Aquatic environments comprise the largest habitat on the planet and have served as an incubator of evolution since life began on Earth almost four billion years ago. Today, these marine and freshwater ecosystems host a substantial proportion of the biodiversity on our planet, yet much of this diversity remains unexplored. As scientists study biology in aquatic environments, they are realizing how powerfully the interactions of organisms define their evolutionary history and ecological roles.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is launching a new area of research, the Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative. Over the next nine years, we will invest $140 million to support development of new tools, theory and concepts about aquatic symbioses and to bring different research communities together to learn how symbioses involving microorganisms function, evolve and serve critical ecosystem roles in marine and freshwater environments.

“We have an opportunity to jumpstart an important area of scientific inquiry,” said Jon Kaye, Ph.D., program director of the Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative. “There are clever scientists conducting research in this area who could benefit from our support to pursue their ideas and accelerate the rate of new discoveries. We also want to find scientists and engineers who had not previously considered symbiosis questions and to bring them into this area of scientific inquiry.”

Major symbiotic events have occurred in aquatic systems, most prominent of which is the origin of the eukaryotic cell. This event, which occurred almost two billion years ago, was a symbiotic integration of two different microorganisms and created the ancestor of all animals, plants, fungi and protists. Aquatic systems are additionally of interest because of how flowing water and gradients of light and nutrients influence symbiotic interactions. Understanding symbioses of aquatic organisms where at least one partner is a microbe will enrich our grasp of the full range of symbiosis on our planet.

“To date, studies of aquatic organisms have often not explored the roles that symbiotic interactions play in the evolution, ecology and overall functioning of our larger world,” said Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., professor and chair of molecular biology at Princeton University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “With new technologies in gene editing, imaging, chemistry, molecular biology and more, there is an opportunity to fill gaps in knowledge, and, moreover, discover fundamental new principles that are central to life on Earth.”

To advance knowledge of symbiosis and how these associations affect ecology and evolution in marine and freshwater systems, the foundation will deploy four approaches:

  1. Invest in technology and resources to enable discovery.
  2. Support scientists and engineers with unrestricted funding to innovate and explore through an investigator program.
  3. Stimulate collaborations of multidisciplinary teams to reduce silos between scientific disciplines and communities.
  4. Build community to create a broader, yet more integrated field.

Work in this new area will build on knowledge generated from the long-term effort of the Marine Microbiology Initiative, which has supported scientists to investigate and explore the microorganisms that inhabit the ocean. Microbes are important because they support ocean food webs and have a strong influence on the ocean’s geochemical cycles, such as the carbon cycle.

“This new initiative is an example of our approach to philanthropy and the intent of our founders,” said Robert Kirshner, Ph.D., chief program officer of the foundation’s Science Program. “We identify opportunities at an early stage, often where few others are funding, that have the potential to change our understanding of the world.”


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Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative


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