Learning how symbioses that include microorganisms function, evolve and influence aquatic ecosystems

Aquatic environments 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 organisms’ interactions define their evolutionary history and ecological roles.

Decrypting the genetic code and developing tools to modify gene activity and visualize living systems created modern biology – a powerful discipline that now defines a large segment of the life sciences. The resulting explosion in our understanding of cells and organisms has enabled further application of genetics and molecular techniques across the biological and medical sciences. In parallel, there have been major advances in microbial ecology and aquatic science in past decades, including through the foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative.

An essential yet underappreciated ingredient of modern biology is symbiosis, first defined by Heinrich Anton de Bary in 1879 as the “living together of unlike organisms.” Symbioses include organisms that form mutually beneficial partnerships and associations between parasites and their hosts, as well as interactions less easy to categorize. In each case, symbiosis influences the underlying biology of the participants, such as in mutualistic relationships between coral animals and the photosynthetic microbes that reside inside their tissues. A focus on symbiosis promotes a perspective in the biological sciences that extends beyond the concept of the individual organism.

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.

Our Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative will advance knowledge of how symbiotic associations function and participate in ecology and evolution in marine and freshwater systems through four strategic 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.

Continue reading for more information on our approaches, awards and current solicitations. 

Learn More


Illuminating how symbioses involving microorganisms function, evolve and serve critical ecosystem roles.


Symbiosis is a rule of life

Aquatic ecosystems – encompassing both marine and freshwater – comprise the largest habitat on the planet and are the least understood.

  • first award

    Sep 2016

  • grants to date


Help us spread the word.

If you know someone who is interested in this field or what we are doing at the foundation, pass it along.

Get Involved

Recent News

Recent Grants

    Show More