Testing The Ocean, One Teaspoon At A Time

Dec 15, 2019

Research being conducted at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay indicates the world’s oceans have far more life in it than previously understood.

But you can't see any of it.

The research, which appears in the peer reviewed science journal "Cell," offers new insights into ocean health — and the potential for that ocean health to change as the climate changes.

The team, led by Ramunas Stepanauskas, a senior researcher at Bigelow and the senior author of the research paper, has been busy analyzing samples of seawater from the tropics and subtropics to see what's really in there.

"Every teaspoon of seawater has millions of bacteria, has tens of millions of viruses, has some algae, some zooplankton,” says Stepanauskas. “That's really what the ecosystem in the ocean is.”

The team at Bigelow has been sequencing the genomes of some of the billions of microbes they find in each teaspoon-sized sample. What they're finding could change the way people understand and define microbes.

"You hardly find two microbial cells that are similar enough to belong to the same species. They are really different from each other. Most of the pairs of microbes in that teaspoon are more different from each other than we are from cows."

Hampton Beach in New Hampshire
Credit Wikimedia Commons

That means, says Stepanauskas, the potential genetic diversity across the whole ocean is almost unfathomable.

The research also shows that the types of tiny life found in sea sample begin to differ more significantly as the temperature of the water changes, suggesting that the ocean itself is profoundly affected by temperature in ways we don't understand.

"It is really unfortunate we know very little about how climate change will affect the microscopic life in the ocean. That's really the base of the entire ecosystem, and the rest of life depends on them," says Stepanauskas. "but what we clearly show is that temperature is an important factor, that that's perhaps the predominant factor in determining how microbes are distributed in various parts of the ocean."

What all those microbes actually do is still a mystery, but Stepanauskas say they're doing something, and it's probably important to life on earth.

For the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet, the implications of climate change are still unclear, but concerns include major impacts to human life along the coast, changes to fish species, the growth of invasive species and lobster mortality.

The lab plans to expand their research to sample more seawater, teaspoon by teaspoon, and sequence as many of the microbial genomes as they can.

Stepanauskas also says, with an untold number of new bacteria, algae, viruses and other microbes, the genetic research could yield big possibilities for the biotechnology industry, and for research into innovative new treatments.

But first, Stepanauskas wants people to know that all this tiny sea life is there.

"Next time when you go to the beach, and look at that crystal clear water, think about the gazillions of microscopic forms of life that are enjoying their living in each tiny drop. And the fact that each of them is a unique form of life."

The study was supported by the Simons Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the National Science Foundation.