CAMBRIDGE, MD (Dec. 1, 2017)–Amazing diversity hides beneath the surface of the ocean where tiny microbes work busily; transforming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oxygen, converting sunlight into energy, and breaking down nitrogen gas to serve as food. University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researcher Victoria Coles and her team have developed a new tool that advances our understanding of how these microbes maintain this complex ocean chemistry.
The new model, published today in Science, simulates the impact of microbial activities on the chemistry in the North Atlantic and suggests that the evolution of a metabolic function rather than the evolution of an individual species shapes the ocean as we know it. It is the first model that actually predicts genes and transcription throughout the ocean.
“The model suggests that it’s not the evolution of species but rather the evolution of microbial metabolisms that sets our present-day ocean chemistry,” said Victoria Coles, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory.
Microbes are like invisible machines that together perform the biochemical transformations that maintain the ocean’s balance and function. The ocean may be inhabited by as many as 170,000 different microbial species, but we know next to nothing about the functions of most. Yet they all work together to make the ocean work the way we know it.
“Most microbes we can’t bring into the lab and learn about because we don’t know how to grow them,” said Coles. “How does a model capture species we don’t yet know and can’t grow We decided to begin with the smaller number of different metabolic processes that microbes can perform. We make synthetic model organisms with different functions and throw them all into the model ocean. Then we watch to see how they sort it out and compare the predicted community genes and transcripts to direct observations.”
It’s kind of like a SIM City build-your-own-world, but for microbes. Throw a wide diversity of characters into a pool together and the attributes you want them to have, and see what happens.