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

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

The ability to decrypt the genetic code, modify gene activity and visualize living systems defines modern biology. The resulting explosion in our understanding of cells and organisms enabled further application of genetics and molecular techniques across the biological 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.

Despite these advances, an essential yet underappreciated ingredient of biology is symbiosis, first defined in the 1870s as the “living together of unlike organisms.” Symbiosis includes organisms that form mutually beneficial partnerships as well as the associations between parasites and their hosts. In each case, symbiosis influences the underlying biology of the partners, such as in mutualistic relationships between corals and the photosynthetic algae that reside inside their tissues. Symbiosis promotes a perspective in the biological sciences that extends beyond the concept of the individual organism.

Major symbiotic events in the history of life occurred in aquatic ecosystems, most prominent of which is the origin of the eukaryotic cell. This event, which occurred approximately 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 enriches our grasp of the full range of symbiosis on our planet.

The Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative advances knowledge of how symbiotic associations function and contribute to ecological and evolutionary processes in marine and freshwater habitats through four strategic approaches:

  1. Invest in technology, methods 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 and awards.


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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

    Oct 2018

  • grants to date


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