The scientific activities of the Tara Oceans expedition, led by EMBL senior scientist Eric Karsenti, present an unprecedented effort that resulted in 35,000 samples containing millions of small organism collected in more than 210 ocean stations, chosen for their climatic significance or biodiversity.
Putting to work its advanced microscopy facility, analysing the genetic sequences of all organism with sophisticated bioinformatics tools, and explaining the story of life through surprising opportunities in evolutionary biology, EMBL is putting the crowning analysis on top of one of the most ambitious projects of our time.
In the coming years, the Tara Oceans consortium will:
Preliminary analyses show that the complexity and novelty hidden in these data is very high, increasing in the larger size-fractions. Thus, comparisons to known references are critical for optimised interpretation/exploitation, and a significant effort will be focused on generating reference data (genomes, transcriptomes, barcodes, images) from prokaryotic and eukaryotic culture strains and, for organisms not presently in culture, by combined genetic/morphological characterisation of taxonomically identified organisms isolated directly from the plankton. This principle is exemplified by work led by the EMBL (Sunagawa et al. 2015) resulting in the establishment of a catalogue of 40 million microbial genes, which are made publicly available on ocean-microbiome.embl.de.
However, this approach will not only allow the discovery of a dramatic number of novel genes, morphologies, and taxa from global plankton, but will also unveil the metabolomes, organism interaction networks, and phenotypic features linked to environmental conditions and ecosystem outputs, leading to the discovery of emergent ecological principles.
We aim to investigate the rules governing the self-organisation of organism networks and to develop predictions about how these rules (and therefore communities and their biogeochemical feedbacks) will be affected by a changing environment.