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27.07.2015 07:13 Age: 2 yrs
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Searching for the canaries of the marine world

The extensive marine observing capability of IMOS is playing a key role in an exciting new project on marine microbes. Bioplatforms Australia, another NCRIS capability like IMOS, has instigated a pioneering investigation into the life-sustaining microbes that inhabit our oceans.

Marine Microbes, Image credit: Oceanus Magazine

Most people would be aware that microorganisms play an important role in their own health, through the balance of processes in the gut and through the impact of a range of diseases. Similarly, the diversity and balance of marine microbes play a vital role in the health of our oceans and ultimately, the Earth’s habitability. 

Marine microbes make up the bulk of the oceans’ biomass and have direct relevance to our welfare and economy by influencing fisheries and aquaculture yields, marine ecosystems and even global climate. As canaries provided an early warning sign of dangerous gases in coal mines, aquatic microbes can serve as early indicators of ocean health.

A new project, led by Bioplatforms Australia, will use IMOS’s marine observing infrastructure and apply its genomics network to perform DNA sequencing to generate the large-scale datasets scientists require to understand fundamental marine processes. 

“It’s fantastic to see this project underway” says IMOS Director, Tim Moltmann. “IMOS has been working with the marine microbial community for some time at the proof-of-concept level. But we needed the power of Bioplatforms Australia’s genomics network to move from concept to large scale, national project. This is now happening with Bioplatforms Australia’s support.”

The nationally collaborative project involves scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, Macquarie University, Sydney Institute of Marine Science, University of NSW, University of Queensland and University of Technology, Sydney and will employ Australia’s brand new research vessel Investigator for some of the sampling work.

Dr Torsten Thomas of The University of New South Wales, is one of the lead authors of the project proposal. He believes microorganisms are a fundamental feature of marine food webs and ocean biogeochemical cycles, but are typically neglected, or at best considered as a black box, within marine ecosystem and oceanographic models. 

The marine microbes project is built on the premise that a more complete understanding of marine microbial diversity and function will allow for better integration of microbial processes into predictive models. Dr Thomas says this is critical for determining how environmental changes will alter the structure and function of the base of the marine food web.

“This project is a wonderful opportunity to bring marine microbiologists together with other marine scientists and to develop a sustained ocean observation system that goes all the way from genes to ecosystems,” says Dr Thomas.

Dr Lev Bodrossy of CSIRO, another leading scientist on the project, describes the project as a continental scale, long-term marine microbial observatory and points out that it is the first and only one of its kind and that it will provide an unprecedented insight into the secret life of the marine microbial community.

“This window to the marine microbial world will allow us to better understand how the millions of microbes in a drop of seawater keep our oceans healthy and functioning and support all other marine life from phytoplankton to whales,” says Dr Bodrossy.

Since IMOS lent support to the first pilot project on long term marine microbial observations around Australia in 2012, the initiative has grown into a nation-wide project and an incubator for new, strong collaborations in microbial oceanography.

“Two things have impressed me about this development” says IMOS’s Tim Moltmann. “It’s demonstrated how sustained investment in NCRIS is spawning new science opportunities across disciplines. And it’s shown how enthusiastically our current generation of marine science leaders are embracing collaboration.”

The Bioplatforms Australia Marine Microbes project is featured in the latest edition of their newsletter Connections.