The oxygen in every second breath we take is produced by microbes in our oceans—they are thought to produce about 50 percent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Yet, we know surprisingly little about these tiny organisms. While we are discovering answers to long-standing questions and uncovering important new questions about the roles that marine microorganisms play at the base of the ocean’s food chain, much more needs to be learned about what these organisms do and how they do it—including how they contribute to our world’s health and productivity.
Since 2004, the Marine Microbiology Initiative (MMI) has invested in the development of conceptual breakthroughs, new technologies and modeling approaches to reveal the immense diversity of marine microorganisms, as well as a hint of the multitude of functions they serve in the oceans to influence the planet’s elemental cycles. In our initial phase, a significant effort was focused on sequencing genomes and metagenomes of marine microbes and microbial communities. Now, we are tackling other great needs that have been identified by the scientific community. We enable research to uncover the principles that govern the interactions among microbes by exploring the questions of who interacts with whom, how, when, where and the consequences, such as virus–host relationships, predation, mutualism, commensalism, amensalism, parasitism and competition. And in concert we also enable research to uncover principles that govern microbially mediated nutrient flow to understand how microbes shape the nutrient fields around them as well as how the nutrient field in turn selects for a specific community of microbes.