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Earth Sciences
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Northwest Explorer


C-MORE Links Marine Microbes To Ecological Processes

Researchers at C-MORE are focused on a comprehensive understanding of the diverse communities of microbes in the sea: what their genes code for, how they work together to control the flux of energy and matter in the ocean, and how all of this may change in the future.

Located at the University of Hawaii, the center is focused on "linking genomes to biomes.” C-MORE programs were recently highlighted in a publication on the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Centers called Profiles in Team Science (, from which this piece is adapted.

Research at C-MORE is organized into four interconnected themes. The first thrust focuses on the diversity of microbial life in the ocean. "One of the discoveries we are going to make at our center is to finally, once and for all, have an accurate, ecumenical, comprehensive inventory of the structure and function of the microbial populations in the sea,” says center director David Karl. "This might take us a decade, but it's a target that is well within our reach, at least for the open ocean where we are focusing our fieldwork.”

Researchers use conventional cultivation techniques to isolate, identify, and characterize the major microbial species present in the ocean to develop theoretical models of ocean ecology. New genome sequencing techniques are allowing researchers to look directly at the genetic code of these organisms.

"Looking at these genomes is a lot like looking at a parts list, but we never had the parts list for the microbes in the ocean before,” says research coordinator Ed DeLong. Having that "allows us to get much more fine-grained information about what makes up these microbes.”

Although the center is headquartered in Hawaii, investigators are located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Oregon State University. "So we are spread out both geographically and with respect to our expertise, and that again requires a sort of glue to hold things together,” says DeLong. "Part of the research coordination is making sure the right people are talking to one another and research efforts are coordinated.”

C-MORE may be new, but many of its researchers have been working together for at least 10 years. DeLong says, "In the end, the thing that will really make everything work together in a sustained way is a deep level of trust. And I think because we are all friends, colleagues, and scientific collaborators, and have been so over a good amount of time, we have already established that.”

The center's second theme focuses on biogeochemistry: how the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements is driven by microbial activities. The rise in levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is an area of particular concern. "It's hard to even imagine, but because microbes move large amounts of greenhouse gases through their combined physiological activities, microbes can actually have an effect on weather, for example,” says DeLong.

Research in the third theme has an applied engineering focus: development of remote and continuous sensing technology. Currently, oceanographers must go out on the ocean for a certain length of time to gather samples and then return to the lab for testing. Being able to monitor various ocean processes continuously greatly speeds up hypothesis-testing and allows researchers to ask different questions—for example, how the expression of genes relate to circadian rhythms or the lunar cycle or a particular meteorological event, notes theme leader Chris Scholin.

The final, broadest research thrust at the center integrates all the relevant research into computerized models that can predict how the ocean will change in the future. One major concern is that the increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is dissolving in the ocean, increasing its acidity. "More-acidic conditions could select for or against certain microorganisms; it could cause massive death of calcium-carbonate-bearing organisms like corals,” says Karl.

These four themes keep everyone organized, but DeLong emphasizes that these "bins” are artificial constructs. "The goal is really that they are all conducted in synergy to understand the complexity of the system of the living ocean.” The key to making that happen is communication, which can be a challenge at a center as dispersed as C-MORE.

Jen Schripsema is a freelance science writer with a master's degree in technical communication from the University of Washington and a bachelor's degree in biology from Colorado College.



On March 16, 2006, the second-generation version of an underwater, robotic DNA lab called the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) was deployed in Monterey Bay, Calif. Photo: (c) 2006 MBARI


Divers working on the second-generation environmental sample processor in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) test tank. Photo: Todd Walsh (c) 2006 MBARI


C-MORE director David Karl works with school children.

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