Skip directly to content

Probing the structure of ocean microbe communities

NSF-funded researchers at the University of Washington have developed an instrument that studies the complex structure of microbial communities on the ocean's surface while onboard a moving ship.

Such instrumentation is essential for understanding biogeochemical and ecological processes in the ocean. SeaFlow, a flow cytometer, will provide an unprecedented view of the relationship between environmental features and microbial communities at spatial scales from a few hundred meters to thousands of kilometers.

Because SeaFlow operates semi-autonomously, an onboard operator needed only minimal training to control the instrument during the voyage on the research vessel Thomas G. Thompson. Through a remote connection to the SeaFlow once or twice a day, the technician viewed data and made adjustments as necessary. The link also helped identify if more invasive intervention was necessary.

As SeaFlow is further refined to become increasingly autonomous, it will adapt its sampling based on observed changes in microbial community structure. Sampling at positions where the most significant biological gradients are observed will provide new insights into microbial structure and function within the ocean.


  • map shows the abundance and distribution of microbes along the coasts of washington and oregon and inland waters of vancouver island and puget sound
Warm colors show high amounts of bacteria and cool colors show low amounts along the U.S. Pacific Northwest coast.
Francois Ribalet, University of Washington

Recent Award Highlights

researcher guides wave monitoring float into the water

Riding (and monitoring) the ocean's internal waves

Self-propelled instruments offer feedback on the ocean's energy

Research Areas: Earth & Environment Locations: California Florida Massachusetts Washington
a seaglider allows researchers to observe circulation patterns in the deep ocean

Seagliders assess the deep ocean's pulse

Remote-controlled vehicles measure circulation patterns far below the surface

Research Areas: Earth & Environment Locations: Washington International