Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology

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Life on Earth most likely originated as microorganisms in the sea. Over the past 3.5 to 4 billion years, microbes have shaped and defined Earth’s biosphere, and have created conditions that allowed the evolution of more complex life. Today, microbes are the ‘unseen majority’ of organisms that inhabit and sustain all of Earth’s habitats, including marine environments.

Microbes capture solar energy, catalyze key biogeochemical transformations of important elements, produce and consume greenhouse gases, and compose the base of the marine food web. Yet our understanding of the fundamental principles that determine the distribution, composition and function of microorganisms in the sea remains incomplete. Much of our understanding about the structure and dynamics of microbial assemblages has been qualitative, descriptive and contributed by a single individual or small teams of investigators working within a discipline.

Now, with a concerted cross-disciplinary effort by a team of scientists working in a well-described ocean ecosystem, the possibility of using a quantitative theoretical framework to interpret microbial community dynamics in the context of new field observations and experimental results is within reach. The time is right to achieve a more comprehensive, qualitative, quantitative and theoretical understanding of marine microbial community structure, function and activities in the sea.

The Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) will establish a collaborative effort that will measure, model and experimentally manipulate a complex system representative of a broad swath of the North Pacific Ocean. This collaboration aims to advance our understanding of the biology, ecology and biogeochemistry of microbial processes that dominate Earth’s largest biome: the global ocean. A multidisciplinary team of scientists who share a common interest in microbial oceanography have committed to partner in a meaningful collaboration that will begin to address some of the long-standing scientific challenges and previously unattainable research goals of that discipline. Specifically, SCOPE will conduct highly resolved spatial and temporal analyses over multiple levels of biological organization at a representative ocean benchmark, Station ALOHA, located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG).

The central mission of SCOPE is to measure, model and predict the pathways and exchanges (inputs and outputs) of energy and matter within and between specific microbial groups and their environment at relevant spatial and temporal scales, from surface waters to the deep sea (more than 4 km in depth) at Station ALOHA. A central premise of SCOPE is that we must study the ocean ecosystem in situ, at a variety of levels of biological organization (e.g., genetic, biochemical, physiological, biogeochemical and ecological), and at highly resolved, nested scales of space and time in order to fully describe and model it.

SCOPE’s overarching goals are:

  • To create a collaborative environment that fosters and capitalizes on cross-disciplinary interactions to advance our understanding of microbial processes, ecosystem dynamics and biogeochemical consequences at a site representative of the NPSG.
  • To better understand emergent properties of ecosystems through studies of microbial community structure and function over highly resolved, nested spatial and temporal scales.
  • To generate and test hypotheses that focus on microbial-community-mediated matter and energy transformations, and the interlinked roles of microbes in energy capture, nutrient transformations and carbon export to the deep sea.
  • To understand the properties of relevant model microbes in terms of their genetic and metabolic diversity and their role in ecosystem processes.
  • To test and validate new theory and use it as a framework to interpret the structure and dynamics of microbial communities, and their roles and influence in the NPSG ecosystem.

To achieve these goals, SCOPE will engage in the four focused research themes listed below that will organize, guide and integrate its collaborative efforts. Field studies, laboratory characterization, and theory and modeling will interact hand-in-hand within each of these themes. The themes are intended as guides and foci for specific questions, observations and field experiments. The SCOPE mission will be pursued by Simons Investigators and Associate Investigators. The Simons Investigators who will work with SCOPE are path-finding scientists who hold tenure-track, tenured or equivalent positions. Associate Investigators are scientists or engineers who will work on SCOPE goals and objectives, but who need not hold tenure-track-equivalent positions. Simons Investigators and Associate Investigators who work with SCOPE will be recruited to collaborate and participate in research at the SCOPE field site (Station ALOHA, 100 km north of Oahu).

Theme I. The microbial trade market at Station ALOHA

Fluxes of matter, energy and genetic information at Station ALOHA are governed by the organization, structure and complexity of species, populations and community assemblages in marine plankton. Furthermore, the macromolecular information content (DNA/RNA/protein) of the plankton community encodes the network instructions that specify community structure, organization, function and interactions. Investigators in this SCOPE theme will focus on ecologically relevant laboratory experiments and studies of pure and mixed cultures (and their gene content, regulation and physiology) as model systems that are relevant to the Station ALOHA ecosystem. Theme I studies are thus specifically focused on laboratory-based model microbial systems, and interpretation of laboratory data and experiments, in the context of SCOPE field data (derived from Theme II-IV efforts).

Theme II. High-resolution spatial and temporal dynamics: from genes, populations and communities, to biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem function

The ability to sample microbial processes at appropriate spatial and temporal scales in situ will revolutionize our quantitative understanding of the dynamics of microbial inputs and outputs. The ultimate goal of this theme is to produce and analyze highly resolved, four-dimensional field-based ‘motion pictures’ of the genetic, taxonomic, transcriptional, metabolic, physical and chemical fields that drive the ecological dynamics of microbes at Station ALOHA. In contrast to Theme I, which focuses on studies of individual microbes in the lab, Theme II is field-based, and targets in situ studies of microbes and microbial communities in the wild at Station ALOHA.

Theme III. Microbes, energy, matter and gravity: fluxes into the ocean interior at Station ALOHA

Rates of primary production in the NPSG are directly linked to solar radiation. Less predictable are the conditions that create aperiodic seasonal phytoplankton blooms, the specific microbial assemblages associated in and around those blooms, and the biogeochemical processes responsible for export and transformation of phytoplankton-derived fluxes to the deep sea. SCOPE Investigators will aim to resolve some of these uncertainties with high-resolution observations of episodic bloom dynamics, model and theory.

Theme IV. Ecosystem-scale experiments

Field measurements to assess the ecosystem responses to nutrient perturbation have typically been conducted in small volumes of seawater in closed containers, which may induce methodological artifacts. Recently, whole-ecosystem nutrient-perturbation experiments have become feasible. To help advance this promising area, SCOPE Investigators will conduct both closed (mesocosm) and open ecosystem perturbation experiments in the open-ocean environment at Station ALOHA.

Leadership and Investigator Awards

SCOPE is co-directed by Edward DeLong and David Karl, who chair a steering committee that includes Ginger Armbrust, Marian Carlson, Mick Follows, and Jon Zehr. SCOPE comprises sixteen Simons Investigators.

Please visit the SCOPE website for more information.