22 December 2012
Plankton (viruses, bacteria, protists and small metazoans such as copepods, jellies and fish larvae) is ubiquitous in oceans, from polar to equatorial seas, from deep sea to surface layers, and from coastal to open oceans.
Having a detailed knowledge of this oceanic life system is essential for the following reasons:
· Plankton biodiversity provides the base of the oceanic food web
· Plankton is key to the survival of larger fish, sea mammals and billions of humans · Photosynthetic plankton produced the oxygen that allowed the emergence of mammals on earth
· Photosynthetic plankton produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe each day
· It is also the major biological carbon trap of our planet
· Planktonic organisms, in particular photosynthetic ones, play a key role in climate regulation by determining the concentrations of greenhouse gases and cloud-forming molecules in the atmosphere
· Terrestrial life forms evolved from these organisms and some of them may teach us why we have a bilateral symmetry, how our eyes and brain evolved, and much more
· Biomolecules from plankton have largely untapped biomedical potential
And yet … we know almost nothing about these ecosystems …
The impacts of plankton on life on earth are so broad that they are highly important for global human security. Therefore, both from an ecological and evolutionary point of view, it is absolutely essential to get a better knowledge of plankton ecosystems, to know what their communities look like, and how the various organisms interact with each other and their physico-chemical environment.
Characterizing functional diversity and complexity of organisms and species distributions will also allow assessment of how this relates to robustness of the whole ecosystem, or to shifts from one state to the next, and the nature of discontinuities between states.
Such knowledge will help to better understand the quantitative role played by plankton ecosystems in planetary CO2 and O2 recycling and will also lead to a better understanding of planktonic species evolution.
What makes the TARA OCEANS project absolutely unique in the field of ocean biology is that the scientific consortium that has structured the sampling strategy is the same that is organizing the sample and data analysis in an integrated way. This is an interdisciplinary project that gathers all the expertise required to carry out both the oceanographic sampling and on-land analysis.
Although the expedition itself will last about 3 years (from September 2009 until the end of 2012), the actual TARA OCEANS project may extend over 10-20 years of research.
The samples and data gathered aboard TARA during the expedition have three broad objectives:
· To collect samples in order to quantify plankton communities, covering the complete spectra from viruses to larvae, correlated with environmental parameters in view of establishing a quantitative description of pelagic ecosystem states in most ocean basins of the world
· To collect data on poorly explored coral reef ecosystems
· To collect a range of exotic benthic species related to well studied experimental organisms that can be considered living fossils, to better understand our origins.
The samples and data will be analyzed on land and organized in a coherent database that is being developed while the expedition is ongoing.
The worldwide significance of the data will emerge from molecular biology and microscopic imaging correlated with oceanographic data analyses, followed by the building of models making use of modern computer simulation and bioinformatics tools that are currently in use in the laboratories of the consortium members.
The expected output of this work is the following:
· A time zero low resolution map of ecosystem structures and biogeography of organisms ranging from viruses to fish larvae
· The discovery of a large number of new organisms in each size class · A good estimation of oceanic biodiversity and of its geographical distribution for small organisms
· The development of new dynamic models estimating the worldwide distribution of planktonic organisms in terms of total mass and species complexity
· Potential predictive models of the evolution of such distributions with changing climate
· Fundamental new discoveries concerning the early evolution of organisms that led to the emergence of terrestrial organisms
· New data about the diversity of coral reef species, the state of poorly sampled coral reefs, and potential causes of bleaching events.
Beyond the sheer value of such information in terms of basic knowledge, the project will generate an invaluable source of data to improve global warming models and predictions about the spatial distribution of larger organism populations in the oceans such as commercial fish species.
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