December 9, 2022
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Oceanographer’s Early Career Award targets metals in marine ecosystems

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Nicholas Hawco

To help launch the careers of outstanding investigators in the field of marine microbial ecology and evolution, a University of Hawaiʻi at 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 Hawco’s three-year award comes with more than $660,000 in research funding to help advance our understanding through experiments, modeling or theory.

Hawco’s research examines how essential but scarce 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 surveys to detailed laboratory experiments with phytoplankton isolates—to investigate the trade-offs that emerge as marine microorganisms adapt to minimize their dependence on limiting resources while maximizing the metabolic advantages conferred by these elements via metalloenzymes (enzyme proteins containing metal ions).

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

Hawco will do the same type of check-up on the phytoplankton in the open ocean, who live thousands of miles from their principal iron sources on land.

“One of the big questions we’ve been pursuing is whether human industrial activities in East Asia have been adding to the natural iron supply delivered to the Pacific Ocean,” said Hawco. “This natural supply is chiefly from dust storms in Asian deserts, like the Gobi desert, being blown 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 to phytoplankton.”

By measuring phytoplankton ferritin, Hawco can see how much this additional iron supply may be changing their nutritional status, which could affect other organisms in marine food webs that depend on phytoplankton.

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

This award is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

For more information, see SOEST’s website.



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