MBL | Biological Discovery in Woods Hole Contact UsDirectionsText SizeSmallMediumLarge

Resources for Reporters:

MBL Publications:

Join the Conversation:
Facebook Twitter Youtube Wordpress

Nobel Laureates

press releases

For further MBL News and Media Information, contact the MBL Communications Office at (508) 289-7423 or e-mail us at comm@mbl.edu .

MBL Receives $1.5 Million from the W.M. Keck Foundation To Support Major Study of Microscopic Populations in the World’s Oceans

WOODS HOLE, MA—The W. M. Keck Foundation has awarded the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) a two-year, $1.5 million grant to support an unprecedented census of microscopic life forms in the world’s oceans—creatures scientists say make up the ocean’s real diversity.

The research is critical because these tiny creatures, known as microbes, are critical to sustaining Earth’s habitability. Yet although scientists estimate that there are approximately 100,000 microbes in each milliliter of ocean water, they have had limited means of assessing the exact biodiversity of marine microbes.

Two core components of the Keck-funded microbial population study are innovative DNA tag sequence analysis techniques developed in the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative and Molecular Ecology and Evolution combined with massively parallel DNA sequencing equipment. This novel approach will enable MBL scientists to determine the diversity of marine microbes with greater accuracy and speed than ever before—an approach that will likely lead to the discovery of untold numbers of previously undiscovered organisms.

“The Keck award is a great endorsement of the MBL’s pioneering efforts to study microbial diversity,” says MBL director and CEO Gary G. Borisy. “The addition of critical instrumentation to the Bay Paul Center’s W.M. Keck Ecological and Evolutionary Genetics Facility—and the foundation’s support of the research that is key to understanding marine microbial populations—will bring this science to a whole new level.”

The research will be done in cooperation with the International Census of Marine Microbes (ICoMM), a global effort to study the vast biodiversity of the world’s smallest marine organisms that is part of the Census of Marine Life.

ICoMM was launched because microbes make up 90-98% of marine biomass and play key roles in planetary processes, but are taken for granted because they aren’t visible to the naked eye. “We are totally dependent on them for our existence, they are the engines of our biosphere, they are the primary catalysts of energy transformation, and they are important to the food web,” says Mitchell L. Sogin, Bay Paul Center director and an ICoMM project leader.

Microbial communities are also comparable to a composite super-organism that responds in specific ways to environmental change. And from an evolutionary standpoint, microbes couldn’t be more important. “They were the only forms of life on Earth during the first three billion years of our evolutionary history,” Sogin notes. “Without microbes, the evolution of animals, plants, and fungi would never have occurred.”

Thanks to this grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, MBL scientists plan to sample and analyze microbes from major provinces in the world’s oceans, including coastal waters; open-ocean waters; deep-sea locations such as vents, ridges, sediments, and seamounts; as well as the subsea floor accessed through the International Ocean Drilling Program.

The Los Angeles-based W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering. The Foundation also maintains a program to support undergraduate science and humanities education and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support in the areas of health care, civic and community services, education and the arts, with a special emphasis on children.

The MBL is grateful for the foundation’s generous support.

—### —

The MBL is an international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical, and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere.

Scientists in The Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution explore the evolution and interaction of genomes of diverse organisms that play significant roles in environmental biology and human health. This dynamic research program integrates the powerful tools of genome science, molecular phylogenetics, and molecular ecology to advance our understanding of how living organisms are related to each other, to provide the tools to quantify and assess biodiversity, and to identify genes and underlying mechanisms of biomedical importance. Projects span all evolutionary time scales, ranging from deep phylogenetic divergence of ancient eukaryotic and prokaryotic lineages, to ecological analyses of how members of diverse communities contribute and respond to environmental change.

For more information, visit the MBL website.