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Closeup Image of three blue viruses

By pairing early-career researchers with leading scholars worldwide, CIFAR is helping the next generation of thinkers to advance research and enrich human life.

Peter Allen
CIFAR Donor

Integrated Microbial Biodiversity

In 2007, CIFAR assembled the Integrated Microbial Biodiversity program to explore the diverse microbial world that surrounds and permeates human life.


Program members are transforming human understanding of biodiversity, and changing approaches to medicine and health, environmental sustainability, and evolutionary biology itself.

Microbes populate the air, water and soil of every part of the planet. They thrive in volcanoes, polar ice, rainforests, deserts, ocean bottoms, permafrost and tar sands. They are a key part of every known ecosystem, and are integral to many industrial processes.

Despite their ubiquity and their influence on human life, microbial communities are virtually invisible. And until recently, the very diversity of the microbial world made it virtually impossible to conduct authoritative, meaningful research in this area, because scientists were limited in their ability to isolate and cultivate these organisms.

Not anymore. New advances in molecular and computational biology have dramatically changed the investigational landscape for studying biodiversity.

Integrated Microbial Biodiversity comprises scientists specializing in microbial biology, statistics, genetics, immunology, Earth science and botany. Using approaches such as metagenomics, electron microscopy, molecular biology and field investigations, they are creating a window into a diverse and fascinating biological present, as well as an underestimated and complex evolutionary past.

One CIFAR team recently discovered a green alga that thrives in oceans around the world, indicating that it possesses the tools required to tolerate environmental change. Another team studies organisms that have the remarkable ability to grow and persist in a harsh world without oxygen. The genomes of photosynthetic microbes, organisms that create energy from sunlight, allow program members to learn about how photosynthesis created a breathable atmosphere more than 2 billion years ago. Biology, industry, climate and medicine are all informed by the research conducted via this program.

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DIRECTOR

Patrick Keeling

Image of Patrick Keeling

Dr. Keeling’s research group studies the genomics, evolution, and cell biology of protists and fungi, both microbial eukaryotes (cells that store their genetic material in a nucleus) of great complexity at the cellular and molecular levels.

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Genomes unlock a green toolbox

Image of two hands supporting a miniature tree

In a paper published in the journal Science, Alexandra Worden, a fellow in this Program, shows us how the ecological history and future of our planet is partially hidden in the genome of a globally-thriving population of green algae.

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