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Microscopic image of a Montipora coral embryo, showing the different fluorescence signals of the host coral tissue (green-blue) with that of a symbiotic algae (intense red). Image:Andrew Heyward.

AIMS is embarking on a scientific quest to answer fundamental questions about the unseen world of marine microbes, focused on the symbiotic relationships between the smallest creatures known and their hosts.

The new AIMS Centre for Marine Microbiology and Genetics Research (CMMG), opened in October 2008 by Desley Boyle MP, then Queensland Minister for Tourism, Regional Development and Industry, is designed to make the Institute a major international player in the burgeoning field of marine microbiology.

Support for the CMMG has been provided by the Queensland Government under its Smart State Research Facilities fund and by the Commonwealth Government.

Microbes, in their many forms including bacteria, algae and viruses, live in mutually beneficial or antagonistic relationships with each other and with bigger plants and animals, and this drives many of the vital systems of life.

These microscopic creatures present a new frontier as insights into the importance of microbes to all forms of life on Earth emerge. There is strong emerging evidence that the evolutionary process itself is dependent upon symbiotic microbial activity; that life is a symbiosis. Indeed, it is now thought that about 90 per cent of the human genome is made up of genes derived originally from viruses.

AIMS scientists are especially looking at how marine microbes function with each other and in relation to other creatures. This is expected to provide a more detailed picture than ever before of how marine systems operate at their most basic level.

There are more than a billion micro-organisms in each litre of seawater, and microbes dominate the abundance, diversity and metabolic activity of the ocean. They make up 98 per cent of life in the world's oceans, supply more than half the world's oxygen, are the major processors of the world's greenhouse gases and have the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Symbiosis is one of the major themes of the new work being done at the CMMG. This includes how the various relationships that form between microbes influence, for example, the health of corals and reef ecosystems.

Little is known about the fundamental processes of microbial symbiosis in the tropical marine world, and the new AIMS CMMG facility is developing a robust research program designed to fill the gaps. Marine microbial ecology is just starting to emerge internationally as the next big thing in marine science. AIMS has decided to invest in this strategically important area to deepen our understanding of how the marine environment works.