Energy is uniquely fundamental to biology. We can at least conceive of life forms made up of elements other than the familiar carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Life forms that do not use energy, however, are inconceivable.
Ecologists have been studying the movement of energy in ecosystems for decades and two research traditions for doing so have developed. The older one, called ecological thermodynamics, looks at energy flow and storage within whole ecosystems and tries to explain and predict patterns in these flows. For example, scientists in this tradition might look at how the networks of energy flows in ecosystems change over time. The second tradition, metabolic ecology, starts with the metabolisms of individual organisms and the way metabolic rates vary with organism size and body temperature. They then make predictions about ecosystems based on the properties of the individuals making them up.
These two lines of research are potentially complementary. However, their practitioners have ignored each other's work to a remarkable extent. The Working Group will bring together scientists from both energy-centered lines of research, help them come to understand each other's research, and ask what emerges when we try to bring metabolic ecology and ecological thermodynamics together ,and what questions could be addressed from these bottom-up and top-down perspectives. With any luck, this synthesis will help us understand ecosystems on a fundamental level. It can also help us predict how ecosystems will respond to a warming climate.
UPDATE September 2013
When our Working Group met in July 2013 we were extremely productive. Participants educated each other about their research areas, formed a consensus on core principles, and made considerable headway toward a synthesis of metabolic and systems ecology. The group is currently drafting a paper tentatively titled, "Thermodynamics, Metabolism, and the Unification of Ecology". A subgroup is actively researching a newly identified topic, the scaling of carbon or energy turnover rates with total ecosystem biomass. In addition, we identified several other topics for future work, including the results of optimization at different levels of organization. Each of these will result in at least one paper.
More information about this project.
This work is supported by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a Center funded by NSF (Grant #EF-0553768), the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California.