Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
CANON Initiative
CANON: Controlled, Agile, and Novel Observing Network

Illustration of tracking evolution of the microbial community

The biological pump is a complex process in an ever-changing and moving ocean. Following the path of a molecule through the biological pump is a dream of the CANON project that is now within reach. Image courtesy of U.S. Joint Global Ocean Flux Study.

Growth and death of microorganisms in the sea occur as ephemeral features that continually evolve and interact with the environment. These “booms and busts” reflect the interplay between physics, chemistry, and biology, and represent the core of the oceanic food web. But not all of this activity is benign. Some blooms can be harmful to humans and wildlife, and can bring negative economic consequences. The ability to achieve mechanistic understanding of these phenomena has eluded us because of technical difficulties tracking water masses and the rapidly changing life they carry. The Controlled, Agile, and Novel Observing Network (CANON) team aims to overcome that limitation by creating new ways to remotely assess oceanic conditions and collect samples of microorganisms for in situ analysis as well as for return to shoreside laboratories.

How does the pelagic food web respond to changes in the natural environment? Our ability to answer this question is central to predicting how the oceans will respond to human perturbations such as increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, nutrient runoff from agricultural and aquacultural activities, dispersal of various pollutants, and climate change. Yet present-day models are not capable of accurately predicting future consequences because very basic questions about the food web are still unanswered. Further, unexpected but significant events will continue to appear requiring an observing system capable of rapidly responding to these new challenges as well as investigating the basic processes required for accurate environmental prediction.

The food web of interest is much more complex than it might initially appear. Take the marine microorganisms at its core—not composed of one entity, but rather they span a tremendous range of physiological capabilities and mediate many different biogeochemical processes as functionally diverse as that of the full biota on land. Thus, changes such as increased atmospheric CO2 levels, which will reduce ocean pH, will have different consequences for the many organisms in the marine environment, and these in turn will propagate through the food web. While the last decade has seen a revolution in understanding of the diversity and importance of microbial populations in the ocean, our understanding of how those populations respond to changes in their environment—and to other microbes—is rudimentary at best. Developing a better understanding of microbial dynamics through the development of new ocean observation capabilities is the initial thrust of the CANON program.

diagram showing CANON's collaborative efforts with other organizations
Diagram showing CANON's collaborative efforts with other organizations to produce results that are greater than the sum of its parts. © MBARI 2010

A key initial premise of CANON is to provide a new class of observation systems that will be able to follow and facilitate the study of organism assemblages and the transitions they undergo in the ocean environment. This is a critical development. The spatial and temporal sampling resolutions currently possible are not relevant to the spatial and temporal scales on which microbial processes occur. A fundamental principle for the initiative is that processes and microbes must be studied at scales relevant to the organisms’ adaptive strategies to determine how metabolism influences larger-scale ecosystem dynamics. The initiative builds on lessons learned from previous multi-platform, multi-institutional field programs of the Autonomous Ocean Sampling Network (AOSN). In contrast to the earlier field programs, which addressed observing and predicting the physical ocean, the AOSN team is further developing the Collaborative Ocean Observatory Portal and other tools and methods to observe marine microorganism populations.

The CANON team aims to merge observation, modeling, and prediction to cast projections of biological, chemical, and physical gradients within a defined region. By directing small fleets of mobile sensors within that domain, they will detect specific phenomena remotely, collect physical samples of microbes, algae, and small invertebrates autonomously, and track the evolution of biological patches over time. The system in its final form will be able to provide scientists and managers with the information required to interpret the mechanisms detected and make decisions as to how to proceed.

CANON will bring the biological insights to the requirements of new sensor development, based on cutting-edge approaches to genomics, transcriptomics, and physiology studies, and the technological innovations necessary to access the environment in unprecedented resolution, letting environmental conditions guide sampling decisions in real time and in situ.

If you have any questions or comments please contact Francisco Chavez.

Last updated: Aug. 17, 2010