Why a Midwestern Funder Is Giving Two Million Bucks to Study Aquarium Microbes

We're seeing a lot of big funders supporting research into the microbial universe, anywhere from the deep blue sea to a public toilet. One funder is supporting a first-of-its-kind study that will look at the microcosmic waters of a popular aquarium.

Microbiology, marine microbiology in particular, is a big target for private funders, perhaps because it’s such a vast, equipment- and computing-intensive field of study. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, one of the country’s largest science and environment funders, has an entire initiative devoted to the field. The Simons Foundation, another huge philanthropy, launched an initiative last year to study the ocean microbiome, recruiting 16 researchers to study a large swath north of Hawaii. 


One mostly regional funder—about 15 times or so smaller than a goliath like Moore—is looking to make an impact in the field in its own way with a $2 million grant to study this topic on a smaller scale that could nonetheless reveal important insights. 

The Grainger Foundation recently made the commitment to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago for what they believe is the first comprehensive look at microbiomes in a controlled aquarium ecosystem. The three-year project will expand the aquarium’s capabilities to study large amounts of biological data (bioinformatics) from the aquarium ecosystem, including genetic sequencing. 

An aquarium is a unique biological environment where researchers have complete control of the ecosystem, and at Shedd, they’ve been collecting high-confidence data in this replica of an aquatic environment for years. Adding data on the microbial level, and seeing how changes in the air, water, and interaction between humans and animals affect the universe of tiny living things could provide clarity on managing these systems, even at larger scales.

This kind of controlled study of the issue is reminiscent of non-marine work funded by Sloan, looking at how microbes behave in the built environment. For example, instead of a tank of dolphins, one such project puts research associates inside an enclosed box to see how much bacteria comes off their body and into the ventilation system. 

Related: Sloan's Deep (and Kind of Gross) Probe Into the Microbes Crawling All Around You

One reason projects like these are becoming possible is the increased accessibility of genetic sequencing. The technology is becoming more affordable at an extremely fast rate, unlocking what work can be done with the right equipment and some additional cash. In Shedd’s case, funding allows it to team up with nearby university facilities to sequence the microorganisms. 

So in a limited setting, with a decent-sized grant, the aquarium can advance its work and build a big body of knowledge in a few years. Maybe that just helps them understand how to better manage the aquarium, but it could also help us understand water quality and microbiology in, say, the nearby Great Lakes or other rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

The grant stems from Grainger's longtime support for the region’s science and educational institutions. The low-profile funder has been an ongoing supporter of Shedd; it recently gave $20 million to the Field Museum of Natural History, and also gave $25 million to UW-Madison’s engineering program.