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 to
create the conditions under which subsequent
life developed. More than two billion years
ago, the generation of oxygen by photosynthetic
marine microorganisms helped to 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 theUniversity 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
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
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 foster ing multidiscipl
inary collaborations and training as well as
the development of a comprehensive marine microbiology
"Innovative approaches in research, education
and training are critical for moving the field
of marine microbiology forward," says Hunter-Cevera.