Photosynthetic algae

A microscopy image of diatoms (single-celled algae) and other aquatic microorganisms. (Credit: Kichigin/Shutterstock)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is supporting the development of a unique microscopy concept pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) as part of the Foundation’s Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems Initiative (SASI) – an international project that seeks to equip the scientific community with the tools and infrastructure needed to investigate symbiosis in aquatic microbes.

The Berkeley Lab effort has received $500,000 and will be led by senior staff scientist Hoi-Ying Holman of the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division (MBIB). Stefano Cabrini, director of Nanofabrication at the Molecular Foundry, and Hans Bechtel, an infrared beamline scientist at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), are co-lead investigators on the project. The Berkeley Lab team is one of 42 international groups selected to advance new genetic analysis and engineering tools, invent aquatic microbe cultivation methods, and develop new microscopy approaches over a three-year period.

“The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has recognized that new technologies in engineering and biological and physical sciences can provide an opportunity to fill the knowledge gaps in the field of aquatic symbiosis,” said Holman, who is also director of the Berkeley Synchrotron Infrared Structural Biology Imaging Program (BSISB).

Investigating microbe-microbe symbiotic interactions will provide insights into the evolution of aquatic microbes – the first forms of life on Earth – and improve the scientific community’s understanding of aquatic ecosystem dynamics, such as nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. These processes are the basis of global food chains and climate processes.

To understand the molecular choreography governing these interactions, scientists need technology that can identify and track chemical events such as nutrient exchanges over time and with sub-micrometer spatial resolution.

Hoi-Ying Holman

Hoi-Ying Holman at Berkeley Lab. (Credit: Marilyn Sargent)

Holman currently uses the broadband synchrotron infrared beam (SIR) at the ALS to study microscale chemical activities in microbial communities. The proposed new technique combines SIR with a  new near-field scanning optical microscopy (NSOM) technique. Holman and her colleagues believe the combination of techniques will advance the current boundaries of nanoscale infrared imaging by making more efficient use of the synchrotron infrared-rays and substantially increasing the signal to noise ratio. It will also increase the diversity of the symbiosis model systems that can be studied. Examples of aquatic symbiosis systems include coral polyps and single-celled photosynthetic algae, chemosynthetic bacteria and deep-sea tubeworms, and bioluminescent marine bacteria and the Hawaiian bobtail squid.

The Berkeley Lab Foundation received the grant funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation SASI in May, then initiated a Strategic Partnership Project (SPP) to support Holman’s project. Holman and her team at the ALS and the Foundry will start developing the NSOM technique in October 2020.

“We are excited to launch these awards to support nearly 200 scientists and their efforts to significantly increase tools and methods in genetics, cultivation, imaging, and additional areas available for aquatic symbiosis model system research,” said Adam Jones, program officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “The supported scientists, selected from a global competition and representing all career stages, will openly and actively share their methods and ideas using the online protocols repository to increase the pace of methods and technology development and limit unnecessary redundancy.”

“At the BSISB, we are very pleased that the Foundation is supporting the development of a unique NSOM technique for infrared imaging, which will provide extraordinary new insights into aquatic microbial symbiosis and support leading scientists from around the globe in their work in this field,” Holman said. “I am confident that important discoveries will result from this partnership between Berkeley Lab and Moore Foundation.”

The ALS and Molecular Foundry are Office of Science user facilities.


 # # #

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit or follow @MooreFound.