Biological & Environmental Systems Science

The research portfolio for Biological and Environmental Systems Science spans
two research divisions to advance key science, technology and engineering
capabilities while building a competitive, world-class workforce to meet
our future mission needs.

About the Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biological and Environmental Systems Science (BESS) Directorate leads convergence research in biology, ecology, engineering, data discovery, physical sciences, and computing to advance U.S. competitiveness in the global bioeconomy and Earth system sustainability.

Our researchers enjoy an open, inclusive, and innovative workplace where they collaborate daily to advance renewable energy solutions, biodiversity research, and push the frontiers of systems and synthetic biology. The future looks equally bright as we understand how genes influence ecosystem-level processes, learn more about how biodiversity shapes the world around us, develop novel biodesign tools and testbeds for enzyme engineering, apply the world’s fastest supercomputers to transform biological and environmental data into knowledge, advance signature technologies for dynamic characterization of complex biological and environmental systems, and apply emerging capabilities that promise to transform how science is done through automated, data rich, and interconnected systems.

Together we can strengthen the nation’s economic competitiveness, enable resilient and sustainable economies, and make possible the stewardship of managed and natural resources.

SYSTEMS SCIENCE AT EVERY SCALE

BESS is home to the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Data Center, which provides data to scientists from around the world. The Center for Bioenergy Innovation enables high-impact and value-added advances along the bioenergy supply chain. The Climate Change Science Institute fosters the integration of experiments, measurements, and simulation to achieve a predictive understanding of our changing world. The UT/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics explores the structural dynamics of biomolecules by uniquely working at the interface of biology, chemistry, and the physical sciences, aided by neutron and computational sciences.

Our efforts focus on convergent science in basic biological and environmental sciences, engineering, and computing and physical sciences to advance US competitiveness in the global bioeconomy and earth sustainability.

The Environmental Sciences Division focuses on expanding scientific knowledge and developing innovative strategies and technologies that will strengthen the nation’s leadership in creating solutions to help sustain Earth’s natural resources. Our staff explore how genes, organisms, populations, and communities influence, and are influenced by, the management, health, and sustainability of ecological systems; work to understand and predict how terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems exchange carbon, water, nutrients, and trace elements across multiple spatial and temporal scales; and advance next-generation computational and data analytics to extract and transfer information to understand ecosystems and their representation in numerical models.

The Biosciences Division advances science and technology to characterize and engineer complex biological systems that benefit the environment and our bioeconomy. Our staff characterize and engineer biological behavior and determine how rational or automated design can be used to drive innovation in biotechnology and the environment; advance frontiers in computational methods to analyze chemical, physical, and biological data and arrive at new predictions and discoveries; and harness technologies in neutrons, quantum imaging, mass spectrometry and beyond to collect and interpret how molecular patterns, properties, and processes at smaller scales translate to larger-scale phenomena.

Pioneers of Biology and Earth Systems Science

Building upon a rich history of breakthroughs in biology and ecology, BESS scientists are proud to have sequenced the first tree genome, pioneered the field of global change biology, and solved the 40-year mystery of how bacteria transform mercury into highly toxic methylmercury. We are well-positioned to accelerate discovery using ORNL’s facilities for high-performance computing, neutron scattering, materials science, and nanoscale research. Armed with these world-class capabilities they advance our understanding of the natural world, providing the insight needed to predict change, build resilient systems, and support a thriving, sustainable economy

TEN-YEAR VISION

Our vision is to harness tools of next-generation biology to decipher the genetic underpinnings of traits that control complex cellular, organismal, and environmental systems. Our genes to-ecosystem vision is shaped by emerging capabilities in synthetic and systems biology, enzyme engineering, advanced imaging, data analytics and visualization, and Earth systems modeling. Informed by AI models and HPC, we will translate mechanistic understanding derived across multiple scales into predictive, process-rich models capable of generating testable hypotheses that advance knowledge discovery. Our commitment to becoming the nation’s lab of the future includes automation and edge computing as essential tools to delivering world-class capabilities in biology and ecology. We serve as a resource to address critical questions relevant to basic science, biodiversity research, environmental concerns, the bioeconomy, national security, and biosecurity

Biological and Environmental Systems Science Divisions, Sections and Groups

Environmental Sciences Division

Expand scientific knowledge and develop innovative strategies and technologies that will strengthen the nation’s leadership in creating solutions to help sustain Earth’s natural resources.

Biodiversity and Sustainable Systems Section

Explore how genes, organisms, populations, and communities influence, and are influenced by, the management, health, and sustainability of ecological systems.

