NutNet: New model for global research


The Nutrient Network is getting a lot of press these days. Coordinated through a University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment Discovery Grant, NutNet, as it is affectionately called, is a global research network conducting standardized experiments to understand the effects of fertilization on grasslands — land dominated by nonwoody vegetation.

Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, serves as NutNet’s hub of operations, in charge of information management and network coordination. “What makes NutNet unique is that data are collected using the same protocols across different landscapes,” he says. “These data are allowing us to ask general questions like, ‘What is controlling diversity and productivity?’ ‘How are human activities changing diversity?’ ‘How do these changes impact the environment further on down the road?’”

“What they’ve done here is, with very little funding, been able to get scientists all around the world to coordinate their work and to speak about not just how one site is changing, but how the whole planet is changing,” said IonE director Jon Foley in a recent Minnesota Daily article about the project.

Two articles in the journal Nature present NutNet findings on the effects of fertilization on diversity and stability of ecosystems and on the role sunlight and herbivores play in controlling diversity of grassland plants. It turns out that increasing fertilizer — by direct application or as a side effect of human industrial activities — decreases diversity when some plants are more successful and taller than others, thereby outcompeting them for light. The presence of herbivores, such as rabbits, cows, zebra or kangaroos, can mitigate the negative effects of increased nutrients by nibbling down the taller plants, allowing more light for seedlings of other species to grow.

NutNet WorldThe Nutrient Network comprises 78 collaborating research sites on six continents.

The peer-to-peer scientific collaborative spirit of NutNet can serve as an example for scientists approaching seemingly overwhelming global questions. “Many of the questions being asked by scientists and policy makers require answers that are relevant at the global scale,” says NutNet co-founder Elizabeth Borer, associate professor in CBS who serves as lead researcher on the IonE Discovery Grant. “Our approach is starting to become a model for others.”

In addition to supporting research and data coordination, the IonE Discovery Grant supports expanding the network science approach to incorporate other kinds of research, such as plant traits and agricultural management.

“The grant will allow us to help other scientists ask entirely different questions using our cooperative approach,” says Borer. “The expansion of this project promises to increase our understanding of global ecosystems.”

IonE Discovery Grants help highly innovative, world-class research activities get off the ground with a one-time investment of venture capital funding. We look for projects that will make a transformative difference in interdisciplinary research and discovery.

Photo of zebras and wildebeest in Tanzania courtesy of Michael Anderson and T. Morrison; map of research sites courtesy of the Nutrient Network.