8 Scientists Were Sealed In This Lab For 2 Years – But The Wild Experiment Went Horribly Wrong

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It’s September 26, 1991, and eight intrepid volunteers are about to access a futuristic, sealed biosphere. One of the four men and four women was Jane Poynter, and she has a dramatic entry line. As she crosses the threshold of the $150 million complex she proclaims, “The future is here!” She and her colleagues are about to spend 24 months straight in this self-sustaining environment. It will be a two-year stint that brings its own unpredictable trials and tribulations.

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Biosphere 2, as it’s called, is a stunning collection of sci-fi-like structures planted in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, about a 10-minute drive from the city of Oracle. It’s a spectacular location at an altitude of 4,000 feet in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. If you didn’t know you were on Earth, the rugged landscape could easily seem like that of another planet.

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A group of radical scientists and ecologists called the Synergists built this pioneering structure in the desert with the dollars of an enthusiastic financial benefactor named Edward P. Bass. His family money came from his uncle – Texas oilman Sid Richardson – who left his four nephews $2.8 million apiece in 1959. The Bass brothers then used this relatively modest fortune to create a multi-billion dollar business.

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The $150 million that Bass pumped into the Biosphere 2 project – completed in 1989 after seven years of preparation and building – paid for three primary modules. There was a glass-covered environment, a human living area and an underground technology lab. The whole structure was completely sealed off from the outside world.

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If the structure in Arizona – which covered some three acres – was Biosphere 2, that begs the question of where Biosphere 1 was. The answer is simple; Biosphere 1 is the Earth. And that gives a clue as to the ambition of this remarkable enterprise. The creators wanted to fashion a sealed environment which worked as a planet in miniature, right down to a selection of the Earth’s various habitats. And they also wanted it to be a money-making exercise.

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Indeed, the emphasis was also on building a community that would be entirely self-sufficient during the two years that the eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2 would live there. And the participants would use the time to learn about the problems of creating a self-contained world in outer space, perhaps on Mars. As Jane Poynter told Huffpost in 2016, “It was an extraordinarily audacious idea.”

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Poynter went on to explain how the project aims went beyond the exploration of how a self-sustaining mini-world might exist in outer space. She said, “We were attempting to take this biosphere that evolved on a planetary scale and reduce it in size and complexity so we could understand more about our planet.”

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We’ll get back to the sometimes harrowing story of what happened to Poynter and her seven colleagues in Biosphere 2 shortly. But first let’s take a more detailed look at what the structure actually consisted of. We’ll start with the above-ground glass structure which had a 7.2 million square-foot interior. It was the main biome sector.

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Built around a steel framework, this edifice soared to a height of 91 feet. Like the rest of Biosphere 2, it was engineered to be entirely airtight, a feature which would come to be the cause of some extreme hardship. The huge rectangular glass house had pyramid structures at each end, and the interior was compartmentalized into five sections, each with a different ecosystem.

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One of the two glass pyramid shapes that bookended the overground structure contained a tropical rainforest, while the other hosted a coastal fog system. In the central section of the glasshouse were a mangrove forest, a section of savannah grasses and a simulated ocean. The ocean even included a coral reef.

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A walkway led from the main biome sector to three glass domes. These contained artificially created farmland where the eight residents would grow food crops and tend animals. According to a 2019 New York Times article, the project envisaged a total of 3,800 flora and fauna species, all to be living under glass.

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Another element of the Biosphere 2 set-up was a subterranean building called the Technosphere, which extended to nearly the whole area of the site. Machinery within the Technosphere pumped air through the sealed buildings. Its equipment also controlled temperature and humidity within Biosphere 2. The Technosphere was connected to the Energy Center, an above-ground structure.

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The Energy Center provided power to Biosphere 2 from a main generator powered by natural gas, with a second diesel-powered generator as a secondary option. An uninterrupted electrical supply was absolutely essential. Without power, the plants in the glasshouse and domes could be fatally damaged within as little as 20 minutes by uncontrolled temperature increases.

