Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropic group is funding research into why coral reefs live so long without getting cancer

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have used their philanthropic resources to back a research center called the Biohub.
  • Biohub is announcing $14 million in new funds for a variety of new science projects.
  • Among the coolest is an effort to understand why coral reefs live a really long time -- more than 1,000 years -- without getting cancer.
Steve Palumbi, Stanford 

Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropy is about to reach new depths: The bottom of the ocean.

Facebook's CEO has invested more than $10 billion in a variety of causes, including a big chunk to the formation of a Bay Area-based research center called Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. Biohub, which is also backed by the Zuckerberg's pediatrician-wife Priscilla Chan, has $600 million in committed funds to invest in researchers with bold ideas.

For its next phase of investment, the group is providing $14 million in funds to several new programs ranging from aging to cardiovascular disease.

One of the coolest among them is dedicated to understanding the great mysteries of ocean.

Stephen Palumbi is one of the marine biologists with new backing from the Biohub.

Palumbi, who runs a lab at Stanford, has spent years studying the giant corals that live for more than a thousand years. He is looking to understand how they get to be as heavy as a blue whale in their long lives, while proving to be relatively resilient compared to other species.

Some of these corals have also undergone extreme stress, which makes them even more interesting to study. His team has been collecting samples of coral reefs from a hydrogen bomb crater in Bikini Atoll, a group of islands where the United States government tested nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite this, the reefs have been able to keep their genomes largely intact. It's not clear why that is -- and understanding it could have implications for human disease research.

With funds from Chan Zuckerberg's Biohub, the goal is to latest technology to figure out how to pinpoint the "cellular mechanisms that keep their genes in better shape," explains Palumbi.

"It's amazing that these corals can divide so many times without getting cancer -- so there's a mystery there and hopefully that group will do it," says Stanford University's Steve Quake, who is one of the presidents of the Biohub alongside UC San Francisco's Joe DeRisi.

Other researchers are taking samples from blood forming stem cells in sea squirts to better understand their immune systems, as well as brain cell regeneration in fish.

They all plan to collaborate and share their different approaches at the Biohub.

Some of the $14 million will also be allocated to scientists looking at another up-and-coming field of research: bacteria and the human gut.

About $4 million of the total funds will be set aside to researching the microbiome as part of the newly-formed "CZ Biohub Microbiome Initiative." The goal is to better understand the microorganisms that outnumber genes by 150 times.

Zuckerberg, Chan, and the Biohub's other backer, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, are personally involved with Biohub and its scientists. The trio attend boar -meetings in person every quarter at the offices of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the family's philanthropic investment group, and meet with a grant recipient to get a progress report on their work.