- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Chocolate lovers can thank researchers such as Edward Allen Herre for new developments with the Mayan “food of the gods.”

Mr. Herre was a speaker at last month’s Theobroma Cacao: The Tree of Change, a symposium on cocoa where he discussed interactions among plants, fungi and bacteria. The symposium was held at the National Academies in Northwest.

Mr. Herre is one of 40 staff scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, one of the world’s premier tropical biology research organizations, headquartered in Panama City. The office is an extension of the Smithsonian’s work in the District.

“You can’t conserve something unless you understand it roughly,” says Mr. Herre, who holds a doctorate in biology. “If you don’t have the most minimal understanding of what makes it as it is, there is no way, except by incredible luck, that you could actually preserve any of it.”

Researchers at the institute are studying the tropics, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Along with 40 staff scientists, the organization has almost 800 visiting scientists each year who work in more than 40 tropical countries, focusing on disciplines such as archaeology, animal behavior and climatology. It also is the custodian of Barro Colorado Island, the largest island in the Panama Canal, a site for the study of lowland moist tropical forests.

Biological interactions between species is the main topic Mr. Herre investigates. Understanding the way plants, insects, birds, mammals and fungi interact is essential, he says. Most organisms’ relationships with other organisms are of utmost importance. For instance, finding food and a good mate are as much priorities in the tropics, where cold weather is absent, as they are anywhere.

“Studying the complex relationships of organisms in the tropics gives you insight into what life is capable of producing,” Mr. Herre says. “You have systems that are fascinating, incredibly diverse and complex. You have things that you don’t see in temperate systems.”

Further, because the bulk of humanity lives in the tropics, it seems reasonable to try to learn as much as possible about that area of the world, he says. However, most scientific research has been concentrated in the United States and Europe, he adds.

“Think of HIV in Africa. Anything that anyone knows suggests that HIV started in a tropical or subtropical place and spread,” Mr. Herre says. “Globally, the world is more and more interconnected. There are parts of it that are extremely important and very much understudied. The tropics is understudied compared to other places.”

Although many people talk about the conservation of tropical regions, the area can’t be preserved without an understanding of the ecosystem, he says. Once the ecosystem is understood, the way it generates useful products can be replicated. Right now, scientists are studying the way corals interact with other marine organisms. Chemicals in corals are believed to have potential anti-HIV or anti-cancer properties, he says.

“You have this world of organisms out there in some ways helping each other; in other ways, actively trying to suppress each other and eat each other,” Mr. Herre says. “You want to understand why they want to help or hurt each other, but perhaps more importantly, how they do it. You can’t really get at how unless you understand why.”

Almost 3 million individual trees are being monitored in 14 nations through the research institute’s Center for Tropical Forest Science, says Ira Rubinoff, director of the institute. For instance, on a 123.6-acre plot of land in Panama, more than 300,000 trees greater than 1 centimeter in diameter are being measured, mapped and observed every five years.

“We’re learning how the trees change with time, how certain species become extinct and how some increase in numbers,” says Mr. Rubinoff, who holds a doctorate in evolutionary biology. “We’re probably seeing a response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

If a set of rules can be established for the interactions of organisms, the defined relationships would make it easier to predict future behavior, says Eldredge Bermingham, senior staff scientist and deputy director of the research institute. He holds a doctorate in population genetics.

DNA sequences can be used to investigate the history of biodiversity in the tropics, he says. The strands can reveal how animal and plant communities were formed over time.

“If you want to understand the dynamics of the community, you need to understand the past history,” Mr. Bermingham says. “With humans, you can get it orally. With animals and plants, you can’t. We go into their genes to see if we can deduce when they might have arrived, who their closest relative is and where the closest relative lived.”

Understanding the effect of humans on biodiversity is another area of research, says William Laurance, staff scientist at the research institute. He frequently travels to Brazil, Australia and African nations for his work. He holds a doctorate in biology.

He is looking at the impact of logging, hunting, road construction and forest fires in tropical regions.

“When you burn a tropical rain forest, for every [2.471 acres], you release about 200 tons of carbon into the atmosphere,” Mr. Laurance says. “It’s an important contributor to global warming. Tropical deforestation accounts for one-fourth of all the greenhouse gases that humans put into the atmosphere each year.”

Educating local people in the tropics is part of the organization’s mission, says Stanley Heckadon, director of public programs at the research institute. He holds a doctorate in rural sociology.

A core of 50 trained nature guides, mostly local college students, shares recent findings with elementary and high school students, he says. About 70,000 visitors frequent their educational sites each year.

“The teaching of science in the public school system in Panama is about 40 years behind the United States,” Mr. Heckadon says. “We want to make the people of the country so proud of their home that they would become custodians of the area and help save the planet. I think this absolutely fundamental.”

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