UW News

December 10, 2012

Armbrust shares $35 million to investigate tiniest ocean regulators

News and Information

University of Washington oceanographer Virginia (Ginger) Armbrust has received a multi-million-dollar award to spend as she wishes on her research to reveal the diversity of microbes in the ocean and understand the role they play in regulating ocean environments and our atmosphere.

Head shot of Virginia (Ginger) Armbrust

Ginger ArmbrustU of Washington

“Too often, the most innovative scientists are hampered by funding that binds them to a solid, but conservative research agenda,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine and a board member of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The foundation this week announced $35 million in awards to Armbrust and 15 other scientists to use during the next five years.

“These awards give scientists in marine microbiology the freedom and flexibility to take more risks, forge unusual collaborations and, ultimately, make noteworthy new discoveries,” Alberts said.

Armbrust, who in 2004 received a similar multi-million dollar eight-year award, told KUOW radio, “A lot more freedom comes with this funding. It allows me to take what I refer to as calculated risks in the science and to explore areas that are interesting between disciplines. In my lab I have biologists, oceanographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers – I’ve been able to bring together a lot of really talented people.”

She and her lab have already developed new instruments. One, for example, counts and identifies microorganisms being collected in a continuous stream while a ship is underway. They also are developing DNA-based technologies.

“We do the equivalent of the human genome project but we do it for entire microbial communities,” she said. Earlier this year, for example, she co-authored a paper in Science about an advance that allowed researchers to zero in on a single marine microorganism and map its genome even though it made up less than 10 percent of a water sample teeming with millions of other microorganisms.

Armbrust, who joined the UW in 1996, is a professor and director of the School of Oceanography. The marine phytoplankton she studies are single-celled algae and the most abundant photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. Trillions upon trillions of them make up the base of the ocean’s food webs and remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The microbes also generate about half the oxygen humans breathe, leading Armbrust to say, “They are responsible for every other breath you take.”