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Out of Control

At one end of a long row of displays in the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, a concentrated coral reef sits happily tucked under lights. The Aquarium's self-contained South Pacific ocean compresses the distributed life in a mile-long underwater reef into a few glorious yards behind glass.

The condensed reef's extraordinary hues and alien life forms cast a New Age vibe. To stand in front of this rectangular bottle is to stand on a harmonic node. Here are more varieties of living creatures crammed into a square meter than anywhere else on the planet. Life does not get any denser. The remarkable natural richness of the coral reef has been squeezed further into the hyper-natural richness of a synthetic reef.

A pair of wide plate glass windows peer into an Alician wonderland of exotic beings. Fish in hippie day-glo colors stare back-accents of orange- and white-banded clown fish or a minischool of iridescent turquoise damsels. The flamboyant creatures scoot between the feathery wands of chestnut-tinted soft corals or weave between the slowly pulsating fat lips of giant sea clams.

No mere holding pen, this is home for these creatures. They will eat, sleep, fight, and breed among each other, forever if they can. Given enough time, they will coevolve toward a shared destiny. Theirs is a true living community.

Behind the coral display tank, a clanking army of pumps, pipes, and gizmos vibrate on electric energy to support the toy reef's ultradiversity. A visitor treks to the pumps from the darkened viewing room of the aquarium by opening an unmarked door. Blinding E.T.-like light gushes out of the first crack. Inside, the white-washed room suffocates in warm moisture and stark brightness. An overhead rack of hot metal halide lamps pumps out 15 hours of tropical sun per day. Saltwater surges through a bulky 4-ton concrete tub of wet sand brimming with cleansing bacteria. Under the artificial sunlights, long, shallow plastic trays full of green algae thrive filtering out the natural toxins from the reef water.

Industrial plumbing fixtures are the surrogate Pacific for the reef. Sixteen thousand gallons of reconstituted ocean water swirl through the bionic system to provide the same filtration, turbulence, oxygen, and buffering that the miles of South Pacific algae gardens and sand beaches perform for a wild reef. The whole wired show is a delicate, hard-won balance requiring daily energy and attention. One wrong move and the reef could unravel in a day.

As the ancients knew, what can unravel in a day may take years or centuries to build. Before the Steinhart coral reef was constructed, no one was sure if a coral reef community could be assembled artificially, or how long it would take if it could. Marine scientists were pretty sure a coral reef, like any complex ecosystem, must be assembled in the correct order. But no one knew what that order was. Marine biologist Lloyd Gomez certainly didn't know when he first started puttering around in the dank basement of the Academy's aquarium building. Gomez mixed buckets of microorganisms together in large plastic trays, gradually adding species in different sequences in hopes of attaining a stable community. He built mostly failures.

He began each trial by culturing a thick pea-green soup of algae -- the scum of a pond out of whack -- directly under the bank of noon-lights. If the system started to drift away from the requirements of a coral reef, Gomez would flush the trays. Within a year, he eventually got the proto-reef soup headed in the right direction.

It takes time to make nature. Five years after Gomez launched the coral reef, it is only now configuring itself into self-sustenance. Until recently Gomez had to feed the fish and invertebrates dwelling on the synthetic reef with supplemental food. But now he thinks the reef has matured. "After five years of constant babying, I have a full food web in my tank so I no longer have to feed them anything." Except sunlight, which pours on the artificial reef in a steady burst of halide energy. Sunlight feeds the algae which feed the animals which feed the corals, sponges, clams, and fish. Ultimately this reef runs on electricity.

Gomez predicts further shifts as the reef community settles into its own. "I expect to see major changes until it is ten years old. That's when the reef fusing takes place. The footing corals start to anchor down on the loose rocks, and the subterranean sponges burrow underneath. It all combines into one large mass of animal life." A living rock grown from a few seed organisms.

Much to everyone's surprise, about 90 percent of the organisms that fuse the toy reef were stowaways that did not appear to be present in the original soup. A sparse but completely invisible population of the microbes were present, but not until five years down the road, when the reef had prepared itself to be fused, were the conditions right for the blossoming of the fuser microorganisms which had been floating unseen and patient.

During the same time, certain species dominating the initial reef disappeared. Gomez says, "I was not expecting that. It startled me. Organisms were dying off. I asked myself what did I do wrong? It turns out that I didn't do anything wrong. That's just the community cycle. Heavy populations of microalgae need to be present at first. Then within ten months, they've gone. Later, some initially abundant sponges disappeared, and another type popped up. Just recently a black sponge has taken up in the reef. I have no idea where it came from." As in the restorations of Packard's prairie and Wingate's Nonsuch Island, chaperone species were needed to assemble a coral but not to maintain it. Parts of the reef were "thumbs."

