Scientists sailing the high seas on a four-year expedition have just published a salvo of five studies in Science that point to the vital role the ocean's microorganisms play in regulating the ecosphere.
A team of more than 200 scientific experts traveled from the Arctic to Antarctica on a schooner called the Tara, evading pirates in Saudi Arabia and surviving hurricane winds off the tip of South America. They visited more than 20 countries and combed the oceans to study and sample microbes. The minuscule waterborne creatures’ primary function is to absorb CO2 and create oxygen in seawater. The creatures — ranging in size from single-cell zooplankton to bacteria too small to see under microscopes — also know how to regulate their relative ecosystems like a boss.
Aside from the sheer scale of the trip — researchers took some 35,000 samples on their voyage — the breakthrough here is that we can finally impose affordable and easy tests of their genetic structures, a key component of the study. The researchers identified 40 million new genes along the way, which will allow scientists to predict how microbes will adapt as ocean temperatures rise.
Chris Bowler, the genomics expert at the Department of Biology of the École Normale Supérieure and the National Center for Scientific Research in France, and the author of the initial five papers, told the New York Times that “Temperature is the most important environmental factor determining the composition of these communities.” Global warming thus will affect how these essential microbes control fundamental biological functions. Oxygen production from these microbes is a relatively small part of a massively important role in keeping the planet balanced.
Bowler’s five papers merely represent the initial findings of the expedition, and cover fewer than 600 samples the Tara gathered.