A diverse array of marine diatoms
A diverse array of marine diatoms ©

If you take a glass and fill it with sea water, what do you see? Some grains of sand? A bit of sea weed? A hundred million miniature life forms? These organisms may be so small as to be invisible to our eyes but their effects on the world around us are enormous.

One example of microbes in action is their effect on our atmosphere. People talk about the rainforests having a major influence on the climate in terms of producing oxygen and soaking up the "greenhouse" gas carbon dioxide. However, the effect of microscopic algae in the oceans, which produce up to 60% of the oxygen we breathe, is just as important. Figures such as this do not come about from the actions of a few individual oxygen-producing species; they are the product of a rich community of species that interact in diverse and subtle ways.

Knowledge of the types of species involved in these communities and the roles that they play is of vital importance in our understanding of the functioning of the global ecosystem and how it supports life as we know it.

Aquatic microbes perform many more functions, some of which can be exploited in the biotechnology industry. For example, in their struggle for survival, many microbes will produce chemicals to protect themselves from other harmful microbes or to kill off potential competitors. These chemicals could be very useful in medicine as new antibiotics.

The M&FMB programme aims to improve our understanding of aquatic microbial biodiversity in the context of community interactions and ecosystem function and to investigate the potential of marine and freshwater microbes for biotechnological exploitation.