Bay Paul Center

The breadth and mysteries of Julie Huber’s research—from exploring the dark, peaceful ocean depths to mining enormous data sets about the microbes that live there—are captured in this video profile by Geoff Wyman of Falmouth. Huber describes her background growing up in the Midwest, and how her love for the ocean eventually led to a fascination with marine microbes and how they power the planet’s elemental cycles. Today, Huber dives to deep-sea environments around the world to collect samples of fluids from underwater volcanoes, which she analyzes back at the MBL to discover the microbial communities that can thrive under such extreme environmental conditions.

Huber is associate director of the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center, and is also associate director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations at the University of Southern California.

Many thanks to Geoff Wyman for producing this video, the first in a series of profiles of MBL scientists.

Congratulations to MBL’s Linda Amaral Zettler and colleagues, whose paper introducing the “Plastisphere” has been named “First Runner Up: Best Environmental Science Papers of 2013” by the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The journal’s editors selected the winners from more than 1,730 papers it published last year on a range of topics in environmental science, technology, and policy.

Plastic debris from the ocean. Credit: Erik Zettler

Plastic debris from the ocean. Credit: Erik Zettler

The Plastisphere, a novel ecological habitat, is the flotilla of microbial communities attached to bits of plastic debris in the ocean. Amaral Zettler collaborated with Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association and Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to collect the samples (most of which were millimeter-sized pieces of plastic)  in the North Atlantic Ocean and analyze their microbial passengers. The Plastisphere, they say, raises a host of questions. How does it change environmental conditions for marine microbes and their competion for survival? How does it change the ocean ecosystem and affect larger organisms? Does it change where microbes, including pathogens, are transported in the ocean? Because plastics are so long-lived, the scientists say, they may play a significant role in distributing bacteria in the ocean.

Zettler ER, Mincer TJ, and Amaral-Zettler LA (2013) Life in the ‘Plastisphere’: Microbial communities on marine plastic debris. Env. Sci. & Tech. DOI: 10.1021/es401288x

female Brachionus manjavacas rotifer with egg. Credit: Kristin Gribble

Female Brachionus manjavacas rotifer with egg. Credit: Kristin Gribble

Older mothers give birth to shorter-lived offspring, an observation Alexander Graham Bell made in humans in 1918 that has since been confirmed in several animal and plant species. But are there any beneficial effects of advanced maternal age on offspring? Kristin Gribble and David Mark Welch of the MBL’s Bay Paul Center and colleagues studied this question in the rotifer (B. manjavacas), a tiny aquatic animal that is becoming established as a model organism for aging research. Advanced maternal age, they found, reduced the lifespan, fecundity and size of offspring. However, if they put the mothers on a calorie restricted diet during pregnancy, it reduced the severity of these effects to varying degrees, depending on the type of caloric restriction (90 percent reduction in food given or alternating cycles of eating and fasting) and the gender of the offspring (lifespan of female offspring increased by about 17 percent, but lifespan of males did not change). Understanding the basis for these different maternal effects, the scientists say, may one day guide effective interventions to improve human health and life span. (Aging Cell, doi: 10.1111/acel.12217, 2014).


MBL’s Linda Amaral Zettler and colleagues first described the Plastisphere, an ecological community of microbes floating on plastic debris in the ocean, last year. This week, Amaral Zettler, Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association, and Tracy Mincer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are presenting their latest discoveries about the Plastisphere, and how it interacts with the larger ocean ecosystem, at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. More information is here.

Greg Boyd holds a piece of macroplastic marine debris. Photo courtesy of Linda Amaral Zettler

SEA Education Association scientist Greg Boyd holds recovered foam floats containing invertebrates and microbial biofilm. New research being presented at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting delves deeper into the role microbial communities living on plastic marine debris play in the ocean ecosystem.
Credit: Erik Zettler, SEA

Contact: Terry Collins: 1-416-538-8712; or Diana Kenney, MBL: 508-289-7139;

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), a $500 million, 10-year international program that aims to reveal the quantity, movements, forms and origins of carbon inside our planet, has released its first major product after three years of inquiry: the volume Carbon on Earth.

Mitchell Sogin, director of the MBL’s Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, co-chairs the DCO’s Deep Life Directorate. This group is discovering and describing the microbes and viruses that live in the deep ocean and beneath the ocean floor, and how they interact with deep carbon cycles. Guiding questions include:

* What’s down there?

* Do different geological environments host different populations of microbes and viruses?

* How do they adapt to extreme environmental conditions in order to survive?

* How does biological carbon link to the slower deep cycle, and is biologically processed carbon represented in deep-Earth reservoirs?

* Did deep biochemistry play a central role in life’s origins?

The variety of bacterial life at extreme high-pressure depths worldwide constitutes a subterranean “Galapagos,” DCO scientists say, adding that such subsurface life comprises a large portion of Earth’s total biomass — estimated in the late 1990s to be a third to a half of all life, though that figure is now considered high.

DNA has unearthed a marvel of diversity among deep single-celled micro-organisms, notably Archaea. And deep fungi-organisms with complex cell structures (eukaryotes) in the marine subsurface, have been a scientific surprise.

“Given the extraordinarily low rates of respiration, subsurface microbes must reproduce very slowly, if at all,” says Deep Life Directorate member Steven D’Hondt of the University of Rhode Island. “They take at least hundreds to thousands of years to reproduce and it’s conceivable that they live without dividing for millions to tens of millions of years,” he says. Still to be determined, Dr. D’Hondt notes, is the extent to which these organisms are “microbial zombies, incapable of being revived to a normal state.”

Sogin and MBL scientist Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer who is also involved with the Deep Life Directorate, are this week attending the Deep Carbon Observatory’s International Science Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.


While we know approximately the thickness of Earth’s layers, the quantities of carbon below the surface in each layer remain a mystery. In fact, even the estimates of the carbon in the crust are quite uncertain. Fluxes between the layers complicate the mystery and the quest of the Deep Carbon Observatory. Credit: Deep Carbon Observatory

Bookmark and Share




« Previous PageNext Page »