San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 30th, 2009
Texas State professor gets NSF grant

Michael Huston

STAFF REPORT

Texas State Professor of Biology Michael Huston was recently awarded a $165,085 grant for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project, OPUS: Global Biodiversity – Synthesis of Ecology and Evolution.

“My idea is that there are some of the simplest explanations for the biggest patterns of life on this planet,” Huston said. “And how well plants grow, how fast they grow, and the differences in how fast they grow in different parts of the planet is the key explanation to a lot of the things we see.”

Huston’s idea takes on some of the biggest questions Charles Darwin left unanswered, such as why some places have more species than others and why there are more species in the tropical rain forest than in Texas, Wisconsin or Missouri.

Huston’s proposal, “captured the imagination and interest of reviewers, our panel and the program directors,” said NSF program director William Resetarits.

The project will challenge some of the current leading theories about biodiversity, such as the view that biodiversity is highest where plant production is highest. Many scientists use the example of tropical rainforests as an example. Wrongly, Huston said.

“The tropical rain forests are not productive,” Huston said. “Everybody is wrong about its pattern of productivity. The trees grow slowly, and there’s not much food for plants and animals down there. That is why most of the animals down there are pretty rare.”

Houston’s theory says that in areas where vegetation struggles for life, more species of plants and animals that eat plants will be found. At locations where vegetation is fruitful, at least one type of species of plant will crowd everything else out, reducing the variety of species.

“It’s a theory that doesn’t make a lot of sense at first,” Huston said. “But where plants grow best, with lots of nutrients and water, there is almost always one type of plant that will take over. It’s the best of the best.”

The theory helps explain why there are desert environments with almost as many different species of plants as can be found in a rainforest, and why some environments are known for a particular type of species.

Huston believes the answer is in the quality of the soil. He hopes this will help link biodiversity and poverty.

“If it works the way I think it works,” Huston said, “where poor soil is preventing the dominance of one or more species, it’s also harder to raise food and, consequently, to make a living as a farmer.”

Huston continued by explaining that if one looks at poverty patterns around the world, many people with low income and not enough food live in the tropics, where soils are poor. He addressed these issues in his paper “Biodiversity, Soils and Economics,” which was published in Science Magazine in 1993.

The article was all but ignored.

“I thought it was important,” Huston said. “So I published it in a place where I thought most people in the world would see it. And it had zero impact.”

Huston hopes the NSF grant will change that. The funds will go towards his second book, which should be released in 2011. He will also use the funds to travel, research and discuss the OPUS Project.

“I haven’t been discouraged because I’m confident that I’m right,” Huston said. “This grant gives me another change to get it out there. I think it will catch hold.”

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