The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and contains 97 percent of Earth’s water. Its beauty, power and unknowns have intrigued and perplexed people for millennia. Our interest began in 2004 when we started the Marine Microbiology Initiative. We were curious about effects of the unseen – specifically, the tiny microorganisms in the ocean that perform roles such as producing half of the oxygen on the planet and removing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Surprisingly there was little known about these microscopic organisms. With the emergence of DNA sequencing and genomics, we saw an opportunity to use these tools to learn more about what these organisms do and how they do it – including how they evolved and contribute to our ocean’s health and productivity.
“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.”
Fifteen years later, after extraordinary success to deepen understanding of the diversity, ecology and evolution of marine microbial communities, the foundation decided in 2018 to wind down this body of work. While our decision to close the Marine Microbiology Initiative may seem counterintuitive relative to its success, what has been achieved is cause for celebration. The 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. The work of grantees and other partners built a flourishing field that has created a more comprehensive understanding of marine microbial communities and is well poised to continue.
The first phase of the initiative focused on answering the question of “who’s there?” among the microbes in the sea and incorporating the functions of diverse microbial groups into models of the ocean’s elemental cycles. Substantial support was targeted toward metagenomics, technology development and computational modeling. In the second phase, which winds down in 2021, researchers have been quantifying nutrient pools in the ocean, deciphering the genetic and biochemical bases of microbial metabolism, and understanding how microbes interact with one another.
Efforts from scientists around the world have profoundly enriched the field. A 2018 independent assessment of the initiative found that scientists are now positioned to address new scientific questions in a more quantitative manner using innovative technologies and methods. There are many worthwhile lessons and insights from the assessment useful for scientists and funders alike – from the importance of adapting strategies to investing in methods and technologies for greater impact across an entire field.
Over 18 years we will have invested more than $250 million to deepen understanding of the diversity, ecology and evolution of marine microbial communities. As we wind down this work, we want to again thank the hundreds of scientists and others involved with the initiative and to celebrate with them the success of developing and nurturing a field that will continue to advance our knowledge and understanding of the mysteries of the ocean.