Lloyd Gomez's reef-building skills are in big demand at night school. Coral reefs are the latest challenge for obsessive hobbyists, who sign up to learn how to reduce oceanic monuments to 100 gallons. Miniature saltwater systems shrink miles of life into a large aquarium, plus paraphernalia. That's dosing pumps, halide lights, ozone reactors, molecular absorption filters, and so on, at a cool $15,000 per living room tank. The expensive equipment acts like the greater ocean, cleaning, filtering the reef's water. Corals demand a delicate balance of dissolved gases, trace chemicals, pH, microorganisms, light, wave action, temperature -- all of which are provided in an aquarium by an interconnected network of mechanical devices and biological agents. The common failure, Gomez says, is trying to stuff more species of life into the habitat than the system can carry, or not introducing them in the correct sequence, as Pimm and Drake discovered. How critical is the ordering? Gomez: "As critical as death."

The key to stabilizing a coral reef seemed to be getting the initial microbial matrix right. Clair Folsome, a microbiologist working at the University of Hawaii, had concluded from his own work with microbial soups in jars that "the foundation for stable closed ecologies of all types is basically a microbial one." He felt that microbes were responsible for "closing the bio-elemental loops" -- the flows of atmosphere and nutrients -- in any ecology. He found his evidence in random mixtures of microbes, similar to the experiments of Pimm and Drake, except that Folsome sealed the lid of the jars. Rather than model a tiny slice of life on Earth, Folsome modeled a self-contained self-recycling whole Earth. All matter on Earth is recycled (except for the insignificant escape of a trace of light gases and the fractional influx of meteorites). In system-science terms, we say Earth is materially closed. The Earth is also energetically/informationally open: sunlight pours in, and information comes and goes. Like Earth, Folsome's jars were materially closed, energetically open. He scooped up samples of brackish microbes from the bays of the Hawaiian Islands and funneled them into one- or two-liter laboratory glass flasks. Then he sealed them airtight and, by extracting microscopic amounts from a sampling port, measured their species ratios and energy flow until they stabilized.

Just as Pimm was stunned to find how readily random mixtures settled into self-organizing ecosystems, Folsome was surprised to see that even the extra challenge of generating closed nutrient recycling loops in a sealed flask didn't deter simple microbial societies from finding an equilibrium. Folsome said that he and another researcher, Joe Hanson, realized in the fall of 1983 that closed ecosystems "having even modest species-diversity, rarely if ever fail." By that time some of Folsome's original flasks had been living for 15 years. The oldest one, thrown together and sealed in 1968, is now 25 years old. No air, food, or nutrients have ever been added. Yet this and all of his other jar communities are still flourishing years later under florescent room lights.

No matter how long they lived, though, the bottled systems required an initial staging period, a time of fluctuation and precarious instability lasting between 60 and 100 days, when anything might happen. Gomez saw this in his coral microbes: the beginnings of complexity are rooted in chaos. But if a complex system is able to find a common balance after a period of give and take, thereafter not much will derail it.

How long can such closed complexity run? Folsome said his initial interest in making materially closed worlds was sparked by a legend that the Paris National Museum displayed a cactus sealed in a glass jar in 1895. He couldn't verify its existence, but it was claimed to be covered with recurrent blooms of algae and lichens that have cycled through a progression of colors from shades of green to hues of yellow for the past century. If the sealed jar had light and a steady temperature, there was theoretically no reason why the lichens couldn't live until the sun dies.

Folsome's sealed microbial miniworlds had their own living rhythms that mirrored our planet's. They recycled their carbon, from CO2 to organic matter and back again, in about two years. They maintained biological productivity rates similar to outside ecosystems. They produced stable oxygen levels slightly higher than on Earth. They registered energy efficiencies similar to larger ecosystems. And they maintained populations of organisms apparently indefinitely.

From his flask worlds, Folsome concluded that it was microbes -- tiny celled microbits of life, and not redwoods, crickets, orangutans -- which do the lion's share of breathing, generating air, and ultimately supporting the indefinite populations of other noticeable organisms on Earth. An invisible substrate of microbial life steers the course of life's whole and welds together the different nutrient loops. The organisms that catch our eye and demand our attention, Folsome suspected, were mere ornate, decorative placeholdings as far as the atmosphere was concerned. It was the microbes in the guts in mammals and the microbes that clung to tree roots that made trees and mammals valuable in closed systems, including our planet.