Mysterious microbes hold big possibilities for Sloan Research Fellow Alyson Santoro

March 2, 2015

CAMBRIDGE, MD (March 2, 2015)--Archaea are a mysterious bunch. Once thought to live only in extreme environments, they are now known to be among the most abundant organisms on the planet. Yet it was only 40 years ago that they were recognized as a separate branch of life, and to this day very little is known about them.  Marine microbiologist Alyson Santoro is trying to change that. Her research for the past decade has focused on understanding archaea, essential components of nutrient cycles in the ocean. She was recently awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship by the Sloan Foundation, a prestigious national award that supports fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise, to support her work.

These two-year fellowships are awarded yearly to 126 researchers in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field. Since 1955, Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to win 43 Nobel Prizes and numerous other distinguished awards

“I study where archaea live in the ocean, why you find certain types in certain places and how the chemical reactions they can carry out affect the earth’s climate,” said Santoro, assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory.

In the ocean, archaea are one of the most abundant living things. Yet investigating archaeal contributions to the ocean ecosystem is a challenging and slow process due to difficulty growing them in the laboratory setting. In fact, Santoro’s first sample took four years to culture. “There is not a lot of funding available for establishing new cultures because it can take a long time,” she said.

However, there is progress. Four years ago, Santoro’s laboratorydeveloped and described the first laboratory cultures of a type of archaea from the open ocean.

“It excites me that it is a field where people are making fundamental, new discoveries," she said. "Our view of marine microbiology is completely different than it was even ten years ago.”

Each 2015 Sloan Research Fellow is awarded a two-year $50,000 grant to support their research interests.  Santoro will use the grant to support her microbial cultivation efforts, and to study areas in the Eastern Pacific oxygen with low oxygen (called oxygen minimum zones). An interesting assemblage of microbes lives in these areas. 

“Microbes can breathe oxygen like you and I, but when it goes away, they can breathe other things, such as nitrogen,” she said. Understanding how these reactions work in low oxygen zones is important. As the ocean warms up, those zones may expand. 

“I am honored to be recognized among such an historically esteemed group of scholars, many of whom have gone on to do great things,” said Santoro. “I hope that my research path will enable me to discover something within the next ten years that no one now knows.” 

Prior to joining the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory in 2011, Santoro was a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar. She earned her B.A. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Dartmouth College, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental engineering and science from Stanford University.


The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science unleashes the power of science to transform the way society understands and manages the environment. By conducting cutting-edge research into today's most pressing environmental problems and training the next generation of environmental scientists, we are developing new ideas to help guide our state, nation, and world toward a more sustainable future. From the mountains to the sea, our five research centers include the Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, and the Maryland Sea Grant College in College Park.

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