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BIOSPHERE II: TEST TUBE FOR EARTH'S FUTURE

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The Biosphere is being built on a sprawling ranch 35 miles north of Tucson, Ariz. - a stark but serenely beautiful desert landscape of prickly pear and cholla cactus, big skies and bronze sunsets. Little has been done yet on the structure, but the site bustles with activity. Several greenhouses, stucco office buildings, and a test chamber have been set up where researchers are designing systems and selecting plant and animal species.

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Once completed, Biosphere II will consist of a series of modern-looking glass pyramids and barrel-vaulted structures, as well as a mosquelike building that will house the eight ``biospherians,'' as they are called here. The complex will sprawl over 2.5 acres and contain 5 million cubic feet, about 1/25th of the volume of the Louisiana Superdome.

Thirteen candidates are ``in training'' for the eight slots. They are working in facilities on the site, such as the tissue culture lab, where disease-resistant and other plants are being cloned.

Most candidates come from research backgrounds. They harbor a Peace Corps-like enthusiasm about the contributions the project could make and seem unconcerned about being cloistered under glass for two years.

``I could stand on my head for two years if I had to,'' says Stephen Storm, one of the candidates. Taking a break from tissue-culture work, he adds, ``I don't think there is anything going on anywhere that has the potential of demonstrating the influence of life on the atmosphere as Biosphere II could.''

But what about cabin fever? ``I go days and days now without walking across a two-acre space,'' he says.

Another candidate, Kathleen Dyhr, Space Biospheres' director of information services, says: ``This is an opportunity to be on the frontier of knowledge. I've lived out in the bush. That was more isolation than this.''

The biospherians won't be without comforts. There will be TVs, stereos, computers, VCRs, and perhaps even kayaking on the 35-foot deep ``ocean.'' The inhabitants are expected to tend crops and do other maintenance work about four hours a day and spend a similar amount of time on research and observation.

For food, the mini-Earth will be stocked with goats, chickens, 200 to 300 species of fish, and many kinds of food crops. The key will be to keep all the cycles synchronized. In this delicate world, an insect outbreak could cause an ecological disaster.

Two examples illustrate how detailed the research is in trying to bring this about. Scientists are considering putting termites in the building to help break down the savanna grasses. But they are studying dozens of species of termites to find ones that won't eat the sealants bonding the glass together - or to find sealants the termites don't like.

Being looked for, too, is a pair of hummingbirds to help pollinate the agricultural plants. Hundreds of varieties have been studied to try to find the ones with the right-shaped beaks to fit into the wide range of flowers.

``This kind of work has never really been done before,'' says Margaret Augustine, over a lunch of beef teriyaki and bibb lettuce. To monitor the system, an extensive computer network will be used. More than 5,000 sensors will be placed at various points around the Biosphere, checking things right down to the temperature of individual plant leaves.

``It's definitely more complicated than trying to figure out a Rubik's cube,'' says Norberto Alvarez, in charge of the computer and monitoring systems for the project. Indeed, it is the complexity of the project that makes some outsiders skeptical of its feasibility.

``I think they are taking an awfully big leap forward,'' says William Oswald, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has done extensive work on closed ecological systems for the United States Air Force. ``When you start incorporating people into a large system, it gets to be very complex.''

Among spinoffs researchers see from the project are better systems for purifying air and water, natural ways to control crop pests, disease-resistant plants, and innovative ways to heat and cool buildings.

Eventually, project managers envision Biospheres perhaps being marketed as safe places to test genetically engineered organisms, grow endangered plants, or measure the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels (the ``greenhouse effect'') on various ecosystems. Most important, however, is the knowledge scientists hope to gain by using Biosphere II as a looking glass for studying the Earth and man's impact on it.

``We are on the edge of an incredible voyage of discovery,'' asserts project director Augustine. ``I think it is going to create a revolution in the life sciences.''