Research and education at the MBL – carried out by MBL resident scientists as well as hundreds of the world’s leading scientists who are attracted to the MBL’s distinctive resources and strengths each year – focus on fundamental biological discovery to explore the origins, diversity, and nature of life on a changing planet and to inform the human condition. Fueled by our convening power, scientists at the MBL focus strategically in a number of areas, including:
- new discoveries emerging from the study of novel marine organisms, encompassing research in regenerative biology, neuroscience, sensory physiology, and comparative evolution and genomics;
- the study of microbiomes and microbial diversity and ecology in a variety of ocean and terrestrial habitats;
- cutting-edge imaging and computation, illuminating cellular function and previously unknown biology; and
- organismal adaptation and resilience in the face of global change and rapidly changing ecosystems.
A Renaissance of Biological Discovery in Marine Organisms
The MBL is located on Cape Cod, a major biogeographic ecosystem home to a rich diversity of marine organisms. Since the MBL was founded in 1888, research here on marine organisms has laid the foundation for some of our most important discoveries. Sea urchins have taught us about fertility. Sea slugs have shed light on learning and memory. Sponges have revealed secrets about immunity. Surf clams have provided information about the complexities of cell division. And the local squid has shared clues about how nerve cells communicate and transmit information.
Many organisms living in the ocean today are close relatives of ancient organisms that appeared early in evolution. Often, marine species are endowed with large cells and elegantly simple mechanisms for carrying out the basic cellular processes of life. These relatively simple creatures serve as living windows through which biologists can view basic processes common to all forms of life, including humans.
Recent advances in biology, imaging, and computer science have expanded our ability to explore complex biological processes in these organisms and provides an opportunity to develop novel marine model organisms to address fundamental questions in life science and biomedical research not readily accessible in the few organisms currently used in research.
The MBL’s Marine Resources Center serves as a catalyst for a transformative new biology, attracting the best and brightest new investigators and utilizing MBL’s noted convening power to extend the MBL’s much-storied intellectual summer environment throughout the year. This effort stands to place the MBL not only at the epicenter of vibrant scientific collaborations, but also into a national and international role in the discovery of new biology and the establishment of 21st century model organisms with which to plumb the depths of important biological frontiers.
Microbes as a Key to Ocean and Human Health
Our biosphere would not exist without microbes. The 1030 organisms that comprise the microbial biosphere are descendants of populations that transformed our once sterile planet into a habitable environment. Today’s microbes fill environments from freshwater to oceans, and soils to sediments, as well as the atmosphere. Microbial communities and their tightly integrated consortia orchestrate all the major biogeochemical cycles sustaining life on Earth and shape the evolution, development, and health of all multicellular life. Just as the first microscopes revealed an unseen unicellular world, studies of microbial communities in their natural environments (“microbiomes”) are nucleating a new synthesis of how living systems operate, from organismal to planetary scales.
The MBL builds upon its long-standing strengths in microbiology by convening worldwide experts to discover fundamental principles that underlie the function of microbial systems across spatial and temporal scales. Identification of these principles ultimately will catalyze innovative solutions to questions in both ecosystem and human health. Powerful synergies are needed to integrate decades of research and education, at the MBL and elsewhere, focused on microbiology, marine biology, evolution, and ecosystems to address a fundamental, overarching question: how do collections of tiny and frequently single-cell microbial “factories” communicate and orchestrate processes so critical to life on Earth and in its oceans?
Seeing the Invisible: Integrating Imaging, Computation, and Biology at the MBL
Making the invisible visible is a dream that dates back centuries, since the very first glimpses of cellular life in the late 17th century. Discovering invisible worlds that no one knew existed, in fact, has always been the raison d’etre for biological discovery at the MBL – whether exploring the rich diversity of life in oceans and coastal marshes or uncovering the molecular details of intracellular life in a variety of cells from diverse organisms. What integrates all such projects is the need for spatial awareness of how the inner and outer life of cells and organisms are connected to each other, thus enabling scientists to see the invisible and thus gain a visual awareness of concepts and ideas that would otherwise always remain inferential or theoretical.
The MBL has long been at the forefront of developing new approaches in imaging and applying those methods to biological problems and questions. In partnership with a number of commercial vendors and developers, this special capacity has played a large role in MBL’s history, attracting outstanding scientists and students with its combination of imaging technology, computational expertise, courses, and cutting-edge biology.
To address a new set of biological questions, the nature of which were unfathomable only a decade ago, the MBL is establishing a year-round collaborative center for research and training in next-generation light microscopy and computational image analysis. Recent advances in light microscopy are creating unprecedented opportunities for understanding living systems. Fluorescent tagging of endogenous genes, high-sensitivity detectors, super-resolution approaches, and optogenics all provide powerful new tools for understanding cell behavior in healthy and disease states, and new methods are being continually developed. In addition, computational analysis is becoming increasingly important in the new “big data” era of imaging. The MBL applies these approaches distinctively to the study of cellular life, from microbes to newly discovered marine model organisms in a range of ecosystems.
Ecological and Evolutionary Change in the Ocean Biosphere
Scientists agree that modern activities are altering the composition and function of every ecosystem on the planet, particularly those associated with oceans and ocean life. Coastal ecosystems are areas of particularly rapid change because of the large and growing proportion of the human population living on or near the coast. Habitat destruction, declining water quality from the input of nutrients and pollutants, over-harvesting of wild stocks, and the introduction of non-native species have already greatly changed most coastal ecosystems. Added to these local and regional stresses are the growing global effects of rising ocean temperatures and changing ocean chemistry due to increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. These stresses impact coastal ecosystems at every level, from altering the genetic diversity of individual species, their physiology and behavior, to impacting biodiversity and changing the flow of carbon and nitrogen on regional scales. Understanding and responding to these profound changes will be essential to preserve the biodiversity of coastal systems.
The MBL will lead an effort to analyze and synthesize the effects of anthropogenic changes on coastal species and ecosystems. Woods Hole is located at a major biogeographic boundary separating the warmer mid-Atlantic fauna from the cold-adapted species to the north. Both local and global temperature increases are shifting these boundaries, making the MBL ideally situated to detect and evaluate biological changes as they occur. What are the ecological, evolutionary, and functional consequences of the new networks or organisms created by these shifting boundaries? The MBL takes a holistic approach to address this challenge in understanding ocean life in a period of rapid climate change – an approach that spans the traits of species under selection to the role of assemblages on biogeochemical cycles and that brings together physiology, genetics, mathematical modeling, bioinformatics, phylogeography, paleontology, and functional analyses.