University of Arizona scientist Matt Sullivan was rewarded for his groundbreaking work in the new field of viral ecology Monday with a $1 million-plus grant from a private foundation's program to promote innovative research in marine microbiology.
Sullivan, whose lab is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studies ocean viruses. He is one of 16 U.S. scientists who will share $35 million in grants over the next five years from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Our oceans are the source of "every second breath you take," said Ajit Subramaniam, the foundation's program director for marine microbiology.
Understanding how the oceans breathe and why is critical to the health of the planet, he said.
Subramaniam said Sullivan is a leader in a line of research that has identified viruses as "an entirely new pathway" for the mechanisms by which the oceans store carbon and breathe oxygen.
"Microbes are at the center of how oceans work and whether they are in a diseased or healthy state," Sullivan wrote in an email reply when asked why his research is important.
Viruses manipulate those microbes. They carry the genes that allow microbes to photosynthesize.
"Our focus is on developing new ways to 'see' viruses - in the microscope, in environmental sequence data sets, in experiments - and to date we have spent a good deal of time figuring out how to 'count' and asking, 'What is a viral species?' "
The importance goes beyond the ocean's critical role in balancing the planet's health, he said.
"They represent the first and fundamental steps needed to assess the impact of viruses in humans, oceans or any ecosystem of interest," he wrote.
The scientists in Sullivan's lab, about 10 at present, gather samples on ocean voyages across the globe and have also gathered microbes and viruses in a series of experiments conducted in the lagoon biome of the UA's Biosphere 2.
Sullivan's lab uses those Biosphere 2 experiments to invent new ways to collect and analyze samples from the oceans.
It may seem strange that cutting-edge marine science emanates from land-locked Tucson - stranger still when you consider that Sullivan hails from Ohio and is prone to seasickness.
In a previous interview, Sullivan said he "toughed it out" for years on ocean voyages, but now prefers to send his graduate students to sea.
Bonnie Poulos, an assistant staff scientist in Sullivan's Tucson Marine Phage Lab, said working with him has reinvigorated her 30-year scientific career.
"I'm taking things I've done before and doing them in ways I never thought possible."
Poulos said Sullivan embraces new techniques of genetic analysis and invents his own methods to "measure the immeasurable."
Sullivan is known for involving students in his work. He has employed students from his undergraduate classes to work at the Biosphere 2 lagoon and paired with Tucson High teacher Margaret Wilch to involve her students in genetic analysis.
In January, he is gathering viral researchers from around the world at Biosphere 2 to share research techniques.
"Matt's amazing, and his work on the viruses of the oceans is absolutely first-rate," said Joaquin Ruiz, UA dean of science.
"He's not afraid of big science, of science that is risky."
That's the goal of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's program, said program director Subramaniam.
"I mean it when I say the people we are funding are fearless. They are way ahead of everybody else."
The use of the foundation's money is "absolutely open-ended," he said, meant to supplement funding from "traditional funding models."
Exact amounts that each researcher will receive have not been calculated, he said.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.