Bay Paul Center

The magnificent research vessel Sorcerer II, owned by the J. Craig Venter Institute, arrived in Woods Hole this morning and picked up two scientists before setting out for the Gulf of Maine. They are Erik Zettler of Sea Education Association (SEA) and Keven Dooley, a SEA Semester alumnus and 2014 summer research intern at the MBL from Colorado College. The two scientists, along with the MBL’s Linda Amaral-Zettler, are collaborators on a project to discover and describe the microbial communities that live on microscopic bits of plastic debris in the ocean (known as the Plastisphere). They will be taking samples from the Gulf as well as conducting experiments during the cruise. The chief scientist on board is Amaral-Zettler’s colleague Chris Dupont, Assistant Professor in the Microbial and Environmental Genomics department at the J. Craig Venter Institute.


One of the largely unexplored habitats on Earth lies under the ocean: the sediments, rocks, and fluids layered under the pressure of a gigantic basin of water. What lives down there, and how deep does life go? What strategies do microbes have for surviving in this environment? MBL Associate Scientist Julie Huber is among the people asking these questions, and this week she contributes a commentary in the journal Science on a team’s discovery of the deepest subseafloor life yet.

Julie Huber. Credit: Diana Kenney

Julie Huber. Credit: Diana Kenney

Using a drilling system aboard a research vessel off the Shimokita Peninsula of Japan, the international team “drilled the deepest scientific borehole to date to examine the abundance, taxonomic composition, and biosignatures of subseafloor microbial communities in sediments from 400 to almost 2,500 meters (about 1.5 miles) beneath the seafloor,” Huber writes. They detected microbial life at all depths, including methane-producing archaea in deeply buried coal-bed deposits.

As expected from prior studies, the concentration of microbes decreased steadily with depth in the shallow subseafloor layers. However, microbes were scarce–barely detectable—below about 1,500 meters. This was surprising, given that temperatures in the deep samples didn’t exceed ~60 degrees C, “well within the growth range of most microbes,” and “both carbon and hydrogen are plentiful energy sources, particularly in the coal bed layers,” Huber writes.

“Why so little life, then?” Huber writes. “It is difficulties with biomolecule repair, as the authors suggest, or something else like porosity or pressure? Uncovering what limits the biomass in this unusual environment will certainly be a focus of future studies.”

Huber is associate director of the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center, as well as associate director of the NSF Science and Technology Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI).


Huber JA (2015) Making methane down deep. Science 349: 376-377.

Inagaki F et al (2015) Exploring deep microbial life in coal-bearing sediment down to ~2.5 km below the ocean floor. Science 349: 420-424.

Article in The Washington Post quoting Huber on Inagaki et al.

Kristin Gribble, assistant research scientist in the MBL’s Bay Paul Center, was awarded the “Runner-Up Best Paper Prize 2014” by the journal Aging Cell and the Council of the Anatomical Society. The award recognizes her paper, “Maternal caloric restriction partially rescues the deleterious effects of advanced maternal age on offspring” (Gribble K.E., G. Jarvis, M. Bock and D.B. Mark Welch Aging Cell 13: 623-630, 2014).

Gribble and colleagues discovered that advanced maternal age reduces the lifespan, fecundity, and size of offspring in the rotifer (B. manjavacas), a tiny aquatic animal that is becoming established as a model organism for aging research. However, the researchers were able to reduce the severity of some of these effects by putting the mothers on a calorie-restricted diet. More information is here.


Collaborative marine science took a leap of global proportions on June 21, 2014. At carefully orchestrated times on that day, hundreds of scientists around the world collected ocean samples, using standardized protocols, as part of the first international Ocean Sampling Day (OSD). They were united by the goal of identifying the microbial communities in all the samples–no small task given that one drop of seawater contains about 20 million microbes.

This movie features MBL Associate Scientist Linda Amaral-Zettler, who took a lead role in OSD as a scientific adviser to the project’s European sponsor, MicroB3, and who actively sampled and helped coordinate sampling in the Azorean Islands. Building a knowledge base of marine microbes is critical for understanding the impact of global challenges to ocean health, such as a warming climate.

“Sampling is expensive,” Amaral-Zettler says. “The more we can leverage individual regional efforts and resources, the better we will be in protecting the ocean.”

As soon as they were collected, the samples were frozen and shipped to Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. The next step is to identify “who” are in the samples through DNA extraction and analysis.

OSD will take place again in 2015 and hopefully into the future, Amaral Zettler says, which would provide a long-term perspective on how marine microbial diversity changes over time. “We need to understand how things are changing in order to protect them.”

Take a look at the eye-popping, deep-sea exploration footage in this video about the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI). Julie Huber, associate director of the MBL’s Bay Paul Center, is also associate director of C-DEBI, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center at the University of Southern California.

The researchers involved with this collaborative national center, Huber says, are asking the “big questions” about life in the deep ocean and below the seafloor. “We are at the exponential exploratory phase,” says Huber, who is on the pioneering edge of discovering subterranean microbial life.

This video was produced by Mira Zimet at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734,

WOODS HOLE, Mass.–For decades, doctors have developed methods to diagnose how different types of cells and systems in the body are functioning. Now a team of scientists has adapted an emerging biomedical technique to study the vast body of the ocean.

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

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