Looking to the ocean to learn more about ourselves
One of the world’s most important scientific vessels, the Tara Oceans yacht, which has been engaged on a series of worldwide scientific exploration expeditions for the past three years, docked in Dun Laoghaire harbour during the summer to present the results of its enormously important research into ocean biology.
The visit took place as part of the European Science Open Forum and was accompanied by a photographic exhibition "From Pole to Pole" by Vincent Hilaire at the Convention Centre, Dublin.
“Tara Oceans has been looking at everything in the water from viruses to fish larvae”, explains, Dr Emmanuel G. Reynaud. Science Foundation Ireland funded Stokes Lecturer at the UCD School of Biology & Environmental Science who is co-ordinating the Irish events. “The research is into all the invisible parts of the ocean; 98% of the biomass in the ocean is plankton – unicellular life, and this is responsible for 50% of the oxygen we breathe. It is also responsible for the white cliffs of Dover, limestone, and oil. All of this comes from unicellular organisms.”
And this is just the beginning. Plankton is key to the survival of larger fish, sea mammals and billions of humans and it was photosynthetic plankton that produced the oxygen that allowed the emergence of mammals on earth. It is also the major biological carbon trap of our planet and 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.
Dr Emmanuel G. Reynaud
While the importance of these organisms is recognised this has not been matched by research effort. “The main problem with climate change research is that the main measurements are terrestrial”, Dr Reynaud points out. “But 70% of the planet is made of the oceans. Also, nothing much really lives more than 100 metres above the ground but there is abundant life in the oceans as deep as four kilometres. And in one litre of water there can be anything between one billion and 100 billion organisms.”
Quite astonishingly, the Tara Oceans expeditions were the first worldwide study of plankton since the 1873 to 1876 HMS Challenger voyage. Raynaud blames the rise of nation states and a consequent insularity for this loss of curiosity and broader world view on behalf of the governments who would have funded such research.
The yacht finished its three year series of expeditions in March during which it collected samples in order to quantify plankton communities, covering the complete spectra from viruses to larvae, with a view to establishing a quantitative description of pelagic ecosystem states in most ocean basins of the world, gathered data on poorly explored coral reef ecosystems, and collected a range of exotic benthic species related to well studied experimental organisms that can be considered living fossils, to better understand our origins.
The climate change issue in itself would make a project like Tara Oceans worthwhile but there are more reasons for having a detailed knowledge of this oceanic life system. For example, 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. Furthermore, biomolecules from plankton have largely untapped biomedical potential.
“One species of plankton has a genome five times larger than that of a human”, notes Reynaud. “We can learn a lot from this. We have now begun processing the data collected over the past three years and we will need another ten years to complete that work. This is a worldwide project involving a lot of people and we are very pleased to be able to bring it to Ireland during the European Science Open Forum.”
Visit http://oceans.taraexpeditions.org/ for more informaion