Issue 100

Online Magazine of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory

In pictures: the story of TREC

EMBL’s newest expedition attempts to answer some of the biggest questions in planetary biology and will help scientists find solutions to pressing global concerns. Here’s a quick glimpse at some of the defining moments that have shaped the Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) journey so far.

Researcher holding two sample bags..
Elisa Merz, Expedition Field Technician, collecting soil samples in Roscoff, France, where the TREC expedition kicked off in April of this year. Credit: Vincenzo Lullo/EMBL

With the ambitious aim of examining life along European coasts, EMBL’s planetary biology flagship project Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) launched officially in March this year. A press conference in Paris on 8 March 2023 introduced the project to audiences in Europe, along with its aim of studying coastal ecosystems and their response to the environment, on scales from molecules to communities. 

Collage of six photographs showing delegates and reporters during a press conference.
EMBL DG and colleagues during the official launch of TREC in Paris, France. Credit: Mylene Andre/EMBL

The expedition has been several years in the making. The launch of EMBL’s 2022-26 programme unveiled the organisation’s visionary new plan to study ‘life in context’. To help achieve this, EMBL initiated several transversal themes which support the multidisciplinary science necessary to realise projects like these. One of these themes is Planetary Biology, which aims to study, from the molecular to the population level, how microbes, plants, and animals respond to each other and to their environment.

TREC is the Planetary Biology transversal theme’s flagship project, and it aims to explore the interactions within and between the two major ecosystems on our planet: ocean and land. It will bring molecular sciences to environmental research in a Europe-wide project at an unprecedented scale, to better understand how organisms – from viruses to animals – respond to natural and human-made environmental changes.

Map showing all TREC stops and sites..
Map of proposed TREC sampling sites along the coast of Europe. Credit: Tara Europa.

The expedition began in Roscoff, France in April 2023 and will conclude in Malta in mid-2024. During this period, researchers from EMBL, the Tara Oceans consortium, together with the Tara Ocean Foundation, and numerous European collaborating institutes and organisations will work at 120 sampling sites along the European coastline.

TREC will combine the scientific expertise of many partners as well as existing knowledge of local ecosystems and processes, with EMBL’s latest technology developments and expertise in examining life at the smallest scales.

The sampling kicked off in Roscoff in April 2023, with researchers from EMBL and Tara, as well as partner institutions including the Station Biologique de Roscoff, heading off to collect soil, water, and sediment samples that will help move forward the expedition’s constituent scientific projects and provide a snapshot of the health of these ecosystems. 

Collage of six photographs showing various groups of researchers doing field sampling.
Researchers collecting samples at Roscoff, France during April 2023. Credit: Kinga Lubowiecka/EMBL

A recurring challenge for molecular biology field expeditions is the lack of ready access to sophisticated lab facilities, which are often needed for sample preparation for advanced applications like electron microscopy. The TREC expedition provides a unique and innovative solution to this – to bring the labs to the samples rather than the samples to the labs.

It will achieve this with the help of mobile laboratories, which will travel to specific stops and include cutting-edge light microscopy, sample preparation for (cryo)-electron microscopy, and single-cell pheno-genomics. Additionally, advanced tools for environmental measurements from soil, air, sediment, and water samples will be part of the standard equipment. By providing these technologies across Europe throughout the expedition, EMBL Advanced Mobile Services will support the interdisciplinary approaches that underpin TREC. 

Collage of three photographs showing the interior and exterior of the van that houses the mobile sample processing lab.
EMBL’s Advanced Mobile Services, including this Sample Processing Lab, will enable scientists to perform leading subcellular research in direct proximity to the field. Credit: Kinga Lubowiecka/EMBL

Engaging with the public in our member states

However, TREC’s aims and scope are not limited to answering scientific questions and bringing state-of-the-art mobile services to European coasts. We live in an interconnected world, and coastal regions are key functional ecosystems on which humans depend for their livelihoods and well-being. Two of the aims of this expedition are also to engage the general public in debate and discussion to raise awareness of the role of science in society and to inspire the next generation of scientists by raising awareness of the importance of understanding life on this planet among pupils and teachers. 

To this end, EMBL’s office of Science Education and Public Engagement (SEPE) is travelling alongside TREC to various coastal sites and conducting public engagement activities aimed at engaging, informing, educating, and entertaining non-expert audiences and spreading awareness regarding the importance of coastal ecosystems. 

Collage of six photographs showing people participating in public engagement activities.
Caption: Public engagement activities by SEPE at Roscoff, France. Credit: Kinga Lubowiecka/EMBL

The Road to Roscoff

While TREC officially began in 2023, its organisers have been working tirelessly behind the scenes for many years to plan a successful expedition and smooth out any wrinkles. Three separate pilot expeditions were conducted between 2019 and 2022, helping the researchers optimise the sample collection procedures and associated processes that would serve them in the field during the main expedition, among other things. 

The first pilot was conducted in Naples and the nearby island of Ischia, where scientists collected samples of microbes and marine organisms at several spots along Ischia’s coast, in collaboration with the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn di Napoli (SZN), a marine research institute in Naples, which also runs a research station on Ischia.

Collage of six photographs showing a team of researchers collecting field samples.
Glimpses of sample collection from the coast of Naples during a TREC pilot project in 2019. Credit: Patrick Mueller/EMBL

A second pilot took place in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2021. EMBRC hosted this expedition that enabled unprecedented high-definition ultrastructure images from fresh samples, such as this plankton which was frozen under high pressure on the beach. Soil and sediments were also sampled along the Villefranche sea-land transects and the river Var estuary.

Researchers collecting samples during the TREC pilot expedition in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2021. Credit: Paola Bertucci/EMBL

The third and final TREC pilot expedition was held in Iceland during August, 2022. EMBL researchers and their collaborators visited three different locations in Iceland – Reykjavik, Westfjords, and Akureyri – with unique climatic and environmental conditions. They collected marine organisms, soil, seawater, and sediments, and tested out experimental protocols that would become critical for the core TREC expedition in 2023 and 2024.

Collage of six images showing researchers collecting and analysing samples, as well as a shot of an erupting volcano.
EMBL researchers conducted a pilot project in Iceland as the final preparatory step before commencing their journey traversing European coastlines. The visit coincided with a volcanic eruption located 60 Km from the first sampling site. Credits: Niko Leisch/EMBL, Hiral Shah/EMBL, Richard Jacoby/EMBL, ©Kristinn Ingvarsson/University of Iceland

Forging ahead

The TREC expedition is the first time researchers from across Europe will study life at all biological scales, from molecules to communities, along the entire European coast, to provide a richer and deeper understanding of how ecosystems respond to natural and human-made challenges. This will produce new knowledge and discoveries that will help to provide our societies, governments, and regulatory agencies with the ability to best predict the possible effects of environmental changes and impacts. It is an ambitious – and essential – project, given the environmental challenges that our planet faces. 


TREC was made possible with the help of generous support from its member states, as well as many institutions, donors and sponsors, in particular the Manfred Lautenschläger-Foundation, Eppendorf SE, Carl Zeiss Microscopy, and Friends of EMBL.

Tags: expedition, planetary biology, tara oceans, TREC

A section of electron microscopy volume of a Platynereis larvae. Different colours mark different cell groups.

Visualising biology: new tools of the trade

EMBL researchers are pushing the frontiers of big data analysis in biological imaging, allowing scientists to gain a many-layered and multidimensional view of organisms, tissues, and cells in action.

Newsletter archive

Read past editions of our e-newsletter

For press

Contact the Press Office