MOSS LANDING -- The tiny creatures that sustain our oceans may have a sophisticated way to communicate, according to new research.
Marine microbes synchronize their genes to respond to changes in their surroundings, according to scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Microbes are the things that are really running the planet," said MBARI President Christopher Scholin, part of the team that made the discovery. These tiny organisms transform nutrients and energy to support all the species above them on the food chain. Some harness sunlight for fuel, while others, called heterotrophs, eat other organisms.
The team used a device called the Environmental Sample Processor, which hung from a buoy and drifted with the microbe communities along 30 miles of Monterey Bay coastline.
It collected microbes every four hours and chemically halted their activity, capturing what their genes were doing in that instant: ordering the cells to take in food, break down nutrients, or grow, for example.
Then the scientists used genetic technology to reconstruct a "day in the life" of the microbes. As they expected, many of the light-dependent creatures timed their activities with the cycle of the sun.
But the heterotrophs' behavior surprised them. The genes that control eating and growth turned on and off in synchrony, after a pattern that didn't match up with the day/night cycle. Even species that were very different seemed to be coordinating the expression of their genes.
"They're cueing off of each other," Scholin said.
In the past, scientists studied microbes by going out on ships to collect samples. This was the first device to drift along with the microbes, collecting samples and monitoring water conditions on its own.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team suggested that microbes might broadcast messages about the ideal time to start collecting or expending energy. But the chemical signals they use and their exact cause-and-effect relationship with the environment are still unknown.
These microbes may soon help predict the effects of climate change, researchers said. Scholin described the ocean as a patchwork, with isolated spots of higher temperature and acidity. If scientists knew how microbes behave in these spots, they could predict how the ecosystem might respond to bigger changes.
The team is now working on a swimming robot that can navigate, collect samples and bring them back. They hope to have a prototype by the end of 2013 and a small robot fleet in three to four years.