Marine microorganisms hold the key to life on earth

New Marine Board position paper reveals the importance of marine microbial diversity for our environment and society and proposes concrete actions to guide future European research.

Few people realize that all life on earth evolved from microorganisms in the sea. Microorganisms, or microbes, are those organisms too small to be observed by the human eye and they are everywhere, often in huge numbers. Just one litre of coastal seawater contains up to a billion microbes including thousands of different types.

Scientists have long recognized the importance of microbes, which form the basis of all food webs and drive the complex biogeochemical cycles which recycle key elements such as carbon and nitrogen. Given that the oceans account for more than 90% of the Earth’s biosphere - that portion of the earth able to support life - it is hardly surprising that marine microorganisms account for a large part of the total biomass of life on Earth. They also produce more than half of the entire global oxygen supply and, in doing so, use up a large proportion of human-generated CO2, a greenhouse gas that is accelerating global warming.

The new Marine Board position paper, Marine Microbial Diversity and its role in Ecosystem Functioning and Environmental Change, takes a look at some of the key scientific and societal questions that will drive the European research agenda in the coming years.

Frank Oliver Glöckner of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology & Jacobs University Bremen in Germany, and Chair of the Marine Board expert working group which produced the paper, explains why a roadmap for future research in this area was urgently needed: “we have known for some time that marine microorganisms are a crucial component of the Earth’s life-support system. Yet despite their obvious importance, very little is known about them, including how many different types are present in the oceans, what the role of each of them is and even how to define a microbial species.”

The Marine Board paper describes how Europe has traditionally played a leading role in marine microbial research and examines how the field is advancing rapidly, driven by technological and scientific developments and the problems of global change, population growth and over-exploitation of marine resources. To maintain Europe’s competitiveness in this important area of research, the paper calls for the establishment of a coordinated, pan-European research programme focused on marine microbiology, but cautions that funds for research alone will not be sufficient.

To support future research, the paper also calls for the establishment of a European repository for cultivated microbial collections and a centre for marine data management. “The implementation of omics technologies will generate unprecedented amounts of data,” says Kostas Nittis, Chair of the Marine Board, “this paper sends the important message that a coordinated European data centre will be essential to ensure that we are able to optimize the use of this data for the benefit of society.”

The Position Paper has been presented at the European Maritime Day in Gothenburg on 21 May 2012 (see http://ec.europa.eu/maritimeaffairs/maritimeday/index_en.htm for full programme).

Science news source: 

European Science Foundation