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USC Awarded $25 Million NSF Grant for New Center to Study the Deep Biosphere

USC College's Katrina J. Edwards has been recommended for an award of a $25 million National Science Foundation grant to establish a new science and technology center. Photo credit Philip Channing.
USC College's Katrina J. Edwards has been recommended for an award of a $25 million National Science Foundation grant to establish a new science and technology center. Photo credit Philip Channing.

Katrina J. Edwards, professor of biological sciences and Earth sciences in the University of Southern California's College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, has been recommended for an award of a $25 million NSF grant to establish a new science and technology center: the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI). Edwards and her USC team will partner with several major research universities and national laboratories to study the “deep biosphere” beneath the oceans.

A little known fact is that nearly half of the total biomass on earth resides in sub-surface habitats that include mines, aquifers, soils on the continents and sediments and rocks below the ocean floor. This massive area is what Edwards and her research partners plan to explore in three main field projects at North Pond, Juan de Fuca and South Pacific Gyre, where they will conduct a global-scale, international, coordinated mission on the sub-seafloor biosphere.

"Our mission statement is to understand the extent, function, dynamics and implication of the existence of a deep biosphere on earth,” Edwards said. “We focus on the marine realm because it is by far the biggest challenge in terms of potential habitat size."

"USC has a strong track record of success in winning these types of center excellence awards across the university,” said USC Executive Vice President and Provost C.L. Max Nikias. “We have built a reputation for quality research that leverages our strengths in multidisciplinary collaboration between our schools, other institutions and industry. This highly competitive award demonstrates that Katrina Edwards, other College faculty, and USC researchers are at the forefront of science in the exploration of the biosphere at the interface between the deep ocean and the Earth crust.”

The Center will facilitate the achievement of the principal scientific, education and diversity goals of deep sub-seafloor biosphere researchers; advance the suite of scientific tools; train and educate a new and diverse generation of undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral deep sub-seafloor biosphere researchers; and translate knowledge of the deep sub-seafloor biosphere and ocean sciences to a broad and diverse community that includes K-12 children.

"The awarding of a NSF Science and Technology Center to Katrina Edwards is a tremendous achievement for her and for her research team as they seek to understand the sub-ocean biosphere and the impact it has on the future of our planet," said Howard Gillman, dean of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. "USC College is proud to be the lead institution and home for the Center and is committed to supporting world-class, transformative research and entrepreneurial faculty who work collaboratively across disciplines and institutional boundaries to advance the frontiers of science and tackle the major issues of our time."

Edwards believes the timing of the grant is on target: “Given the maturity of the field and the significant advancement in technology, this is an ideal time to establish the Center,” she said. “My team and I are thrilled to receive this extraordinary opportunity to collaborate with scientists from around the globe as we pursue our ambitious scientific, education and diversity goals.”

The Integrated Ocean drilling Program (IODP) in 2010-11 will dedicate drilling time to sample this frontier habitat in three different areas and habitats: The Southern Pacific Ocean, a site off the Pacific Northwest of North America, and in the mid-Atlantic.

“These studies herald a dedicated effort by scientific ocean drilling to in the future study the limits of extreme life on Earth. This quest will also address the question of how life can evolve on terrestrial planets,” said Hans Christian Larsen, IODP vice-president.

USC was one of five institutions to win a new Science and Technology Center (STC) award following a recent, merit-based competition in which 247 preliminary proposals had been received. In a statement from NSF, it was reported that the STC program supports integrative partnerships that require large-scale, longer term funding to produce research and education of the highest quality.

"These five new STCs will involve world class teams of researchers and educators, integrate learning and discovery in innovative ways, tackle complex problems that require the long-term support afforded by this program, and lead to the development of new technologies with significant impact well into the future," said NSF Director Arden L. Bement.

Partner universities and laboratories include University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Pacific NW, University of Rhode Island, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science Technology, Harvard University and the University of Bremen.