Scientist helps create the first computer model of all life on Earth

April 28, 2014 by Jacqui Bealing
Scientist helps create the first computer model of all life on Earth
Dr Jorn Sharlemann co-led the development of the Madingley Model, which can predict the futures of all the Earth's ecosystems. The image shows the total biomass of animals (red colours indicate high biomass levels and blue low levels of biomass per area).

( —A Sussex ecologist is among a team of scientists who have created a pioneering computer model that can predict the futures of all of the Earth's ecosystems and could help to address key environmental concerns.

Dr Jörn Scharlemann and his colleagues at Microsoft Research and the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) have spent three years developing the world's first General Ecosystem Model, or GEM, the results of which are published this week (22 April ) in the journal PloS Biology.

The incorporates the biological life cycle and fundamental ecological processes of all species, simulating the millions of trillions of the planet's organisms and is able to reproduce characteristics of we see in the real world.

Dubbed the 'Madingley Model', after the village in Cambridgeshire, UK, where the scientists first hatched the idea, it addresses central questions in ecology about how interactions among plants and animals create the planet's many different ecosystems, and could help answer key environmental issues, such as the long term outcome of deforestation or the introduction of invasive species on the health and functioning of ecosystems.

Dr Scharlemann, Reader in Ecology and Conservation at Sussex, who co-led the development of the , said: "The Madingley Model offers decision-makers for the first time an interactive tool to explore and quantify the impacts of their decisions on the global environment.

"The model brings together current ecological understanding to create a virtual world that simulates the impacts of human activities on the planet, analogous to early General Circulation Models that predict our impacts on the climate system. It's an exciting development for scientists."

Explore further: Market transactions and economics in general affect biological invasions

More information: Harfoot MBJ, Newbold T, Tittensor DP, Emmott S, Hutton J, et al. (2014) "Emergent Global Patterns of Ecosystem Structure and Function from a Mechanistic General Ecosystem Model." PLoS Biol 12(4): e1001841. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001841

The Madingley Model is being released as open source code to allow other scientists to inspect the model and develop it further. The code can be downloaded from

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