life affects a well-established physical system and test hypotheses about the interactions between plants and microbes.

Project co-leader Katrina Dlugosch, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, selected alfalfa as the model plant organism to be planted at LEO because it has been thoroughly studied, and its genome has been sequenced and is well-known. Alfalfa also commonly enters in symbioses – or partnerships – with microbes capable of scrubbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it into nutrients the plants can use.

“Alfalfa provides one of the key features of primary succession – the process of life colonizing an environment that has very little to offer in terms of nutrients,” Dlugosch explained.

“We think there will be a strong selection in this harsh environment on how these plants establish and maintain their partnerships with the microbes, and we are looking to understand both the ecology of that and, down the road, the biological evolution of this hillslope community as a whole,” said Malak Tfaily, assistant professor in The University of Arizona Department of Environmental Science.

The team also will use LEO’s hillslopes as models for watershed environments in the natural world. Experiments will test how water flows through landscapes, how that affects the weathering of rock to soil, and the effects of those processes on landscapes and their biological habitability.

“The basic question boils down to: What happens to the rain?” said Peter Troch, University of Arizona professor of hydrology and atmospheric science and a member of the project’s steering committee. “We are going to test how water is used by plants through root water uptake or contributes to aquifer recharge and streamflow.”

Troch expects the results to inform land management practices such as water conservation measures in water-limited environments and plant selection in landscape restoration efforts.

A key part of the project is its scalability, Saleska added. What researchers learn from studying small patches of plants growing on the LEO hillslope can be applied to full landscapes.

The project, titled Growing a new science of landscape terraformation: The convergence of rock, fluids, and life to form complex ecosystems across scales, was selected by NSF under its Growing Convergence Research program, which aims to solve complex research problems with a focus on societal needs. In addition to experts in hydrology, geochemistry, evolutionary genomics and ecology, the LEO team will include anthropologists who study cultures of science, with the goal of breaking new ground in how researchers from historically separate disciplines can better share and integrate their ideas and insights for the benefit of the world.

“These are extremely competitive grants, specifically created to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, and to even be considered requires a portfolio of interdisciplinary scholarship and technological capability that the university excels at bringing together,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “The fact that our researchers continue to attract these types of grants speaks to the unique ecosystem of talent, technology and perseverance that our faculty bring to the table.”

Other members of the LEO project steering committee include Jon Chorover, head of the Department of Environmental Science; Jennifer Croissant, associate professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies; Elizabeth “Betsy” Arnold, a professor in the School of Plant Sciences and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and William Riley, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in Berkeley.

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As of 2019, the The University of Arizona (US) enrolled 45,918 students in 19 separate colleges/schools, including The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson and Phoenix and the James E. Rogers College of Law, and is affiliated with two academic medical centers (Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix). The University of Arizona is one of three universities governed by the Arizona Board of Regents. The university is part of the Association of American Universities and is the only member from Arizona, and also part of the Universities Research Association(US). The university is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”.

Known as the Arizona Wildcats (often shortened to “Cats”), The University of Arizona’s intercollegiate athletic teams are members of the Pac-12 Conference of the NCAA. The University of Arizona athletes have won national titles in several sports, most notably men’s basketball, baseball, and softball. The official colors of the university and its athletic teams are cardinal red and navy blue.

After the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, the push for a university in Arizona grew. The Arizona Territory’s “Thieving Thirteenth” Legislature approved The University of Arizona in 1885 and selected the city of Tucson to receive the appropriation to build the university. Tucson hoped to receive the appropriation for the territory’s mental hospital, which carried a $100,000 allocation instead of the $25,000 allotted to the territory’s only university (Arizona State University(US) was also chartered in 1885, but it was created as Arizona’s normal school, and not a university). Flooding on the Salt River delayed Tucson’s legislators, and by they time they reached Prescott, back-room deals allocating the most desirable territorial institutions had been made. Tucson was largely disappointed with receiving what was viewed as an inferior prize.

With no parties willing to provide land for the new institution, the citizens of Tucson prepared to return the money to the Territorial Legislature until two gamblers and a saloon keeper decided to donate the land to build the school. Construction of Old Main, the first building on campus, began on October 27, 1887, and classes met for the first time in 1891 with 32 students in Old Main, which is still in use today. Because there were no high schools in Arizona Territory, the university maintained separate preparatory classes for the first 23 years of operation.


