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€1.9 million project aims to open the 'black box' of marine fungi

University of Plymouth

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IMAGE: Dr Michael Cunliffe is a Research Fellow at the Marine Biological Association and Lecturer in Marine Microbiology at the University of Plymouth. view more 

Credit: University of Plymouth

The complex and under-explored roles played by fungi within the marine environment are to be explored thanks to a new €1.9million research project.

MYCO-CARB, led by Dr Michael Cunliffe, will examine the importance and abundance of marine planktonic fungi - otherwise known as mycoplankton.

It will aim to address questions around how these organisms interact with better-studied microbes in the cycling of carbon in the sea and, as a result, give scientists a better understanding of how marine ecosystems work.

The project has received a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to fund five years of research, much of which will take place in Plymouth.

Dr Cunliffe, a Research Fellow at the Marine Biological Association and Lecturer in Marine Microbiology at the University of Plymouth, said: "Mycoplankton have been largely ignored compared to other plankton groups, such as phytoplankton, especially when it comes to the roles that they fulfil in marine ecosystems. The absence of fungi within a general view of the structure and function of the marine carbon cycle represents a major knowledge gap in our understanding of marine ecosystems that must urgently be addressed."

The ERC has awarded Consolidator Grants to 329 researchers across Europe. The funding, part of the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, is worth €630 million and will give them a chance to have far-reaching impact on science and beyond.

The MYCO-CARB project will involve research cruises at established marine observatories, with a view to making an unprecedented assessment of active mycoplankton diversity and abundance across a range of ecosystems from surface coastal waters to the deep open ocean.

Innovative approaches including molecular ecology tools and ecosystem modelling will establish the impact of fungi on the marine carbon cycle, while complementary research will determine the underpinning biological machinery of marine mycoplankton.

Dr Cunliffe, who has worked at the MBA since 2010 and has been working jointly at the University since 2014, added: "The MYCO-CARB research programme is very exciting as it will allow us to open the marine fungal 'black box', revealing the secrets of these species hidden deep in the oceans. I hope it will address existing knowledge gaps through an innovative programme of research revealing the functional biology and ecology of marine mycoplankton, and establishing their roles in the marine carbon cycle."

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