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WHOI receives $2.7M from Simons Foundation to study nutrients, microbes that fuel ocean food web

Benjamin Van Mooy WHOI chemist Benjamin Van Mooy works with a sample in his lab, which uses lipidomics to analyze how ocean microbes harvest, store, and use chemical energy from light. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

July 23, 2020

The Simons Foundation has awarded Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists Dan Repeta and Benjamin Van Mooy two grants totaling $2.7 million to study key processes that help fuel the health of our ocean and planet.

Repeta’s research will focus on phosphorus, iron and nitrogen, the trinity of nutrients that fuel microbial cycles in the ocean. Van Mooy’s research centers on understanding carbon and energy flow through the microbial food web. His lab uses lipidomics—the comprehensive analysis of a cell or organism’s lipid profile, to learn how ocean microbes harvest, store, and use chemical energy from light. Both research projects are focused on samples and data collected at Station ALOHA—a 6-mile radius circle in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii, a hub for oceanographic research projects that is yielding a remarkable collection of observations about Earth’s dynamic oceans and atmosphere.

The Simons Foundation funding will also support research on the inner workings of the mesopelagic zone (aka the twilight zone), a little understood part of the ocean with a major role in sequestering carbon.

Ocean microbes capture solar energy, catalyze biogeochemical transformations of important elements, produce and consume greenhouse gases, and fuel the marine food web. “Microbes sustain all of Earth’s habitats, including its largest biome, the global ocean,” said Marian Carlson, director of life sciences at the Simons Foundation. “It’s critical that we know more about these important processes.”

“We are grateful for the generous support of the Simons Foundation for basic research that is the fundamental underpinning of our knowledge of the ocean, said Richard Murray, WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for Research. “Understanding elemental ocean processes is the equivalent of understanding the human body’s basic workings. Without this information, we cannot understand, or protect, our ocean’s and planet’s health.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

About the Simons Foundation

The Simons Foundation’s mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. We sponsor a range of programs that aim to promote a deeper understanding of our world. For more information, go to