Study and preserve the known and unexplored riches of marine biodiversity

© David Monmarché / Tara Expeditions Foundation

One of today’s major environmental issues is the evolution of biodiversity. Of the 2 million species identified by humanity so far, only a little more than one in ten lives in the oceans. Life was born, developed and became more complex in the sea long before colonizing the land. But compared to its terrestrial counterpart, we still know very little about marine biodiversity. Because it is little known, what lies beneath the surface of the Ocean contains a great potential for discovery, an inestimable resource for research.

But there is urgency! We have entered what scientists call “an extinction crisis”. Part of the biodiversity, marine and terrestrial, is disappearing at an alarming rate. It’s not just a list of species that’s getting shorter or the wealth of ecosystems that’s being depleted — it’s also all the potential they contain. Overfishing, pollution, shoreline destruction and climate change are all phenomena that are depriving us of the services that the marine ecosystem already renders and could continue to render us in the future. In other words, we may be destroying, even before we have found it, what we will need in the future to care for ourselves, feed ourselves, and develop our society in a sustainable way.

photo 6_Crinoïde_VH Crinoï © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Ocean Foundation

Humanity knows about the potential of marine biodiversity. In fact, we are already exploiting it: antibiotic molecules, anticancer, cosmetics, biofuels, etc. 25,000 marine molecules have already been identified as being of interest for the human species. Behind this marine biodiversity hides a “chimio-diversity” which finds applications in extremely varied fields. We probably can’t even imagine all the solutions the Ocean could someday give us.

Contributions from Tara Ocean Foundation

For more than 10 years now, the Tara Ocean Foundation has been working on the description, study and understanding of this marine biodiversity — extremely complex and also very promising. This is the heart of the ambitious scientific project Tara is conducting, both aboard the schooner and in our partner laboratories.

Scientists associated with the research project of the Tara Oceans expedition (2009-2013) are grouped together in an interdisciplinary consortium to study the smallest organisms: plankton. Mostly microscopic, drifting with the currents, planktonic organisms are little known but show a very great diversity of species and complexity of interactions. Plankton is probably where the most interesting potential lies.

Plancton en cours d'authentification Plankton is being authenticated © C. De Vargas, Damian Brunner, Eric Karsenti, Picture taken at EMBL on an iverted zeiss microscope with a 10X objective.

Tara Oceans: Describing a Planetary Ecosystem

Thanks to excellent, wide-scale sampling (45,000 samples) and long-term analyses using state-of-the-art techniques, scientists involved in the Tara Ocean Foundation project identified 100,000 new marine species and about 150 million new genes. With this one expedition the invisible biodiversity of marine plankton benefited from an unprecedented update: Tara Oceans permitted us to describe an almost-complete planetary ecosystem. Using sequencing, data storage and bioinformatics, scientists on board Tara were able to describe the organisms and also begin to decipher the interactions between them.

Unexplored wealth endangered?

Beyond the important goal of expanding our knowledge of the marine world, all these innovations are also the first step towards the discovery of new applications. The Tara Ocean Foundation has incorporated in its research philosophy the sharing and accessibility of its data, results and discoveries. Our research activity will lead to potential applications that will benefit the greatest possible number of people. However, the mysteries of the complexity and diversity of the ocean system are still far from being revealed. Certain very special ecosystems such as the deep sea, which actually accounts for most of the Ocean’s volume, have barely been touched to date.

Margaux Gaubert

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