The Earth and Life Systems Alliance (ELSA) is a strategic cornerstone of the Norwich Research Park (NRP). With its interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenges of a changing climate, the Alliance not only carries out fundamental research but also applies the findings to real world scenarios. Its main objective is to conduct science that generates data necessary for evidence-based decision making by international policy-makers. As the human population continues to expand, natural resources are being depleted and the demand for food and fuel creates unsustainable demands on the planet. The increasing industrialisation of emerging markets, coupled with changes to land use and agricultural practices, are forcing changes on the world and its inhabitants. These global pressures are causing species extinction due to habitat loss, coupled with adaptation of species in different environments. The delicate balances of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur on land, in the oceans and the atmosphere, and the composition of all living things are being altered. Finally, the way humans manage and use land and other natural resources is being challenged to meet the demand for dietary protein, energy and increasing urbanisation. The research of ELSA is focused around three Themes:
Human activities leading to climate change and unsustainable use of natural resources are major factors leading to biodiversity loss. Researchers within ELSA are taking the unique approach of linking the genetic drivers of adaptive variation with large scale consequences to entire populations and ecosystems. ELSA researchers are using advanced genomic and molecular technologies to explore the genetic and molecular basis of adaptation across a wide range of species. This knowledge is being integrated with holistic analyses of population dynamics to understand better the ecological impacts of adaptation. Such information will enable researchers to predict and respond to the ecological and evolutionary consequences of changes to habitats.
Important decisions are being made about the most appropriate use of agricultural land, bearing in mind the global pressures for food and energy. It is likely that different crops will be cultivated on existing land as the local environment and climate changes and becomes more, or less hospitable for particular species. Similarly new crop varieties able to tolerate extreme growing conditions (temperature, drought, high salinity etc.) are also being developed. This is likely to alter the appearance and functionality of local landscapes with potential socio-economic impacts across the globe. As well as pioneering research into crop plants, disease-causing pathogens and agricultural systems, researchers within ELSA are using computer modeling and predictive tools to support the necessary decision-making processes associated with proposed changes in ecosystem management.
Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur exist in finely balanced biogeochemical cycles that link molecular processes to the global elemental cycles. Harnessing our knowledge of the central importance of plants and microbes in these cycles is a key focus of work within ELSA. This, together with expertise in climate system analysis and global biogeochemical cycles, is enabling ELSA researchers to undertake integrated research into the biological systems involved in elemental cycling, from the molecular to the global scale. This research will help inform the development of mechanisms to mitigate the effects of human activities on these cycles.