Stepanauskas says the project seeks to better understand 4 billion years of life by cracking open the ocean's diverse microbial genomes and trying to figure out how all that 'genetic dark matter' actually works. Credit: Courtesy of the Bigelow Laboratory

The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay has received a big grant to study tiny things.

“On average, marine microbes are .3 micrometers,” Ramunas Stepanauskas, the director of the Single Cell Genomics Center at Bigelow, said. To put that into perspective, there are at least a million such microbes in every teaspoon of seawater. And there’s a lot going on in that teaspoon of seawater.

“Within that one drop, these microbes differ from each other more than a human differs from, say, yeast! That’s really exciting,” Stepanauskas said.

As lead investigator on a new $6 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation, Stepanauskas says those quadrillions upon quadrillions of microbes account for more than 99 percent of life on earth — and they’re all very busy doing things.

“They drive most of the processes on the planet such as carbon fixation, degradation of organic material, fixation of nitrogen and other things that keep the biosphere running,” Stepanauskas said.

But little is known about how they actually do all that. Stepanauskas said the project seeks to better understand 4 billion years of life by cracking open the ocean’s diverse microbial genomes and trying to figure out how all that “genetic dark matter” actually works. Learning more about that, he said, could lead to a better understanding of major environmental processes, including climate.

The four-year project officially launches next week at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C., but Stepanauskas said the work has already begun.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.