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Two domes were set on the edges of the site. These, it could be said, were the lungs of Biosphere 2. Inside, two chambers designed to expand and contract controlled the air pressure within the biosphere. As conditions outside the structure changed, the pressure inside remained stable because of the equipment in the domes. Without this regulation, there would’ve been a real danger that increased internal pressure could break the biosphere’s glass.

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So, that was the self-contained world that the eight scientists known as Biospherians went to live in for two years. Given that the plan was to produce their own food, it’s no surprise that much of their time was taken up with agricultural work. They grew veg and grain in soil, while milk, meat and eggs came from their livestock. There was also an aquaculture section where fish were reared.

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One of the Biospherians was Mark Nelson, who wrote an article for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2018. Describing his experience in Biosphere 2, he recalled how around a third of each day was taken up with tending to the crops and various farm animals. The rest of the time was divided between research, preparing meals and managing the environment.

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In one telling passage, Nelson wrote, “Hunger became a new experience – and our constant companion. We existed the way humans had for time immemorial. Did our farming improve as we went along? You bet. Hunger is a great motivator. If you don’t grow it, you can’t eat it.” He also described how a deluge of unwelcome cockroaches and ants were a persistent threat.

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We’ve mentioned a couple of the Biospherians, but who exactly were these idealistic people effectively imprisoned together in Biosphere 2? Well, the origins of this group can be traced back to the counterculture lifestyles that flourished in 1960s San Francisco. It was there, in 1967, that a group called the Synergists formed.

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The Synergists were a peculiar combination of an ecological community and an experimental theater troupe. And they were unusual even for a 1960s San Francisco alternative group. Matt Wolf, director of a 2020 documentary about Biosphere 2 called Spaceship Earth, explained this to the History website. Wolf said, “What distinguished this group from other counterculture types is they identified as capitalists.”

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Wolf continued, “Their model was to create enterprises designed to be both economically and ecologically sustainable.” And the main man behind the Synergists’ somewhat offbeat philosophy was Oklahoman John P. Allen who turned 91 in May 2020. Perhaps surprisingly for a committed ecologist and alternative lifestyle promoter, Allen has a mining engineer degree from the Colorado School of Mines as well as business masters from Harvard.

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It was Allen who brought the Biosphere 2’s financial backer Edward Bass on board with the project. Allen has proved to be a controversial figure over the years. In 1994 an article in the Arizona Daily Star claimed that he had been “described by those who’ve known him as both a visionary and an abusive mind-control guru.”

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These are charges that Allen has consistently denied. Speaking to the Arizona Daily Star, he defended himself vigorously, refuting “all allegations concerning singular and authoritarian control over the Biosphere 2 experiment.” Nevertheless, Allen and the Synergists have attracted some potent criticism. One confirmed skeptic was a journalist called Marc Cooper.

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Writing in caustic terms in The Village Voice in 1991, Cooper claimed that, “The group that built, conceived and directs the Biosphere project is not a group of high-tech researchers on the cutting edge of science.” Rather, he claims, it’s “but a clique of recycled theater performers that evolved out of an authoritarian – and decidedly non-scientific – personality cult.”

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However much influence he had over the project, though, Allen wasn’t one of those who entered Biosphere 2 in 1991. But for the eight who did, it wasn’t long before difficulties appeared which compromised the project. One of the primary claims of Biosphere 2 was that the participants would remain inside for two unbroken years. There were to be no furloughs.

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Yet just a fortnight after the project’s commencement, Jane Poynter cut the end of a finger off in an encounter with some machinery. Crew-member Roy Walford was a doctor, and he patched up the digit. However, he believed that Poynter needed more treatment and advised that she leave the biosphere for medical attention.

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Poynter was absent for several hours. But what led to the real controversy was her return with a bag full of items such as photographic film and computer components. This episode emerged later and led to charges of dishonesty by the project, which was receiving intensive media coverage. After all, a settler on, say, Mars wouldn’t be able to pop out to the hospital and come back with some gear.

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What’s more, later revelations disclosed that there’d been regular deliveries of supplies including everything from mouse traps to vitamins and seeds. At first, Biosphere 2’s management had been more than happy with the media attention. But they can hardly have welcomed the negative stories. After all, this scientific mission’s intention had been to generate profits as well as knowledge.

