Humans are largely made up of millions of microbes, collectively called our microbiomes. These microbial “ecosystems” contribute to keeping us healthy. It’s the same for corals and other species such as marine sponges, scientists are finding.

Through a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Dimensions of Biodiversity grant, Michael Lesser of the University of New Hampshire and colleagues are studying the evolutionary ecology of sponges, and how their microbiomes drive diversity on coral reefs.

The project is one of 10 funded this year through the Dimensions of Biodiversity program, a unique research initiative that integrates multiple areas of study, in contrast to traditional biodiversity research that focuses on one taxonomic group or ecosystem.

A total of $18.9 million has been invested in the awards, with contributions from NSF’s Directorates for Biological Sciences and for Geosciences, as well as the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) of Brazil.

“These grants will allow us to find new ways of understanding how organisms form, interact, and change through time,” says James Olds, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. “This year’s Dimensions of Biodiversity awardees will investigate some of the least-known and perplexing ‘innovations of nature,’ from the ability of plant plankton to metabolize vitamins, to how various types of snake venom developed, to why humidity-loving mosses can tolerate arid conditions.”

The Dimensions of Biodiversity program links functional, genetic and phylogenetic dimensions of biodiversity, offering opportunities to produce rapid advances in understanding the creation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity.

“This research will help us understand, for example, the incredible diversity of marine life and how it functions,” says Roger Wakimoto, NSF assistant director for Geosciences. “In a time of changing seas, that knowledge is of great importance in comprehending, and conserving, the species in Earth’s vast oceans.”

The research will fill in gaps in biodiversity knowledge, scientists say. It also has the potential to lead to significant progress in agriculture, fuel, manufacturing and health.

For example, plant and animal extinctions are detrimental to human health, scientists have found. Species losses in ecosystems such as forests and fields result in increases in pathogens, or disease-causing organisms. The species most likely to disappear as biodiversity declines are often those that buffer infectious disease transmission. Those that remain tend to be ones that magnify diseases such as Lyme disease.

Economic sustainability also depends on the diversity of life on Earth. Many industrial materials, such as fibers and dyes, come from biological sources. In addition, biodiversity is important to resources such as water, food and pharmaceuticals.

To conserve Earth’s biodiversity, scientists funded through the Dimensions of Biodiversity program are working to better understand interactions between, for example, plants and insects.

The new Dimensions of Biodiversity projects focus on topics including desiccation and diversity in dryland mosses; sensory systems such as vision in unusual habitats; and predicting how species in river floodplains will respond to climate change.

2016 NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity Awards

Janette Boughman, Michigan State University: Dimensions: Diversification of sensory systems in novel habitat: enhanced vision or compensation in other modalities?

Jeffrey Feder, University of Notre Dame: Dimensions: Collaborative Research: Time after Time: Adaptive Seasonal Timing Drives the Sequential Origin of Community Biodiversity

Lisle Gibbs, Ohio State University: Collaborative Research: Dimensions US-BIOTA-Sao Paulo: Scales of biodiversity – Integrated studies of snake venom evolution and function across multiple levels of diversity

Zach Gombert, Utah State University: Collaborative Proposal: Dimensions: The evolution of novel interactions within a network of plant, insect and microbial biodiversity

Michael Lesser, University of New Hampshire: Collaborative Research: Dimensions: Evolutionary Ecology of Sponges and their Microbiome Drives Sponge Diversity on Coral Reefs

Elena Litchman, Michigan State University: Dimensions: Collaborative Research: Genetic, functional and phylogenetic diversity determines marine phytoplankton community responses to changing temperature and nutrients

Gordon Luikart, University of Montana: Dimensions – Predicting Biodiversity Vulnerability to Climate Change: Integrating Phylogenetic, Genomic, and Function Diversity in River Floodplains

Jason Slot, Ohio State University: Collaborative Research: Dimensions: Secondary metabolites as drivers of fungal endophyte community diversity

Lloyd Stark, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Collaborative Research: Dimensions: Desiccation and Diversity in Dryland Mosses

Alexandra Worden, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: Dimensions: Collaborative Research: Functional and genomic diversity in vitamin B1 metabolism and impacts on plankton networks and productivity