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    Ecotrons are straightforwardly the next step in experimental biology after the first generation phytotrons and the controlled study of animals in the zootron. The Ecotron fulfills the ambitions of plant physiologists and ecologists from the late 1960s to possess a facility for controlled ecosystem research.[1] Ecotrons seeks scientifically valid information about the changing structure, growth, and development of whole communities of plants, insects, and small animals under controlled environmental conditions. 

    With facilities in France and the U.K., Ecotrons trace their lineage back through several climate facilities to the Climatron and Frits Went's original phytotron. LINK   

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  The British facility contains sixteen, 8 cubic-meter “environmental chambers.”[2] Like the phytotrons before it, each chamber is electronically monitored for ranges of environmental variables including light, water, air, air flow, CO2, humidity, and temperature. The facility has two distinct types of environmental chamber, eight on the upper level where sunlight is available, and eight on the lower level where light is fully supplied by technological means. In those lower chambers, the lamps providing illumination must be insulated from the actual ecosystem, necessitating a separate air-conditioning sub-system within the lamp housing and another within the remainder of the environmental chamber.

    Situated at Silwood Park outside London, and attached to Imperial College, the British Ecotron was built in 1991. The facility owes its existence to the UK’s National Environmental Research Council’s (NERC) Center for Population Biology which opened in 1989. The financial commitment of the NERC to Lawton’s Ecoton of over £1million for construction as well £70,000 annually for running costs speaks to the deep commitment of the NERC to the Silwood Circle’s principles. While the Ecotron was built over exactly the period of Missions One and Two of Biosphere II, the British facility was singularly focused on the experimental study of ecology and not burdened by flighty visions of space habitats like the complex in Arizona. As John Lawton, its creator noted, the Ecotron “is unique among controlled environmental facilities in that it attempts to construct, maintain and manipulate entire model ecosystems and simultaneously monitor population dynamics and ecosystem processes.”[3]

    The Ecotron, as a model ecosystem, worked to unravel the Gordian problem of the environmental effect on species richness. In the mid 1990s, for example, the Ecotron facility hosted a famous experiment which addressed an issue was of grave importance to all participants in the climate change debate: “to explore the effects of enhanced CO2, enhanced temperature, and their combination, on population, community, and ecosystem dynamics.” As the head of the facility and project, John Lawton pointed out, in an age of increasingly impassionate argument over such a fundamental aspect of climate change, his experiments held the promise to supply model answers to guide policy. Such experiments could be done in the field, he noted, but weren’t, because they “would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.”[4]

    John Lawton saw his facility as a step in the maturation of the science of ecology. As Lawton advocated, the Ecotron “combines the methodologies developed in several ecological subdisciplines to examine whole-community response to environmental change in a single experimental system.”[5] Since climate change rather than world hunger emerged as the most pressing global scientific challenge, studies under controlled environment conditions have shifted from the physiologists in their phytotrons to ecologists in Ecotrons.[6] As the twentieth century wore on, ecology faced many of the same challenges as other types of biological science, especially in its relationship to experimentalism and its ability to establish reproducible control over its subject organisms and fields. As an old plant taxonomist Lincoln Constance summarized, “ecologists are in a difficult position because ecology is really, if you like, field genetics, field ecology, under conditions that make experiment very difficult. It can be descriptive, and often is; but as soon as it becomes experimental, they probably have to bring it into the house and then it becomes something else.” For Constance, reflecting on a long career, “one of the great improvement in the field [of ecology was] the development of controlled greenhouses, or phytotrons.”[7]

    Subsequently, as Lawton alluded, the Ecotron thus continued a number of larger themes in the development of ecology as a science over the twentieth century, and indeed is the heir of phytotronics for modern ecology.

[1]. The Ecotron appears to be the fulfillment of the next level up from experiments in phytotrons that O.L. Lange, E.D. Schulze, & W. Koch, “Evaluation of Photosynthesis measurements taken in the field,” in Prediction and Measurement of Photosynthetic Productivity: proceedings of the IBP/PP Technical Meeting, Trebon, 14-21 September 1969 (Wageningen: Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, 1970): 339-352, p. 340. See my Illustration 6 in the introduction.

[2]. J. H. Lawton, ‘The Ecotron: a controlled environmental facility for the investigation of population and ecosystem processes,’ Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 341: 1296 (1993): 181-194, 188-89.

[3]. Lawton, ‘The Ecotron,’ 181.

[4]. John H. Lawton, ‘The Ecotron Facility at Silwood Park: The Value of “Big Bottle” experiments,’ Ecology 77:3 (1996): 665-69, 666.

[5]. J. H. Lawton, ‘The Ecotron: a controlled environmental facility for the investigation of population and ecosystem processes,’ Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 341: 1296 (1993): 181-194, 182,

[6]. There is a second Ecotron at Montpellier in France, run under the C.N.R.S. as was the French phytotron. See accessed March 2015.

[7]. Lincoln Constance, Interview with Ann Lage, 1986. University History Series, University of California at Berkeley. p. 142.

david munns