Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Scientists from MIT and six other institutions are part of a new center for exploring the microbial inhabitants of the sea.
The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) will facilitate collaborations among the previously separate disciplines of oceanography, microbiology, ecology and genomics. These new alliances will enable a deeper understanding of the seas, including their potential response to global environmental variability and climate change.
C-MORE, which will receive approximately $19 million from the National Science Foundation over the first five years, is based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Participating institutions in addition to MIT and UH Manoa are the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oregon State University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the Hawaii Department of Education.
"A central objective of C-MORE will be to increase understanding about how biological diversity detected at the genome level expresses itself at the ecosystem function level, and then to transfer this knowledge to policymakers to assist them in their decision-making process," said MIT Professor Edward DeLong, C-MORE associate director for research.
"Marine microorganisms are invisible to the naked eye, but their presence enables all multicellular life to exist, including human populations," said DeLong, who holds appointments in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the Biological Engineering Division. "Novel methods in molecular biology combined with satellite- and sea-based remote sensing technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to study microorganisms across broad spatial scales ranging from genes to entire ocean basins."
Other MIT participants in C-MORE are Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies; Professor Edward Boyle of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Associate Professor Stefan Helmreich of the anthropology program. Chisholm, who is also co-director of MIT's Earth System Initiative, holds appointments in CEE and the Department of Biology.
"The primary mission of the center will be to increase understanding of the biology, ecology and biogeochemistry of marine microorganisms, including bacteria, archaea, single-celled plants and viruses," said David Karl, UH Manoa professor of oceanography and C-MORE director.
The center will also integrate its research objectives with a varied and diverse portfolio of education and outreach activities for students of all ages. It will push interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty, students and postdoctoral scientists to train a new breed of microbial oceanographer and will help to train teachers and develop curricula at the undergraduate and secondary education levels.
"Projects like C-MORE don't just happen -- they require the coordinated efforts of many people," Karl said. "We are very fortunate to have such a great team assembled for the important scientific challenges ahead."
In addition to the grant from the NSF, the new center is supported by the University of Hawaii, the Agouron Institute, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.