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First worldwide search for all microbes of the oceans starts now


The single-celled organisms of the world’s oceans are immensely diverse. For the ‘International Census of Marine Microbes’ scientists are going to track down knowledge on the diversity and distribution of these micro-organisms and their viruses. The budget? 900,000 dollars of the Sloan Foundation in New York to start with. On February 7 and 8, the steering committee from America and the Netherlands will gather for the first time.

Goal of the International Census of Marine Microbes (ICoMM) is to get to know as many sea species as possible by international cooperation. By 2010 the scientists have to rapport what is known, what is still unknown but is knowable, and what may never be known about the biodiversity of the micro-organisms from the ocean.

By far the largest part of earth’s biodiversity is microbial. This is particularly the case for the oceans. Here we find 90 percent of the organic materials (the biomass) of sea life within micro-organisms. For over three billion years these unicellular organisms fuelled all kinds of processes and cycles. This way, our planet became also inhabitable for ‘higher’ organisms with more cells.

In the Amsterdam ‘Trippenhuis’, head quarters of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the meeting of the ICoMM steering committee will take place next week. In this project the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and the Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) closely cooperate with the American Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided a seed grant of $ 900.000 for ICoMM. But that is only the start. The organisers Prof Dr Mitchell Sogin (MBL), Prof Dr Jan de Leeuw (NIOZ), and Dr Lucas Stal (NIOO) expect that the pilot projects will start off larger-scaled research of marine microbial diversity. “In the end, ICoMM will have a large reach-out of tens of millions to some billions of dollars,” they estimate.

Next to cataloguing and mapping the organisms already known and discovering new ones, the researchers also want to understand the diversity. Therefore, they also aim for the evolutionary and ecological processes by which the diversity of marine micro-organisms has been created and is maintained. “Understanding this diversity is an enormous scientific problem,” says Lucas Stal of NIOO. “For research at this scale a careful planning and international cooperation are crucial.”

The project marks the first global effort to acquire information about diversity and distribution of single-celled organisms and their associated viruses in the world’s oceans. These organisms belong to three so-called domains, being Bacteria, Archaea, and Protista (a.o. microalgae). The oceans are teeming with micro-life: about one million microbes per millilitre of seawater and one billion bacteria per gram of sediment. “Given this gigantic microbial diversity, our plan to develop a database for marine microbes also including genomic and biochemical data is extremely essential and timely,” says Jan de Leeuw of NIOZ.

Over the next two years, ICoMM organisers will focus on building a framework for the mammoth undertaking. An advisory committee and three working groups of marine microbiologists are already assembled to develop experimental plans and the database.

The ICoMM project is part of the 10-year, $1 billion ‘Census of Marine Life’ (CoML). This massive initiative aims to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans – past, present, and future. A network of hundreds of scientists in more than 70 countries is involved in it. Unlike ICoMM, the dozen other research initiatives focus on specific geographical locations or restricted environments.

The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) seeks to be one of the world’s leading centres of expertise working to develop and understanding of the basic processes in seas and oceans. For this purpose, novel methodologies and research equipment are being developed. The institute also plays a major role in the education of students and junior scientists, and offers its services and facilities to universities and institutions, both from within the Netherlands and abroad. Royal NIOZ is connected to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) studies the ecology of land, freshwater and brackish and seawater. The Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology in Yerseke studies life in the sea and in estuaries. The NIOO employs about 250 people and is the largest research institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science (KNAW).

Froukje Rienks | alfa
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