How do we science? / Marine Life / Science / Scientists in Action!

Science on the high seas

Here at UNC Marine Sciences, we have a really cool program that allows graduate students in the department to nominate and then select a seminar speaker to come to the university and give a talk. It’s a unique opportunity for students to select a speaker that not only conducts interesting, world-class research but that also may be going about this research in an unconventional way. This year’s speaker hailed all the way from France (but currently residing in Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, otherwise we wouldn’t have enough $$$); Dr. Chris Bowler from IBENS Paris Institute of Biology who studies phytoplankton (mostly marine diatoms) and how these tiny guys are influenced by their environment. And the unconventional way Dr. Bowler studies these organisms that ‘live in glass houses’? He does his field work on a sailboat that travels all around the world!

Tara Oceans

Science from a sailboat?! YES! Image from: Wikipedia

Let’s take a minute to let that sink in. He (and his team) collect samples from a sailboat (!!!) as part of the Tara Expeditions Foundation. Tara Expeditions is a non-profit organization started in 2003 and based out of France. ‘Tara’ is a sailboat (specifically a schooner, for sailing nerds like me) who sails all over the world (and in all the world’s oceans) collecting samples and promoting science. The main themes of research conducted by Tara and Tara Expeditions revolves around how humans impact the world’s oceans, including how changing climate will impact everything in the ocean from the tiniest of phytoplankton to more recently, corals. Dr. Bowler was involved in the Tara Oceans project that lasted from 2009-2013 and involved a complete circumnavigation of the world’s oceans to look at the phytoplankton and microorganisms that live there.

Taking this ‘whole world’ approach led to some pretty incredible results (and a TON of samples, analyses, and data, data, and more data) as well as 31 peer-reviewed papers (and counting), 5 of which were published in a special issue in Science. Here’s a (somewhat brief) list of the biggest discoveries Dr. Bowler talked about:

  1. The Global Ocean Microbiome: One of the main goals of the expedition was to sample the tiniest of organism in the world’s oceans and see who was there, what they were doing, and how they were being influenced by their environment. To do this, they used metagenomics which allows scientists to take a sample of seawater and analyze all the genes that are in the one tiny sample. By looking at the genes present in the sample, you can start to get an idea of what organisms are there and what they might be doing. Using the data, the scientists generated an ‘ocean microbial reference gene catalog’ that contains 40 million genes from all types of organisms from viruses to picoeukaryotes. Most of these genes had never been sampled before and the function of many of them are still unknown. Just the fact that they were able to sample this many genes from ALL over the ocean, is incredible.
  2. Ocean Viral Communities (the ‘virome’): Most followers of the blog probably know a thing or two about phytoplankton and bacteria that exist in our oceans, but there’s something out there that’s even smaller than these phytoplankton and bacteria: viruses. Another main part of the Tara Oceans Expedition was to assess the marine viral community. Using similar genetic techniques, scientists were able to identify over 5,500 different viruses, which greatly expanded on the only 39 viruses identified previously. A lot about what these viruses actually do, is still unknown, but this demonstrated that viruses play an important part in controlling processes in all the world’s oceans.
  3. Plankton (aka: eukaryotes): They studied bacteria, they studied viruses, and being in the ocean, of course they also studied plankton. And because they went around the world, they were able to study a TON of plankton and found that they are much more abundant and much more diverse than we originally thought. They found that out of all of these plankton only a handful could be considered ‘phyto’plankton (meaning they use photosynthesis to produce food) but that most of the plankton in the oceans are considered protists and constitute predators, symbiotic organisms, and parasites.
  4.  It’s all about who you live with: In addition to collecting hoards of genetic data, the program also collected tons of data on abiotic factors (things like nutrient concentrations, temperature, salinity, etc.). Combining all of this data together, they actually found that ‘who you live with’ is much more important than ‘where you live’. Meaning, the interactions between different organisms is much more important than the physical factors of the environment where you live (again, things like nutrients, temperature, etc.) when living in the open ocean. This is a pretty interesting idea, considering, up to this point, most folks had assumed where you live is much more important than who you live with!
  5. It’s more about working together than competition: Since who you live with is so important, the researchers also looked at how these different organisms that live with each other, interact with each other. And it turns out, most of the relationships between all of these different organisms are helpful as opposed to harmful. The scientists were able to determine this be creating a ‘Facebook of the Ocean’ where they essentially looked at who knows who (aka: who was in the same water sample and if they seemed to like each other). This discovery is pretty earth shattering: usually it’s assumed competition between organisms was needed to further evolution, but maybe, the community actually evolved together.
Tara Oceans Map

A map of the Tara Oceans expedition from 2009-2013. They went everywhere… Map from Tara Expeditions.

One of the main reasons Tara Oceans was able to make these big discoveries was the unparalleled ability to sample, sample, sample all around the oceans. Because, the more you can sample, the more information you can get, which is incredibly important in a system as vast and huge as the world’s oceans. And the reason they were able to do all this? 1. Funding from an unconventional source (Tara Expeditions is funded largely by for-profit companies and was actually founded by a French Fashion company, agnes b.) and 2. Huge, huge collaborations. There are over dozens of scientists and labs that are involved with the project and provide scientific support, and most importantly, sample and data analyses. And I think this model is kind of the future of science:interest from the business world and the general public in funding science and promoting the sustainability of our environment. And huge, huge international, multi-institutional collaborations that allow for big discoveries like these. So kind of like what the Tara Oceans expedition found: we’re much better off when we work together as one community!

We’d like to send a huge thanks to Dr. Chris Bowler for coming to UNC to talk about his work and his collaboration with Tara Expeditions. And thank you to Shelby and Justin of the UNdertheC Blog team for helpful notes from the talk!

Additional information/resources (there is so much to talk about in relation to Tara Expeditions, Tara Oceans, and all the discoveries they made; this blog post could be a dissertation in and of itself, so if you want more info. follow the links below):

Tara Expeditions Website

Tara Expeditions YouTube site (literally, the coolest channel on YouTube)

List of papers published (so far) from the Tara Oceans Project

And links to the specific papers mentioned:

  1. The Global Ocean Microbiome
  2. Ocean Viral Communities
  3. Plankton
  4. It’s all about who you live with/cooperation
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