August 9, 2004
Jonathan Zehr receives major award from Moore
Foundation for marine microbiology research
By Tim Stephens
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has selected Jonathan Zehr, professor
of ocean sciences at UCSC, to receive more than $4 million over the
next five years as a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator
in marine science. The award will support Zehr's groundbreaking research
on microorganisms that "fertilize" the oceans by converting
nitrogen gas into a form that other organisms can use (a process called
Jonathan Zehr, professor of ocean sciences, said the Moore grant
will free him to focus more on his research activities.
Photo: rr jones
The award will support Zehr's groundbreaking research on microorganisms
that "fertilize" the oceans by converting nitrogen gas into
a form that other organisms can use (a process called nitrogen fixation).
The funding for Zehr and a handful of other investigators is part of
a 10-year, $145 million Marine Microbiology initiative launched by the
Moore Foundation this year. Marine microbiology (sometimes called microbial
oceanography) is a rapidly expanding field that is commanding increasing
attention as scientists learn more about marine microorganisms and the
ways in which they influence the global environment.
Zehr's discovery of nitrogen fixation by certain kinds of marine microbes,
for example, has implications for everything from the ecology of the
open ocean to global warming. Because nitrogen is one of life's essential
nutrients, nitrogen fixation helps determine how productive ocean waters
can be. And because nitrogen stimulates the growth of marine algae,
which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, nitrogen
fixation is an important factor in determining how the ocean regulates
and responds to global warming.
The new grant from the Moore Foundation will enable Zehr to increase
his research efforts in this area.
"This is a particularly interesting area of research for me, and
it has spawned a lot of general interest among other scientists because
of its broad implications," Zehr said.
He added that the award will relieve him from the need to write grant
proposals and allow him to focus more on his research activitites. "It's
certainly going to change my life for awhile," he said.
In a study published in the journal Nature in 2001, Zehr and
his colleagues used molecular screening techniques to identify several
strains of single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria that are active
nitrogen fixers. These microbes, isolated from a monitoring site in
the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, are abundant enough throughout the world's
oceans that they may account for as much nitrogen fixation as all previously
known nitrogen-fixers. Zehr said he suspects there are even more nitrogen-fixers
waiting to be found in the open ocean.
Zehr has plans to use new approaches, including genomics and remote
sensing technology, to gain more insights into microbial processes in
the open ocean. The introduction of new instrumentation and powerful
new molecular techniques has been an important factor behind the growing
interest in marine microbiology, he said.
"We have already learned a lot about marine microorganisms from
genomics, and it has become a very high profile area of research. I
expect to see general interest in this area continuing to grow as more
discoveries are made," Zehr said.
One of Zehr's collaborators, David Karl of the University of Hawaii,
has also been selected as a Moore Foundation Investigator, along with
two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sallie
Chisholm and Edward DeLong (who recently moved to MIT from the Monterey
Bay Aquarium Research Institute).
David Kingsbury, director of marine science at the Moore Foundation,
said that it was the foundation's goal to not only support the top scientists
in marine microbiology, but to stimulate close collaborations between
these scientists to even further accelerate progress in this key area
of ocean research.
In addition to supporting these individual investigators, the Moore
Foundation has provided a grant to the Institute for Biological Energy
Alternatives to support a marine microbial sampling expedition in the
Atlantic Ocean. The institute, headed by genome sequencing pioneer Craig
Venter, is using techniques developed for sequencing the human genome
to explore microbial diversity in the oceans.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched its 10-year Marine Microbiology
initiative in April 2004, with the goal of attaining new knowledge regarding
the composition, function, and ecological role of microbial communities
in the world's oceans. Funding strategies include supporting Moore Foundation
Investigators, linking scientists in related fields, establishing intern
programs, and supporting select research projects that will affect ocean
science as a whole.
The foundation was established in November 2000 by Intel cofounder
Gordon Moore and his wife Betty to create positive outcomes for future
generations. The foundation funds outcome-based grants and initiatives
to achieve significant and measurable results. Grant making supports
the foundation's principal areas of concern: environmental conservation,
science, higher education, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
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