The University of Arizona is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. UArizona is the fourth most awarded public university by National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US) for research. The University of Arizona was awarded over $325 million for its Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) to lead NASA’s 2007–08 mission to Mars to explore the Martian Arctic, and $800 million for its OSIRIS-REx mission, the first in U.S. history to sample an asteroid.

The LPL’s work in the Cassini spacecraft orbit around Saturn is larger than any other university globally. The University of Arizona laboratory designed and operated the atmospheric radiation investigations and imaging on the probe. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, a part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. While using the HiRISE camera in 2011, University of Arizona alumnus Lujendra Ojha and his team discovered proof of liquid water on the surface of Mars—a discovery confirmed by NASA in 2015. The University of Arizona receives more NASA grants annually than the next nine top NASA/JPL-Caltech(US)-funded universities combined. As of March 2016, The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory is actively involved in ten spacecraft missions: Cassini VIMS; Grail; the HiRISE camera orbiting Mars; the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter; Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO); Maven, which will explore Mars’ upper atmosphere and interactions with the sun; Solar Probe Plus, a historic mission into the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time; Rosetta’s VIRTIS; WISE; and OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. sample-return mission to a near-earth asteroid, which launched on September 8, 2016.

The University of Arizona students have been selected as Truman, Rhodes, Goldwater, and Fulbright Scholars. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, UArizona is among the top 25 producers of Fulbright awards in the U.S.

The University of Arizona is a member of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy(US), a consortium of institutions pursuing research in astronomy. The association operates observatories and telescopes, notably Kitt Peak National Observatory(US) just outside Tucson. Led by Roger Angel, researchers in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at The University of Arizona are working in concert to build the world’s most advanced telescope. Known as the Giant Magellan Telescope(CL), it will produce images 10 times sharper than those from the Earth-orbiting Hubble Telescope.

Giant Magellan Telescope, 21 meters, to be at the NOIRLab(US) National Optical Astronomy Observatory(US) Carnegie Institution for Science’s(US) Las Campanas Observatory(CL), some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high.

The telescope is set to be completed in 2021. GMT will ultimately cost $1 billion. Researchers from at least nine institutions are working to secure the funding for the project. The telescope will include seven 18-ton mirrors capable of providing clear images of volcanoes and riverbeds on Mars and mountains on the moon at a rate 40 times faster than the world’s current large telescopes. The mirrors of the Giant Magellan Telescope will be built at The University of Arizona and transported to a permanent mountaintop site in the Chilean Andes where the telescope will be constructed.

Reaching Mars in March 2006, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter contained the HiRISE camera, with Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen as the lead on the project. This National Aeronautics and Space Agency (US) mission to Mars carrying the UArizona-designed camera is capturing the highest-resolution images of the planet ever seen. The journey of the orbiter was 300 million miles. In August 2007, The University of Arizona, under the charge of Scientist Peter Smith, led the Phoenix Mars Mission, the first mission completely controlled by a university. Reaching the planet’s surface in May 2008, the mission’s purpose was to improve knowledge of the Martian Arctic. The Arizona Radio Observatory(US), a part of The University of Arizona Department of Astronomy Steward Observatory(US), operates the Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham.

The National Science Foundation(US) funded the iPlant Collaborative in 2008 with a $50 million grant. In 2013, iPlant Collaborative received a $50 million renewal grant. Rebranded in late 2015 as “CyVerse”, the collaborative cloud-based data management platform is moving beyond life sciences to provide cloud-computing access across all scientific disciplines.

In June 2011, the university announced it would assume full ownership of the Biosphere 2 scientific research facility in Oracle, Arizona, north of Tucson, effective July 1. Biosphere 2 was constructed by private developers (funded mainly by Texas businessman and philanthropist Ed Bass) with its first closed system experiment commencing in 1991. The university had been the official management partner of the facility for research purposes since 2007.

U Arizona mirror lab-Where else in the world can you find an astronomical observatory mirror lab under a football stadium?

University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, located in the Sonoran desert. An entire ecosystem under a glass dome? Visit our campus, just once, and you’ll quickly understand why the UA is a university unlike any other.