Probing the Ocean’s Microbial Ecosystem

Our understanding of marine microbes, responsible for half the planet's photosynthesis, is spotty at best. The Simons Collaboration on Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems (CBIOMES) plans to change that.

Individually, ocean microbes can be as small as one-hundredth the width of a human hair. But collectively, they play an outsize role in the Earth’s climate and nutrient cycles. Microbes at the ocean’s surface form the base of the food web that sustains ocean life, and they carry out half the planet’s photosynthesis. In doing so, these microbes transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into organic matter that is drawn down into the deep ocean’s giant carbon reservoirs. And the diverse array of ocean microbes also mediates the Earth’s cycles of other elements, such as nitrogen and sulfur.

Yet our understanding of the marine microbial ecosystem is spotty at best. “There are large blank areas on the map where we don’t really know what’s living there,” says Michael Follows, an oceanographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Understanding how marine microbes interact with one another and their environment requires a synthesis of empirical measurements, laboratory research, statistics and modeling. To tackle this challenge, in July 2017 the Simons Foundation’s Life Sciences division launched the Simons Collaboration on Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems (CBIOMES), a five-year project that unites researchers at nine institutions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. A key objective is to produce a global-scale map showing how the community of marine microbes changes over space and time.

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