Thanks to new funding from an anonymous donor, Craig Carlson, professor and chair of UC Santa Barbara’s Ecology, Evolution, and Microbial Biology department, will now be directing a collaborative project that conducts investigations of microbial oceanography.

“It’s a multidisciplinary project that involves five institutions. We all are converging on a site in the Sargasso Sea,” Carlson said. “Basically what we’re trying to do is better understand the role that microbial organisms have on controlling the larger scale of geochemical nutrient cycles, specifically carbon.”

The new collaborative project is an extension of a previous project called the Microbial Observatory that was funded by the National Science Foundation. The anonymous funders have allowed the researchers to now increase and expand those initial efforts of study. The new project will find its home in the Sargasso Sea where the Bermuda Atlantic Time Series (B.A.T.S.) is currently stationed. The U.S.-run program is constantly collecting parametric oceanographic data about the area, making it a huge advantage for Carlson and his team.

“That string of information now provides a rich context for interpretation of our data. We go there because of the supporting data and the background system is worked out, we understand the system to some level and it allows us to do more focused experiments and place that in a larger context,” Carlson said.

The researchers involved with the collaboration will be doing a variety of studies during the five-year funding timeline.

“There’s a whole variety of scales of questions, from ‘Who are the microbes and what are they doing?’ to ‘How do they plug into the larger picture of oceanography and environmental change?’ One of the things we’re really focused on is the movement of carbon in the ocean and understanding how biology plays a role in the movement of that carbon,” Carlson said.

As climate change takes center stage on a global scale, the study of this microbiology can help clue scientists into how the ocean plays a role.

“There is a large pool of dissolved organic carbon, which is about the same magnitude as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. So small changes in the production or consumption of that dissolved organic matter can affect the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the ocean, and microbes control that,” Carlson said.

Microbes include a diverse array of microorganisms from algae to bacteria to fungi. They make up more than 98 percent of the ocean’s biomass and are able to survive in a large variety of environments. In addition to playing an important role in carbon cycles, they are heavily involved with nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur cycles. Other studies have found that the materials that some microbes produce can even affect reflectivity of marine clouds. Their overwhelming presence and vital role in various oceanic processes make them a key organism to study.

“The ocean plays a role as a sink. What we’re trying to better understand is the role that microbes play in controlling that process,” Carlson said.

In addition to providing the researchers with more opportunities to do that, the funding has also fostered an ideal program for collaboration.

“Bringing in expertise for a sustained period of time really allow us to focus on a whole variety of questions on different scales,” Carlson said. “It provides us flexibility, opportunities and a very synergistic group that can really contribute to moving advances in microbial oceanography.”

A version of this story appeared on p. 14 of the Thursday, Jan. 21 print edition of the Daily Nexus.