Alejandro Murillo, understanding the suffocating ocean

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Alejandro Murillo was selected from dozens of scientists to participate for two years in the project “Ocean Plankton, Climate and Development” initiated by the Tara Expeditions Foundation and funded by the French Fund for Global Environment (FFEM). This project began in July 2016 and aims to strengthen the skills of researchers in emerging and developing countries by enabling them to train in advanced laboratories.
A specialist in the microorganisms that populate the deoxygenated zones of the ocean, Alejandro will spend the next two years analyzing new data from the thousands of samples collected during the Tara Oceans expedition (2009-2013). The young Chilean researcher is very enthusiastic and confident about the results of his future research


“It’s my first time living so long in another country.” Alejandro Murillo is all smiles in front of his computer screen. This 36-year-old researcher often travels for his job but he doesn’t seem to get tired of it. From his point of view, “every new place is a new experience”.

His current location is the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) at the forefront of marine biology research in Heidelberg, Germany, where he took up residence in February 2017. “The first publications of Tara Oceans essentially described the diversity of planktonic organisms, and now we need to have a global map of all species and understand how they interact,” says the scientist. Unraveling the complex network of interactions woven between tens of thousands of plankton species is no small endeavour.

Oxygen-free zones are a hot topic and will remain so because they’re becoming more wide-spread


Symbiosis in areas with minimum oxygen

Alejandro Murillo will focus on the noblest of these interactions, symbiosis, an association with mutual benefits between two organisms. The example often given is that of corals and their microalgae, but this relationship of interdependence is actually commonplace in the ocean. This researcher will also focus on specific ocean areas, those with little or no dissolved oxygen. This lack or absence of oxygen imposes very specific environmental conditions where very few organisms can survive. Surprisingly little is known about these so-called “dead zones”. Alejandro Murillo considers them a “hot subject” that will remain so because they’re becoming more wide-spread. “We’ll need to understand how the ocean and the organisms will react to these changes”.

Alejandro is familiar with these regions of ocean asphyxiation. The microorganisms they harbor, mainly bacteria, became his specialty after he completed his thesis in 2010. He uses genetics to describe as best as possible their functions in the ecosystem.


“Try to imagine the potential!”

Le Chilien a littéralement les yeux qui pétillent quand il parle de ses travaux de recherche en cours et à venir. « Le potentiel des données Tara Oceans réside dans l’échelle globale de l’échantillonnage. D’habitude, on a accès qu’à certaines parties de l’océan », explique-t-il. Et qui dit jeu de données inédit, dit opportunité inédite de comprendre le fonctionnement de l’écosystème océanique. Grâce à des outils statistiques et bioinformatiques, et en s’appuyant sur les premiers grands résultats du consortium scientifique de Tara Oceans, Alejandro Murillo va pouvoir étudier les organismes au-delà de leur simple diversité.



Alejandro Murillo


His eyes sparkle when he talks about his current and upcoming research. “The potential of the Tara Oceans data lies in the overall scale of sampling. Usually we only have access to certain limited parts of the ocean”, he explains. This huge quantity of unpublished data is an unprecedented opportunity to understand the functioning of the ocean ecosystem. Thanks to statistical tools and bioinformatics, and based on the first major results of the Tara Oceans scientific consortium, Alejandro Murillo will be able to study organisms beyond their simple diversity.

Despite the difficulty of the task and the impressive amount of data to be processed, Alejandro Murillo remains very optimistic. “What we do is not easy but it’s the only way we have and I’m really confident. I’m surrounded by experienced researchers with very different areas of expertise, from gene analysis to bioinformatics, and I have very good tools”.

Always more data

Alejandro Murillo already knows that his future research will be devoted to the Pacific, the ocean that bathes the coasts of his country between the 17th and 56th latitudes south. Accustomed to campaigns at sea, this researcher would like to return to sample the ocean by targeting geographic areas or key species whose interest has been revealed thanks to the results of Tara Oceans. Alejandro also dreams of a more detailed dataset depending on the depth. “Tara sampled at three different depths and it’s a very good data set, but you’d have to take even more samples at even greater depths.” Your eyes widen when told the amount of data generated from the Tara Oceans sampling, to which he smiles: “Scientists always need more data, they never have enough”.

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