Skip to main content

Marine Biologist Takes Risks

USC Dornsife’s Jed Fuhrman will receive part of a $35 million award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to conduct high-risk research focusing on how complex marine microbial systems interact and change over time.

New Marine Microbiology Initiative Investigator Jed Fuhrman, McCulloch-Crosby Chair of Marine Biology in USC Dornsife, will hire full-time personnel needed to handle the expected avalanche of new data that will be generated. Photo by Philip Channing.
New Marine Microbiology Initiative Investigator Jed Fuhrman, McCulloch-Crosby Chair of Marine Biology in USC Dornsife, will hire full-time personnel needed to handle the expected avalanche of new data that will be generated. Photo by Philip Channing.

Jed Fuhrman, McCulloch-Crosby Chair of Marine Biology in USC Dornsife, has been honored with a prestigious Marine Microbiology Initiative Investigator Award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Fuhrman is one of 16 scientists from 14 institutions worldwide selected by the foundation to receive a total of up to $35 million over five years. Fuhrman and others selected will pursue pioneering research in the field of marine microbial ecology in order to further basic understanding of ocean ecosystems and provide new insights into pressing issues such as climate change.

Currently on sabbatical in Barcelona, Spain, Fuhrman expressed his excitement at having been selected for the honor from among more than 180 global leaders in marine microbial ecology and related fields.

“The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation singles out a small number of individuals from around the world whose ‘track records’ show they are likely to make great strides if provided these generous awards that allow the freedom to pursue risky and expensive research,” Fuhrman said.

“This award offers a great deal of support and the ability to do the kind of high-risk work not possible with typical research grants.”

Too often, the most innovative scientists are hampered by funding that binds them to a solid, but conservative research agenda, said Bruce Alberts, a foundation board member and editor-in-chief of Science magazine.

“These awards give scientists in marine microbiology the freedom and flexibility to take more risks, forge unusual collaborations and, ultimately, make noteworthy, new discoveries,” Alberts said, echoing Fuhrman’s sentiments.

Fuhrman and the other awardees will challenge the way we think about our oceans, said the foundation’s chief program officer Vicki Chandler.

“Marine microbes make up over 90 percent of the biomass in the ocean, and we know they are critically linked to ocean health and productivity,” Chandler said. “But even with the advances in  the past eight years in understanding who these microbes are, we know little about what they do and how they interact.”

Established in 2000, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation seeks to advance environmental conservation, patient care and scientific research. The Science Program’s Marine Microbiology Initiative strives to deepen understanding of marine microbial communities.

“The foundation and its science program are inspired by these scientists and their work,” said foundation program director Ajit Subramaniam. "Jed [Fuhrman] has proposed some pioneering approaches based on ecological theory to understanding the interactions among microbes and between microbes and their environment.”

The funding will enable Fuhrman to further his research into how trillions of microscopic organisms at the base of the ocean’s food webs interact with each other and their environment, affecting the movement of nutrients in our oceans.

These tiny organisms, which are the smallest in the ocean and are of key importance in the global cycles of carbon, nitrogen and other elements, are also, as Fuhrman explains, “so mind-bogglingly abundant that if stretched end-to-end they would reach to the next galaxy.”

At USC Dornsife, Fuhrman is researching how complex marine microbial systems — include viruses, bacteria, archaea and protists — interact and change over time. They are looking at how these interactions result in biogeochemical processes such as carbon and nitrogen cycling that have far reaching global implications, including those for climate change. The award will allow him to expand and deepen his existing research by adopting more comprehensive research methods to provide far greater accuracy.

“The microbes found at any given place and time in the sea are a result of the balance between controlling factors that include ‘bottom-up’ resources, ‘top down’ predators and viruses, and ‘sideways’ competition and communication as well as other chemical interactions,” he said. “I plan to use molecular biological and ecological techniques to study all these processes simultaneously, because the more conventional way of studying them one at a time risks missing the entire picture.”

Fuhrman will carry out his research at USC Dornsife’s long-running San Pedro Ocean Time Series, part of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. Its primary sampling site is located midway between Los Angeles and the USC Wrigley Marine Laboratory on Santa Catalina, in approximately 900 meters of water. This site is visited monthly by ship for sampling from the surface to 890 meters in depth. 

Fuhrman and co-investigator David Caron, professor of biological sciences, have been conducting monthly sampling at the location since 2000, supported by the National Science Foundation as part of its Microbial Observatory Program, and since last year supported by NSF’s Dimensions in Biodiversity program.

“The new support provided by this award will allow us to go far beyond the basic research program currently supported, with much more high resolution sequencing, experimental manipulations, mesocosm studies and single cell analyses,” Fuhrman said.

The award will also enable him to hire full-time personnel such as technicians, postdocs and informaticists who are needed to handle the expected avalanche of new data that will be generated.

“I feel gratified and appreciated, but also very lucky,” Fuhrman said of the award.