A day in the life of the oceans

The sea is teeming with microorganisms. But the communities they form are highly diverse, and still underexplored.

A group of researchers headed by Frank Oliver Glöckner of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology and Jacobs University in Bremen want to track down the basic source of food for all life in the oceans. To do so, they plan to take water samples around the globe on 21 June, Ocean Sampling Day. The bioinformatician heading the EU-sponsored Micro B3 project talked to us about the elaborate preparations, the coordination of 169 measurement stations and his research aims.

Frank Oliver Glöckner is in charge of coordinating the first international Ocean Sampling Day.

When people imagine the diversity of life in the oceans, they first think of the large marine mammals: whales and dolphins. We harbour images in our minds of coral reefs, deep-sea volcanoes and swarms of fish. What’s so exciting about microorganisms?

Frank Oliver Glöckner: Microorganisms are an important element of marine plankton. Over a million of them reside in a single drop of seawater. As the oldest life form on earth, they have colonised every conceivable ecologic niche in the world’s oceans. Thanks to their diversity, they are involved in all biological substance cycles and therefore directly affect life not only in the oceans but also on land. The algae and cyanobacteria in particular produce biomass and oxygen with the help of sunlight and carbon dioxide. They produce 70 percent of the oxygen we need and utilise 50% of the carbon dioxide.

Plankton is also an essential link in the food chain. It is a food source for all small marine organisms. In addition, microorganisms break down dead biological material and return it to the substance and energy cycles. Even the most beautiful dolphin or whale is recycled by microorganisms when it dies.

Although the key role played by marine microorganisms is known, our knowledge of these denizens of the seas, which are invisible to the naked eye, is still rudimentary.

Frank Oliver Glöckner: The reason for that isn’t the organisms’ microscopic size, but the fact that only between one and ten percent of them can be cultivated in the laboratory. In recent years, a revolution has been ushered in by the use of cultivation-free methods, for example sequencing of the entire genomic DNA of a sample. Moreover, using classical sequencing methods we were unable to analyse a large number of samples in a short time, so we could only imagine the huge diversity of marine microorganisms that must exist. This limitation has been eliminated by the rapid development of sequencing methods.

What specifically are you planning to do on Ocean Sampling Day?

Frank Oliver Glöckner: On 21 June, marine researchers will draw and filter samples at around 168 stations and then send the samples to Bremen, where we will sequence about half of them. The other half will be preserved and stored in an archive at the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History. Initially, we won’t touch them. But perhaps in a few years we’ll look at them in the light of other questions or with new technology. In addition, a large number of environmental parameters will be recorded. This will be the biggest set of marine data ever collected in a single day.

Where are the measurement stations?

Frank Oliver Glöckner: Many of the measurement stations are in the Mediterranean region, for example in Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. However, research ships are also underway in Finland, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, China, India and Russia are not involved. Many scientists in those countries would have liked to take part, but were prevented from doing so by political or legal issues.

How elaborate were the preparations?

Frank Oliver Glöckner: The project, which has been running since January 2012, is being sponsored until December 2015 by the EU to the tune of nine million euros. We had test runs to determine the measurement methods and to ensure comparability of the results. Given the large number of participants scattered around the world, this was no mean task. The samples will now be taken according to a clearly defined series of steps and standardised protocols. We have summarised the instructions in a manual. All those involved can download the manual from our website.

How can laypeople participate in the project?

Frank Oliver Glöckner: Anyone interested can actively help us collect environmental data as part of our Citizen Science Project. It involves measuring important parameters, such as the air and water temperatures, using simple equipment and uploading the data via a newly developed app for smartphones. We hope that a lot of people will take part. The results will be made accessible to everyone at a later date.

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Barbara Abrell.

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