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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 2, 2006

New UH research center targets microbial sea life

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

A new research center at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa will explore the relatively unknown area of microbial oceanography through partnerships with several leading research institutions and more than $50 million in funding.

David Karl, UH-Manoa professor and director of the newly formed Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education, said its broad goal is to understand the "incredible diversity of microbial species that exist" in the ocean and how the ocean is able to sustain those millions of species on the microbial level.

"There are literally millions of microbes in a single drop of seawater. We want to understand basically the principles that allow that to happen," he said.

UH-Manoa will be the host university of the center, which will include scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oregon State University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The research center will be financed by nearly $40 million in grants from the National Science Foundation over the next 10 years. The center also will receive about $12 million from UH and additional funding from the Agouron Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

"Forty million dollars is a significant investment for the NSF," said Nathan Pitts, National Science Foundation director of integrated activities, during a teleconference yesterday. "We see an unusual opportunity for innovative research and education" in microbial oceanography, he said.

What makes the center significant is the team of scientists from the various universities who will partner to conduct the research, said Pitts.

"The full diversity of the nation's intellectual talent will be engaged," Pitts said in a news release.

Karl said the research could have many implications, but it's too early to even know what they are. He said it could help to understand the Earth's climate change and other ecosystem changes.

"This is basically a science project it's not meant to spin off into private industries, although it could. It's really meant to follow our curiosity about the sea around us," he said.

Karl also said the center intends to be involved in reaching out to secondary schools in the areas of marine biology and science in general. Barbara Klemm, with the College of Education, is helping to develop an education plan that could be implemented in Hawai'i schools.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.