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But minor injuries and unwelcome press coverage were the least of the problems faced by the eight Biospherians. They were in a fierce daily battle to grow enough food to eat. Cloudy weather in the early months of the mission was notably unhelpful. The lack of sunlight badly affected crop yields which, in turn, had a grave impact on food supplies.

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These food shortages forced the volunteers to start using a secret stash of supplies that had been surreptitiously placed in the Biosphere. And the situation also impacted some of the wildlife in the biomes. Honey bees and hummingbirds that had been placed inside the biosphere died out. Cockroaches and ants, on the other hand, thrived.

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Even with the emergency food supply, hunger seems to have been an enduring experience for the Biospherians. In his 2018 Dartmouth Alumni Magazine article Mark Nelson recalled, “Our doctor, who monitored our caloric intake daily and gave us frequent medical tests, called our high-protein, low-calorie meals a ‘healthy starvation’ diet. I lost 25 pounds, and sometimes I got so hungry I ate peanuts with their shells on.”

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On top of the stress caused by food shortages, highly divisive personality conflicts and factionalism began to emerge among the eight Biospherians. Nelson wrote that, “We contracted a syndrome psychologists call irrational antagonism. That is, we split into two groups of four. A power struggle over the project’s direction made things much worse.”

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Nelson explained, “One side wanted new management and to reconfigure our mission priorities by deemphasizing closure and spending more time on science. The other side wanted to keep the project’s leadership and our objectives intact.” And the level of personal antagonism reached a high pitch of hostility. Nelson quoted the memory of one unnamed Biospherian.

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According to Nelson, this project member said, “It was really pretty awful. I could be so cold to the people in the other group, walking by them and not even looking at them.” Another crew member related that she had been spat at on two occasions. The best that Nelson could say was that the conflicts never descended into outright violence.

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Despite the discord and the hunger, Nelson also had positive memories of his time in Biosphere 2. He remembered that, “We reveled in the day-by-day sensual pleasures of each biome’s distinctive smells, sounds and landscapes. We celebrated our world in poetry, film, writing, art and music in inter-biospheric arts festivals with outside artists.”

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But the worst crisis faced by the Biospherians came not from food shortages, negative press or personal animosities. The most serious threat was even scarier – a shortage of oxygen within the biomes. This was a danger that the project had not prepared for. And it was caused by the very biological environment the volunteers had created.

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Nelson explained, “Microbes in our organically enriched soils had produced carbon dioxide at a greater rate than our young plants could produce oxygen via photosynthesis. We discovered that most of the missing oxygen was converted to CO2 and had been absorbed by the unsealed concrete in our habitat.” The result was a precipitous drop in oxygen levels.

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The combination of a shortage of food and oxygen depletion made even the simplest of actions such as walking up a flight of stairs a struggle. Something had to be done. Yet again, the project’s integrity was compromised. Trucks pumped oxygen into Biosphere 2. It was a much needed intervention, but not one that would be available in outer space or on Mars.

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So, the question remains – just how useful was Biosphere 2 in scientific terms? Some eminent scientists didn’t think much of the project. In 1991 The New York Times quoted Dr. Charles F. Hutchinson of the University of Arizona and Yale’s Dr. Arthur W. Galston as calling the project “a crap shoot. ” But perhaps predictably, Biospherian Nelson took a different view.

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Nelson claimed, “Biosphere 2, the greatest experiment ever conducted in ecological self-organization, revolutionized the field of experimental ecology. We proved that a sealed ecosystem can work for years, a lesson Mars colony planners can build on.” However, financial backer Ed Bass pulled the plug on a second mission in 1994 after just a matter of months. New manager Steve Bannon – the man who later ran President Trump’s election campaign – took over and ousted Allen.

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Sadly, the Biosphere 2 project ended in a flurry of acrimony and lawsuits. Eventually, the University of Arizona took ownership of the giant greenhouse, the underground complex and the other buildings that made up the sci-fi complex. Today, it’s run as a research and education center, a conference facility and a tourist attraction. The original Biosphere 2 might not have been what you’d call a scientific success, but it was an undeniably intriguing enterprise.

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