Microbial monitoring in global ocean proposed

06-25-2014

Senior Research Scientists William Balch and Michael Lomas joined colleagues from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Southern Florida, Oregon State University, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in calling for the creation of an international Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) to provide regular monitoring of ecosystem function at the microbial level. In a commentary by Muller-Karger et al. in the June, 2014 issue of [140]Oceanography, they make a compelling case for how an MBON could provide key data to help identify problems and design solutions for ongoing changes in the global ocean.

The group of experts in long-term ocean time series proposes to standardize metrics and monitor vital signs of ecosystem function by focusing on microorganisms, which comprise the lowest level of the food web. Microorganisms, in part, were chosen because of the important role they play in maintaining balance in the global ocean and overall planetary health. They were also chosen because human pressures are affecting microbial assemblages, and these can be measured and their impacts assessed. Such ongoing changes in microbial communities have a boomerang effect, bringing with them changes in fishery catch potential, patterns of harmful algal bloom occurrences, dispersal of invasive species, and possibly other shifts in marine habitats around the world.

Using tiny microorganisms as indicators of how well an ecosystem is functioning has advantages for they are vast in numbers, hugely diverse, and have a total biomass that is far larger than all metazoans (multi-cellular organisms) combined. They can be measured quickly with tools already available, economically, and over large ocean basin scales. Various functional groups of microorganisms also are associated with specific chemical and physical ocean properties, which, when measured, can help in the assessment of what is changing in the ocean, where such change is happening, and what its potential outcome may be.

The group has outlined a plan forward to implement a coordinated, international monitoring effort with the goal of "understanding ecosystem function--the array of biogeochemical and ecological interactions that take place within a system, as well as the services that ecosystems may provide." Microorganisms will serve as the window into that understanding. The first step would be to determine the minimum set of observations to define microbial biodiversity. Their vision includes linking of in situ observations of phytoplankton via traditional microscopy, automated cell imaging and classification, pigment analysis, optical measurements, and satellite imagery. The next step, and perhaps more difficult challenge, would be to connect existing international programs and standardize methodologies so data could be compared on local, national, regional, and global scales. This would require not only the integration of existing time series, but the commitment of governments around the globe to provide needed funded so we can foretell what is happening at large ocean scales by assessing its tiniest and most fundamental inhabitants.

Balch oversees the nation's longest running time series of coastal phytoplankton productivity (started in 1978). Lomas and his colleagues at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences run the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, a sampling program in the North Atlantic Ocean, just southeast of Bermuda that has been dutifully monitoring temperature, pH and a range of other biological and chemical properties on a biweekly to monthly basis since 1988.