State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

A New Center Will Study Ocean Chemical-Microbe Networks and Climate Change

A new Science and Technology Center announced by the U.S. National Science Foundation will conduct research, education and outreach to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of the chemicals and chemical processes that underpin ocean ecosystems.

The Center for Chemical Currencies of a Microbial Planet, with 13 partners including Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is one of six centers that NSF announced today. These include a separate Columbia-led center to model future climate using big data and artificial intelligence. 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, the center “is focused on bringing rapid and transformative advances to our understanding of the molecules of the ocean carbon cycle that are responsible for a quarter of Earth’s organic carbon flux,” said Lamont-Doherty biological oceanographer Sonya Dyhrman, a co-principal investigator on the project.  The center will support interdisciplinary science teams to investigate the identities and dynamics of molecules that serve as the “currencies” of elemental transfer within marine microbial communities and between the ocean and atmosphere.

Biological oceanographer Sonya Dyhrman will help lead the effort.

The project will be led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Georgia. Richard Murray, Woods Hole’s deputy director, said the new center “will undoubtedly have a big impact [throughout] the scientific community, given the breadth of interdisciplinary study encompassing biology, chemistry, modeling, and informatics.”

Gaining a better understanding of the ocean’s carbon flux is important because so much of the carbon derived from photosynthesis on the 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. This takes place 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 ocean-surface microbes. These processes can include growth substrates and vitamins that sustain the mixed microbial communities underpinning 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 at Woods Hole and director of the center. “The ocean is already changing, and we don’t have time to wait to understand these fundamental questions.”

The center will use emerging tools and technologies, including advanced chemical tools to isolate and identify molecules produced by marine microbes; 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.

Another 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.

The center’s participating institutions also include the University of Virginia, 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.


Adapted from a press release by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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