Saturday, August 11, 2001


UH dean seeks
benefactor for
research center

The goal is to create a 'center
of excellence' for research
into microbial genomics

By Helen Altonn

The University of Hawaii's School of Earth Science and Technology is searching for about $2.5 million in private funds for technical support and a building to establish a new research center, the school's dean said.

A microbial genomics and ecology center would help increase understanding of the earth's climate changes through investigations into the ocean's ecology and tiny organisms, said Dean C. Barry Raleigh.

He said the facility would capitalize on work that UH oceanographer David Karl and his team and collaborators have been doing for 13 years at an ocean site about 60 miles off Oahu called Station Aloha. They announced three major discoveries of new groups of marine microorganisms during the past year.

The latest groups of microorganisms identified were nitrogen-fixing microbes that could have an important role in fertilizing the ocean and controlling carbon dioxide, believed to cause global warming in the atmosphere, the scientists said.

"This question of what's happening to our climate over the next 50 to 100 years is the question of the century for mankind, in my opinion," Raleigh said. "Every year it gets hotter, and no matter what the current (Bush) administration thinks, there are few scientists in the world who don't believe the (carbon dioxide) levels are causing the atmosphere to warm up significantly."

For the proposed research center, a new building is needed, possibly on Coconut Island, for the growing corps of scientists investigating marine microbial genomics and ecology, Raleigh said.

Hauling everything over to the island would be a handicap, he said, "but there isn't a great deal of space on campus for anything like this."

Wherever the center is located, Raleigh said, some type of shuttle service would be needed because he would like to see undergraduates majoring in biology or marine biology learn to use modern molecular biology laboratory equipment.

"It will be a tremendous educational facility," he said.

Detailed studies would be done on plankton and Archaea, ancient microorganisms that live in extreme ocean environments, and how they interact with carbon dioxide levels and climactic changes, Raleigh said.

The tiny creatures are a great mass of carbon dioxide-producing organisms, he said.

"They don't live very long, so carbon changes hands 50 to 100 times a year."

Scientists must map genomes of as many species of bacteria as possible to learn how their genes function, Raleigh said. Models then can be developed showing how they might respond to different stresses, such as the present warming trend due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he said.

Karl said combining biochemistry, global ecology, physiology and taxonomy of organisms under one roof would create "a center of excellence" to develop new knowledge and "build better understanding of our planet."

He said a nonprofit consortium is looking at a UH proposal to do experiments in large enclosures at sea to learn how microorganisms function. The goal is to characterize the microbial populations and see what changes are caused by effects such as global warming, Karl said.

The findings could maybe help to predict what might happen in the future if there is pollution in a coastal environment, a great plume of iron-rich soil into the sea or other changes, he said.

Commercial fish pens about 66 feet by 132 feet used for salmon culture in the Pacific Northwest would be placed at Station Aloha for the project.

They would contain a fairly large area of water and a captive population of all the organs living in the ocean for experiments, Karl said. Because the pens are totally enclosed, there would be no harmful environmental effects, he said.

Nutrients would be added in various amounts to the enclosures to study the response of the microbial populations.

Iron, produced in Hawaiian waters by dust from China, appears related to the growth of the nitrogen-fixing organisms, Karl said. A study on the dust input already is under way.

"This leads us to believe if you were to put iron around Hawaiian waters, you would stimulate growth of these organisms, and by so doing, would increase fish production and sequestration of carbon dioxide into the ocean."

These are important potential outcomes of large-scale fertilization, not only of Hawaiian waters, but any low-nutrient subtropical waters, Karl added.

The proposed research center would expand research on the new groups of microorganisms identified in the Hawaii Ocean Time-series program. Scientists with the HOT program have been investigating the ocean on a monthly basis at Station Aloha for 13 years.

The program recently received $1.5 million in National Science Foundation funding under an unusual two-year "creativity award," Karl said.

The proposed center, yet unnamed, would involve "going out and mapping all of the DNA in the ocean that we haven't found yet," he said.

Edward DeLong, a UH collaborator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, has begun that mission on a small scale, Karl said. DeLong found a group of organisms in Hawaiian waters that use sunlight instead of carbon dioxide, and they are half-green plants, he said.

The Monterey Bay researcher is collaborating with a corporation working on the Human Genome Project to learn more about the genes of the organisms, Karl said.

The single-celled Archaea, the simplest forms of life, have become diversified to survive in various and changing habitats, he pointed out.

"All three of the new groups not only are anomalies or enigmas or appendices left over from evolution; these are the mainstay of the ocean, dominant organisms," Karl said. "It boggles the mind that they were undiscovered for so long."

Ka Leo O Hawaii
University of Hawaii

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