If you don’t know what diatoms are, you can get a little primer by reading last week’s Intertidal. In short, they are tiny single-celled plants that are part of the soup of plankton that lives in the ocean and creates much of its food. Part of this soup is made of plants that produce food from sunlight and part of it is made of animals that are the food for bigger ocean animals.

One other lesser-known chunk are the microbes. This isn’t stuff causing infections in the ocean, or at least, not necessarily. These bacteria are critical to many functions of the ecosystem but they are really hard to study. That’s partly because they are so small, and partly because there are so many different types.

This is true in all of the world’s oceans – including our waters off the coast of Maine. We are fortunate not only to have these beneficial microbes here but also a local scientific institution that is studying them. Scientists at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay have been conducting genetic research on these microbes and have now analyzed over 12,000 genomes. That’s 12,000 individual organisms – and every one of them was different.

As Bigelow Senior Research Scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas notes, “The ocean is huge, and it’s amazing how complex ecological and evolutionary processes take place in each tiny drop. They’ve not only discovered new varieties but also that certain types have photosynthetic abilities they didn’t previously think existed. These proteobacteria can capture light energy, adding them to the equation of understanding ocean productivity.

With all of this information, the question is how to keep track of all of it and make it useful. The scientists involved decided to employ technology to help organize their findings. They built a database known as the GORG, or Global Ocean Reference Genomes Tropics (GORG-Tropics). As you may guess from the name, they aren’t focusing on Maine’s microbial community, but there will hopefully be results that benefit all studies of marine ecosystems.

This is particularly true given the connectivity between all of these ecosystems. Aside from helping to understand productivity, some of these microbes could be used in pharmaceuticals or other medical applications. Others might be used to produce biofuels. Regardless, they are just another component of the ocean world that often goes overlooked and is truly invaluable in supporting the diversity of ocean life. And, it’s always humbling to see what a little single-celled organism can do.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: