The University of Hawaii at Manoa has just received $40 million in funding to advance its research on oceanic microorganisms, the largest grant that UH has ever received from a private foundation.

The grant will allow the university’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, or SOEST, to lead efforts to advance understanding of the organisms and how they control the exchange of energy and nutrients throughout the sea. These microorganisms inhabit every drop of seawater and produce the oxygen that humans breathe, underpin the food web for the world’s fisheries and can degrade human-produced pollutants, according to a press release.

SOEST microorganism research

SOEST scientists conducting research on microorganisms in Hawaiian waters.

University of Hawaii

The initiative, the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Sciences, is being funded by New York City’s Simons Foundation and will use various technologies to examine how the ecosystem in the waters surrounding Hawaii works and affects the rest of the planet.

As part of the grant, researchers will be study microbes at a field site known as Station ALOHA, which lies 100 kilometers north of Oahu. The funding agreements stipulates that the ecosystem be studied “in situ” — that is, at the Station ALOHA site only.

UH has already been conducting research at the site for more than 25 years. Now, according to UH, researchers will be able to build on existing knowledge about how the ecosystem is physically structured, better understanding the organisms’ metabolism and molecular biology, to name a few.

It will allow the scientists “to better understand the blueprint of life in the open ocean setting, how everything is connected, and how all of these independent phenomena work together to make the ecosystem whole,” said SOEST professor David Karl in a statement.

The university is touting the grant as a strong start to its Innovation Initiative, a bold effort to double its outside research funding to $1 billion annually.

One of the UH professors spearheading the Simons Foundation initiative, Edward DeLeong, was the first scientist to be hired under the auspices of the initiative.

“No individual or laboratory working alone would be able to achieve all of the things we are proposing to do, to get to the bigger picture,” DeLeong said in a statement. “To get to that bigger picture, we need to have these integrative symbioses, these multi-Investigator collaborative efforts, and that’s what a large part of this project is all about.”

Other institutes collaborating on the initiative include the University of California – Santa Cruz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington.

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