Understanding microbes as partners of life

Two researchers from ETH Zurich have been awarded USD 1.5 million each from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to explore the diverse symbiotic relationships between bacteria and other aquatic organisms.
A yellow sponge that lives in symbiosis with microorganisms.

Life is symbiosis – this is becoming increasingly clear. Whether bacteria, plant, animal or human, all organisms are colonised by microbes. Within these organisms, microbes form fascinating, mutually beneficial communities. An example is coral, which house microalgae that live within their tissue and give the coral reefs their bright colours. Scientists are increasingly recognising that such symbioses are crucial to the function of ecosystems and evolution. However, the majority of these partnerships have barely been researched.

Jörn Piel and Roman Stocker are two scientists who study the secret relationships of marine microbes at ETH Zurich. Now they will each receive an “Investigator Award” from the renowned Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation amounting to USD 1.5 million. The prize, which is awarded as a grant, enables the two ETH professors to research aquatic symbioses involving microorganisms for five years.

From computer chips to research funding

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty established the Californian foundation. Moore became internationally famous as the creator of Moore’s law on the development of computer chips. The couple established the foundation in 2000 with USD 5 billion in initial capital. Since then, they have supported projects in fundamental research, environmental protection and health.

With the “Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems” initiative, the foundation supports 15 individual research projects conducted by scientists from various universities worldwide. They have a common focus on marine and freshwater ecosystems, which are among the most biodiverse habitats on earth. The initiative aims to understand how symbiotic relationships work between bacteria, single-celled algae and aquatic organisms, and the ecological roles they play.

Jörn Piel’s research project revolves around marine sponges, which phylogenetically are one of the oldest multicellular animals. Sponges form intimate partnerships with bacteria, which can make up a substantial part of the sponge biomass. Sponge bacteria produce, among other things, defensive substances that protect the community from predators and overgrowing organisms.

“We want to develop methods to more precisely characterise these fascinating but elusive associations,” explains Piel. He is interested in the bioactive substances and how they are synthesised by the bacteria. These natural substances, which are currently very difficult to access, are potential candidates for new antibiotics or agents for cancer therapy. However, most sponge bacteria cannot be cultivated in the laboratory to date.

Roman Stocker is interested in how marine microbes interact with their environment. The grant allows him to study the symbiotic relationship between two major players in the ocean food chain: phytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria. Using photosynthesis, phytoplankton produce the organic matter that feeds a wide range of marine organisms – including heterotrophic bacteria, which depend on the supply of organic substances. In return, the phytoplankton receive inorganic nutrients and vitamins from the bacteria.

Stocker aims to find out how the symbiotic microbes find each other, bond and exchange nutrients. “The way the two tiny creatures work together ultimately affects the carbon cycle and climate,” he says. For Stocker, it is already the second Investigator Award he has received from the Moore Foundation.