Plankton Planet project: interview with Colomban de Vargas

© Andreane Bellon de Chassy / Fondation Tara Océan

In an interview with Colomban de Vargas, scientific director of Plankton Planet, we learn about the birth, history and future development of the wonderful Plankton Planet initiative. Colomban has spent 23 years studying plankton, and is the scientific director of Plankton Planet. Since 2007 de Vargas has been a director of research at the CNRS (Centre National de la recherche scientifique). He was scientific director of the Tara Oceans expedition which discovered thousands of new species and millions of new genes in the world of plankton. The mission of Plankton Planet is to harness the curiosity and creativity of sailors and scientists; to sample marine plankton at unprecedented scale to obtain an in-depth evaluation of ocean biodiversity, health, and evolution. Plankton Planet (P2) is an association of researchers, sailors and artists managed by the Tara Ocean Foundation with the goal of diffusing recently discovered knowledge about the ocean for educational purposes, and helping policy makers make decisions in the realm of science.

During the Tara Oceans expedition, a procedure was developed to measure the composition of an entire ecosystem, from viruses to animals, including environmental parameters. The results helped us understand the organisation and complexity of planktonic life, as well as the functional role of various plankton species in the oceanic ecosystem. Plankton are the base of the marine food chain and produce almost half of the world’s oxygen. They act as a climate regulator with their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Investigating this ecosystem is not an academic question anymore – it’s a call to action!

Plancton-du-Saint-Laurent.-C.SardetTara-Expéditions© Christian Sardet / Tara Ocean Foundation

P2 History

Colomban explain that there are two main obstacles to sampling plankton. First, planktonic organisms are extremely fragile, and second, oceanographic research vessels are very expensive to run, costing about $30,000 per day. Yet it took only one phone call to go beyond these obstacles. In 2015, Carole Beaumont, research director at Inserm, avid sailor and head of the ‘Science and Oceans’ division of the NGO Sail The World wanted to help. Beaumont was one of the first among hundreds of citizens today who want to actively participate in scientific research while doing what they love – sailing, being curious about what’s in the water, and wanting to help protect the ocean. De Vargas then spoke to Romain Troublé and Etienne Bourgois (respectively Executive Director and President of the Tara Expeditions Foundation), and other navigators, to discuss the potential of working with individual sailboat owners and other motivated people. The idea was to expand oceanic sampling on an unprecedented planetary scale through affordable means and within a reasonable time frame. De Vargas says, “The math is simple: with 10,000 to 15,000 boats at sea collecting several samples per week, we can gather tens of thousands of samples across a vast geographical zone in the span of a season.” One discussion led to another, and with the help of Jesse Ausubel from Rockefeller University in NY, a connection was established with the Richard Lansberry Foundation to fund a first pilot phase of the Plankton Planet project, with €70 000 for a year.
Colomban de Vargas_Lancee_HSNColomban de Vargas throwing the High Speed Net to collect plankton while sailing – © Andreane Bellon de Chassy / Tara Ocean Foundation

Plankton Planet Emerges

Plankton Planet formalized its plan in 2015 with the goal of achieving a global ocean DNA database of marine microbes with affordable and user-friendly techniques. Sailing connections were mostly based in Brittany (France) where the first 20 plankton sampling kits were distributed. These boats were the pioneers. They used a primary kit developed by the research teams of Colomban de Vargas and Emmanuel Boss to collect water and plankton samples. Plankton filtered through a net was manually pumped onto a filter to be heated in a pan and dried, a technique tested and proved to maintain the organisms’ DNA intact. In this way, one can obtain a dry sample of total plankton, place it into a zip-lock bag and send it to the lab on land by standard postal services (de Vargas et al). Colomban jokes,“You cook it like a crêpe. After all, we have to maintain the Breton roots of Plankton Planet!” After 18 months, 300 ocean sites were sampled across the globe, and 500 million DNA barcodes sequenced. Scientists performed analyses to confirm the quality and homogeneity of the data obtained despite the multiplicity of boats and planktonauts involved (de Vargas et al). A true success to demonstrate that world plankton sampling was performed at a low-cost, a low-carbon footprint, using simple tools. In addition, a community is being created of seatizens – people from all backgrounds engaging as amateur oceanographers. The demonstration-of-feasability phase now over, it is urgent to set up a broader, long-term sampling effort in order to fully understand the ecological and evolutionary dynamics such as migration patterns, and adaptation to climate change. The goal is to attain “the sum of the various parts”.

Moving forward

Since the publication of 5 articles in Science Magazine in May 2015, the team of engineers, mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists have collaborated in defining the program’s strategy and imagining a sustainable, long-term mission. There is ongoing fine-tuning of the sampling protocol, and improvement of the net so that the participatory fleet does not have to slow down their navigation to take the samples. Over the last year, efforts have also been directed to incorporate ‘plankton art’ in the portfolio of the project. Plankton Planet has been taking photographic imagery of plankton and is innovating to create 3D replica of plankton. There was a chance to see some of these on display at the Seaside Forum at SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, on Thursday July 19th during the “Innovative Citizen Science Oceanography 2.0” symposium. In the last three months, the team has been engineering a planktonscope – a microscope, that will enable the planktonauts to directly observe the collected sample and reach a new level of intimacy with these magnificent and mysterious creatures.

In the next years, at the latest by 2025, our goal is to have set up specific points of departure at key navigation hubs (i.e. the Azores, Bermuda, Panama, Auckland, Hawaii, etc.), with loops and transects throughout all the world’s oceans, in order to precisely identify plankton biodiversity and understand its complex ecosystem on an indispensable scale: the entire planet!

Andreane Bellon de Chassy

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