Further proof of the ascendancy of microbes: 2011 NSF "biodiversity" grants mostly focused on microbes

As if the readers of this blog needing any more proof of the ascendancy of microbes and microbiology. Well, regardless, here is more. The NSF Announced recipients of the 2011 grants on “Dimensions of Biodiversity” – see The National Science Foundation (NSF) News Diversity of Life on Earth: NSF Awards Grants for Study of Dimensions of Biodiversity

And the recipients are strongly biased towards microbes relative to the general past patterns at many funding agencies.
Microbial focused awards:
Title: Pattern and process in marine bacterial, archaeal, and protistan biodiversity, and effects of human impacts
PI (Principal investigator): Jed Fuhrman, University of Southern California
Summary: Very little about marine microbial systems is understood, despite the fact that these diverse groups dominate cycling of elements in the oceans. Fuhrman and colleagues will compare heavily affected harbor regions with relatively pristine ocean habitat in the Los Angeles basin to understand patterns and relationships in marine microbial communities.

Title: Diversity and symbiosis: Examining the taxonomic, genetic, and functional diversity of amphibian skin microbiota
PI: Lisa Belden, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Summary: All animals host internal and external symbiotic microbes; most cause no harm and many are beneficial. This study seeks to understand the regulation of microbial communities on the skin of amphibian species, and how they may limit infection by a chytrid fungus that has decimated many amphibian populations around the globe.

Title: Lake Baikal responses to global change: The role of genetic, functional and taxonomic diversity in the planktonPI: Elena Litchman, Michigan State University
Summary: Microscopic plant- and animal-like plankton are the first links in aquatic food chains. This project will study the planktonic food web of the world’s largest, oldest, and most biologically diverse lake–Lake Baikal in Siberia–to predict how native vs. non-native plankton in this ecosystem will respond to accelerating environmental change

Title: Functional diversity of microbial trophic guilds defined using stable isotope ratios of proteinsPI: Ann Pearson, Harvard University
Summary: Studying the ecological interactions among microbes is difficult given their immense diversity and the scale of observation. This project will use isotopic ratios of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur produced during microbial metabolism to link microbes to their roles in biogeochemical and ecosystem processes. This novel approach will contribute to an understanding of what maintains diversity in microbes and, by extension, the roles microbes play in ecosystems.

Title: An integrated study of energy metabolism, carbon fixation, and colonization mechanisms in chemosynthetic microbial communities at deep-sea ventsPI: Stefan Sievert, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Summary: The 1977 discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems that obtain energy not through photosynthesis, but via inorganic chemical reactions greatly expanded the perception of life on Earth. However, there has been limited progress since then in understanding their underlying microbiology and biogeochemistry. This project will establish an international research program to better understand these deep-sea ecosystems and to place them in a global context.

Title: Functional diversity of marine eukaryotic phytoplankton and their contributions to carbon and nitrogen cyclingPI: Bess Ward, Princeton University
Summary: Marine phytoplankton form the base of food webs in the ocean’s surface layers, and thus represent the first incorporation of biologically important chemicals. This project will study two north Atlantic sites in two seasons to link the genetic diversity and species composition of phytoplankton communities to the carbon and nitrogen biogeochemistry of the surface ocean.

Title: IRCN (International Research Coordination Network): A Research Coordination Network for Biodiversity of CiliatesPI: John Clamp, North Carolina Central University
Summary: Ciliates are abundant, widespread protists found in all aquatic systems on Earth. However, it is estimated that science has described only 25 percent of these ubiquitous microorganisms, mainly in western European and eastern North American waters. This cooperative project is partially supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China, and will establish an International Research Coordination Network for Biodiversity of Ciliates (RCN-BC; including researchers from the United States, China, the United Kingdom and Brazil) to broaden exploration of these important protists.

Amazingly, there are only three awards not focused on microbes:

Title: The climate cascade: Functional and evolutionary consequences of climatic change on species, trait, and genetic diversity in a temperate ant communityPI: Nathan Sanders, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Summary: Sanders and colleagues will help us understand what mechanisms allow some species to adapt to shifts in climate, rather than migrating or going extinct. This project will reconstruct past adaptations to climate change in a foraging ant common in forests throughout the Eastern United States and sample ant nests introduced to outdoor experimental warming chambers to determine the ant’s capacity to adapt to heat stress.

Title: Integrating genetic, taxonomic, and functional diversity of tetrapods across the Americas and through extinction risk
PI: Thomas Brooks, NatureServe
Most large-scale efforts to assess biodiversity have focused on genetic, taxonomic and functional dimensions individually; it is unknown how these dimensions relate to each other. Brooks and colleagues are using a database of the 13,000 land vertebrates in the Americas to determine how changes in one dimension of biodiversity influence changes in others. Understanding how species composition influences the diversity of certain traits, for example, will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of conservation actions.

Title: Integrating dimensions of Solanumbiodiversity: Leveraging comparative and experimental transcriptomics to understand functional responses to environmental change
PI: Leonie Moyle, Indiana University
This research will highlight the role of drought and herbivore defense in driving the remarkable diversity of wild tomato species. With the economic importance of tomatoes and their relatives (such as peppers and potatoes), this study will help prepare society for the future challenges facing global food security.

And if the PIs of these grants have any sense, they will likely include some microbial studies as part of their projects.  Of course, in the end all ecosystems include a diversity of kinds of organisms, and focusing on microbes over other organisms is also a biased approach.  But we (that is, “Science”) have spent so many years ignoring the dark matter of the biological universe (the term I now use to refer to microbial diversity) that we have to focus on microbes because there is a lot of catching up to do there.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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