Nobel Colloquium

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 (Around 5 years ago)

On Friday, May 14, at 2:30 pm at Wallenberg, Professor David Tilman will help us prepare for Nobel Conference 46, Making Food Good, with his lecture “Can We Feed the World and Save the Earth?” His most recent research on food, energy and the environment takes a 50 year quantitative global look into the future of food and energy, and proposes solutions to the problems that accelerating global food and energy demand would create. This work focuses on forecasting future global food demand, the resultant land clearing, loss of biodiversity and release of greenhouse gasses, and ways to greatly reduce these two major environmental impacts. He will examine ways to help poorer nations adopt high-yielding agricultural practices and the environmental and health benefits of dietary shifts to highly environmentally efficient diets.

G. David Tilman is a prominent American ecologist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1976. He is Regent’s Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology at the University of Minnesota, as well as an instructor in Conservation Biology; Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; and Microbial ecology. He is director of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve Long-term Ecological Research station. Tilman has been a Guggenheim Fellow, is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a member of the National Academy of Science. In 2000 Tilman was designated the Most Highly Cited Environmental Scientist of the Decade by Essential Science Indicators and in 2008, he was awarded the International Prize for Biology.

Dr. Tilman states that his passion with ecology stems from his love for both math and biology, and ecology is a field that allows him to express both together along with his love for the outdoors. His work explores how both natural and managed ecosystems can be used to meet the needs of humans, whether it be for food, energy, or ecosystem services. Dr. Tilman has performed several studies to further determine the usefulness of grasslands for utilization in biofuel.

Professor Tilman is best known for his work on the role of resource competition in community structure and on the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning. One of his most cited articles is the 1994 Nature article titled “Biodiversity and stability in grasslands” which provided data regarding an experiment that began in 1982 with more than 200 plots in a grassland field in the Cedar Creek National History Area in Minnesota. Each of these plots was continuously monitored for 20 years for factors such as species richness and biomass created by the community. Tilman’s article looked at data both prior to and following a drought on the grassland plots in 1988, which provided surprising results. The drought provided substantial disturbance and the biomass data showed a strong positive correlation between the plant diversity within the community and the stability of the community as a whole supporting the diversity-stability hypothesis.

Dr. Tilman says that he is intrigued by the causes of broad, general patterns in the biological diversity, structure and dynamics of ecosystems, in the benefits that society receives from natural and managed ecosystems, and in ways to assure environmental and social sustainability in the face of global increases in human consumption and population. He has recently focused on a related issue - the effects of biodiversity on the stability and functioning of ecosystems, which is scientifically intriguing and of great importance to society. Finally, he is interested in the impacts of human domination of global ecosystems, especially in the impacts of nitrogen deposition, habitat destruction/fragmentation, and invasive exotic species.

Professor Tilman studies mechanisms of resource competition among terrestrial plants, especially in the grasslands of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. This work has focused on causes of succession and controls of both diversity and species composition. His approach has been to combine well-replicated field experiments with mathematical theory. Some of the questions he and his students are currently exploring in field experiments are (1) the effects of plant diversity on ecosystem productivity, nutrient retention, and stability; (2) the effects of community diversity on invasibility; (3) effects of diversity on disease dynamics and herbivory, and the feedback effects of these on stability and productivity; (4) effects of nitrogen deposition on diversity, stability and composition of grassland ecosystems; (5) the interactive effects of carbon dioxide, nitrogen deposition and plant diversity on primary productivity and its stability; (6) effects of climate change on ecosystem composition, diversity and functioning; and (7) the role of recruitment limitation in structuring plant communities. These collaborative projects take place at Cedar Creek and are supported by the NSF Long-Term Ecological Research Program or the Bush Foundation.

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