C-MORE: Unlocking the Secrets and Importance of Marine Microbes

At less than a hundredth of the thickness of a strand of human hair, marine microorganisms are small in stature—but their impact on life is enormous in comparison.

“Marine microorganisms sustain planetary survival. They produce most of the oxygen we breathe,” said David M. Karl, director for the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa). “They capture solar energy, produce food and sequester carbon dioxide, yet we are largely ignorant about how they live and interact.”

It is this ignorance on the part of science that has led Karl to delve deeper into one of the ocean’s last remaining mysteries. Invisible to the naked eye, marine microbes produce nearly half of the Earth’s oxygen supply. They consume many pollutants of human activities and serve as the base of the marine food chain. Unlocking the secrets of these infinitesimal sea creatures and their roles in nature, will have a tremendous impact on the environment, marine industries and medicine.

A microbial biologist and oceanographer in UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, Karl was instrumental in the establishment of an open ocean time-series station, known as HOT Station ALOHA, in the subtropical North Pacific as a sentinel for observing the effects of climate on the structure and function of microbial communities. He has participated in more than 100 major oceanographic cruises and submersible dives around the world to identify new microbes that live in harsh environments.

Director David Karl and Co-Director Edward DeLong in their C-MORE Lab

Since joining UH Mānoa in 1978, Karl has been principal investigator on more than 80 grants bringing over $100 million in federal and foundation funds to the University. Additionally, he has brought in over $50 million to support various research vessels and submersibles used in his own research. 

In 2006, Karl was awarded a 10-year $36.8 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that led to the establishment of C-MORE, one of only 17 NSF Science and Technology Centers in the nation. C-MORE is an interdisciplinary partnership led by UH Mānoa that includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California at Santa Cruz, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oregon State University, Columbia University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

TRICHODESMIUM, a nitrogen-fixing microorganism, as seen through an epi-fluorescent microscope. Collected from Station ALOHA, this organism and others related to it are able to produce bioavailable nitrogen from the unlimited supply of nitrogen gas dissolved in seawater and are key to oceanic ecosystem sustainability.
A drop of seawater collected from Station ALOHA as seen through a false color scanning microscope. The colors depict different groups of microorganisms, as determined by shape and size.

“Senator Inouye was a champion of C-MORE because he was impressed by UH’s world-class expertise in microbial oceanography,” said Vassilis L. Syrmos, vice president for Research and Innovation at the University of Hawai‘i. “He also understood the importance of this research, its significance to the environment and its future potential in healthcare and other industries.” 

C-MORE investigators are recognized leaders in the field and their research has appeared in over 600 scientific papers and published in many leading journals. It is also home to four elected members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), including Karl, C-MORE Co-Director Edward DeLong, and MIT’s Sallie Chisholm and Ed Boyle. Karl, Chisholm and Woods Hole’s John Waterbury are also recipients of NAS medals of distinction. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Chisholm with the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor in science and engineering, for her research on the ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus—the world’s smallest, yet most abundant, photosynthetic organism. 

In addition to its primary research function, C-MORE has taken an active role in increasing scientific literacy about microbial oceanography among the general population, as well as training microbial oceanographers. It offers undergraduate internships, a summer graduate training course, a Native Hawaiian outreach program and provides resources for K-12 educators, including training workshops, science kits, and a teacher-at-sea program.

“C-MORE was created to explore the enormous and mostly uncharted biodiversity in the sea,” added Karl. “But it is the dedicated efforts and accomplishments of our investigators and staff that garnered us international attention and helped us to establish the University of Hawai‘i as the world’s leading institution in microbial oceanography.”