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ESF wants better understanding of the role of marine microbes

The European Science Foundation has highlighted the gaps in knowledge of the marine microorganisms that play a vital role in maintaining the health of the planet.

Its marine science board has produced a position paper, “Marine microbial diversity and its role in ecosystem functioning and environmental change”, which examines the main scientific and societal questions that will drive the European research agenda in this area in future.

The paper provides a road map for guiding future research, according to Frank Oliver Glöckner of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany, who is the chairman of the board’s expert working group responsible for the document.

“We have known for some time that marine microorganisms are a crucial component of the Earth’s life-support system. Yet despite their obvious importance, very little is known about them, including how many different types are present in the oceans, what the role of each of them is and even how to define a microbial species,” he said.

Europe has traditionally played a leading role in marine microbial research and the paper shows how the field is advancing rapidly, driven by technological and scientific developments and the problems of global climate change, population growth and over-exploitation of marine resources.

In order to maintain Europe’s competitiveness in this area of research, it calls for a coordinated, pan-European research programme focused on marine microbiology, but cautions that funds for research alone will not be sufficient. The Marine Board proposes setting up a European repository for cultivated microbial collections and a centre for marine data management to support future research activities.

“The implementation of technologies will generate unprecedented amounts of data. This paper sends the important message that a coordinated European data centre will be essential to ensure that we are able to optimise the use of this data for the benefit of society,” said Kostas Nittis of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research in Anavyssos, Greece and chairman of the ESF marine board.