Oceanographer’s Early Career Award Targets Metals in Marine Ecosystems

Nicholas Hawco

To help launch the careers of outstanding researchers in the field of marine microbial ecology and evolution, a University of Hawaii at the Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) Assistant Professor of Oceanography was selected to receive a Simons Early Career Investigator Award in Marine Microbial Ecology and Evolution.

Nicholas HawcoThe three-year award comes with research funding of over $660,000 to help advance our understanding through experiments, modeling or theory.

Hawco’s research examines how essential but rare metals, such as iron, cobalt, manganese and zinc, influence the evolution and productivity of marine ecosystems. He uses a range of approaches – from global-scale oceanographic studies to detailed laboratory experiments with phytoplankton isolates – to study the trade-offs that emerge when marine microorganisms adapt to minimize their dependence on limited resources while by maximizing the metabolic benefits conferred by these elements via metalloenzymes. (enzymatic proteins containing metal ions).

“The goal of the upcoming project is to develop indicators of phytoplankton health at the base of the marine food web,” Hawco said. “These work similarly to the blood diagnostics you might get when you go to the doctor for a check-up. For example, one of the main purposes is to measure the protein ferritin, which is one way organisms evolved to store iron.Ferritin is also measured in humans as a way to diagnose early signs of iron deficiency, a condition to which all life, including phytoplankton, is vulnerable.

Hawco will perform the same type of assessment on deep-sea phytoplankton, which live thousands of miles from its main land-based sources of iron.

“One of the big questions we’ve asked ourselves is whether human industrial activities in East Asia have added to the natural iron supply provided to the Pacific Ocean,” Hawco said. “This natural supply comes mainly from dust storms in Asian deserts, like the Gobi Desert, blowing out to sea. As these iron-rich dust particles mix with urban and industrial pollution, the iron can dissolve more easily and should increase the supply of phytoplankton.

By measuring ferritin in phytoplankton, Hawco can see how this additional iron intake can alter their nutritional status, which could affect other organisms in marine food webs that rely on phytoplankton.

“It’s amazing to have the support of the Simons Foundation to expand our knowledge of how the oceans are able to support such dynamic ecosystems with such a small amount of resources,” Hawco said. “As well as being an inspiration for how our own societies can become more sustainable, we need to know how marine ecosystems are responding to changes in resource supply to see what our future oceans will look like as the effects of climate change are intensifying.”

This price is an example of uh Mānoa’s goal of research excellence: to advance the enterprise of research and creative work (PDF), one of the four objectives defined in the Strategic Plan 2015-2025 (PDF), updated December 2020.

For more information, see SOESTthe website of.