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IAEA and Austrian Research Centre Team-Up to Advance Ecological Research


With international researchers from industry, universities and governments, the virtual IsoEcol Conference 2021 brought together 239 experts with the common interest in developing and applying stable isotope techniques in understanding and solving an assortment of ecological problems. (Photo: B. Gebka/IAEA)

From Aristotle and Charles Darwin, to Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle, the greatest minds have marvelled at and studied the natural world since time known. In the 1970s nuclear techniques swept in with the use of stable isotopes to understand complex ecosystems in land and water. IAEA experts have contributed to important ecological research — understanding the relationship between living organisms and their physical environment — by using isotopes to study butterfly and bird migrations, conserving marine life and much more.

To acknowledge the importance of isotopic methods and accelerate research in the field, the latest findings, research and techniques were presented and discussed at the virtual 11.5 International Conference on the Applications of Stable Isotope Techniques to Ecological Studies (IsoEcol) — an IAEA collaboration with the Inter-University Centre for Aquatic Ecosystem Research, WasserCluster Lunz, in the run-up to June 2022’s 12th International IsoEcol Conference by the same organisers.

The IsoEcol 11.5 conference brought together over 250 attendees from 60 countries including students, professors and researchers. They shared findings and discussed the use of isotopes in understanding aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and covered topics from marine, paleoecology, freshwater and terrestrial fields, including models and isotopic techniques used in ecological research.

Over the last 23 years since the first IsoEcol conference, the meetings have advanced the use of isotopes in understanding the environment through an important international network where expertise is shared and new models, conceptual approaches, instrumentation and analytical advances are brought together to advance research.

Cornelia Twining is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at EAWAG in Switzerland and was a speaker at the conference’s plenary on how stable isotopes help understand the evolutionary ecology of plant and animal nutrition. Commenting on the diversity of the researchers and their use of stable isotopes in a wide array of environmental research, she said, "early career researchers are using compound-specific stable isotope analyses, which are paving the way for the future directions of stable isotope analyses across ecology and evolutionary biology."

One use of compound-specific stable isotopes includes understanding soil erosion. By studying the isotope make-up of the soil, scientists can trace it back to its origins and discover the cause of erosion. Knowing the source allows scientists to treat the soil and prevent future erosion with conservation practices to enable the growth of healthy plants.

Recently retired Griffith University professor, Brian Fry, was also a plenary speaker. Sometimes jokingly referred to by the ecology community as ‘IsoPope’ for his spearheading use of stable isotopes in ecology, Fry presented his experience with isotopes and hopes for the future of isotope ecology: “The rise and use of big data in the field needs multi-dimensional thinking, especially with new challenges of global climate change, making it important to continue investigating the use of isotopes. We are only at the beginning of using isotopes as environmental tracers with many challenges and exciting discoveries to come.”

The use of big data is important as it allows ecologists to understand the environment on a larger scale. Rather than looking at a single study, which uses isotopic tracers to comprehend the food or migration cycle of a specific species in a single area, large data sets now make it possible to access research conducted across the globe, over several years. This can help lead to breakthroughs.

Informing conservation strategies

“The involvement of IAEA’s expertise in isotope ecology, both at the meeting and across the field, has led to an increased understanding of the ecosystem and its continuous changes,” said Leonard Wassenaar, Head of the IAEA’s Isotope Hydrology Laboratory and a member of the conference’s Scientific Organising Committee.

“Our lab work over the last 30 years has been crucial in devising conservation strategies, and our facilities have helped train scientists from around the world using isotopic techniques to monitor and adapt to a changing environment.”

Nuclear techniques provide scientists with insights difficult or simply unattainable through conventional techniques. For example, isotopes help researchers conduct studies on ocean acidification, identify sources of pollution in water and understand the migration of birds. The IAEA’s global isotope database plays a key role in linking geographical areas used by various migrating species, allowing scientists to link declining population patterns to habitat destruction, climate change, land use, pests and infections.

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