New NSF-Funded Science & Technology Center to be Based at WHOI

A new NSF-funded Science and Technology Center will conduct transformative research, along with education and outreach, to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of the chemicals and chemical processes that underpin ocean ecosystems.

2 WHOI Primary LogoThe Center for Chemical Currencies of a Microbial Planet (C-CoMP), which will be based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is one of six centers that NSF announced today. NSF has made an initial commitment for five years of support with the possibility of continued support for five additional years.

At a time when increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are causing global temperatures to dramatically rise and make the ocean warmer and more acidic, C-CoMP will strive to bring rapid and transformative advances to understanding the behavior of bioreactive molecules and ocean microbes that are involved in one-quarter of the Earth’s annual organic carbon cycle.

The center will integrate research, education, and knowledge transfer activities and support interdisciplinary science teams to close knowledge gaps in the identities and dynamics of molecules that serve as the “currencies” of elemental transfer within marine microbial communities and between the ocean and atmosphere.

“NSF's Science and Technology Centers in ocean sciences have been beacons of scientific and technological leadership, and they have led to some of our deepest understandings of the critical role of the ocean in sustaining our planet,” said Richard Murray, WHOI’s deputy director and vice president for science and engineering. “This new center, led by WHOI and the University of Georgia, will undoubtedly have a big impact not only at these lead institutions and their partners, but throughout the scientific community, given the breadth of interdisciplinary study encompassing biology, chemistry, modeling, and informatics.”

Gaining a better understanding of this carbon flux is important because so much of the carbon derived from photosynthesis on Earth is involved in a rapid cycle in which biologically reactive molecules are released into seawater and converted back into inorganic form by marine bacteria within a matter of hours to days. The central mechanism of this fast cycle is a chemical-microbe network, connecting the production, release, and consumption of dissolved molecules by surface ocean microbes. These chemical currencies can include growth substrates and vitamins that sustain mixed microbial communities that underpin the surface ocean ecosystem. However, the controls on this network, and its links to carbon sequestration in the deep ocean, are not known. Consequently, its sensitivities to changing ocean conditions are also unknown, and responses to future climate scenarios are not predictable.

“If we don’t know the resilience of this chemical-microbe network to a changing climate, we’re missing a pretty fundamental mechanism in the way the planet works,” said Elizabeth Kujawinski, a senior scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry Department, and the director of C-CoMP. “The overarching questions are what are the key molecules within this carbon pool, how quickly do they cycle, and what is the pool’s sensitivity to the changing climate. The ocean is already changing, and we don’t have time to wait to understand these fundamental questions.”

Other science themes include understanding the rules of the chemical-microbial network, including the connections between different organisms; and understanding the network sensitivity and feedbacks on climate.

“We can’t actually watch what ocean microbes are doing, because of their extremely small size. Yet, they are literally driving the major carbon and nutrient cycles that keep the planet alive. Better understanding of the network of microbes and chemicals will improve our ability to predict the way the ocean works, now and in the future” said Mary Ann Moran, Regents' Professor in the University of Georgia’s Department of Marine Sciences. Moran is C-CoMP’s co-director and research coordinator.

To tackle critical challenges, C-CoMP will leverage emerging tools and technologies, including advanced chemical tools to isolate and identify molecules produced by marine microbes, emerging molecular biology tools to link physiology to function across groups of microbes, and new informatics tools to leverage existing datasets of marine microbial and environmental parameters.

A major emphasis of the center will be working to expand ocean literacy among students of all ages and to broaden workforce diversity in the ocean sciences.

“I would like the center’s legacy to be a community of scientists and others who can support and advance this important work; a more diverse ocean science community; and a more collaborative approach to these questions that incorporates chemistry, biology, modeling, and other disciplines to better understand fundamental oceanographic mechanisms,” Kujawinski said.

C-CoMP’s participating institutions include WHOI and UGA as well as the University of Virginia, Columbia University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, Stanford University, Boston College, Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and the University of Florida.