  1. Water Resource Science & Engineering Group —Advance the state of water resources engineering and science through multidisciplinary research on data analytics, model simulation, engineering design, decision support, and visualization.
  2. Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Group —Develop and implement tools and methods to quantify and mitigate threats to biodiversity (genes, species, habitats, and ecosystems) and ecosystem services.
  3. Bioresource Science and Engineering Group —Develop and apply quantitative tools to advance our understanding of how bioresources can be sustainably and reliably produced, delivered, and utilized to enable expansion of the US bioeconomy while also preserving ecosystem services.
  4. Environmental Risk and Energy Analysis Group —Develop foundational science and advanced simulations to understand human health, economic, and environmental protection dimensions of existing and emerging sustainable energy alternatives.

Earth System Science Section

Understand and predict how terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems exchange carbon, water, nutrients, and trace elements across multiple spatial and temporal scales.

  1. Ecosystem Processes Group —Advance a predictive understanding of the spatial and temporal dynamics of Earth’s vital and changing ecosystems by using unprecedented ecosystem-scale manipulative experiments, observations, and integrated modeling.
  2. Plant-Soil Interactions Group —Advance a deeper understanding of how plants, soil microorganisms, and their surrounding environment drive important ecosystem functions by using cutting-edge experimental, modeling, and analytical (e.g., spectroscopic and stable isotope) approaches.
  3. Biogeochemical Dynamics Group —Understand how biogeochemical cycles contribute to broader environmental patterns and responses through use of novel observational and manipulative approaches.
  4. Earth Systems Modeling Group —Develop a predictive understanding of interactions among Earth’s physical, biological, ecological, and human systems, with a focus on numerical simulation and quantitative analysis of coupled Earth systems.
  5. Watershed Systems Modeling Group —Develop integrated models for water movement and the associated transport and transformation of waterborne constituents in watersheds.

Earth System Informatics and Data Discovery Section

Advance next-generation computational and data analytics to extract and transfer information to understand ecosystems and their representation in numerical models.

  1. ARM Data Science and Integration Group —Provide vision, strategy, leadership, and end-to-end design and execution of earth system data operations, data discovery, interoperability, high-resolution model-data ecosystem, advanced data analysis, science data product delivery, and user interactions.
  2. Remote Sensing and Environmental Informatics Group —Advance biogeochemical, ecosystem, and environmental research by providing integrated data products, data management and delivery systems and services, and data analytics to facilitate research, education, and decision-making in the environmental sciences.

Biosciences Division

Characterize and engineer complex biological systems to benefit the environment and the US bioeconomy.

Biodesign and Systems Biology Section

Characterize and engineer biological behavior and determine how rational or automated design can be used to drive innovation in biotechnology and the environment.

  1. Plant Systems Biology Group —Explore and characterize the network of genes, proteins, metabolites, and environmental signals that lead to improved plant characteristics and performance.
  2. Integrative Microbiomics Group —Integrate cellular, molecular and genomic approaches to study microbes, communities and their interaction with hosts and the environment.
  3. Synthetic Biology Group —Develop and apply principles and techniques for biosystems design in non-model organisms, biofuels crops and associated biosystems to solve renewable energy and environmental challenges.

Biocomputing and Information Section

Advance frontiers in computational methods to analyze chemical, physical, and biological data and arrive at new predictions and discoveries.

  1. Molecular Biophysics Group —Apply scalable computing and data science to characterize the structure, function and dynamics of complex biomolecular systems.
  2. Computational and Predictive Biology Group —Develop and apply the tools of data science, predictive modeling and high-performance computing to transform biological data into knowledge.
  3. Information Systems (Biological and Environmental Research Information System, BERIS)  Group —Develop communication strategies and informational materials about the fundamental research emanating from DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Bioimaging and Analytics Section

Harness technologies in neutrons, quantum imaging, mass spectrometry and beyond to collect and interpret how molecular patterns, properties, and processes at smaller scales translate to larger-scale phenomena.

  1. Molecular and Cellular Imaging Group —Observe biological function in action by advancing and implementing tools for neutron science, quantum imaging, nanotechnology and microscopy.
  2. Metabolomics and Biomass Characterization Group —Apply functional genomics and analytical characterization techniques to understand and enhance sustainable biomass crop productivity and quality for biofuels and bioproducts.
  3. Bioanalytical Mass Spectrometry Group —Develop and deploy high-performance mass spectrometry techniques for analytical characterization and chemical imaging of non-volatile biomolecules, including proteomes and lipidomes.