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System Organization

The planet we inhabit today is the product of over four and one-half billion years of evolution of the ocean, land, atmospere, and -for the past 3.5 billion years- living organisms. While many of these evolutionary processes are regarded as capricious, the Earth displays remarkably complex structure at scales ranging from molecular to global. The source of this structure, how it emerged and how it is maintained, are among the great mysteries of modern science.

The Earth's metabolism is the product of the billions of organisms that constitute the biosphere, most of them microbes. How can a global system that is regulated within precise bounds emerge from such small-scale processes? Do the genes of individual organisms contain the necessary information to regulate it? Or is there another source of information that we are missing-something that orchestrates their collective properties? How many different genes are there on Earth? How many different species are there, and what is the minimum required for an ecosystem to function properly? Do species' identities matter in the feedback loops of the Earth system? Or can one be easily substituted for another? What are the origins of biological diversity? What are the environmental limits of life?

These are some of the profound questions that lie at the heart of the Earth System Initiative. One of our goals is to employ new genomic techniques, such as those developed for the Human Genome Project, to crack open the "global genome" and determine the different roles genes play in ecosystem function.

Funded Projects:

Microbial Ecology, Proteogenomics & Computational Optima

PI: Penny Chisholm


A Genomics Enabled Microbial Observatory in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

PI: Edward DeLong


The Cenarchaeum Symbiosum Genome Project

PI: Edward DeLong


Oceanography at the Bacterial Scale: Integrating Microfluidics and Microbial Ecology

PI: Martin Polz, Roman Stocker