Fifteen years ago, ocean scientists were wrestling with a fundamental ecological challenge: how can we catalog the tremendous microbial diversity in the world’s oceans and begin to comprehend how these microbes affect global nutrient cycles? At the same time, the life sciences were entering a new era of DNA sequencing and genomics, expanding possibilities for scientific research – including for the nascent field of marine microbial ecology. Through conversations with pioneers inside and outside the field, an opportunity was identified: to apply these new sequencing tools to advance knowledge of marine microbial communities and reveal how they support and influence ocean ecosystems. In 2004, our Marine Microbiology Initiative was launched, becoming the first initiative of the foundation’s Science Program.
“When we started the foundation, we knew we wanted to support basic scientific research and select an area where we could have a significant impact,” said Ken Moore, foundation trustee. “Our path to marine microbiology was a confluence of new technology that could accelerate science and an opportunity to support a field that was not well funded, so we took a chance. We also saw the long-term potential for research in this field to benefit other areas of science, including the environment.”
Through the initiative, we will have invested more than $250 million over 17 years to deepen understanding of the diversity, ecological activities and evolution of marine microbial communities.
The initiative has been an exceptional success and is cause for celebration.
By giving imaginative scientists the resources needed to explore these exciting areas of inquiry, we enabled grantees to create and deploy new technologies to study marine microbes, discover how microbes interact, and elucidated their interactions and roles in supporting food webs and the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles. They also studied chemical communication among microbial groups, created new ways to genetically manipulate microorganisms, and observed microbial behavior at the small time and space scales relevant to individual microbial cells. Ultimately, these scientists revealed insights into how microbes adapted over evolutionary time as ocean conditions changed, and how they may evolve in the future.
Last year, we conducted an independent external evaluation of the second phase of our initiative and have much information to share, including an assessment of initiative outcomes and goals, an analysis of the design and implementation of strategies, and a description of how grantees took risks with their research. The assessment was overwhelmingly positive, indicating the field has been profoundly enriched and is now positioned to address new scientific questions in a more quantitative manner using innovative technologies and methods.
“Seeing scientists work together on important questions has been thrilling,” said Jon Kaye, Ph.D., program director. “They each bring their own perspective and methods, and their collaborations have been vital for understanding the ways marine microbes thrive.”
After many years of success, we will wind down this effort and close the initiative in 2021. The Marine Microbiology Initiative is a strong example of the foundation’s approach to identifying large, complex opportunities where early and sustained investment can lead to significant impact. We are grateful for the opportunity to support scientists in conducting ambitious, exploratory research and are inspired by what they have achieved: a flourishing field that has created a more profound understanding of how the smallest forms of life in the ocean have an outsized impact on some of the largest-scale processes on the planet.