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How Chemicals Affect Ecosystems

A theoretical ecologist receives an EPA grant to study the biological and ecological consequences of exposures to chemicals in the environment
Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 09:30
Santa Barbara, CA

Roger Nisbet.jpg

Roger Nisbet

Roger Nisbet

Photo Credit: 

Sonia Fernandez

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded an $800,000 Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant to UC Santa Barbara’s Roger Nisbet. He will use the funding to develop a model to better understand biological and ecological consequences of exposure to metals, nanoparticles and certain flame retardants in industrial and consumer products. Such materials could pose a threat to human and environmental health.

“Most ecological risk assessments of chemical stressors are motivated by the societal need to avoid unacceptable impacts on natural populations and ecosystems from exposure to manufactured chemicals,” said Nisbet, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. “A major challenge is that ecological change usually occurs on long time scales and involves many interacting species, but the data available for risk management typically comes from short-term studies on individual organisms or on biochemical processes.”

Nisbet’s project — “Dynamical Systems Models Based on Energy Budgets for Ecotoxicological Impact Assessment” — is expected to enhance the understanding of how the effects of exposure to chemical stressors are expressed ecologically. New mathematical models will be developed with feedback representing physiological control processes within an organism and interactions among species in an ecosystem.

“The anticipated expected outcome is an enhanced and improved ability to identify key toxic mechanisms within individual organisms and to make quantitative predictions of the implications for the sustainability of populations,” Nisbet said. “If models are found to have predictive value, this will enhance the capacity for using such information for evaluation of chemicals. If, as is likely, reliable predictions require additional information on whole organisms or populations, the nature of the required information will be defined.”

UC Santa Barbara is among six universities nationwide sharing almost $4 million in funding to study the ecological impacts of manufactured chemicals. The overall goal of the research is to develop better chemical risk assessments and decisions for protecting the environment. The other recipients are Harvard University, Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Oregon State University and Texas Tech University.

“The STAR program ensures that our next generation of scientists and engineers will be ready to meet future environmental challenges,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “We are pleased to support UCSB in its scientific efforts and innovative ideas.”

The STAR grants are part of the EPA Chemical Safety for Sustainability research program’s efforts to develop new methods to improve chemical evaluation and support environmental sustainability.

Contact Info: 

Julie Cohen
(805) 893-7220