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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 13, 2001

UH prof wins for sea discoveries

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

University of Hawai'i marine microbiologist David Karl, who has led scientific teams in the recent discovery of at least four new groups of microorganisms in the ocean around Hawai'i, has won a prestigious international award issued by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Canada.

University of Hawai'i marine microbiologist David Karl will receive an international award for his work.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Karl, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, is in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this week to accept the 2001 A.G. Huntsman Award for Excellence in Marine Science.

The international citation comes as a result of worldwide attention Karl has drawn to Hawai'i. Research he has spearheaded is shattering beliefs about the vast sub-tropical oceans that are the largest ecosystem on the planet.

"We thought we had a pretty good idea of how the ocean worked around the Hawaiian Islands, the subtropical gyre of low-nutrient warm water that dominates our planet," said Karl. "Then we started looking at the ocean carefully and repeatedly."

The project he launched 14 years ago is called the Hawai'i Ocean Time Series, and it has involved repeated sampling of ocean water in the same place, about 60 miles north of O'ahu. Beforehand, said Karl, there was general consensus that though the subtropical ocean was a vast and fluctuating ecosystem, it didn't really change that much.

"We went out every month and looked at the same place in the ocean and repeated the same measurements," he said.

Within four or five years, the scientists began to see a trend of change within a system they thought was homogenous. Even more astounding, they discovered a whole new group of micro-organisms.

"We've discovered at least four groups (of organisms) off Hawai'i that 10 years ago didn't exist (in that area). And these are dominant organisms. They are supplying the planet with oxygen."

One of these types of bacteria is one of the oldest on earth, dating back 3.5 billion years, said Karl.

"They have been known for a long time, but we didn't expect to see them in the ocean. They're found in lakes and soils and coastal areas. They fertilize the ocean, converting nitrogen gas into ammonium, which is the source of proteins."

This process is key to providing food — both on land and in the sea, he said. Another of the new organisms is not a bacteria at all, but something called an archaea.

"They were not even discovered on earth until the 1970s and were never predicted to occur in the ocean," said Karl. "These are the organisms that live in hot deep-sea vents and hyper-saline ponds. They were never expected to occur in the open ocean."

But they're still a mystery to the scientists.

"We don't know what they do," said Karl. "We have none of them in culture. We haven't been able to grow them."

Karl said that archaea are found virtually everywhere, but were never recognized before.

"They're in the surface ocean. Every swimmer drinks them," he said. "But they're fundamentally different from bacteria if you look at the DNA."

These discoveries have drawn wide interest, and Karl expects even more researchers, and the grants to support them, to join university scientists in this continuing venture. In the past decade he has drawn between $750,000 and $1 million annually in research money for his projects. Helping with that will be the new $55 million, 200-foot research vessel Kilo Moana, built by the Department of Defense with Navy money, and christened a couple of weeks ago in Florida. It's expected in the Islands by June for UH marine research programs that have lacked a ship for two years.

"This is one of 28 ships the Navy has built for research scientists," said Karl. "It's the pride of the fleet."

It will carry 39 research scientists. By comparison, the vessel that was retired in 1999 carried only 17. Karl has been with the university since 1978 and has participated in more than 70 oceanographic cruises and served as a research submersible observer on more than 30 dives.

Already he has been outstanding on the UH faculty, said Edward Laws, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education at UH-Manoa.

"He is one of only a few people to have twice won the University of Hawai'i Regents' Medal for Excellence in Research, once as an associate professor and later as a full professor," said Laws.

In 1997 Karl was designated one of the "Ninety Fabulous Faculty" during celebrations of the university's 90th anniversary. The international honor Karl is receiving this week was named in honor of Archibald Gowanlock Huntsman, a pioneering Canadian oceanographer and fishery biologist who did much of his work on Atlantic salmon, fish migration and marine ecology. Huntsman died in 1972.