USC receives $25 million grant from National Science Foundation


A USC professor has been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a center that will study microbes beneath the ocean floor.

College of Letters, Arts & Sciences Professor Katrina J. Edwards received a $25 million grant from the NSF to create the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI). NSF grants are extremely competitive — this year they were awarded to just five out of 247 proposed programs. Each grant allows for the creation of a new science and technology center.

Deep sea · USC professor Katrina Edwards received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the organisms below the ocean floor. - Photo courtesy of Katrina Edwards

C-DEBI, the center Edwards will establish with the grant money, will initiate sub-seafloor biosphere expeditions and research, and will develop education and outreach programs based on its findings. Although most of the work will be field work completed on a ship, the center will also run out of an office on campus.

“Marine research has been hobbling along for decades ever since we discovered, from core samples taken in the 1980s, that microbes existed within all marine sediment,” Edwards said. “This grant has come at a remarkably advantageous time, given the advances in research technology, and will over the next two years help shape the field of microbiology.”

The money from the grant will be spread between research endeavors — instrument purchase and upkeep, lab work, expeditions to take core samples — and the administrative costs of new education and outreach curriculums.

Edwards has been working to better organize and facilitate sub-seafloor research since her arrival at USC three and a half years ago.

Her proposal for the NSF grant began with a workshop supported by the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at USC, where she gathered a group of international biologists committed to pioneering a center similar to C-DEBI. A pre-proposal was drafted in October 2008, followed by a second proposal in April 2009. It was not long after NSF reviewers visited campus in October that USC officially received the grant for the center.

The center’s first initiatives will include three separate drilling junkets supported by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, to be completed over the next several years. Edwards herself will lead the team exploring the Atlantic Ocean’s North Pond, a location she has been studying since February 2009, with an expedition set to take place in September 2011.

An emerging scientific view holds that up to one-third of all biomass carbon might exist buried in marine sediment. The center, beginning with these expeditions, will examine what the presence of microbes beneath Earth’s surface means for the global carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the planet as a whole.

Through this grant, C-DEBI hopes to bring together a diverse group of biologists to explore the implications the deep sea biosphere holds for Earth’s systems. Edwards believes the funding will help scientists in the field better streamline their efforts.

The center’s other main initiative, to subsidize education and outreach programs, is set to begin this summer as part of C-DEBI’s broader aspirations to educate the public about its discoveries in geobiology.

Borrowing from the ideas of the Center of Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE), an NSF Science and Technology Center grant from 2006, C-DEBI is designing its outreach enterprises to be non-exclusive. C-MORE implemented outreach program “K To Gray,” referring to its pursuit of every age demographic.

“We are aiming these programs at everyone because we feel that the knowledge we will gain from this field of research is particularly transformative. We need everyone to be aware of it,” Edwards said.

Vice Dean Dani Byrd of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences said USC is thrilled to have the center housed here and that the grant, much larger than those that normally come through the College, is a testament to Edwards’ leadership and her team’s commitment.

“It’s incredibly rare to see such a globally diverse group of scientists, all of whom are leaders in their fields, come together for such a coordinated effort,” Byrd said.

Edwards attributed much of the success to her colleagues, noting that she was proud of the effort they put forth in what she felt was a short period of time, and that she felt privileged to lead such a talented group of scientists.

“The support from within the university and from within the College has been incredible,” she said. “The faculty has been with us through every step in this process. Not many universities can capitalize on their own talents and resources at a level similar to USC’s.”

Outside of her work with C-DEBI, Edwards is a geobiologist, microbiologist and oceanographer, working with mineralogy on the side. She has been studying the deep sea her entire professional career and has been moving systematically toward deep biosphere research for the last six years.

  • Tremendous job by Professor Edwards – she’s to be congratulated – seems to me we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about life a foot below the surface of the ocean. Jim