Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Awards UC San Diego Nearly $1 Million to Advance Knowledge of Ocean's Microbiome


The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative has awarded a three-year, $994,633 grant to Farooq Azam, distinguished professor of Microbial Oceanography at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Azam and his team are working to better understand the ecology of marine microbes, which play a significant role in the ocean’s food chain and carbon cycle, and how climate change may impact the processes of these organisms.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, and his wife Betty, established the foundation in 2000 to foster path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements, and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. The Marine Microbiology Initiative was launched four years later to support investigation of important microbial ecosystems in the sea; its current goal is to uncover the principles that govern the interactions among microbes and influence the microbially mediated nutrient flow in the marine environment. The initiative has accelerated the rate of discovery in the field of microbial oceanography, enabling researchers to uncover the immense diversity of microbes in the ocean and the important roles they play in regulating both the ocean environment and our atmosphere.

Azam and his team strive to gain insight into the microscopic behaviors and interactions of marine microbes. These single-celled organisms and viruses, the smallest and most abundant creatures in the ocean, drive many of the chemical reactions that control the ocean’s carbon cycle and transfer of carbon dioxide. Identifying their compositions and functions can help shed light on the effects of climate warming and increased ocean acidity.

“We, and others, have shown that the extremely abundant and highly diverse microbes inhabiting the sea play major roles in structuring the ocean’s web of life and regulating the ocean’s carbon cycle, the air–sea exchange of CO2, and the ocean influence on global climate,” said Azam. “Predicting the state of the future ocean, therefore, requires understanding of how the minuscule microbes, interacting with organisms and materials in their environment at the nanoscale, manage to be the dominant biological force in the vast ocean—and how their role might respond to climate change.”

In particular, Azam and his team are investigating how the consumption of cellular debris from dying phytoplankton by marine bacteria impacts the marine carbon cycle. Phytoplankton—one-celled microscopic photosynthetic organisms that drift in the upper lighted layer of the ocean—account for the “fixation” of as much CO2 into new cellular organic material as all terrestrial plants combined. As phytoplankton die, some of the cell debris is released into the sea. Marine bacteria consume much of this organic matter and their respiration releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Bacteria thus play a significant part in regulating how much of the planet’s carbon dioxide is stored in the ocean as organic matter and how much is respired back. The goal is to discover how this recycling is regulated at the microscopic and molecular scales in order to understand the ocean’s ability to store carbon.

The Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology Initiative strives to gain a comprehensive understanding of marine microbial communities, including their genetic diversity, composition and functions; their ecological role in the oceans; and their contribution to ocean health and productivity. Their flexible funding supports current or emerging leaders in the field through investigator awards, multidisciplinary team research projects, community resource projects, as well as efforts to develop new instrumentation, tools, and technology.

“Solving this intriguing problem requires novel ideas and new types of methods to study the ocean’s ecology and biogeochemistry at the nanoscale, and to extrapolate the discoveries to the ocean scale,” explained Azam. “The generous grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will enable us to work on the little explored and high-risk but very exciting problem of nanoscale ecology of the ocean. If we are successful, the gains could be substantial. Indeed, some of the basic ideas and methods that we develop should also apply to other systems, including the ecology of the human microbiome.”

To learn more about supporting Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, please visit our giving website.

— Erika Johnson

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