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Advanced experimentation on ecosystems

Our mission is to provide experimental tools to understand the functioning of ecosystems, organisms and biodiversity in response to environmental changes

Experimentation on ecosystems is a prominent scientific challenge that requires mastering the dynamics of complex adaptive systems as well as to control and measure various physical, chemical and biological parameters. An Ecotron is defined as an experimental system made of replicated units that allow simultaneously the conditioning of the environment of natural or artificial ecosystems and the measurement of key processes generated by living organisms in these ecosystems, including the flow of matter and energy. The basic principle of an Ecotron is to confine ecosystems inside chambers wholly or partially sealed and capable to generate a range of physical and chemical conditions relevant of land or water, continental or marine environments. This confinement allows to measure accurately the exchange of molecules between the ecosystem compartments and thus to provide information on ecosystem processes.

French Ecotrons are a new generation after that of London Ecotron in Silwood Park and that of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. They are characterised by a larger number of experimental units (at least 12 per platform) and are better equipped and instrumented, which allows to study interactions between environmental factors in a robust statistical framework in controlled conditions - a necessity since these interactions are at the heart of ecosystem functioning. The French Ecotrons simulate a range of environments much larger than what was done in previous infrastructure including low temperatures, low oxygen partial pressure, specific spectral composition of light, fast and slow changes. This offers the possibility to study new types of ecosystems and to test original hypotheses. These environmental conditions, including extremes, will stimulate the interest of biologists, including those interested in the genetics and physiology of complex traits. The Ecotrons also propose a capacity of online measurement of ecosystem processes, including biogeochemical cycles and the use of isotopes, which is unparalleled in other infrastructures. This will allow a deeper understanding to develop predictive models of ecosystem functioning.