The Simons Foundation extends its support for microbial oceanography with the establishment of the Simons Foundation Collaboration on Ocean Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems (CBIOMES), led by Mick Follows.
BY HELEN HILL | CBIOMES | EAPS NEWS
Microbes sustain Earth’s habitats, including its largest biome: the global ocean. Microbes in the sea capture solar energy, catalyze biogeochemical transformations of important elements, produce and consume greenhouse gases, and fuel the marine food web. Measuring and modeling the distribution, composition, and function of microbial communities, and their interactions with the environment are key to understanding these fundamental processes in the ocean.
The Simons Foundation, which provides generous funding for several lines of research within MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), recently extended its support for microbial oceanography with the establishment of the Simons Foundation Collaboration on Ocean Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems (CBIOMES). Led by EAPS Professor of Oceanography Mick Follows, CBIOMES draws together a multidisciplinary group of both U.S. and international investigators bridging oceanography, statistics, data science, ecology, biogeochemistry, and remote sensing.
The goal of CBIOMES, which leverages and extends Follows’ existing Darwin Project, is to develop and apply quantitative models of the structure and function of marine microbial communities at seasonal and basin scales.
As Follows explains, “Microbial communities in the sea mediate the global cycles of elements including climatically-significant carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen. Photosynthetic microbes in the surface ocean fix these elements into organic molecules, fueling food webs that support fisheries and most other life in the ocean. Sinking and subducted organic matter is remineralized and respired in the dark, sub-surface ocean, maintaining a store of carbon about three times the size of the atmospheric inventory of CO₂.”
The communities of microbes that sustain these global-scale cycles are functionally and genetically extremely diverse and non-uniformly distributed—their biogeography is a function of selection according to traits governing interactions with local environments and organisms.
But in the vast ocean, with an uncounted variety of marine environments, these microbial communities remain sparsely sampled, in both space and time. According to Follows, “Observations to constrain the biogeography of marine microbes are still sparse and based on eclectic sampling methods. Theories of the organization of the system have not been quantitatively tested, and the models used to simulate the system still lack sufficiently mechanistic biological foundations.”
This is one of the challenges the project is designed to address. CBIOMES will integrate new, diverse data sets into the models in real-time as they are collected at sea, helping investigators continually optimize their models and identify improved frameworks—and allowing them to directly test predictions and formally quantify the skill of the numerical simulations.
Assimilating the incoming stream of expanded observations will also help in testing a wider range of ecological theories. One way the collaboration aspires to do this is by also constructing trait-based models, bringing to bear the power of metabolic constraints and knowledge of macro-molecular composition to better understand the functions of regional and global microbial communities.
“Together, these efforts will advance new theoretical approaches and lead to improved global ocean-scale predictions and regional state estimates, constrained by observed biogeography. They will provide a quantification of the associated biogeochemical fluxes,” says Follows.
Working with Follows on CBIOMES are Principal Investigators Stephanie Dutkiewicz of MIT; Jacob Bien, Christopher Edwards, and Jed Fuhrman of the University of Southern California; Zoe Finkel and Andrew Irwin of Mount Allison University in Canada; Shubha Sathyendranath of Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the U.K.; and Joseph Vallino of the Marine Biological Laboratory.
A meeting held at the Simons Foundation in New York City this past May provided a first opportunity for collaborators to meet face-to-face, and a forum for investigators to educate one another about their individual expertise, share initial progress, and coordinate efforts.
“While the central question ‘What is the functional biogeography of a group of organisms in the oceans?’ is relatively focused, the techniques being used are extremely varied focusing a lot on computational tools, but uniquely, hand-in-hand with data collection and data compilation,” says Follows. “I am particularly excited by everyone’s enthusiasm, the number of cross-connections and collaborations already underway, and the rapid progress that is happening on many fronts.”
Complementary to CBIOMES is the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) co-led by Ed DeLong of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and David Karl of the University of Hawaii. SCOPE’s focus is advancing understanding of marine biology, biogeochemistry, ecology, and evolution of microbial processes by focusing on a representative ocean benchmark, Station ALOHA, located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
SCOPE-Gradients, a related project led by Principal Investigator Virginia Armbrust of the University of Washington, will bring a rich stream of observational data to the CBIOMES effort, with its focus on understanding transitions between the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and neighboring ecosystems like the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre—a region of open ocean notable for exhibiting steep changes in environmental conditions (gradients) associated with dramatic changes in the microbial ecosystem.
The mission of the Simons Foundation is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. Co-founded in New York City by Jim and Marilyn Simons, the foundation exists to support basic—or discovery-driven—scientific research undertaken in the pursuit of understanding the phenomena of our world.
Read the full original story with links to other research:
Story Image: Large-scale phytoplankton blooms, like this one in the nutrient-rich waters off the coast of Norway, can be seen from space. The vibrant swirls are caused by sunlight reflecting off of chlorophyll in the tiny marine organisms—with the brightest being the likely result of a coccolithophore species like Emiliania huxleyi, which form white calcium carbonate shells, shown here magnified 1,000x, and under a scanning electron microscope. Photo credits: AWI, planktonnet.awi.de; Alison R. Taylor, UNC, PLoS Biology; Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS, NASA GSFC
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