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Little Mysteries, Big Discoveries

With funding from a prestigious grant, professor Forest Rohwer and a research team will explore the global epicenter of marine biodiversity.
Forest Rohwer will explore the viruses and microbes in the Coral Triangle and how they determine the fate of coral reefs.
Forest Rohwer will explore the viruses and microbes in the Coral Triangle and how they determine the fate of coral reefs.

Enlightening Expeditions

Crabs communicate by drumming or waving their pincers and feed primarily on algae. (Rohwer, 2009, Southern Line Islands)
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Crabs communicate by drumming or waving their pincers and feed primarily on algae. (Rohwer, 2009, Southern Line Islands)
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Forest Rohwer is a soft spoken man with a genuine demeanor. He is passionate about many things: family, travel and researching some of the world’s most mysterious organisms, microbes.

Rohwer, a San Diego State University biology professor, will travel to Indonesia’s Coral Triangle to study microbes as part of a prestigious Partnerships for International Research and Education grant.

He is the lead investigator of a team that received the $4.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The award is one of 12 program proposals that were accepted as grant winners last year.

The grant is unique in that it is given to research projects that include collaboration of foreign partners and provide strong international research experiences for U.S. students.

It will allow Rohwer and a diverse team of professional and student researchers to investigate the world’s most biologically diverse, most threatened and least studied marine ecosystems in the Coral Triangle.

Exploring the Coral Triangle

The Indonesian Archipelago is in the heart of the Coral Triangle and is the global epicenter of marine biodiversity.

The research team, composed of representatives of the Smithsonian Institution on marine bio-diversity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Paul Barber at University of California Los Angeles, and Moss Landing (CSU), will explore and catalog the diverse life forms.

The team will use a novel monitoring tool called Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures to measure marine biodiversity gradients across the Indonesian Archipelago. The tool will help determine what organisms are present on the coral reefs.

Collectively, they expect to find hundreds of thousands of new species and hope to uncover how humans are impacting their survival.

"The findings will lead to new ideas about how to protect coral reefs and new insights into human health and disease.”

Individually, each team member has an exploration project they are concentrating on. Rohwer’s focus is to explore the viruses and microbes in the Triangle and how they determine the fate of coral reefs.

“Just like humans, healthy coral reefs are covered with relatively benign microbes and viruses,” Rohwer said. “And much in the same way that our microbes can go bad when we are immunocompromised, coral reefs experiencing stresses get sick. When this happens, the viruses and microbes can overwhelm and kill the reefs.”

“Understanding viruses and microbes on healthy reefs help us understand why they are breaking down. The findings will lead to new ideas about how to protect coral reefs and new insights into human health and disease.”

For Rohwer, identifying the reasons behind why coral reefs are dying off is vital for ocean and human life.

“There is a tipping point when dead coral reefs become an economic loss,” Rohwer said.

“Coral reefs are important economically in Indonesia and across the world. A full third of the world is dependent on coral reefs for fish and coral reefs tourism is often the main source of income in developing areas. And, of course, people are interested in screening all of the biological diversity of coral reefs to find new medications.”

The team hopes the research will generate an intellectual infrastructure that can support the sustainability of the Coral Triangle, as well as advance biodiversity research and science education in Indonesia.

About Rohwer

This isn’t the first time Rohwer has traveled to far way places to research and discover some of our planets tiniest yet most important microbes.

Since he began as a researcher at SDSU in 2002, Rohwer has secured more than $13 million in grants and has traveled all over the world making discoveries.

Some of his most memorable and significant expeditions have been to the Northern Line Islands in 2005 and 2010 and to the Southern Line Islands in 2009. The trips to these islands enlightened Rohwer.

“These trips were the first time I saw how coral reefs should look,” Rohwer said. “There were tons of fish, massive corals and they were really some of the most amazing places on the planet.”

His research has led him to author more than 90 scientific papers and book chapters, as well as the popular science book “Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas,” published in 2010.

Rohwer pioneered the use of metagenomics, a way to characterize previously obscure organisms and to investigate their role in coral reef health and disease.

He has received numerous awards for his scientific contributions including the prestigious Young Investigators Award of the International Society of Microbial Ecology in 2008.

Grant details

PIRE: Assembly of Marine Biodiversity Along Geographic and Anthropogenic Stress Gradients is funded with a $4.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation Office of International Science and Engineering PIRE program for four years starting Jan. 1, 2013.

The field work in Indonesia is set for summer 2013.

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