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HERE in the rumpled foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, work is under way on an experiment unlike any other on earth. Bulldozers are clearing mesquite and cactus from a tract of Arizona desert to make room for a huge glass-and-steel structure that will eventually seal off eight people from the outside world for two years.

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The project, Biosphere II, is intended to test the feasibility of creating a self-contained, closed environment, such as might be needed to sustain a manned base on the moon or Mars or on the ocean floor.

It will also act as a sophisticated laboratory to study Earth ecology, perhaps yielding clues on such phenomena as the ``greenhouse effect'' and the impact of creeping deserts in Africa. The project is the most ambitious experiment of its kind to date. Researchers involved believe it could ``revolutionize'' the life sciences. But skeptics consider it quixotic - and certainly not assured of success. ``Nothing has been done on this scale before,'' says Margaret Augustine, project director.

The unusual greenhouse-like structure is intended to be a microcosm of Earth, which project creators consider ``Biosphere I.'' It will contain seven ecological zones, including a tropical rain forest, marshland, desert, savanna, a 50-foot-high ``mountain,'' and an ``ocean'' deep enough to scuba dive in. There will be a small farm and a five-story living area complete with library, exercise room, and plumbing and electrical shops.

Once they enter the airtight shell in late 1989, the inhabitants will be cut off from the outside world except for sunlight and communication. They will leave only in case of medical emergency.

In this glass cocoon, nothing will go to waste. Oxygen given off by the plants, for instance, will be used to revitalize the air for human breathing, while the carbon dioxide that people emit will be used by the plants. Water that evaporates from the ``ocean'' will be blown over to the rain forest, cool, condense, and fall as ``rain'' on the trees and plants. Some of it will be recycled back into the ocean. Human wastes will provide fertilizer for crops and food for fish, which in turn will nourish human beings. The trick will be to keep the cycles in balance, a task as tough as tuning a 12-string guitar.

``It is not a forgone conclusion that when we close the doors on Biosphere II it is going to work,'' one project researcher says.

The seven-year experiment is an outgrowth of work on ecology-oriented projects done by the London-based Institute of Ecotechnics. Space Biospheres Ventures, a private, for-profit firm, is managing the project here. Most of the money for the experiment, some $30 million, is being put up by maverick Texas millionaire Edward P. Bass, who has also underwritten, among other things, a hotel-study center in Nepal and a floating Chinese junk used for ocean study.

Despite its offbeat roots, the Biosphere project is drawing on a prodigious pool of scientific talent. More than 200 scientists and researchers from such institutions as the Smithsonian's Marine Systems Laboratory, the New York Botanical Garden, and the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory are helping to design the ecosystems and choose the plants and animals that will populate the man-made world.

The project is also being closely watched by many in the ecology and space communities. A report last year by the National Commission on Space cited the project as the type of work on biospheres that must be done if man is ever to colonize the moon or Mars.

Biosphere II will not be the first attempt to create a self-contained environment. For years, softball-size glass balls have been available containing shrimp and algae that can survive for long periods in their isolation. In Siberia, Soviet researchers have been experimenting with a small, artificially lit chamber that recycles air, water, and other resources and is believed to have housed people for up to five months. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working on self-sustaining systems for use in space. But because any system NASA develops will have to be shoehorned into spacecraft, the agency is working on highly engineered chambers that use mechancial means to recycle some resources. It is not, so far, putting people in its closed environments.

``The Biosphere II people are interested in studying complex biological systems,'' says Dr. James Bredt, head of a NASA ecological life-support project. Their system ``is radical in its size and complexity,'' he adds. But ``in general, they are putting systems together with existing technologies.''