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Understanding the oceans microbes is key to the Earth’s future


Life on Earth may owe its existence to tiny microorganisms living in the oceans, but the effect of human-induced change on the vital services these microbes perform for the planet remains largely unstudied, says a report released today by the American Academy of Microbiology, entitled Marine Microbial Diversity: The Key to Earth’s Habitability.

"Since life most likely began in the oceans, marine microorganisms are the closest living descendants of the original forms of life," says Jennie Hunter-Cevera of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, one of the authors of the report, "They are also major pillars of the biosphere; their unique metabolisms allow marine microbes to carry out many steps of the biogeochemical cycles that other organisms are unable to complete. The smooth functioning of these cycles is necessary for life to continue on earth."

Early marine microorganisms also helped create the conditions under which subsequent life developed. More than two billion years ago, the generation of oxygen by photosynthetic marine microorganisms helped shape the chemical environment in which plants, animals, and all other life forms have evolved.

"A great deal of research on the biogeography of marine microorganisms has been carried out, but many unknowns persist and more work is needed to elucidate and understand their complexity," says co-author David Karl of the University of Hawaii. "Uppermost on this list of questions is what effects human-induced changes will have on the services marine microbes perform for the planet. Research on marine microbiology must continue or accelerate in order to solve these problems."

The report is the outcome of a colloquium convened by the Academy in April 2005 in San Francisco. Experts in microbial physiology, ecology, genetics, oceanography, invertebrate biology and virology gathered to discuss the importance of marine microorganisms to life on this planet, the biogeography of these organisms, their roles in symbiotic relationships and pathogenesis, their metabolic capabilities, their impacts on humans, and goals for research, training, and education in marine microbiology.

The report outlines a number of recommendations for future research in marine microbiology including the roles of both climate change and human activities on the populations and processes of marine microbes. The report also recommends fostering multidisciplinary collaborations and training as well as the development of a comprehensive marine microbiology textbook.

"Innovative approaches in research, education and training are critical for moving the field of marine microbiology forward," says Hunter-Cevera.

Angelo R. Bouselli | EurekAlert!
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