CORVALLIS - The quest of a microbiologist at Oregon State University to identify a microbe that helps sustain the web of life on Earth will be featured in a nationally televised special on the Public Broadcasting System beginning Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. on Oregon Public Broadcasting channels. It is titled "Keepers of the Biosphere," a part of a PBS series called "Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth," and highlights the work of Stephen Giovannoni, an OSU professor of microbiology.

The series will continue on subsequent Tuesdays through April 30.Presented on PBS by Oregon Public Broadcasting, the series is made possible through major funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the American Society for Microbiology, and the Annenberg/CBP Project.

Experts say that one type of microorganism, algae, generate fully half of the life-sustaining oxygen on the Earth. But Giovannoni became convinced on a research voyage a decade ago that tiny, unknown microbes are algae's natural partners.

"You can say that algae are one half of the cycle," Giovannoni said. "What would happen if you took away half the cycle? The cycle would stop."

The problem that Giovannoni and his research team spent years solving was identifying the exact microbe. This was eventually done with genetic tracking, and revealed a new microbe the researchers named SAR-11. This microbe is incredibly abundant and is believed to play a key role in the global cycling of carbon and oxygen.

"Can we afford not to understand what microorganisms are and what they do?" Giovannoni said. "Without microorganisms, there could be no plant life, there could be no animal life. We would disappear."

The show about Giovannoni's research is one of a four-part series, each of which examines the microbial world from a different perspective. Each show, the producers said, makes the same fundamental point: our continued existence on Earth is going to be determined in part by the well-being of the planet's microbial population, and it is essential for us to increase our understanding of this crucial component of the web of life.

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Selena Lauterer, 503-977-7795