Forging a new paradigm in marine microbial ecology
Microbes in the ocean produce half of the oxygen on the planet and remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Yet, we have known surprisingly little about these microscopic organisms. As we discover answers to some long-standing puzzles about the roles that marine microorganisms play in supporting the ocean’s food webs and driving global elemental cycles, we realized that we still need to learn much more about what these organisms do and how they do it—including how they evolved and contribute to our ocean's health and productivity.
The Marine Microbiology Initiative seeks to gain a comprehensive understanding of marine microbial communities, including their diversity, functions and behaviors; their ecological roles; and their origins and evolution. Our focus has been to enable researchers to uncover the principles that govern the interactions among microbes and that govern microbially mediated nutrient flow in the sea. To address these opportunities, we support leaders in the field through investigator awards, multidisciplinary team research projects, and efforts to create resources of broad use to the research community. We also support development of new instrumentation, tools, technologies and genetic approaches.
Through the efforts of many scientists from around the world, the initiative has been catalyzing new science through advances in methods and technology, and to reduce interdisciplinary barriers slowing progress. With our support, researchers are quantifying nutrient pools in the ocean, deciphering the genetic and biochemical bases of microbial metabolism, and understanding how microbes interact with one another. The initiative has five grant portfolios:
- Individual investigator awards for current and emerging leaders in the field.
- Multidisciplinary projects that support collaboration across disciplines.
- New instrumentation, tools and technology that enable scientists to ask new questions in ways previously not possible.
- Community resource efforts that fund the creation and sharing of data and the development of tools, methods and infrastructure of widespread utility.
- Projects that advance genetic tools to enable development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology.
We also bring together scientists to discuss timely subjects and to facilitate scientific exchange.
Our path to marine microbial ecology was a confluence of new technology that could accelerate science and an opportunity to support a field that was not well funded relative to potential impact. Around the time we began this work in 2004, the life sciences were entering a new era of DNA sequencing and genomics, expanding possibilities for scientific research – including 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 systems.
After many years of success, we will wind down this effort and close the initiative in 2021. 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. Thanks to the work of hundreds of scientists and others involved with the initiative, the goals have been achieved and the field has been profoundly enriched; it is now positioned to address new scientific questions using innovative technologies and methods.