Seas and oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, host the majority of its biomass, and contribute significantly to all global cycles of matter and energy. All life on Earth most likely originated from microbes in the sea, says a report by the European Science Foundation’s Marine Board.
The report says recent rapid developments in molecular ecology, metagenomics and ecological modelling illustrate that microbes represent the most important biological group on Earth in terms of phylogenetic and functional diversity.
In addition, interdisciplinary research has uncovered new and unexpected roles of microbes in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, silica and iron and many other trace elements in the seas and oceans.
Marine micro-organisms produce the organic matter and oxygen required to sustain life and facilitate the storage, transport and turnover of key biological elements. Thus, micro-organisms are the foundation of life and are of critical importance to the habitability and sustainability of our planet, the report states.
“The enormous microbial diversity also gives rise to a largely untapped amount of genetic information, bioactive compounds and biomaterials which could deliver important benefits and applications of societal interest, for example to improve medical treatments, fisheries and aquaculture applications, the supply of energy and for the development of industrial products and processes.”
Yet, despite the clear importance of marine microbes and the major opportunities they present, the report says very little is known about marine microbial diversity, the enormous array of microbial types and their ecological functions and interactions.
Moreover, the vast majority (90% to 99%) of marine micro-organisms cannot be cultured under standard laboratory conditions and their growth and physiology cannot, therefore, be studied in the way that has proven so successful throughout the 20th century for medically important micro-organisms.
It says addressing these knowledge gaps requires a significant increase in research investment in Europe, coupled with a better coordination of European researchers, projects, programmes and infrastructures.
An expert working group of the board has identified a set of key societal and scientific questions and has made a series of recommendations on key future research priorities and needs. The group calls for:
- Establishment of a coordinated pan-European research programme on marine microbiology
- Creation of a reference library and a European repository for cultivated collections.
- Setting up of an integrated, multidisciplinary European centre for marine data management and analysis.
- Promotion of interest in marine microbial research, and improvements in training and education.
The report says that establishing a major pan-European research programme on marine microbiology will create a wealth of material and opportunities for outreach and education, which will raise the profile of marine microbial research in Europe.
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