Meet some of Biotron’s research superstars

Editor’s note: Please read ‘Troubling yesterday for building of tomorrow: Despite stumbles, most see a bright future for revolutionary facility’ (Jan. 19), which was published in conjunction with this story.

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Brent Sinclair: The guy who freezes bugs

Brent Sinclair doesn’t get squeamish when a Madagascar Hissing Roach is squealing between his fingers. In fact, he quickly scoops up the bug which would make most people run to call their exterminators.

The Biology professor was among the first researchers to begin working in the Biotron. His research in the Insect Module includes examining the overwintering energetics of butterflies; the winter ecology of a biocontrol agent, the heather beetle; and the overwintering biology of the emerald ash borer.

“We freeze bugs. That’s what we do,” he says. “We are interested in all manner of the way temperature affects the biology of insects and how that flows on to effect ecosystems and so forth.”

The Biotron’s containment capabilities allow researchers like Sinclair to examine invasive insects – like the forest-razing emerald ash borer – without the concerns about possible threats to the environment. The temperature control also enables insects to be exposed to temperatures from 45 to -73 degrees Celsius, and the modules allow for controlled humidity and light conditions.

“There are some unique capabilities,” he says of the Biotron. “We’ve started to do experiments that we were otherwise able to do just in a regular chamber in the lab.” He offers the example of taking an entire log encased in emerald ash borer and cooling it down to conduct other experiments.

“That allowed us to show that when there were warm periods in the middle of winter, the emerald ash borer survive cold less well. The key thing is that is not reversible,” he says. “If you get a really warm period of winter and that is followed by more (cold) winter, there is this irreversible loss of cold tolerance.”

These findings may provide insight to managers of invasive species into how the insect would be affected in an area like Calgary, which is influenced by warm, wet Chinook winds.

“The moral of the story: You have to worry about these guys everywhere because it turns out they are pretty cold tolerant,” Sinclair says. “… But there are these subtleties that we haven’t worked through in the model yet that might mean they are some places where we might expect they won’t do as well.”

Sinclair was also able to use the Biotron to look at swallowtail butterflies and their relationships between variable temperatures and its energy use during the winter.

There are limitations on how the expansion of an experiment in the lab, Sinclair notes. But with the large scope of the Biotron, scaling up the experiments is no longer an issue. “That’s kind-of the beauty of the Biotron and it being a shared facility, rather than something I’ve built up in a corner myself,” he says. “There is the capacity for flexibility like that, which is something most people don’t have access to.”
The Biotron facilitates an interactive and collegial environment, Sinclair notes, which has been beneficial for both faculty and graduate students.
The containment capabilities “breaks down a lot of geographic barriers. It’s helping to increase the (Biotron) profile.”

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Zoë Lindo: Building bridges to from field to lab

Zoë Lindo builds bridges between us and the natural world.

The Biology professor was hired specifically to work in the Biotron. As part of her research, she collects moss from the forest floor and re-creates mini-ecosystems.

“I study biodiversity. I ask questions about the processes that generate, maintain or alter patterns in biodiversity and the relationships between those patterns in biodiversity and what happens at ecosystem levels,” she says.

One of the major trends she is tracking is the unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss, much of which can be attributed to environmental changes.

“This could be increased temperatures, increased C02 levels, moisture conditions – particularly in soils – and all is tied up in environmental change variables,” she says.

While there are many advantages to conducting field experiments, in part, because it is the natural environment, a lot of variability can influence the results. But in the Biotron, she will be able to conduct large-scale tests in the biomes and growth chambers.

“What I really want to do is bridge the realism from the field to the lab. Rather than having these small, little microcosms, to actually having misoecosystems,” she says. “We are able to maintain a lot more of the realism of the field system but still get it under a little more controlled environmental conditions.

“It will allow me to the research in a much better way.”

Lindo’s research deals with complex systems, such as looking at how each species interacts with other species. By bringing samples of the field into the biomes, she will be able to better understand the complexity of the ecosystems.

“Looking at it from an ecosystem perspective is key to understand things like, ‘Here’s all the players, here’s how they interact. So what does this mean for nutrients and how they move through the system?’” she says. “When we bring it into one of the biomes and we can contain it, but still have a level of realism that it is still functional, you can start to account for anything that is going into the system and anything that is going out of the system.

“You can account for a lot of the dynamics which are occurring, which is really the basis of what we really what to understand.”

The Biotron was part of what attracted Lindo to Western. Currently, she is establishing her lab in the Plants, Algae and Cyanobacteria Module. One area of study is looking at the role of cyanobacteria in moss systems on forest floors, particularly the boreal forest.

As an independent researcher, it would be difficult to get a grant to support the cost of building a biome-like facility, she says.  “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to walk in to a full greenhouse room that is completely sealed that you can manipulate temperature and CO2, temperature and humidity, and control all the environmental variables, and then ask the questions you want to ask.”

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Brian Branfireun: Reading Mother Nature’s future

The Biotron presents biology professor Brian Branfireun with a crystal ball through which to look at how the wetlands in Canada’s north might look the next 50 years.

As Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability, his work primarily focuses on mercury, its relationship to the movement of water and its implications on water quality in the environment, particularly wetlands. He looks at the interactions between water and different parts of the landscape; the transformation of elements as they move along the water pathways; and the biological and non-biological implications of the process.

His work in northern Canada examines how changes in temperature and moisture impact the waterways.

“It’s the area of most rapid environmental change in the world. It’s a place where there is almost no information about not only baseline conditions, but also the response of what are typically wet, cool environments to those kinds of changes,” he says.

Conducting experiments in sub-Arctic conditions can be difficult, which makes the ability to simulate the conditions at a meaningful scale in the Biotron incredibly attractive, Branfireun says. He is looking to collect large samples from wetlands in northern Canada and bring them to the Biotron to examine the effects of temperature.

“Trial and error isn’t a great thing to spend a lot of resources to do in the natural environment,” he says. “(The Biotron) creates an opportunity to actually isolate specific processes of interest and that is often very difficult to do in the environment.

“I see it as something that gives us an opportunity to develop a depth of knowledge about environmental processes which are much more difficult to do in the field and really can’t be simulated at a reasonable scale in the test tube.”

After joining Western, Branfireun integrated his laboratory into the analytical facilities at the Biotron. This allows for unique chemistry analysis, such as ultra trace metals analysis of Earth materials, and has resulted in the establishment of the Soil, Water and Plant Testing Facility.

He is looking at soils and how they decompose under accelerated conditions, and how this affects downstream water quality. He is able to take the soil and subject it to temperature increases anticipated to occur within the next 50 years in its native region.

“Basically, it is kind-of like taking the future of the environment of the far north and accelerating it in the lab,” he says. “We can use those environmental chambers to separate out those processes of enhanced microbial activity versus physical conditions that accelerate the degradation.”

Like his fellow Biotron researchers, Branfireun sees great potential in the facility, as it allows researchers to conduct large-scale experiments and simulate annual cycles of environmental conditions. He foresees the demand for use of the facility to increase as more researchers become aware of the Biotron’s capabilities.

“You start to think differently about how you might undertake an experiment when you realize you have access to something pretty much next door. I think the challenge in the long-term will be figuring out how to accommodate everyone’s interests in the space,” he says.