The oceans cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface and constitute 99 percent of its living space, and every drop of ocean water holds living things. Without its oceans, Earth would be a rock in space, and life may never have appeared on our planet.
The sea is the great experimental laboratory of evolution. In three billion years of Earth history, its waters have nurtured nearly every form of life that has ever existed, including probably the first entities that were truly alive. The ocean is home to the greatest part of Earth’s biodiversity, containing 90 percent of the major groups of living things. They range from immense to minute and live everywhere, from geysers on the seafloor to the lips of lobsters.
In the 20th century, new technology enhanced traditional collecting methods to locate organisms and characterize their habitats. Satellite pictures of light reflected from chlorophyll in the ocean revealed broad patterns of phytoplankton abundance, and satellite maps of ocean temperatures helped us understand the distribution of pelagic animals. Submersibles, manned and robotic, explored parts of the deep ocean never before visited, retrieving images and specimens of creatures new to human knowledge. Even surface waters yielded new discoveries of ubiquitous microbes, including photosynthetic bacteria responsible for half the primary production in the ocean. Revolutionary biotechnology concepts and methods, applied to life in the sea, helped us discover new organisms, untangle evolutionary relationships, explain adaptations, and reveal fundamental mechanisms of life.
Entering the 21st century, ocean biology faces tremendous challenges—not only to understand the complex ecosystems of the sea, but to learn how to maintain the integrity, productivity, and resources of the ocean for the future. The sea and its biology is crucial for us and our planet—for balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide, for maintaining genetic diversity, and for producing food.
Human civilization is putting increasing pressure on ocean life, from overfishing, nutrient pollution, waste dumping, and climate change due to greenhouse effects. These are large and complex problems; understanding and alleviating them is essential.
But the promise is also great. We know the major problems and largely how they came about. We now understand better how fish populations respond to fishing pressure, how toxins affect marine animals, how nutrients stimulate phytoplankton blooms, how whales react to noise, or how species diversity maintains stable ecosystems.
Much of the information and technology for defining problems and identifying solutions is within our grasp, or will be soon. That knowledge and capability give us the basis for action to understand, sustain, and restore the ocean’s ecosystems. Public awareness, funding, regulatory action, and economic adjustments are also needed, but with continued research, we can ensure that the necessary scientific knowledge will be at the ready.
The Ocean Life Institute (OLI) fosters research in ocean biology under three broad charges: Discover Life, Sustain Ecosystems, and Develop Tools. The goal for the OLI is to support pioneering basic science, both for its own value and to help solve important ecological and societal problems of the ocean.
This theme broadly includes exploration, discovery, and characterization of ocean organisms. The OLI has funded studies on new deep-sea microbes, fossil corals, and magnetic bacteria. Discovery may mean new information about where organisms live, how they evolved, and how their particular traits fit into the tapestry of marine communities. Often discovery happens when we look in familiar places with new tools and techniques.
Organisms together create communities that then provide stable habitats. These ecosystems, whether as small as a single coral head or as large as the Sargasso Sea, are maintained by the interaction of the particular organisms in the ecosystems with environmental forces, such as temperature, currents, nutrients, and sunlight. Changes in the abundance and diversity of key species (perhaps due to fishing or toxicity) or in the physical or chemical environment (from climate change or excess nutrients) can upset an ecosystem’s equilibrium and lead to dramatic shifts that could decimate resources or imperil species survival. The OLI sponsors studies on toxicity of copper mine waste to seaweeds and industrial chemicals to fish, on responses of whales to stress, and on mathematical models to help manage fisheries and save threatened albatross populations.
Even as it makes ocean life possible, water impedes research, and we need special equipment and techniques to extract specimens and information from the depths. New electronics, optics, computers, and molecular biology add a huge range of possibilities for tools to explore ocean life. Such tools, including biological and chemical sensors, can be deployed in many ways. Whether lowered from ships, borne on submarine vehicles, or mounted on moored or mobile observatories, these new sensors yield information on organisms both at small scales and over large distances and long time periods. New tools developed with OLI support include imaging systems for phytoplankton cells, heartbeat monitors for whales, and molecular probes to sample and identify microbes.
Stewardship of the future rests on today’s knowledge. Important decisions must be made soon about how to conserve, restore, or manage ocean environments and resources. Such efforts have often failed, lacking accurate information about biology and ecology.
The vision for the WHOI Ocean Institutes includes furnishing knowledge and awareness to those who need to use solid scientific information to benefit society and the environment. With this goal, the OLI has launched two research initiatives: First, to provide focused scientific information to help conserve the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. (See “Scientists Muster to Help Right Whales“); and second, to provide life-history data needed for effective policies to regulate fishing on coral reefs and enable the rejuvenation of important reef species. (See “Tracking Fish to Save Them“)
People breathe the ocean’s oxygen, eat its fish, and marvel at the beauty of its inhabitants. But we also overreach in our harvest, pour our wastes into ocean waters, and damage the framework of many habitats. Achieving a new balance with the ocean will prove a challenge for the burgeoning human population, but one that can be met if we inform our actions with scientific knowledge.