PALO ALTO, Calif. November 12, 2015 — The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative is investing eight million dollars over the next two years to support scientists, globally and at all career stages, to accelerate development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology. The international endeavor taps into the efforts of more than 100 scientists across 33 institutions with a broad range of expertise to collectively tackle the challenge of developing methods to bring experimental model systems to the ocean. The genetic tools generated in this effort will allow researchers to more easily disrupt the activities of microbial genes to understand how these organisms function in marine ecosystems and provide the capability to ask scientific questions in ways not currently possible.

Model systems, such as the mammalian gut bacterium E. coli for microbiology and the fruit fly for biomedicine, have been invaluable for deciphering complex biology. For example, by studying fruit flies, scientists gain insight into the inheritance of human traits such as eye color. But in the world of marine microbial ecology, there are very few model systems and associated tools that enable scientists to deeply explore the physiology, biochemistry, and ecology of marine microbes, which drive the ocean’s elemental cycles, influence greenhouse gas levels, and support marine food webs.

“These organisms help drive the carbon cycle of the planet. With the ocean changing pretty fast, we need more tools to understand their basic biology. Understanding this means we could extend knowledge from the molecular level out to the whole earth,” said Peter von Dassow, Ph.D., Instituto Milenio de Oceanografía de Chile. “This is an important opportunity to do really high-risk research that one couldn’t possibly get funded by most funding mechanisms, and it can lead to a really big impact. If we get even one good model created from this effort, it will be a big deal,” he added.

Currently, researchers have access to powerful tools in biology to help them understand the ocean, such as microscopy and DNA sequencing, but are lacking essential tools in genetics to make robust experimental model systems. Without these tools, scientists are less able to link specific genes to cell behavior or determine how microbes interact within their environment and with one another – critical information for understanding how ocean ecosystems function.

Ginger Armbrust, Ph.D., from the University of Washington explained that an equally important outcome would be to “expand the community of people that are working on these organisms and making big breakthroughs into how these organisms function.” She added, “New model systems will be a magnet for people from outside the field of marine microbial ecology as they will suddenly be able to work with marine microbes in ways that they are used to working with other model organisms.”

Developing robust model systems is complex and risky because the work is difficult and success is not guaranteed. By taking risks and funding challenging work with a high potential pay-off, the foundation helps fuel innovation that can have a significant impact on future generations by enabling scientists today to more deeply explain the natural world.

“An important aspect of our grantmaking in marine science is to identify opportunities to overcome bottlenecks that are preventing scientific progress, which often requires taking a risk,” said Jon Kaye, Ph.D., program director of the Marine Microbiology Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “We are also working with this group of scientists to broadly share information about their developing genetic techniques – both what is working and what remains unsolved – through online forums such as, an open-access repository of science methods.”

Institutions and organizations working on the experimental model systems with funding from the foundation, including principal investigators:

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences (José Fernández Robledo)

Charles University in Prague (Vladimír Hampl)  

Czech Academy of Sciences (Julius Lukeš)

Harvard University (Daniel Needleman)

Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo)

Instituto Milenio de Oceanografía, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Peter von Dassow)

J. Craig Venter Institute (Philip Weyman)

Marine Biological Association (Colin Brownlee)

National Institute for Basic Biology (Jun Minagawa)

New Mexico Consortium (Scott Twary)

San José State University (G. Jason Smith)

Stanford University (Julie Theriot)

Stony Brook University (Jackie Collier)

Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Angela Falciatore and François-Yves Bouget)

University of Arkansas (Andrew Alverson)

University of British Columbia (Patrick Keeling)

University of California, Berkeley (Nicole King)  

University of California, San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Andrew Allen)

University of California, Santa Cruz (Manuel Ares)

University of Cambridge (Christopher Howe and Ross Waller)

University of Camerino (Cristina Miceli)  

University of Chicago (Laurens Mets)

University of Connecticut (Senjie Lin)

University of Delaware (Kathryn Coyne)

University of East Anglia (Thomas Mock)

University of Gothenburg (Adrian Clarke)

University of Kent (Anastasios Tsaousis)

University of Nebraska, Lincoln (Heriberto Cerutti)

University of Tennessee (Steven Wilhelm)

University of Washington (E. Virginia Armbrust)

Washington State University (George Bonheyo)  

Weizmann Institute of Science (Assaf Vardi)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Virginia Edgcomb)

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