Research: Signature Programs

As part of the Smithsonian Institution, SERC belongs to a vast network of research that crosses countries and disciplines. Research at the Smithsonian focuses on four Grand Challenges: Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding the American Experience and Valuing World Cultures. Within the Grand Challenges are 15 signature programs. SERC plays a leading role in three of those programs:

The Smithsonian's Global Earth Observatories keep tabs on biodiversity around the world, focusing on how diversity in forest and marine ecosystems is responding to climate change and other environmental pressures. Using the same methods in all sites, researchers in multiple countries and continents can compare their findings and get a clearer picture of the planet's health.


ForestGEO tracks the growth and survival of the world's forests. Launched in 1980 by biologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, ForestGEO now contains a network of more than 60 forest plots on six continents. In each forest plot, researchers conduct a five-year census, noting the species and diameter of all trees larger than 1 cm wide. While directed out of STRI, ForestGEO plots include both tropical and temperate forests, with approximately 6 million trees and 10,000 species. SERC manages a 16-hectare ForestGEO plot on its Maryland campus and coordinates ForestGEO’s temperate network, a collection of 19 forest plots in North America, Europe and Asia. 


Also known as the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, MarineGEO tracks biodiversity in the world's coastal ecosystems. MarineGEO is the first and only worldwide network dedicated to monitoring the coasts, where marine life is most abundant and the pressures of human development have their strongest impacts. Directed out of SERC, MarineGEO launched in 2012 with core sites at Smithsonian stations in Chesapeake Bay (SERC), Florida, Belize and Panama. It also has sites in Hawaii and California, and is continually expanding.  At each site, researchers conduct regular measurements of biodiversity, temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen and other major environmental factors. They are also conducting experiments to test the vulnerability of coastal life to environmental stress.

DNA is key to unlocking many of the planet's secrets, from the great predators of the food web to microscopic parasites. Genomics—which explores the structure and mapping of entire genomes—is offering new insights into how ecosystems evolve and what it takes to sustain them. SERC is an active member of Biodiversity Genomics at the Smithsonian Institution, an initiative to coordinate all the genomics research across the Smithsonian. Researchers at SERC use genomics to study an array of environmental and public health issues: They identify microbes that transform mercury into the neurotoxin methylmercury, and pinpoint methylmercury-risk hotspots. They use DNA to help conserve orchids by examining the microscopic fungi orchids rely on to grow. They examine viral disease in crabs, keep tabs on fish populations and track how quickly hosts can adapt to an invasive parasite. They’re also creating libraries of genetic barcodes, to help future researchers identify species that are difficult to classify on sight. 

Learn more about the labs doing biogenomics research:
Fish & Invertebrate Ecology Lab
Marine Biodiversity Lab
Marine Invasions Lab
Microbial Ecology Lab
Molecular Ecology Lab

The Conservation Commons initiative embodies the Smithsonian's commitment to not just understanding the natural world, but sustaining it.

SERC is a forerunner in working to conserve both species and entire ecosystems. The North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC), headquartered at SERC, seeks to preserve North America's 200-plus native orchids, more than half of which are now endangered or threatened somewhere they once flourished. In 2013 SERC researchers and volunteers planted BiodiversiTree, transforming a farm field into a massive 20,000-tree forest experiment. In addition to helping the surrounding environment, BiodiversiTree is yielding new insights into the benefits of forest diversity. SERC scientists also keep a close eye on aquatic life, making discoveries that help sustain blue crabs, oysters and other economically important species.

Learn more about the labs doing conservation research:
Animal-Plant Interaction Lab
Ecological Modeling Lab
Fish & Invertebrate Ecology Lab
Marine Biodiversity Lab
Marine & Estuarine Ecology Lab
Molecular Ecology Lab
Nutrient Lab
Plant Ecology Lab
Terrestrial Ecology Lab