Plankton Planet

OCEANOGRAPHY 2.0

Vision

To harness the curiosity and creativity of sailors and scientists to sample ocean plankton at unprecedented scales, for in depth evaluation of ocean health, biodiversity, & evolution.

Who?

We are a complementary team of committed researchers, engineers, and sailors from the US, France and New Zealand who believe that improving our knowledge and understanding of ocean life is critical for the sustainability of humanity on the blue planet. ‘Plankton Planet’ (www.planktonplanet.org) is an international non-profit organization that works in close collaboration with the Tara Foundation (France & USA) which runs the scientific expeditions of the famous schooner Tara (oceans.taraexpeditions.org).

Mission

To develop innovative user-friendly tools to underpin a sustainable wind-powered citizen Oceanography 2.0 providing critical new knowledge on global plankton ecology, morphology and genetics that will be universally accessible for scientists, teachers and policy-makers.

In the long term, Plankton Planet will create:
  • An international fleet of planktonauts to act as sentinels and collective consciouscness of the biological health of our oceans
  • A toolkit of simple, scientifically relevant instruments for seatizen-based assessment of aquatic biodiversity (marine and freshwater).
  • An ever-growing cryo-bank of global ocean DNA samples, a unique archive representing the memory of our changing oceans for future generations and technologies.
  • A continuous flow of standardized ocean imaging and genetic data at unprecedented spatial, temporal, and taxonomic scales, essential for fundamental and applied science, policy-makers, and education.

Why?

In every liter of seawater there are between 10 and 100 billion planktonic life forms, forming an extraordinary global ecosystem that generates half of planetary oxygen, sustains all marine life, and regulates climates. Understanding and modelling the structure and dynamics of the world plankton is essential to predicting the future of our biosphere and learning how to live in synergy with our spaceship, the Earth system.

Sampling of ocean life is hindered by the extreme cost, limited logistical flexibility, and high carbon-footprint of classical oceanographic research vessels. The Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) expedition aboard the Sorcerer II yacht (2004-2008) paved the way for a new brand of oceanography based on the use of sailing boats. We extended this concept via the Tara Oceans expeditions (TO, 2009-2014), during which we sampled total plankton communities (from viruses to

animals) across the world ocean on-board Tara. Both programs resulted in a sea change in our vision of the extraordinary biodiversity of the world plankton ecosystem. However, developing a working understanding of the dynamics and evolution of global plankton will require a far greater sampling effort, increasing coverage across both space and time in the rapidly changing ocean.

In Plankton Planet, we are promoting a revolutionary low-cost, eco-friendly, and society-engaging Oceanography 2.0, by providing the tools to connect oceanographers to the thousands of “blue citizens” (seatizens!) who sail across the oceans at any given time. The aim is to undertake a holistic worldwide sampling of plankton life at an unprecedented level of sensitivity, ultimately allowing robust mathematical modeling toward a predictable ocean.

Figure 1. A. Pioneer Planktonauts; from left to right: Kids for Sea, Folligou, Nika, Student On Ice, Karukera, Gwalarn, Race For Water, Uhambo, Thethys. B. Plankton Planet-kit for seatizen plankton sampling. C. World ocean trajectories of the 20 main sailing boats that β-tested Plankton Planet-protocols in 2015-2016.

How?

In 2015/16, in less than 24 months and at a total cost of 70k$, we provided proof-of-concept by engaging a fleet of 42 pioneer yacht crews (Fig.1A) sailing the world’s oceans (Fig.1C). These ‘planktonauts’ sampled plankton with a simple kit requiring neither chemicals nor electricity (Fig.1B), and shipped dried plankton samples from 

325 sampling sites around the world to our labs. We extracted total DNA from these plankton samples, sequenced millions of DNA barcodes (Fig.2A), and proved that the data allow detection and quantification of total plankton communities from anywhere in the ocean (Fig.2B, C), and thus can be used to constrain ecosystem modeling.

Figure 2. A. DNA barcodes generated out of citizen plankton samples allow B. comprehensive cataloging of plankton taxa at each sampling point, as well as C. reconstruction of the social network of plankton species.

We are currently optimizing the suite of simple tools and protocols that will allow seatizens to generate cutting-edge ecological, morphological, and genetic data from the world ocean (Box1).

The cost of the final Plankton Planet-kit will be <1k$ per boat, allowing its deployment on hundreds of sailing boats.

Box1
Key R&D challenges

To develop:

  • A high-speed plankton net to collect undamaged plankton samples at 5-7 knots, thus not impacting boat speed. 
  • A “planktoscope” to perform quantitative imaging at sea of fresh plankton samples at sea before their storage for total-DNA/RNA extraction for subsequent genetic analyses in the lab. 
  • Apps to integrate the Plankton Planet ecological, morphological, and genetic data collected  at sea and to seamlessly interface with universal data-sharing platforms.

What next?

In 2018-19, we will finalize the R&D and beta-testing at sea of the new Plancton Planet-kit and thus be ready for implementation of the full program on key navigation loops in the Pacific and Polar Oceans from 2020 to 2025 (Fig.3). This initial plan is designed to address topical questions in ocean ecology and to test current models and theories that predict patterns of ocean biodiversity and 

functionality. Based on feedbacks between these unique data and modelling efforts, we will then fine tune the optimal boat density and sampling frequency for long-term deployment of the Plankton Planet protocol on 5 navigation loops that traverse the world oceans (Fig.3).

Figure 3. Implementation plan of the Plankton Planet protocol along 5 navigation loops, for a long-term, self-sustainable and standardized global survey of the dynamics and evolution of plankton life.

Box2
Plankton Planet output

In the long term, Plankton Planet will create: 

  • An international fleet of planktonauts to act as sentinels and collective consciouscness of the biological health of our oceans
  • A toolkit of simple, scientifically relevant instruments for seatizen-based assessment of aquatic biodiversity (marine and freshwater).
  • An ever-growing cryo-bank of global ocean DNA samples, a unique archive representing the memory of our changing oceans for future generations and technologies.
  • A continuous flow of standardized ocean imaging and genetic data at unprecedented spatial, temporal, and taxonomic scales, essential for fundamental and applied science, policy-makers, and education.

What for?

The Plankton Planet data will promote key advances in:

Blue-sky science: (i) exceptional long-term monitoring of total plankton biodiversity change and evolution in our fast-changing ocean (analysis of the impacts of warming, acidification, de-oxygenation); (ii) new understanding of structures, functions, and behaviours of plankton via the millions of images and movies of planktonic organisms generated by the planktoscopes; (iii) incorporation (e.g. via the use of artificial intelligence) of high-resolution global-scale biological data into current and future efforts to model the dynamics of ocean ecosystems and ocean-climate interactions, from genes to biogeochemical cycles. 

Applied science and policies: (i) detection of invasive, toxic, or economically relevant species 

at a planetary scale; (ii) linking of data on plankton communities (including fish gametes and larvae) to fish-catch data for robust prediction of fish stocks; (iii) assessment of ocean biogeographic zones (“seascapes”) for optimal design of marine protected areas in the high-seas (e.g. ecosystems with high capacity for carbon pumping).

Education: (i) collective awareness of oceanic microbiomes and their planetary impact, both directly (planktoscope and ‘biggie-maker’) and indirectly via the shared images and movies of plankton.  Educational tools will notably be distributed by the planktonauts in remote countries and islands whose communities interact with and depend on the marine ecosystem.