The future of our blue planet is at stake. An international initiative, entitled “Plankton Planet” is taking immediate action to discover and study the underwater organisms essential for Earth’s viability. Noan Le Bescot is program manager of Plankton Planet. He describes the call-to-action to unite oceanographers and sailors, baptized “seatizens” . The ambition of Plankton Planet is to undertake long-term sampling of planktonic life at a global scale by means of participatory science.
Oceans have a critical role in regulating our climate, generating atmospheric oxygen and sustaining marine and terrestrial life. Plankton is composed of all the organisms that drift in ocean currents, ranging in size from microscopic diatoms and radiolarians to large jellyfish. Actually, “in every liter of seawater there are between 10 to 100 billion planktonic life forms” (de Vargas et al). Plankton is the foundation of oceanic life and biodiversity in marine ecosystems. It is imperative to acquire solid knowledge of the global ecology of plankton and the genomics of these micro-organisms to help predict the future of our environment. Oceanographic research vessels and sampling are very costly and hindered by strict time periods and limited navigation routes. Plankton Planet seeks to provide scientific data accessible at a low cost and environmentally friendly, in order to understand the structure and dynamics of planktonic communities.
Zooplankton © Christophe Sardet / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Noan highlights the importance of creating an interdisciplinary community and network of discoverers across the world’s oceans. Noan explains that Plankton Planet’s innovation is to develop a simple, user-friendly sampling kit – the planktobox, which includes a mini high-speed net (HSN), a “planktonscope” — a simple microscope, and material to store DNA samples and record all contextual parameters. The mini-HSN is the tool needed to collect water and plankton samples while sailing around 5 to 7 knots. It is conceived so that even a 6-year-old can use it!
A first pilot phase of the project took place in 2015 with a fleet of 27 boats we called the “planktonauts”. They tested 20 sampling kits which included a net, and a precise protocol for filtering, drying, and storing the collected plankton samples (de Vargas et al). This pilot phase was made possible with the support from the Richard Lounsberry Foundation and proved the feasibility of the project. This meant that the methodology of plankton sampling was scientifically viable, reproducible and of high-quality. Geographical coverage attained an unprecedented magnitude: all the world’s oceans were sampled (e.g. Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic). Noan explains that at present relatively few research vessels conduct open-ocean data collection, compared to coastal areas which have amassed a much larger data base. Plankton Planet aims to increase the sampling effort of data collection throughout the world’s oceans, covering a maximum of surface water. In addition, having a higher sampling density, and creating a transect of trajectories will allow us to better understand the dynamics of plankton communities on a planetary scale.
Colomban de Vargas launches the HSN (High Speed Net) © Andreane Bellon de Chassy / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Plankton Planet is now in the second phase (P2), working with an interdisciplinary team of engineers, researchers, and sailors to develop optimal wind-powered oceanographic tools. Taking into account the feedback from the 2015 pilot phase, an improved net – the “mini-HSN” — was designed by Xavier Pochon (Nelson, New Zealand) and Fabien Lombard (CNRS, Villefranche/mer), inspired by Tara’s HSN. It is adapted for an average cruising speed of 7 knots. To complete the picture, Plankton Planet wants to highlight the aesthetics of plankton through visual art. To do this, the team is designing a planktonscope so that collected samples can be directly observed by the planktonauts. The planktonscope can help people forge a tangible connection with these extraordinary life forms, and will eventually generate a worldwide bank of plankton images and videos to complement the DNA and genomic information commonly collected in most marine laboratories. Both the mini-HSN and the planktonscope were recently tested aboard Tara during her voyage from San Diego, California to La Paz, Mexico (Tara Pacific expedition).
Noan explains that recruitment will begin once the P2 sampling kit, the planktobox (including the mini-HSN, the planktonscope, and material to store DNA samples and record oceanographic contextual parameters) is finalized. Volunteers — families, and individuals who sail and wish to participate can contact him directly. During any portion of their voyage, participants deploy the mini-HSN for approximately 30 minutes, ending up with a “plankton soup” or a medium of water and its billions of microorganisms. Filtration and preservation procedures were modified so that we now conserve the RNA along with the DNA, thus obtaining a fuller repertory of genes. After the sample is retrieved from the mini-HSN, a filtering tool is used to separate the organisms from the liquid. The collected microorganisms are put into a tube filled with a non-toxic chemical solution that preserves the plankton’s genetic information. The tubes are then transported to the lab for further analysis and sequencing.
Noan le Bescot and Colomban de Vargas prepare the High Speed Net © Andreane Bellon de Chassy / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Plankton Planet is currently in the Call-to-Action phase, working to raise the necessary funds to begin the second phase of P2 in 2020. Noan estimates that the final P2 sampling kit will cost around €1000. The principal objective is to study the ecology of oceanic plankton along classical navigation routes and loops. The P2 team will first put together 30 to 50 kits and distribute them to planktonauts sailing back and forth between California and Tahiti or Hawaii. A long-term goal is to collaborate with organizers of sailing events who could distribute kits and protocols to participants to use during their journey.
Plankton Planet has a strong ambition to collect samples of micro-organisms on a planetary scale with simple, easy-to-use tools and the participation of enthusiastic volunteer sailors.
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