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Peter Reich

New regents professor Peter Reich, seen here at the University's Cedar Creek Natural History Area, is one of the world's foremost researchers in the field of ecology.

The whole world in his hands

From tiny plants to global climate patterns, new Regents Professor Peter Reich wants to understand how the world works

By Deane Morrison

June 19, 2007

As a college physics student, Peter Reich was intrigued by the forces of nature at work far, far away and dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist. But he soon discovered that even close to home, nature is ripe with tantalizing puzzles, and he became a forest ecologist instead. He's been doing stellar work ever since. Today, Reich, a University professor of forest resources, is one of five newly named regents professors, the highest faculty rank. He is known the world over for, among other things, his work on the different roles of plants in the global economy where energy, not money, is the currency and how plants are likely to respond to climate change. It would be hard to find a researcher with a broader range of interests, or one better at finding connections between seemingly unrelated observations. Born in New York City, Reich grew up in Connecticut and moved to leafy Vermont, where he enrolled at Goddard College. He studied creative writing and physics, but there in the woody environs of New England it came home to him that physical forces also shape the Earth and its inhabitants, and little is known about how these forces work.

Five new regents professors

Five faculty members were named regents professors on June 8, 2007.

Frank Bates, chemical engineering and materials science, Institute of Technology

Richard Leppert, cultural studies and comparative literature, College of Liberal Arts

Elaine Tyler May, American studies and history, College of Liberal Arts

Matt McGue, psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Peter Reich, forest resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Their appointments bring the total number of regents professors to 25, en route to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. See the news release on their selection for more information.

Switching focus to ecology and plant biology, Reich received a master's degree from the University of Missouri and a doctorate from Cornell University. In 1991 he joined the University of Minnesota, where he holds the F.B. Hubachek, Sr. Chair in Forest Ecology and Tree Physiology and also is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. At the University's Cedar Creek Natural History Area, Reich studies the ways in which changing levels of nutrients and water will affect the ability of vegetation to ameliorate greenhouse warming by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Some of his most interesting advances have been from combining data sets around the world and finding patterns no one else had seen," says Jeanine Cavender-Bares, an assistant professor of ecology who works with Reich at Cedar Creek. For instance, Reich discovered that the world's plants fall along a continuum of "lifestyles." He compares them to those quintessential opposites, the tortoise and the hare. The hares follow a "live fast, die young" strategy, Reich found. Weeds are a perfect example; they come in, grow fast, produce and spread seeds in the blink of an eye, and die. Poplars and soybeans are also hares. But slower-growing plants like pine trees have their advantages. "We think tortoises may do better with respect to absorbing excess carbon dioxide produced from human activities," says Reich, "because they'll hold onto it longer." The 2004 paper in which Reich and colleagues described the continuum made waves in the ecology community. It was part of a much bigger effort of Reich's to tackle a major question bedeviling scientists. "It's a global question--will vegetation be able to soak up more, less, or the same amount of carbon dioxide in the future as it does now," he explains. "Now, vegetation and soils take up about one-third of the carbon dioxide humans generate."

"I'm trying to write an owner's guide to ecosystems. I want to get people to think of our environment as a complex system, just as we think of our homes." --Peter Reich

Work at Cedar Creek is aimed at that precise question. Already, Reich has found evidence that if supplies of nitrogen--an essential plant nutrient--are sufficient, areas that are rich in different plant species will do best at absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. Species-rich areas will also store more carbon dioxide in response to greater supplies of nitrogen, which will arrive from human-generated engine exhaust gases and wind-borne fertilizer dust. On the other hand, if nitrogen is in short supply, Reich has found that vegetation won't be able to handle higher carbon dioxide levels as well, and it won't matter whether the vegetation is species-rich or not. Given that many of the world's soils are poor in nitrogen, the work implies that atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation and, thus, global climate change could accelerate as nitrogen-limited plants lose their ability to absorb the gas. But plants also emit carbon dioxide whenever they use energy to grow, reproduce, repair damage, or perform other functions. Reich has found a way to use a plant's nitrogen content to calculate such emissions, filling a critical hole in models that predict the capacity of ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide. Trying to sum up Peter Reich is like trying to sum up the world, but summing up the world is exactly what he wants to do. "We want to simplify ways of looking at the world," he says. "Nature is complicated and amazing. Nature's a giant puzzle. I want to turn the world in the right direction. It's like trying to turn around the Queen Mary--that is, society--to get people to control global warming and preserve nature, not just because it's nice to look at but because of all the services, such as clean water and air and productive soils, that it provides. "I'm trying to write an owner's guide to ecosystems. I want to get people to think of our environment as a complex system, just as we think of our homes."